Sunday, March 9, 2003
The truth about the 91st Psalm
By MARY JANE HOLT
A couple of weeks ago I asked you to help me find information about the 91st Infantry Brigade of the U.S. Expeditionary Army and WWI. Legend has it that the men of the 91st Infantry Brigade had never seen combat. Their commander, a devout Christian, called an assembly of his men where he gave each a little card on which was printed the 91st Psalm. They agreed to recite the Soldiers' Psalm daily.
Subsequently, the 91st Brigade was engaged in three of the bloodiest battles of WWI: Chateau Thierry, Belleau Wood, and the Argonne. While other American units similarly engaged had up to 90 percent casualties, it is said that the 91st Brigade did not suffer a single casualty!
Since I asked for help verifying this information I have seen the little book "The Ultimate Guide - Psalm 91" by Brenda and Michael Pink, and read the story that is printed on the most recently designed cover.
I also have had several responses to queries regarding the legendary 91st Infantry Brigade.
This response came from Mike Hanlon, Research Editor of Relevance, the Quarterly Journal of The Great War Society: "There was no 91st Brigade with the AEF in WWI. The Brigades' highest number was 84. There was, however, a 91st Division and that may be what you are looking for.
"It was known as the Wild West Division and was made up mostly of draftees from the west coast. They trained at Fort Lewis, Washington. It went over the top the first day of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, taking pretty heavy casualties.
"It was taken out of the line to rest and regroup, and in late October, 1918 was sent to Flanders with the 37th Division of the AEF to fight the final weeks of the war under King Albert of Belgium. Their total casualties were about 6,100 men including 1,454 killed."
Later I received further correspondence from Mr. Hanlon: "I have seen this story about the 91st Psalm. In one variation, the source of the story is the father of the late actor James Stewart, who served in the non-existent 91st Brigade. The story continues to suggest that father passed it on to son when James Stewart departed for WWII.
"I have never been able to verify the truth of any of this. However, it is quite credible that the 91st Psalm was distributed to some soldiers by their commanders before battle. It has many comforting thoughts for those in jeopardy."
Then Mr. Hanlon went on to tell me about how the Great War Society conducts a major event each Armistice/Veterans Day. This past year they joined with the Gold Star Mothers of America at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco to rededicate their monument listing the 700+ fallen sons and daughters of their Bay Area chapter members killed in the war.
The list, incidentally, includes members of the 91st Division. Hanlon was asked to host the event. Since we currently have forces in action around the world, he thought they should add something to honor and help the group remember our current day warriors.
"Naturally, I read the King James version of the 91st Psalm," he said.
So how does this bit of historical information affect my faith and my feelings about Psalm 91? I am not sure it does. You see, what faith I have is not built on stories, but on experience and what I perceive to be a personal relationship with God.
How do I feel at this point about the little book, "Psalm 91: The Ultimate Shield"? It is awesome! I now have a copy in my purse, but it is not the book that brings me comfort, but my perceived truth of the Psalm.
And I love the story of the 91st Infantry Brigade of the U.S. Expeditionary Army and WWI. I really wanted it to be true.
A friend of mine asked me why I was so bent on trying to prove or disprove it. "It's a good story. Why can't you just leave it alone?" he asked.
Truth, even in its purest state, can be so very hard to recognize. Even when we think we catch a glimpse of the real thing, we often find it to be ever so elusive. I suppose I was born searching for truth. In death, I fully expect to continue my quest.
I do think our faith grows with the hearing and telling of good stories. I just want to know, as far as it is humanly possibly to know, that the stories I hear and tell are true. Is that too much to ask?
NOTE: Anyone whose appetite for WWI history may have been whetted by this column can go to www.worldwar1.com for more information about The Great War.
As always you can write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.