MISSIONARIES TO UNTOUCHABLES
An English musical has a song with the words "...only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun." This line clearly applies to a dangerous experience Louie Grace and I had in late April 1944, on the Midnapore-Chakulia highway in eastern India. On that memorable day, we ate an early breakfast of bully beef and hard tack, then departed our 40th Bomb Group base near Chakulia at sunrise. We were going to drive to a supply depot to obtain an engine magneto and a distributor for a B-29 engine installation. The weather early in the morning was cool and pleasant, so we wore short-sleeve khaki shirts and military caps without sun visors. Having just arrived at Chakulia, we were not fully aware of the danger of India's cloudless skies and midday sun.
I was recovering from a recent attack of tropical malaria and a severe fever that caused me to lose several pounds from my normal weight of 140 pounds. Louie volunteered to drive because he realized I was not strong enough for the task. Our jeep had no top, no windshield, and no emergency water can. The road was deserted, and had many pot holes and rough spots that slowed us down to a slow pace. There were no shade trees in sight. This business trip was a prime target for a disaster.
We arrived at the supply depot in the morning, and once the parts were loaded in the jeep, there remained enough time to return to Chakulia by noon. We departed for the 50-mile return trip with full canteens of water, but before long, they were empty, and I began to feel the effects of the blazing sun more than Louie. When we came to an intersection in the dirt road, Louie stopped the jeep in a cloud of dust, and pointed to a sign with the words ANGLICAN MISSION TEA HOUSE 5 KILOMETERS WELCOME. Louie said something like, "They use water to make tea, and the sign says WELCOME. Do you suppose we can get some water there?" I replied, "I hope so. Let's try it."
We turned down the dirt lane, and a few minutes later topped a rise and drove into a parking lot in front of a white building covered by a thatch roof. Surrounding the house were beautiful flower beds and large flame trees ablaze with red blossoms. A few white cottages and several barns were scattered around the area behind the main house. It was a lovely oasis compared to the barren area we had just driven through.
When we climbed out of the jeep and walked to the front door of the house, I felt weak, and was not able to walk normally. We were met at the door by a distinguished looking, elderly, English couple dressed in native style clothing. The gentleman boomed out his greeting, "Welcome. I am David Benefield and this is my wife, Mary. We are missionaries to the Santal people of this province. Please come inside where it is cooler than out here in the sun." Once inside, Louie and I introduced ourselves, then Rev. Benefield invited us to sit at a table. I quickly sat before my knees buckled under me.
The Benefields sat opposite us, and soon several dusky ladies brought water pitchers, tea pots, trays of bread and tea cakes, jars of jams and preserves, water glasses, and tea cups. Mrs. Benefield noticed my trembling hands when she filled my glass, and when I grasped the glass with both hands, she smiled and said, "Drink the water slowly. That will make you feel better." I nodded, closed my eyes, and slowly drank the sweetest water I ever tasted. It was all I could do to resist gulping the water and grabbing the pitcher for more.
After our thirst was quenched, Rev. Benefield asked, "Shall I say Grace for our table?" Louie answered, "Yes, sir." We bowed our heads as the missionary thanked God for bringing Louie and me to his home. He gave thanks for our food, their Santal friends, and like all selfless ministers, he prayed for God's blessings for our Axis enemies and for the end of the war. In a few sentences, this dedicated servant of God prayed a most impressive prayer. Louie and I said Amen at the end of the eloquent prayer.
Mrs. Benefield graciously placed bread, cakes, butter, jam, and preserves on our plates. She then poured tea and added cream and brown sugar in our cups. It had been a long time since our breakfast of bully beef and hard tack, so Louie and I enjoyed a delicious meal. While we ate, Rev. Benefield explained that they came to India in 1890, established this Anglican mission for Untouchables and built this house. He said their deep well was the only one in the area. For more than 50 years, it provided life-sustaining water for their home and the homes of their Santal mission workers. It also furnished water for cattle, goats, chickens, geese, ducks, and the buffaloes that worked in the flooded rice paddies.
When our visit ended, we filled our canteens and asked what we owed the Benefields for their kind hospitality. They refused to do that, so Louie and I emptied our pockets of rupees, and handed the equivalent of about $15.00 U.S. money to Mrs. Benefield. It was a small price to pay for literally rescuing us from a dangerous situation on the open highway. Once we arrived at Chakulia, Louie and I became totally involved in the grueling demands of working seven days a week to support Hump supply missions and B-29 combat air strikes. We never saw the missionaries again.
I shall be eternally grateful to God for sparing me the dangers of heat prostration by providing shelter from the scorching midday sun in the home of Rev. and Mrs. Benefield.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *