When 94-year-old Robert “Bob” Maxwell speaks about his long life, the event he says is most important to him is his decision to follow Jesus. That’s saying something, coming from a man who was awarded two Silver Stars and the Medal of Honor for heroic deeds in World War II.
In fact, Maxwell is the oldest living Medal of Honor recipient, and he takes his message of hope and faith around the country in an effort to inspire others to find meaning in becoming and being Christians.
Maxwell’s testimony resonated with John McWilliams, a validated minister affiliated with First Presbyterian Church of Bonita Springs (Fla.), who was looking for presenters for the regular lecture series held at the church. “I felt that bringing in a Medal of Honor recipient, who is also a Christian, would be a great person to have a speaker,” he says.
Maxwell spoke to the congregation last October, traveling with his wife and two grown daughters, and also presented at two local Christian schools. The congregation was so impressed with the message he shared, McWilliams says, that they wanted “to do something more” to take it to others.
McWilliams himself found Maxwell’s message, and his commitment to telling it, moving. “I mean, he’s 94 years old, and he’s doing these flights across the country to do talks like this. There’s a dedication there that’s pretty impressive,” he says.
After Maxwell returned to his home in Bend, Ore., where he is a member of a nondenominational congregation, McWilliams contacted him and began a conversation that led to the idea to create a video of Maxwell’s life story and testimony of faith. The pastor of the Bonita Springs church, the Rev. Dr. Doug Pratt, says the congregation got behind the project and “fully funded” its production. McWilliams flew to Oregon in December 2014 to conduct the interview that resulted in the one-hour video, “The Medal of Honor – Robert Maxwell’s Story.”
In the video, Maxwell tells his life story in question-and-answer format. Speaking of his upbringing, he tells of a disciplinarian grandmother and Quaker grandfather who nurtured a love of peace in him. It was a sticking point for his entry into the Army, and a decision with which he wrestled.
“He had some conscientious-objector issues he had to work through, but he determined that America was in real trouble,” says McWilliams of Maxwell’s decision to embrace his role as a drafted soldier in response to news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. “As an American, he was going to try to do what he could to assist his country, so he didn’t resist the draft. He could have asked for a non-combat position, but he felt that he needed to do what he needed to do, and he determined to do what the Army asked of him. Under certain circumstances he may have asked to be a medic or for a desk job somewhere that didn’t require combat potential.”
McWilliams continues: “I can’t speak for him, but based on our friendship over these months, I would say he certainly hated to do what he had to do. But if he didn’t do it, and others refused as well, evil would have won and taken over the world.”
Trained in heavy weapons, Maxwell arrived in North Africa after fighting had ceased, and the Army reassigned him as a telephone wireman. His job was to string copper phone lines between command posts and troops at the front.
After being transferred to France, he was on the roof of a farmhouse being used as a command post—wiring it for communications with advanced troops—when German forces began firing on the building with an anti-aircraft gun. Maxwell stayed at his work as shells began to barrage the roof, with shells exploding under his feet. He finished wiring the command post (earning his second Silver Star for valor) before jumping off the roof to join his comrades in a defensive position made up mostly of the stone wall surrounding the house.
Around 2 a.m., after an extensive firefight, a hand grenade landed behind the stone wall. With only seconds to decide what to do, Maxwell jumped on the grenade and took the force of the explosion, saving the lives of his platoon mates. It was the action that earned him the Medal of Honor and months of reconstructive surgeries and recuperation at an Army hospital in Naples, Italy, to repair the damage his body sustained.
“What impressed me most was a man who did that—sitting in front of me—saying that even though he had the Medal of Honor around his neck, the most important thing he did in his life was to accept Christ as his savior,” says McWilliams. “That impresses me more than anything.”
McWilliams hopes congregations will watch the video and find the same inspiration—and see the potential for evangelism—that he and the people of Bonita Springs did.
“If you or I said to somebody who’s a non-Christian anything we felt like saying about Christ, that’s fine; they may listen to us,” says McWilliams. “However, when somebody like Maxwell says it, they may listen even more because of who he is, what he’s done.”