Patron Saint of Field Artillery
Barbara lived in present day Turkey and died in the year 267, over a thousand years before the first recorded use of a cannon. The legend of her death is a story of blood, thunder and lightening – good credentials for a patron saint of field artillery.
Barbara was the daughter of a rich heathen named Dioscorus. She rejected the offer of marriage he had so carefully arranged. Bitterly angry with her, Dioscorus ordered a tower built in which she was to be confined during his absence on a long journey in order to shield her from unwanted suitors. He directed the tower to have two windows from which his disobedient daughter might at least gaze upon the countryside.
As the tower was being built Barbara arranged for three windows to be put in, as a symbol of the Holy Trinity, instead of the two her father had commanded. When Dioscorus returned and saw the three windows, Barbara confessed to her father that she had become a Christian. Upon hearing this he dragged her before the prefect of the province, Martinianus. For refusing to worship the pagan gods, the prefect had her cruelly tortured and finally condemned her to death by beheading. Her father himself carried out the death-sentence. In punishment for this act Dioscorus was struck by lightning on his journey home and his body consumed in fire.
St. Barbara soon became the protector against lightning strikes, storms and all forms of sudden destruction. Only a hundred years after St. Barbara’s beheading, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, fueling widespread devotion to her. The first cannons, invented by a German monk named Berthold the Black in 1320, were primitive affairs and routinely exploded on their crews. Cannoneers quickly turned to St. Barbara for protection. Devotion to her spread to armies across the western world: Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany and England. On Italian warships it was customary to inscribe santabarbara – one word in lower case – above the entrance to powder magazines. Her feast day is December 4.
St. Barbara is often depicted holding bolts of lightning, as on the emblem of the Army’s Field Artillery School at Ft. Sill. Her arm, dressed in artillery red, holds aloft the lightening bolts that struck down her executioner.
The Orders of St. Barbara
The Honorable Order of St. Barbara is awarded to artillerymen who have made outstanding contributions to the Field Artillery. A more select award, The Ancient Order, goes to an elite few whose careers have embodied the sacrifice and commitment epitomized by St. Barbara, although it is seldom a requirement to have one’s head lopped off by a near relative.
The award medal pictures St. Barbara holding the palm of the martyr, in her case a virgin martyr, with her three-windowed tower in the background. The cannon side of the medal is worn toward the heart.
Not every boy of Battery B is an official member of the Order of St. Barbara, and not every boy in Vietnam was protected from death or injury. Why then is St. Barbara important? Because like all patron saints her life is meant to inspire. She became a Christian at a time when this strange sect was young, when refusal to honor the ancient gods was a crime against the sovereign and usually punished by death. Professing to be a Christian in the third century was akin in our time to answering the call of INCOMING, to leaving the safety of a sandbag hooch when the mortars were still falling, and to braving land mines on the road to Phan Thiet.
Every boy of Battery B is a son of St. Barbara. In Vietnam he rarely joined his hands in prayer or sank to the sand on his knees, but when the black blanket of night descended he said in his heart – and felt in his gut – this prayer to St. Barbara.
Do not let lightning hit me, thunder frighten me, or the roar of canons jolt my bravery. Stay always by my side so that I may confront all the storms and battles of my life with my head held high and with a serene countenance. May I do my duty, be grateful to you, my protector, and render thanks to God, the Creator of heaven and earth who has the power to dominate the fury of the storm and to mitigate the cruelty of war. Saint Barbara, pray for us. Amen.