At 93 years old, the Rev. Paul Force has the wide shoulders and slender waist of a marathon runner — which he once was, plus a full head of hair and a contagious smile.
He served as a Presbyterian pastor from 1952 until his retirement in 1984, mostly in the Miami area. For several years in the early 1970s, he served as youth minister for First Presbyterian Church in downtown Bradenton. After retirement, he stayed active as interim pastor at Whitfield Presbyterian Chuch in Manatee County. Force also volunteered as assistant chaplain at Manatee Memorial Hospital and Blake Medical Center for many years.
He no longer does those things, but he continues to encourage all who he meets, often with a big hug.
Not that it was always the case. The Greatest Generation, those who came up during the Great Depression, fought World War II, and put Neil Armstrong on the moon, were slow to warm to hugging. Thinking back, Force recalls a few times when a hug might have come in handy.
Force’s ministry was informed by the Bible, and shaped by his experienced during his World War II service in the Army Air Corps and later the Army Air Forces in England and France.
He played a ground support role for bomber crews flying missions into France and Germany. Those experiences still haunt him.
“It was not uncommon to lose a plane every day,” Force said.
“Then one day, 12 of our planes, didn’t return from a mission,” Force said.
Tears welled up in his eyes, and he began to cry at the memory of the loss of 120 airmen.
His wife of 70 years, Helen, and daughter, Edie Van Ostenbridge, watched quietly as Force regained his composure.
“He hasn’t been talking about his service very long,” Van Ostenbridge said. “I have never seen him cry. I didn’t know he was so shaken by those planes not returning.”
Force continues his story of how he first heard about the loss.
Another member of his unit walked in, looking like “he had lost his best friend, his house had burned down, and he had lost all his money, and then he told me about it,” Force said.
“I should have grabbed him and hugged him, but I learned to do that later on,” Force said. “It was one of the worst days of the war.”
Later, Force heard that some of the bombers had landed at other fields. The loss was large, but it could have been worse.
He recalls going to London on a two-day pass, and coming up from the underground to hear a massive explosion nearby.
You needed a two-day pass to get away from the war. Those young guys needed the attention. I am glad I was there for them. That experience alone made me a much better pastor later on.
Rev. Paul Force
A German V-2 rocket had smashed into London at more than 3,000 mph.
The V-2, the world’s first guided ballistic missile, flew so fast it gave no warning of its approach.
“The only thing you heard was the explosion. We ducked against the abutments, and went on with our leave,” Force said.
Privates and corporals often asked Force, a sergeant, to go along with them when they went on leave.
“You needed a two-day pass to get away from the war. Those young guys needed the attention. I am glad I was there for them. That experience alone made me a much better pastor later on,” he said.
“Being in the Army, I started to develop this appetite for going to college,” he said.
After the war, Force was a different man than the fellow who enlisted after making $2 a week at a grocery store, and working as a boardwalk barker on the Jersey shore.
“That’s how bad it was back then,” said the Madison, N. J., native of the Great Depression.
He and Helen started a family after the war while he went to college and seminary, studying to enter the ministry. They eventually had four children. Edie Van Ostenbridge, the youngest, says her scholarly father is just a great guy.
“When he preached, he was more like a history professor. I learned more about history from him than I did in school,” she said.
The Forces are avid sports fans. They have attended 24 College World Series in Omaha, Neb. They were at the College World Series for their 70th anniversary, when ESPN’s cameras zoomed in on them in the stands.
Today, he takes a few vitamins, but no medications, and walks two miles a day. He has a positive attitude and is accepting of others.
“I am very ecumenical. I get along with any religion,” he said.