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Combat Chaplains

The history of military chaplains is a chronicle of service and sacrifice.

Colonial clergymen raised their own military units from the congregations they served, and often led them in battle. They shared their suffering, hunger, loneliness, grief, defeats, imprisonment, and sometimes their victories.

Approved by the War Department, the first Chaplain School commenced on March 3, 1918, in Fort Monroe, Virginia.

Following a period of dormancy, the Chaplain School was set in motion two days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The first class was held in Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, on February 2, 1942, with 75 candidates in attendance. The 200-hour, 28-day session entailed instruction in military organization, customs and courtesies, military law, first aid, chaplain activities, and graves registration. Calisthenics, gas mask drills and outdoor map orientation also were introduced to the chaplains.

After just four sessions the school moved to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Given the urgency of the war situation, the number of students was increased from 75 to 450, and the sessions were lengthened to six weeks, with additional training available following graduation as needed. A parallel course was offered for enlisted personnel who wished to serve as chaplain's assistants. The Army produced an instructional film in Hollywood entitled "For God and Country," portraying four chaplains, with the part of the Catholic chaplain played by Ronald Reagan.

Army paratrooper training for chaplains was the most intense. An additional two-week special training course was conducted in San Antonio, Texas. The chaplains entering jump school faced the most physically demanding training. To bond with the paratroopers, they trained together and were required to jump from the planes in pairs.

Chaplain leading prayer in tent

The chaplains saw themselves as clergy in uniform; praying, counseling, preaching, conducting weddings, baptisms, and funerals. They gave lectures and offered pastoral advice to officers and troops with personal counseling sessions sometimes averaging more than 50 a day. The consultations usually dealt with homesickness, marriage issues, alcohol abuse, suicidal feelings, and military problems. The World War II years also offered the chaplains such specialized ministry opportunities as working in hospitals, stockades and on troop ships. On the front lines the chaplains suffered from overwork, the terrors of war and continual exposure to danger. On the battlefield the chaplains ministered to soldiers of all ranks. They cared for the wounded, encouraged them to think more deeply about their faith — and sometimes administered the last rites. In the event of death, they selected burial sites, wrote death reports and sent letters of condolence to the families.

Great emphasis was placed on interfaith cooperation, given the ethical and religious diversity of the United States. By July 1942, the army had authorized the appointment of 790 black chaplains with 247 on active duty and 100 assigned overseas. There also were volunteers during World War II; the chaplaincy received 422 applications with 311 serving, two killed and two wounded.

Chaplains learned to improvise as they prayed and conducted services, using such venues as carrier flight decks, apple orchards, barns, stables, wine cellars, railroad stations and even caves, with an ammunition box for an altar. Soldiers often built unofficial chapels out of anything salvageable. The chaplaincy’s spirit never wavered.

On February 3, 1943, a torpedo from the German submarine U456 hit the Dorchester, carrying 904 men across the Atlantic to England. Four of the 678 men lost were army chaplains. They were last seen holding hands and praying together as they went down with the ship.

Chaplain leading prayer on ship

Chaplains in the Philippines experienced first-hand combat as they carried messages through enemy lines and rescued the wounded under fire. They organized choirs, Bible studies and baptismal services. They aided refugees and eventually ministered to German, Italian and Japanese prisoners of war. Fifty-seven chaplains, in Europe and the Pacific, became prisoners of war.

The deep and varied role of the chaplaincy was evident when several women ministers became chaplains' assistants and directors of religious education. Classified as clerk typists, the assistants' role went far beyond the job title. They not only typed, but they played the organ, led choirs, carried weapons, drove and maintained the jeeps provided for the chaplains. In addition, serving as mediators enabled them to keep the chaplains abreast of the servicemen’s morale and spirits.

By 1944 there was a decrease in chaplain enrollments as the school moved to Fort Devens, Massachusetts and then on to Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia in 1945. During World War II approximately 8,896 chaplains served in the U.S. Army. When Japan surrendered, there were 2,278 Catholic, 243 Jewish, and 5,620 Protestant chaplains on duty.

The contributions and heartfelt effects of the chaplains and their assistants will long be remembered. They lived and worked with the troops, providing strength, help, courage and consolation. The chaplains earned 2,453 decorations during World War II and 77 lost their lives in the line of duty.

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