I frequently noted in the field, how chaplains – to a man – sought out front line action. And I assume that was because, as one put it, at the time: ‘There is where the fighting man needs God most – and that’s where some of them know him for the first time. – U.S.M.C. Commandant A.A. Vandegrift, 1945
The last two decades has seen a surge in interest in popular historical study of America’s role in the Pacific and Europe during World War II in films and books but little to no individual attention has been given to the role of military chaplains. There were never enough chaplains to serve American soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen, but as Dorsett points out those that served found innovative and courageous ways to reach the men. “They can’t say that the church forgot them, when they were called into service and henceforth in their lives they will forget the church,” declared Lutheran Chaplain Edward K. Rogers. “They may forget the church and God, but the church and God’s pastors or priests did not forget them.” Chaplains were integral to America’s victory in Europe and the Pacific. This is the argument put forward in Serving God and Country: US Military Chaplains in World War II by Lyle Dorsett.
Outside of the famous four U.S. Army chaplains who sacrificed their lives to save fellow military and civilian men when the transport Dorchester sank in 1943, there is very little popular historical assessment of the enduring role of chaplains in the war and how they helped shape a post-war society. Chaplains broke new ground when it came to racial desegregation in training classes and contributed to greater ecumenical understanding between churches, denominations, and synagogues. “The clergy integrated well and became pioneers in the integration of the U.S. Armed Forces before President Harry S. Truman’s executive order 9981 of July 1948,” declared Dorsett.
Integration of ideas and practical ecumenicsm also flourished. For example, some Protestant pastors, while well educated, previously may have had limited interpersonal contact with other traditions and faiths like Judaism or Catholicism. As one chaplain pointed out, “It was harder to speak ill of one’s faith when that person was a friend.” Chaplains also had to be trained in the basic rudiments of other faiths in order to offer proper religious counsel for servicemen.
Undeniably, the United States on the eve of Pearl Harbor in 1941 was remarkably less secular than today. Chaplains or “chappies” were, with very few exceptions, Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Jewish. Parents, especially mothers, were comforted by the fact that their sons had professional shepherds to guide them in the field and throughout their military service. World War II was the first American conflict where published images, especially from the Pacific at bloody battles like Tarawa, would relay disturbing images to Americans at home. Chaplains were pressed to the limit on both fronts of the war, but the savage fighting of the Pacific island hopping campaign tested military chaplains to minister in what many combatants called “the depths of hell.” “By their patient, sympathetic labors with the men, day in and day out and through many a night, every chaplain I know contributed immeasurably to the moral courage of our fighting men,” added Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. (more…)