Inspired by the words and witness of some military chaplains I recently heard speak, I wanted to reflect on the contribution given to our nation by chaplains.
My reflection starts with the events of February 1943. At the end of January 1943 the USAT Dorchester left New York bound for Greenland. It was originally a civilian ship but was now carrying over 900 military and civilian souls when it embarked on its mission to deliver people and goods to Europe via Greenland.
The captain, Hans J. Danielsen, was a cautious man and knew that German U-boats had been monitoring shipping lines and had sunk some vessels. Even before he got reports of a nearby enemy submarine, he had put his men on high alert as they advanced through the North Atlantic.
On February 9, just off of Newfoundland, the Dorchester was hit by a torpedo that along with opening up the hull knocked out the ship’s electrical generators. The whole structure went black and immediately presented itself as a metallic coffin for the nearly one thousand people on board.
Panic would have taken over the minds and hearts of every man but for the calming work of four chaplains: George L. Fox, Alexander D. Goode, Clark V. Poling, and John P. Washington.
The Rev. George L. Fox was a Methodist minister originally from Lewistown, Pennsylvania. He had a son, Wyatt, who was a Marine in the war. Rabbi Alexander D. Goode was actually Goodekowitz, the son of a rabbi from Brooklyn, New York. He was raised in Washington D.C. The Rev. Clark V. Poling was a Baptist minister born in Columbus, Ohio. He was the son of a chaplain who served during the first World War. His father explained to him that chaplains risked their lives on the front line. Poling was undeterred and enlisted. Father John P. Washington was born in Newark, New Jersey and had served at a number of parishes before he ended up at the Chaplain’s School at Harvard where he met the other three men.
The four chaplains calmed the men on the Dorchester by organizing the ordered evacuation of the sinking ship and by distributing life jackets. When all the jackets were gone, they took off their own and handed them to others. Fox didn’t seek out a Methodist, nor Goode a Jew, nor Washington a Catholic. The men just gave up their only life line so that others could live.
One of the survivors reported that looking back as the ship sank, he saw all four chaplains comforting those left behind. They stood on the deck, arm in arm, singing and praying loudly. Some of the other survivors reported later hearing snippets of Hebrew from Rabbi Goode and Latin from Fr. Washington. The four chaplains died that day with 670 others, but their testament to fidelity and selflessness lives on today.
One way in which it does is through film. There is a scene from the HBO series Band of Brothers where a Catholic chaplain is giving last rites to several of the fallen. It is remarked on by other soldiers because while the priest is reciting the prayers in Latin and providing this blessing, he is seemingly unmindful of the gun fire from Germans that is whizzing over his shoulders that bear the purple stole.
This toss-away scene in the series is not insignificant as the series is based on the lives and experiences of actual World War II veterans. And it is not insignificant because there are many examples of military chaplains who like the four mentioned above have given their lives for the sake of the men they serve, men and women who give their lives for our liberty.
Take as another example Fr. Emil J. Kapaun. Fr. Kapaun was a chaplain during the Korean War and in November of 1950 was captured with several of his regiment. In captivity, he helped comfort the afflicted by any means he could. One story I have heard from a reliable source tells that Fr. Kapaun would sneak out of the camp at night with the bloodied bandages of the wounded. During the hard Korean winter, he would with his bare hands break through the ice of the frozen streams nearby to clean the bandages. He would then sneak back into the camp and reapply the bandages as best he could.
Fr. Kapaun died in that camp, but several of the me he served lived and are in part behind the cause for his canonization.
As one looks into the tradition of the military chaplaincy, you discover that it predates our own Constitution. Gen. George Washington insisted that chaplains be assigned to regiments during the Revolutionary War. Indeed, not only is the dedication to the chaplaincy an early part of the American tradition but religious liberty is as well. In September of 1775 Gen. Washington wrote Benedict Arnold saying,
As far as lays in your power, you are to protect and support the free exercise of the religion of the country and the undisturbed enjoyment of the rights of conscience in religious matters, with your utmost influence and authority.
Of course, this “enjoyment of the rights of conscience” is what is very much at stake these days as the HHS Mandate and a myriad of other attacks upon religious Americans take place. As an example, the Houston National Cemetery prohibited a local pastor from uttering Jesus’ name during a service on Memorial Day 2011. The same cemetery ordered the National Memorial Ladies refrain from saying “God bless you” to families who are burying their veteran loved ones. The officials of the cemetery even went so far as to ban the use of long-respected burial rites because of their reference to God. Sadly, such examples are becoming more and more prevalent.
We remember on this Memorial Day those who have fallen in part because they remind us of the cost of the very freedoms that we enjoy today, the freedoms that are so obviously under attack. This is part of why the examples above are so powerful. The rights of conscience that are being thrown into maw of cultural relativism are what made the work of the men above possible. Chaplains serve because they know that in so doing they are defending the very rights to the free exercise of their religion, and their presence in the military is a reminder to the soldier of that for which they fight.
Yet, chaplains today are being forced to walk very fine lines as they attempt to be faithful to their own religion when it comes to homosexuality – for instance – and faithful to the law of the land – the Defense of Marriage Act – while being pressured by commanding officers and the Commander-in-Chief through the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
This Memorial Day, I will remember those who have fallen so that we can all be Catholic and Protestant and Jew and not have to fear the long arm of an aggressively secularist State.
But I will also ask the intercession of those who have died. I will ask that they intercede for our military chaplains so that they and we might be able to continue to pray to our God openly and enjoy “the rights of conscience” of which Washington spoke. And I will pray that with whatever influence they might have with the heavenly host that they bring to bear the mighty force of the Holy Spirit of Truth upon the brows of our Administration.
May God bless those who have served and fallen. May God bless the chaplain corps. And May God bless the America for which they gave and give their lives.