Since 1775, a military chaplain is an officer who ministers to the spiritual needs of uniformed personnel and their families, and also civilians, working for the military. At first exclusively Christian, chaplains have long since come to represent every faith and denomination while honoring the rights of others, to their own faith traditions.
The first female military chaplain was officially commissioned, in 1973. During World War 2 theirs was a world exclusive to men.
Chaplains are found everywhere there are armed services, up to and including front lines. During the war in Korea, Father Emil Kapaun was captured by Chinese communists while performing last rights, for a dying soldier. This Shepherd in Combat Boots literally spent himself in service to his fellow POWs and died in a North Korean prison camp. In 2013 President Barack Obama awarded Fr. Kapaun the Medal of honor for his life saving ministrations, near Pyoktong.
Many chaplains have been decorated for bravery. In the United Kingdom, five chaplains have received the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest decoration for gallantry in the line of duty. Nine have received the US’ Medal of Honor.
The Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism was specifically created to recognize the service of military chaplains, killed in the line of duty. To date this special decoration has been awarded only once, to the famous Four Chaplains who gave away their own life jackets, knowing they were about to be drowned.
During World War 2, US Army and Marine Corps chaplains experienced the third highest loss ratio of the war behind infantry, and Army Air Corps.
Sunday, December 7, 1941 dawned bright and clear on the Pacific naval anchorage in Pearl Harbor. Father Aloysius Schmitt was just beginning mass on board USS Oklahoma when the first of nine Japanese torpedoes, slammed home. The attack caused immediate flooding in multiple compartments as Oklahoma began her slow roll, to capsize. Below decks, Fr. Schmitt desperately helped push one sailor after another out of a small porthole, even as the compartment filled with water. 429 crewmen lost their lives on board Oklahoma that morning including Fr. Schmitt, drowned in the desperate act of saving others.
The Empire of Japan was all but unstoppable during the early months of WW2. The first major allied offensive began on August 7, 1942, with the objective of taking the Pacific islands of Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida. Some 60,000 men would participate in the 6-month offensive, primarily United States Marines.
Near constant counter-attacks and artillery bombardments joined with tropical disease to make life on this mosquito infested jungle island…a living hell. Fully two-thirds of casualties in those early months resulted from malaria, and other tropical disease. All the while, Marines were forced to subsist on captured food rations of worm and maggot infested rice so paltry that even these already-thin children of the depression lost some 40-odd pounds…per man.
The national museum of WW2 museum website describes one such bombardment over the night of October 14:
“At 0133 hours, the battlewagons opened fire and for the next 83 minutes hurled 970 heavy naval shells at Henderson Field and the surrounding area. Two-ton shells as large as a Volkswagen Beetle smashed into the Marine positions, shaking everything from dental fillings to the emotions of the men themselves. The explosions sucked air from lungs and the concussion blew over trees and collapsed coconut log dugouts with ease. Men were buried alive in what they thought were safe shelters. While physical casualties were light as a result of the battleship shelling, mental casualties were high. Men emerged from their dugouts shaking violently, eyes wide, ears bleeding, unable to hear anything or see straight. Blast concussion rendered many men helpless and disoriented for hours and even days after an attack. Veterans of the Tenaru River and Bloody Ridge battles—who had stared death directly in the face—all recalled the night of October 14 to be the most frightening night of the entire campaign”.
Ordained as a priest on May 22, 1930, Father Frederic Gehring spent 1933 to 1939 laboring on missions to China enduring bandits, Chinese communists and Japanese occupation. One time under aerial strafing in 1938, Fr. Gehring ran out waving a large American flag to show Japanese fighter pilots this was a mission, of the then-neutral United States. Father Gehring was pleased when the pilots did in fact fly away. Until someone at the mission informed him. It was probably because they had run out of bullets.
The United States declared war on the Empire of Japan the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The following day Father Frederic enlisted as Navy chaplain. In September 1942 he joined the 1st Marine Division, the “Old Breed”, on Guadalcanal.
“Before Guadalcanal the enemy advanced at his pleasure. After Guadalcanal, he retreated at ours”.Admiral William “Bull” Halsey
1st division Marines soon learned that, to “Padre” Gehring, this was no rear echelon ministry. During a particularly intense fire fight, one Marine dove for a foxhole only to find the Padre, already there. On spotting the crucifix around his neck the Marine asked, “Padre, what are you doing here?”. Where else would I be?”, came the reply.
Gehring routinely held masses so close to the fighting, Marines came to believe he would hold a mass in hell. So long as he could get his jeep there.
The Padre’s work wasn’t just on the lines where men were injured and dying but sometimes, behind enemy lines. With the help of Solomon Island natives, Fr. Gehring went deeply into enemy held territory no fewer than three times to rescue trapped missionaries on the island, mostly Marist priests and Sisters. By the time he was done 28 had been extracted, from Japanese occupied territory.
For this feat Father Gehring received the Legion of Merit from the President of the United States, the first Navy chaplain so decorated.
One day, islanders found a young Chinese girl at the bottom of a ditch. Only five or six years old and sick with malaria she’d been beaten and bayonetted by Japanese soldiers, and left for dead. The imprint of a rifle butt was clearly visible on her smashed skull. The examining physician said she wouldn’t make it through the night and yet, she did.
How a little girl apparently orphaned wound up that far from home, is a tale unto itself. As is the way an old China hand named Frederic Gehring nursed her to health in an active combat zone, along with the help of battle hardened Marines.
If such a feat was a small miracle, Christmas mass that year on Guadalcanal was not, though there may have been a wee bit of chuckling, divine intervention. With his first tent blown to bits by enemy artillery, some 700 Marines gathered at the new chapel tent on December 24, for Christmas mass.
In a world of hard men Barney Ross stood out, as a man not to be trifled with. An Orthodox Jewish kid from the streets of Chicago, Ross was a professional prize fighter, and three time champion. It was inevitable that the boxer and the priest from Brooklyn, would hit it off. they were two peas in a pod. Earlier that month, Ross and a group of Marines found themselves surrounded. The only man not wounded, Ross kept up a hail of gunfire and grenades keeping an unknown number of Japanese at bay. All…night…long. By morning, the only other man left alive was a single wounded Marine. Ross tossed the man on his back and carried him back to base.
So back to that Christmas mass…Ross had ambled up to the Padre and asked “who plays”, pointing to a small pump organ. Gehring was himself an accomplished violinist, but the answer was…no one knew how to play that thing.
Except…for Barney Ross.
So it is a Jewish kid from Chicago joined in on Catholic mass that night, learning the Christian canon by ear as 700 marines, hummed along. He ended the concert with a rousing rendition of “My Yiddishe Mama” in Yiddish no less, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.
Columnist Jimmy Breslin recalled: “There was a Jewish kid playing an organ and singing in Yiddish about his mama and a Catholic priest standing next to him with a violin trying to help it sound nice, and all around there were guys who came from every religion and some of them didn’t even have one, but they were all crying and thinking about the same thing.”
Many years later, Gehring typed up a paragraph reflecting on the war and that Christmas, in Guadalcanal. For years he would insert the piece in his Christmas cards of which he sent and received, many: “Our heroes, who gave their lives for their country and now lay beneath the white crosses that mark their final place, do not see the dark clouds of war hovering overhead in various parts of the world. The peace they fought and died for seems but temporary.”
In time that little Chinese girl who wasn’t supposed to make it through the night…did. Fr. Gehring called her Patsy Lee. In 1950, he brought her home to the US. Ms. Lee went to school and became a nurse. She met a man, and they married. Later on, Gehring even helped her find her own mother. Gehring himself tells the story of that little girl if you want to learn more in his 1962 memoir, “Child of Miracles”.
Fr. Frederic Gehring died in 1998, at the age of 95. Let his New York Times obituary, have the last word on this man of faith: “At Father Gehring’s funeral on Thursday at St. Vincent’s Seminary in Philadelphia, where he was ordained in 1930, she was there as was a Marine honor guard, reminders of a time when Guadalcanal was a name to reckon with and a little girl was a miracle of war”.
Chaplain deaths while on active duty (hat tip Wikipedia)
Death during service (combat and non-combat):
American Revolution: 25
War of 1812: 1
Mexican–American War: 1
World War I: 23
World War II: 182
Korean War: 13
Vietnam War: 15
Iraq and Afghan Wars: 1 (as of September 2010)