As long as there have been Soldiers in America, there have been chaplains. The Continental Congress created the Chaplain Corps as an integral part of the Army in 1775, ensuring that Soldiers would always have spiritual, moral and ethical guidance near at hand.
“Currently, chaplains serve at all levels and accompany their Soldiers into deployment and training exercises,” providing free exercise of religion in a pluralistic setting, Col. James Griffin, commandant of the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School, said.
The corps consists of both ordained clergy, who are commissioned officers, and enlisted Soldiers who serve as chaplain assistants. Chaplains can be assigned to posts and post chapel systems, hospitals and tactical units — essentially anywhere they are needed.
This year, the Army’s second oldest branch celebrates its 239-year legacy and looks to its future. Established July 29, 1775, chaplains have served with Soldiers throughout the Army’s history,
providing care and counseling to those in need.
Careers in the chaplaincy begin at the Chaplain Center and School, where both field training and academic training take place.
“They learn the practical aspects of field training and the practical aspects of being a Soldier and a chaplain,” Griffin said.
Ministering in war
“Ministers in general, what they do for a living is they are in service to others and in service to God, and being a minister in the military as a chaplain, that really brings that aspect of ministry to
the fore, where they truly are looking out for the welfare of others,” Mark Johnson, a retired lieutenant colonel and the Chaplain Corps historian, said.
“That really comes down to what we call the core competencies of the Chaplain Corps, which we say are nurturing the living, caring for the wounded and honoring the fallen,” he added.
Due to the nature of their profession, many chaplains serve out of the limelight, but throughout history some have performed above and beyond the call of duty. Eight chaplains have received
Medals of Honor over the years, four of them during the Civil War, one in the Boxer Rebellion, one from the Korean war and two in Vietnam, according to the Chaplain Corps website.
World Wars I and II were particularly memorable for the Chaplain Corps, producing some of the most famous stories of chaplains’ commitment to their fellow Soldiers.
Father (Maj.) Francis P. Duffy is probably one of the most famous World War I chaplains, Johnson said. While serving with the New York National Guard’s “Fighting 69th” Infantry Regiment, he earned the Distinguished Service Cross. He accompanied litter bearers to help recover the wounded, and was often spotted in the thick of battle. Duffy earned several other awards and became the most highly decorated cleric of World War I, Johnson explained.
During World War II, a handful of U.S. Army chaplains not only provided comfort to their fellow Soldiers, but sacrificed their lives for them.
“Probably one of the most famous incidents in the history of the Chaplain Corps was the story of the Four Chaplains,” Johnson said. Four chaplains aboard the U.S. Army Transport Dorchester worked to calm the men after a U-boat torpedo hit the vessel. The men, George L. Fox, Alexander D. Goode, Clark V. Poling and John P. Washington, helped organize an orderly evacuation of the ship, guiding wounded men to safety and giving up their life jackets to those in need. The chaplains went down with the ship, praying and singing as it sank.
“The sinking of the Dorchester was actually the greatest loss of life among any American troop ship that was sunk during World War II. So, the heroism of the Four Chaplains in that event, they were definitely in the right place at the wrong time in terms of ministering to people in need,” Johnson added.
During the Korean War, Chaplain (Capt.) Emil Kapaun ministered to fellow prisoners of war, risking his own safety to acquire extra food and supplies for his fellow Soldiers. He often held services in secret to avoid the ire of their captors. Kapaun is one the Chaplain Corps’ Medal of Honor recipients and is being considered for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.
Chaplain (Maj.) Charles Watters, another Catholic priest, was awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery exhibited while rescuing men during the Battle of Dak To in the Vietnam War, Griffin explained. Watters was killed by friendly fire while performing triage on the wounded.
Chaplains at Nuremberg
Recently, the Chaplain Corps discovered the story of Chaplain (Capt.) Henry Gerecke, a Lutheran pastor who served at the Nuremberg trials in the aftermath of World War II. What makes Gerecke’s story interesting, Johnson explained, is not simply that he provided spiritual counsel to high-ranking Nazi war criminals, but rather the high-value placed on those criminals and the fact that Gerecke was the only chaplain with a personal account of his ministry to them.
Journalist Tim Townsend published “Mission at Nuremberg” this year, detailing the story of Gerecke and his Catholic counterpart, Father (Capt.) Sixtus O’Connor. Townsend discovered the story in a Lutheran seminary while researching another article for the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
“I wasn’t really finding anything exactly I could use for (that) story, but under one piece of glass was a letter that had been written by the 21 major Nazi criminals on trial at Nuremberg,” he said. The letter was written to Gerecke’s wife, Alma, and asked that she allow him to stay through the end of the trial because they had come to love him, Townsend explained.
Gerecke was brought up on a farm in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, that was established by his grandfather when he immigrated from Germany. He went on to join the Lutheran seminary in St. Louis, but married in the middle of his studies and was kicked out of school, Townsend said. At 26, he became a pastor at a local church but became bored with congregational life.
Townsend explained that Gerecke was drawn to “people on the margins” of society. He eventually moved his family from St. Louis to become a missionary, caring for people on the streets, in asylums and in jail. His two oldest sons joined the Army when World War II began and Gerecke soon followed, becoming a chaplain right around his 50th birthday. Age restrictions in the Chaplain Corps were relaxed at the time Gerecke joined because there was a shortage of chaplains.
Gerecke was offered the Nuremberg duty while assigned to the 98th General Hospital. He was chosen based on his missionary work in jails, his ability to speak German and his faith — many of
the Nazis on trial grew up Lutheran. Initially, Gerecke was apprehensive.
“He wrote about it, and he said he was extremely afraid,” Townsend said. “He had been to Dachau (concentration camp) when his hospital was stationed in Munich a number of times, and he said
that he touched the walls of Dachau and his hand came away smeared in blood.”
Gerecke decided to accept the duty. He believed it was what he had been called to do, and later described it as the most important year of his life, Townsend added.
The chaplains spent a lot of time with the prisoners, providing counseling and church services. Gerecke made a special impression on them, shaking the prisoners’ hands when he first met them and helping them find their families, Townsend explained. Gerecke’s ministerial style earned him respect among the prisoners and led some back to the faiths of their childhoods.
And when the accused were convicted and sentenced to hang for their crimes, both chaplains escorted their charges to the gallows. “These men that they had been counseling for months and months and months, they were the ones that walked them up the 13 stairs to the rope and prayed with them in the instant before they dropped through the trap door,” he added.
After the trials, Gerecke returned to the States and transferred to the Reserves. Eventually, he retired to Illinois and became an assistant pastor at a church. He ministered to prisoners in a maximum-security facility until he died of a heart attack in 1961.
From the American Revolution to the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, members of the Chaplain Corps have served their fellow Soldiers with bravery and dignity. Today, chaplains and chaplain assistants represent numerous faith groups to include the Judeo-Christian, Islamic, Buddhist ad Hindu traditions.
Johnson said though there have been shortages of chaplains at times throughout the corps’ history, there has always been a dedicated group of professional and skilled ministers willing to take on service to country in addition to service to a faith. He feels that particular historical consistency is a uniquely American trait, and a significant achievement for the U.S. Army.