The Navy Chaplain Corps: Service to God, country and Marines

23 Nov 2005 | - Petty Officer 3rd Class Bryan J. Dickerson

In the early days of the American Revolution, the Continental Congress enacted a regulation to provide chaplain support for its newly created Navy. Over the next 160-plus years, the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps earned a distinguished record of ministry and service during several wars and in numerous peacetime operations. Its greatest challenges, however, were to come in World War Two and the decades that followed it to the present day. For over two years, the United States struggled to remain out of the Second World War. Inevitably, however, war to came to America on a peaceful Sunday in December 1941 when the Japanese launched a devastating surprise attack on the island of Oahu, Hawaii and the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor. On Dec. 7, 1941, there were 19 Navy Chaplains serving at Pearl Harbor aboard ships or at shore commands. Two Navy Chaplains – T. L. Kirkpatrick of USS Arizona and Aloysius Schmitt of USS Oklahoma – were killed in the attack and another was wounded. Aboard the cruiser USS New Orleans, Chaplain H. M. Forgy earned famed with his exhortations to the crew to “Praise the Lord” and “Pass the ammunition.” After the attack, the Navy chaplains performed memorial services, counseled the survivors and the families of the fallen, and ministered to the wounded. The early days of World War II did not go well for the United States or the Navy Chaplain Corps. With a series of rapid assaults, the Japanese seized vast areas of Asia and the Pacific including the Philippines, Guam, and French Indochina. Five Navy Chaplains were captured by the Japanese; three of them died in captivity. Eventually, the United States and its allies were able to halt the Japanese expansion and re-take the lost territories. The war ended in August 1945 with the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan and the subsequent Japanese surrender. Throughout World War II, Navy chaplains served honorably in harm’s way to support sailors and Marines. Chaplains served aboard Navy warships and with Marine forces. Chaplains ministered under fire on Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and at Midway. They survived island combat, ship sinkings and kamikaze attacks. Chaplain Joseph O’Callahan earned the Medal of Honor for his heroism aboard the carrier USS Franklin when she was severely damaged and nearly sunk by Japanese kamikaze planes. Ultimately 10 Navy chaplains were killed in action and another 38 were wounded. The Navy Chaplain Corps experienced tremendous changes during World War II. On Dec. 7, 1941, there were 192 Navy chaplains on active duty, including 87 mobilized reservists. By war’s end, there were 2,934 Navy Chaplains, of which 87 percent were reservists. Also, 151 Navy chaplains served with the Fleet Marine Forces in the Pacific. In February 1942, the Corps established its first Chaplain School. The Chief of Chaplains became a Rear Admiral billet. For the first time, the Navy commissioned chaplains for the Latter Day Saints, Nazarene, Quaker, Church of God, and Russian Orthodox faith groups. Chaplains James R. Brown and Thomas D. Parham Jr. were the first black Navy Chaplains. To better serve the chaplains, the Navy created the wartime rate Specialist (W) as their assistants. This rate is the forerunner of the current Religious Program Specialist rate.The Navy demobilized the vast majority of its personnel, ships and even chaplains immediately following the war. Five years later, however, the Navy and its Chaplain Corps were back at war again. This time, the United States was fighting against the communist north Korean invasion of South Korea as part of a United Nations force. During the Korean War, Navy chaplains served with the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, 1st Marine Division and aboard Navy ships supporting the operations ashore. Navy chaplains routinely put themselves in harm’s way to serve their Marines on the frontlines and to tend to the wounded. Fifteen chaplains were wounded in action but none were killed. In heavy fighting during the Chosin Reservoir operations, Chaplain Assistant Sgt. Matthew Caruso saved the life of Chaplain Cornelius Griffin by protecting him from enemy fire with his own body. In doing so, Caruso took a bullet for his chaplain and was killed. An armistice was signed in July 1953 to stop the fighting along the 38th Parallel. Vietnam was the next realm of combat for the United States and the Navy Chaplain Corps. In 1962, Navy chaplains were serving in Vietnam with Naval Support Activity Saigon and Marine Task Unit 79.3.5. As America’s military involvement in Vietnam escalated throughout the 1960s, more Navy chaplains saw service in that country. During the Vietnam War, Navy chaplains served afloat with the carrier strike forces that bombed north Vietnam and Navy hospital ships that treated the wounded. Navy chaplains served in country with Marine units, seabees, Naval hospitals, shore commands, and with the Mobile Riverine Force in the Mekong Delta. Navy chaplains accompanied Marine units during the siege of Khe Sanh and the fierce fighting in Hue City. On Sept. 4, 1967, Chaplain Vincent Capodanno was killed in combat while ministering to the wounded of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for saving the lives of several Marines in complete disregard for his own safety. The last Navy chaplain to serve in Vietnam was Chaplain Eugene Perry with 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment. This battalion provided ground security for the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in late April 1975.Providing a specialized assistant for Navy chaplains had been discussed at various times dating back to the late 19th Century. During World War II, the temporary Specialist (W) rating had been created for this role, but was discontinued after the war. Later, Yeomen were utilized for service with chaplains serving in the fleet and at shore commands. Chaplains serving with Marine units were provided with Marines as chaplain assistants. Recognizing the need for specialized assistants to serve chaplains, especially those serving with Marine Corps units, the Chief of Chaplains, Rear Adm. John J. O’Connor persuaded the Navy to create the Religious Program Specialist rating in January 1979. The RP completes the Navy Religious Ministry Team, providing administrative and ministry support for the chaplains and physical security when field deployed with Marines and seabees. The RP rating was a concept long overdue in the Chaplain Corps.Navy Chaplains also support the United States Coast Guard and the Merchant Marines. In 1981, only six chaplains served with the Coast Guard. Presently, there are more than 35 chaplains serving with the Coast Guard. These chaplains have become experts in national disaster and tragedy working very closely with chaplains of non-governmental agencies and local and federal agencies. They ministered at the World Trade Center after 911, Hurricane Katrina and other national crises. The Navy also provides two Chaplains to the Merchant Marine Academy.Navy Chaplains and RPs deployed with Navy and Marine forces to the Persian Gulf for Operation Desert Shield / Desert Storm in 1990-91 and again in 2003 for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Chaplains and RPs have also been serving in Afghanistan and other forward areas in the ongoing war against terrorism. As in past wars, reservists are making significant contributions to the ministry effort. Active Duty and Reserve RMTs are serving side-by-side and working together with RMTs of the other services to attend to the spiritual and counseling needs of Marines, sailors, airmen and soldiers around the globe and in harm’s way. They are called to serve and are serving wherever they have been called to do so. In 230 years, the Navy Chaplain Corps has grown with both the nation and the Navy and Marine Corps that it serves. Wooden ships may have given way to steel ones and machine guns and automatic rifles may have replaced black powder muskets and cutlasses, but the mission of the Navy’s Chaplain Corps remains the same: to provide spiritual ministry to the sea services at home and forward deployed. Vocati ad servitium.
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