In Harm’s Way: The Forgotten Service of Military Chaplains

In Otto Preminger’s 1965 classic movie In Harm’s Way, starring John Wayne as “Rock Torrey” and Kirk Douglas as “Commander Paul Eddington,” there’s an interesting dialogue that ensues after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent return of the cruiser Swayback to the lagoon-shaped sanctuary, now burial ground for thousands of American sailors, in Oahu. It’s a direct reference to a famous quote from John Paul Jones: “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm’s way.”

As then, Captain Torrey, commander of the Swayback, is allowed to release into his custody his second-in-command, Eddington, from the brig, after a dust-up stemming from Eddington’s wife’s infidelity and subsequent death in the infamous Japanese attack on December 7, 1941, they walk down to the pier and gaze out at what’s left of the Pacific fleet.

One of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s cruisers was just getting under way.

Captain Torrey: “A fast ship going in harm’s way”

Commander Eddington: “She’s a tiger.”

Captain Torrey: “A lousy situation.”

Commander Eddington: “Lousy”

There’s a moment of doubt and abandonment that passes between them. Not only because of their own personal implications in the disastrous defeat that beset America (the Swayback wasn’t zigzagging when it took a torpedo from a Japanese sub because Torrey thought his orders meant that his ship was expendable), but because of their inability to do anything about their purgatory onshore pending an official inquiry as to their conduct. Initially, they both shared an enthusiasm for the conflict, because the Swayback was given orders to seek out and destroy the enemy: “…a gut-bustin’ navy war,” Eddington declares to his captain, who he refers to as “the rock of ages.”

But, now, their destinies are completely in the hands of naval bureaucrats. As fighting men they feel the pain of not being in the thick of things.

The whole world was at war. From Europe to Africa to Asia and, now, America, war engulfed planet earth. It was a maelstrom never seen before in the history of mankind. Millions died – millions more suffered unspeakable horrors. All because of the egotistical pride of Hitler and Mussolini and Tojo, who wreaked havoc upon the world in their servile obedience to Satan and his minions. Later, Stalin and Khrushchev, Mao and Minh, Che and Castro would follow.

Yet, there was one unstoppable force to stand against the demons of war: the faithful service of chaplains in the service of the United States military. No service personnel place themselves, time and again, in harm’s way more than our chaplains. And this is where our story begins.

David and Goliath

Then David spoke to Saul: “Let your majesty not lose courage. I am at your service to go and fight this Philistine.” But Saul answered  David, “You cannot go up against this Philistine and fight with him, for you are only a youth, while he has been a warrior from his youth.” Then David told Saul: “Your servant used to tend his father’s sheep, and whenever a lion or bear came to carry off a sheep from the flock, I would go after it and attack it and rescue the prey from its mouth.”

Since David spoke with such determined resolve and no other soldier in Saul’s army would volunteer for such a dangerous confrontation, the king relented and placed the future of his kingdom and of his people in the hands of a boy.

So, David, who bore no armor or sword or shield (although, Saul offered his own battle armor to the lad), and armed with only a staff and sling, charged the giant Goliath and took the day. The fact that he charged into the field is important. There is no timidity here. David was so faith-filled, so emboldened by his love for the Lord, that he had no doubt as to the outcome of the seemingly impossible combat which he faced. But, his weapons were not just his sling and the smooth stones he carried in his pocket. They were his faith, the words he spoke and the actions he took that astonished both the Philistine and Israeli armies. David vanquished Goliath with truth.

A military chaplain is not armed for battle. Like David, the chaplain’s weapons consist of faith, the word, and the will to act, even while confronting certain death. A death he felt fellow soldiers would certainly face and that he could not shield himself from. This is pure guts. This is true grit. This is what the “Four Chaplains,” whose monument, in stained glass, exists to this today at the Pentagon is emblematic of: a Catholic, Methodist, and a Dutch Reformed minister, and a Jewish Rabbi, freely gave their life preservers to their shipmates. As the troopship Dorchester quickly sank into the North Atlantic in World War II, in 1943, after a German U-Boat attack, the four chaplains were last seen holding hands, praying and praising the Lord.

Take a Knee, Save a Life

Perhaps, the greatest chaplain in our nation’s armed forces was George Washington himself. Although armed, he rarely drew his sword, yet freely rode along the lines encouraging and giving comfort and direction to his troops in every battle he engaged in. There is no definitive, primary source material on whether he did or did not retire by himself to a solitary wood at Valley Forge and kneel in solemn prayer. As a history teacher and student of Colonial American history, my question has always been: why in God’s name wouldn’t he? Washington certainly and consistently, gave orders to his command to pray.

Catholic chaplains in our military were enlisted primarily at the outset of the American Civil War and on both the Union and Confederate sides. During the Battle of Gettysburg, Father William Corby gave general absolution to the recruits of the Irish Brigade. This was depicted in the 1993 movie Gettysburg, adapted from the best-selling novel The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara, starring Tom Berenger, Jeff Daniels, and Martin Sheen.

Perhaps the greatest chaplain in the Civil War was Confederate Army officer, Father Peter Whelan, who ministered to Union soldiers at the notorious Andersonville POW camp in Georgia. Here was a man and a minister who did his utmost to provide comfort and aid to the enemy because it was the right thing to do. Testimonies abound as to his personal sanctity. Bread and wine were, indeed, transubstantiated into the Body and Blood of our Lord. In Andersonville, they were also earthly sustenance that kept men alive. This writer does not know if there has ever been a cause for Father Whelan’s sanctification. If not, perhaps our brethren in Georgia should champion this endeavor.

“Angel of the Trenches”

The Twentieth Century brought new chaplains into the ranks of our military. Those who, like Washington, chose to not separate themselves from their “parish.” It could be a beach head, on the deck of a ship being strafed or bombed by the enemy, a POW camp, a forced and deadly march, or on the fields of the most unholy of places called “No Man’s Land.” They would deliberately put themselves in harm’s way because that was where they were most needed. It was where God led them to be.

Father John B. DeValles earned the nickname “Angel of the Trenches” because he was divinely inspired to venture into the deadly killing fields time and again. It was during World War I, ironically called “The War to End All Wars,” where Father DeValles ministered to both Allied and German soldiers. He died from the horrific exposure to mustard gas like many of his “parishioners.”

Of course, no mention of the “Great War” can be replete without recognizing and honoring the service of Father Francis Patrick Duffy, the chaplain of the “Rainbow Brigade” and the “Fighting Sixty-ninth” from New York, the same regiment that fought as part of the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg, but who were now combined with an Alabama regiment who bested them during the Civil War. Father Duffy would help to make the impossible happen: combine Yankees and Confederates under one flag in a united fight against the Kaiser’s front line troops. Both DeValles and Duffy consistently risked their lives for the men whose souls they were responsible for with valor and were highly decorated.

Medals of Honor and Servants of God

In the Second World War there are too many chaplains to name and recognize within the short purview of this essay. They were everywhere: on the beaches, in the trenches, a part of each and every landing from D-Day to Iwo Jima. Aboard the ship USS Franklin, Father Joseph T. O’Callahan, ministered to the crew after their ship had been hit by a kamikaze attack off Japan, in March, 1945. Because he put himself in harm’s way again and again, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Yet, this was not atypical. There are over 400 chaplains in our military history who have given their lives in combat.

During the Korean War, Father Emil J. Kapaun, recently recognized and decorated by President Obama with the Medal of Honor, and, now, named a Servant of God by the Roman Catholic Church, served not just in the field of battle, but gave everything he had after his capture by the communists. He died saving his brothers. Foregoing meager rations to give to others, he literally starved himself as he provided the sacraments to his fellow POWs.

Father Vincent Robert Capodanna and Father Aloysius Paul McGonigal did the same in Vietnam. Throughout our history, military chaplains have given the ultimate sacrifice.

On this Memorial Day, we should take pause and remember all those souls who sacrificed their lives so that we may live free. Especially, our military chaplains, because they gave their lives for a specific purpose: that we may have the right to worship and give glory to God despite religious differences.

I know, it sounds trite, even, perhaps, a bit nostalgic. Because we have gotten so used to freedom:  to practice our religion without governmental interference, to pray in the public square and profess our belief in God, to share those beliefs with others without pain or punishment.

Yet, the time is coming, as Cardinal George said, when our society, our government, will stop us from doing just that. May God grant us the fortitude and strength to survive during the coming trials that are sure to come.

(My thanks to Major James A. Harvey III, for his inspiring article of July 14, 2011, in his article “Catholic Military Chaplains: America’s Forgotten Heroes” and the source material he has provided.)

image: Fr. Joseph T. O’Callahan, USNR(ChC) Gives “Last Rites” to an injured crewman aboard USS Franklin (CV-13), after the ship was set afire by a Japanese air attack, 19 March 1945. The crewman is reportedly Robert C. Blanchard, who survived his injuries.

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George J. Galloway is a retired history teacher, now freelance writer and novelist. He is a father of three and married to Cathy, his bride of 33 years. He writes from his little Cape Cod in Fallsington, Pennsylvania. You can read his blog at

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