An Overview of Military Chaplains: What they Do, Their Role in the United States Military and their History

This is an overview of military chaplains in the United States armed forces. In this post you will learn what military chaplains are and what they do. In the process you will learn about the Chaplain Corps from the Revolutionary War to the Iraq War. Included is the story of the famed four chaplains who sacrificed their life on the U.S.A.T Dorchester in World War II. 

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” 

Often misattributed to Plato, from Spanish-American Philosopher George Santayana

“There is a protracted meeting going on in camp. We have preaching in the forenoon and prayer meeting in the evening . . . and it is my opinion it will do us a great deal of good. Private John Meredith Crutchfield, Co. I, 60th Regiment, Virginia Infantry, Princeton, Mercer County, VA, 26 April 1863

“We don’t even know how strong we are until we are forced to bring that hidden strength forward. In times of tragedy, of war, of necessity, people do amazing things. The human capacity for survival and renewal is awesome.

Isobel Allende 

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

John 15:13 NIV 

Scene from the Korean War at the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Virginia.

In order to understand the story The Wondering Eagle is going to tell next I need to do a post that overlooks what military chaplains do. This will lay the foundation for the next church story I am going to undertake. 


What Do Military Chaplains Do? 

Military chaplains assist and deploy with military personnel. They specifically minister to military personnel. I will get into the history below, but chaplains have existed in every military conflict going back to the American Revolution.  Chaplains are commissioned as military staff officers in the Chaplain Corps. There are three United States Chaplain Corps : the Army (USA), Navy (USN) and Air Force (USAF). Navy Chaplains are assigned to serve with the United States Marine Corps (USMC), Coast Guard and Merchant Marine Academy. In the United States Army there are 1,300 active duty chaplains and 1,200 reserve components represent over five major faith groups – Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Jewish. I had difficulty trying to get an exact number on how many military chaplains serve today. One article I would also recommend is this post by Joe Carter at The Gospel Coalition called, “9 Things You Should Know About Military Chaplains.” It appears as if Southern Baptists make up a large number of the military chaplains today. In addition another issue is the growth of secular troops in the military, and the push for secular humanist chaplains. I wrote about that a while back in, “An Overview of the Effort to have Humanist Chaplains in the United States Military; Why this Christian Supports that Endeavor.

Chaplains are always available to soldiers. By law soldiers are more likely to talk to chaplains knowing that what is shared is protected by confidence. Chaplains can act like a social worker, spiritual adviser and family therapist in many ways. Chaplains are  required to minister to all no matter of what a solider’s faith and non-faith. Chaplains in the USA are at the rank of Captain. Because of their rank they are in a special position as they are not in the traditional chain of command. Thus the are also free to interact and speak with the commanding officer and advise him. The chaplain can relay moral issues or situations that exist. In some situations when there is difficulty or issues soldiers have conveyed issues and the Chaplain has intervened. Thus the Chaplain at times can be an asset to allow people to work around the system

Military chaplains also deploy with troops into combat zones. According to the Geneva Convention they are designated non-combatants. That means that chaplains cannot carry a weapon, nor can they pick up a weapon on a battled field. Protection is assigned to them. Chaplains go into hot zones and there have been incidents where chaplains have been killed. Overall there have been 419 chaplains lost. From the jungles of Southeast Asia in Vietnam to places such as Kandahar, Khowst, Paktika, Paktia and Nangarhar in Afghanistan. Military chaplains carry risk. But in those difficult situations they provide comfort to the troops, and spiritually advise them. One of the responsibilities they do is to accompany the casualty notification officer and go to someone’s house when someone is killed. Today in the modern USA chaplains find themselves dealing with mental health issues, marital problems, rape, and suicide. The ills and problems in the military they have to deal with and frequently come from the stress of deployments. 


How a Person Becomes a Chaplain

The story that will be told at The Wondering Eagle deals with someone becoming a USA chaplain, as such I will focus on that path in this section. This is the process of how a person becomes a chaplain in the USA. The USA requires chaplains to have a bachelor’s degree of at least 120 credit hours. Many people major in religious studies, with an emphasis and knowledge of their religion and faith system. The USA also requires chaplain candidates to obtain a graduate degree. Programs that are acceptable include religious studies and theological studies. In these programs individuals take advanced courses in philosophy, world religions, religious practices, church history, ethics, and religious literature. Then a person wanting to become a chaplain needs to gain two years of experience working full time for a religious organization or institution. Candidates become clergy members, such as a priest, minister, preacher or rabbi. Each religion has specific requirements for ordaining clergy members. They must become familiar with performing ceremonies such as weddings, funerals, delivering sermons and giving counseling. 

To apply as an Army Chaplain the person needs to be endorsed and affirmed by their religious institution. They need to be sponsored by their religious institution. This shows that they meet the requirements to be clergy, qualified and capable of accepting and working with people of differing faiths. Army Chaplain candidates must be between the ages of 21 to 42. The must also be United States citizens. They need to go through a military background check and obtain a security clearance. In addition they also must meet the physical requirements and undergo a physical screening. When they are approved the Army Chaplain candidate must complete Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course. Those who have no background in the military take a four week course that instructs them on military culture, and life. They undergo drill, and ceremony, as well as navigation and field operations. The remainder eight weeks are spent in courses of USA correspondence, counseling, ministry in a military setting, moral leadership and interpersonal communications. 


The History of Chaplains in the United States Military

The first military engagement in the American Revolution is the Battles of Lexington and Concord. This battle was fought in the Province of Massachusetts Bay on April 19, 1775. At the end of the fighting there were 88 casualties for Massachusetts Bay Colonists and 247 for the British. Shortly thereafter the second Continental Congress established the Continental Army on June 14, 1775. On July 29, 1775 the Continental Congress allowed for the hiring of a chaplain for each regiment of the Continental Army. This is where the USA Chaplain Corps traces its history back. The United States Navy Chaplain Corps traces its history back to its founding on November 28, 1775. The Revolutionary War was a hard fought war. Morale on the American side was low as the military was underfunded and facing the British which were deeply professional. Amidst the trials and struggles military chaplains served. In the American Battle for Independence there were 25 chaplains who were killed. 

After the founding of the new American government there was one issue that was never resolved that would lead to the Civil War. That issue is slavery. Over the course of time when the political system broke down and was unable to deal with slavery, it was the election of Abraham Lincoln that led to several states in the south to secede. After the attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina in 1861 there were two armies that were stood up. For the Confederacy it was the Army of Northern Virginia that was led by Robert E Lee. For the United States the main Union Army is the Army of Potomac, and its first commander is Irvin McDowell.  There were chaplaincies that served both armies in the Civil War.  In the Congress of the Confederate States the bill authorizing Confederate chaplains was introduced on May 3, 1861 in bill 107. “There shall be appointed by the President such number of chaplains, to serve with the armies of the Confederate States during the existing war, as he may deem expedient; and the President shall assign them to such regiments, brigades or posts as he may deem necessary; and the appointments made as aforesaid shall expire whenever the existing war shall terminate.” On August 3, 1861, the United States Congress also authorized chaplains for the Union Army. Altogether at least 2,387 men and one woman served in the Union Army as chaplains during the length of the Civil War. On the Confederate side at least 1,303 men served as chaplains. The enlistment for the Union Army was at 2,700,000 while the Confederate Army ranges from 700,000 to around 1,200,000.  So when you consider the amount of chaplains that existed their number was quite small. At least 158 chaplains on both sides of the conflict were killed in the Civil War. If you would like to read more about chaplains in the Civil War I would recommend, “Chaplains in the Civil War.

In World War I you had the story of Francis P. Duffy, a Catholic Priest, who would become the most highly decorated cleric in the United States Army. In the 69th Infantry Regiment of New York it was re-designated the 165th when it was federalized. When it was deployed to the active western front of France, Duffy deployed along with the troops. As the war raged and under machine gun fire this Catholic priest carried stretchers and regularly saved the wounded. Lieutenant Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan who was the regimental commander stated that it was Duffy who kept morale up in the unit. Bill Donovan would go on and establish the OSS in World War II, which would become the precursor to the modern Central Intelligence Agency. For his service and risking his life in World War I, Duffy was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Distinguished Service Medal, The State of New York would awarded him the Conspicuous Service Cross, while France awarded him the Legion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guere. In all 23 chaplains were killed in the line of duty in World War I. 

Of all the wars that the United States was engaged World War II would lead to the largest loss of chaplains in their history. As World War II was a war engaged with two theaters that of Europe and the Pacific there are a number of historic situations involving military chaplains.  In the Pacific Theater you have the inspirational story of Joseph T. O’Callahan. O’Callahan was a Catholic priest who joined the Naval reserve Chaplain Corps. On March 19, 1945 when the USS Franklin was near Japan when a Japanese plane dropped two bombs. There were over 1,000 men who were killed, injured or blown off the ship due to the size of the explosion. O’Callahan went to work putting out fires, rescuing those who were injured or trapped, directed people to wet ammunition to save the ship and gave last rites to those who were dying. This was done for three days and the USS Franklin was kept afloat. For his work this Catholic Priest was awarded the  the Congressional Medal of Honor. Also in the Pacific is Presbyterian Naval Chaplain is Rev. George Rentz . On March 1, 1942 he was on the USS Houston which was attacked by the Japanese. While floating in the ocean he gave up his life jacket and gave it to another individual. He was never seen again. For his bravery the USN posthumously gave him a Navy Cross and named a ship after him, the USS Rentz.  here is also the story of Lieutenant Thomas Michael Conway and his service after the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. The Indianapolis was a Portland Heavy Class Cruiser that was engaged in battles in the Central Pacific during World War II. In 1945 on a secret Naval mission it dropped off parts at Tinian for the the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan.  The Indianapolis was struck by two Japanese torpedoes and sunk in 12 minutes. 300 people went down with the ship while 900 were thrown into the Philippine Sea. It is the worst disaster I believe in United States Naval history.  In the Philippine Sea over 900 men floated for days while they were attacked by sharks. In the end only 317 were rescued. Lt. Thomas Michael Conway spent three days at sea encouraging men, praying with them, and telling them not to give up on being rescued. Here is how one Indianapolis survivor recalled the event. 

I was in the group with Father Conway. I saw him go from one small group to another getting the shipmates to join in prayer and asking them not to give up hope of being rescued.

‘He kept working until he was exhausted. I remember on the third day late in the afternoon when he approached me and Paul McGiness. 

‘He was thrashing the water and Paul and I held him so he could rest a few hours. 

‘Later, he managed to get away from us and we never saw him again.’

But of all the stories involving military chaplains none is more famous than that of the four chaplains and the U.S.A.T. Dorchester. The Dorchester was an Army transport ship moving 902 individuals, equipment from Newfoundland to Greenland. This was in support of the European war effort. On the ship where four chaplains on their way to their European assignments. The four chaplains are George L. Fox a Methodist minister, Alexander D. Goode a Jewish Rabbi, Dutch Reformed Minister Clark V. Poling and Catholic Priest John P. Washington. A German U-Boat fired a torpedo and hit the ship. Dozens were killed, and the scene descended into chaos. All communication was lost and in 20 minutes the ship would be lost. In those 20 minutes the four chaplains passed out life vests, and helped people evacuate. In passing out life vests the four chaplains realized that there were not enough, and they gave up theirs and gave them to other individuals needing them. As the ship sunk into the frigid Atlantic Ocean some of the survivors of the Dorchester turned  around and noticed the four chaplains – 2 Protestant Ministers, a Jewish Rabbi, and a Catholic Priest praying for each other arms locked as the ship went underwater. This act of selfless sacrifice is an inspiration to the Chaplain Corps today. Most of the people died in the water due to hypothermia, and only 230 survived. A new medal was introduced in 1960 and called the Chaplain Medal for Heroism, and awarded to the four in 1961. They are the only military chaplains who have earned this award. Their sense of sacrifice and service to the greater good and how faiths can work together is inspirational to the Chaplain Corps. There are parks and monuments dedicated to these chaplains around the United States. There is a chapel up in Philadelphia that is dedicated to the memory of the four chaplains.  You can read about it in this memorial foundation  which is dedicated to their memory. In 1948 the Air Force Chaplain Corps was created. 

The Korean War broke out in 1950 and the Cold War became hot on the Korean Peninsula. Chaplains were assigned and deployed with the troops. There are two stories from the conflict that show sacrifice and service of humanity and fellow man. Father Herman Felhoelter was a Catholic Priest serving troops in North Korea. In the rugged mountains there were a number of American casualties in the Battle of Taejon in July of 1950. The North Koreans cut off a supply road preventing the evacuation of the wounded. A number of Army troops from the 19th Infantry tried to carry them out over the hills and the troops were exhausted due to the mountainous terrain. A medic and Chaplain Felhoelter stayed behind with the wounded. They were soon approached by the North Koreans. Remember the chaplain is a non-combatant so he had no arms.  The chaplain ordered the medic to flee and he was shot running away. The North Koreans shot the chaplain in the head, and proceeded to execute 30 wounded troops in a war crime. Father Herman Felhoelter was the first chaplain killed in the Korean War. Then you also had Father Emil Kapaun who was a Catholic Priest who was captured and sent to a P.O.W camp on the China/North Korean border. He earned the nickname “The Good Thief” because he was able to sneak food into the camp and feed the captured Americans. In time he became ill with pneumonia and worked until his death in serving others on May 23, 1951. 13 Chaplains were killed in the Korean conflict. 

In the Vietnam War there is the story of Father Vincent Capodanno, a Catholic Priest. He earned the nickname “The Grunt Padre.” He was commissioned as a chaplain in the Navy. He was assigned to Vietnam in 1966 where he served with the First Marine Division. On September 4, 1967 in a battle between 500 Marines and 2,500 North Vietnamese in the Que Son Valley. He went out into the battlefield to recover the wounded and give last rites to Marines who were dying. He was shot in the right hand but refused to evacuate. His shot hand was wrapped up and he continued to recover the wounded. His left arm was shattered by a mortar blast. He still worked in the battlefield and gave last rights and shielded a wounded Marine by sacrificing his life. For his work he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and given other medals.  15 military chaplains died in Vietnam. Chaplains also served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Henry Timothy Vakoc was a Catholic Priest deployed to Iraq in 2003. He went around leading Catholic Mass for troops in Iraq. In returning from Mosul, like many troops his vehicle was struck by an IED attack on May 29, 2004. He was given a Purple Heart and he struggled in recovery before he died in 2009. He won numerous military awards for sacrifice and service. 

I write all this so you can comprehend some of the service that has gone into the Chaplain Corps. Its a small but beautiful organization that helps people both stateside and forward deployed. Despite that you are going to learn about an Acts 29 church that claims it has “sound doctrine” and yet doesn’t believe military chaplains should exist. As you read that story next I want you to reflect on the spirit of the four chaplains from the Dorchester. In many of the chaplain stories I have written about above you will find sacrifice, and service. Contemplate that as you read about the Acts 29 story, because you will not find that in the Acts 29 network. 

The United States Navy Chaplain Corps

The United States Air Force Chaplain Corps

6 thoughts on “An Overview of Military Chaplains: What they Do, Their Role in the United States Military and their History

  1. Pingback: Acts 29’s Remnant Church in Richmond, Virginia and the Agenda at The Wondering Eagle for the Remainder of January 2018 | Wondering Eagle

  2. Hello Eagle,
    I always sincerely hope that military chaplains are honorable people and not into proselytizing service men and women against their will. I remember some terrible stories about the goings-on at the USAF Academy in Colorado with some heavy mistreatment of Jewish cadets.
    My family has three active serving members and many in my family have served, including my father and my husband. Now, my son is serving in the Coast Guard.
    Thank you for the many encouraging examples from our military history, and I have heard of some of them. There is no doubt in my mind that our military’s chaplaincy has and will continue to be a great comfort to our serving members AND to their families. But there are always those ‘exceptions’ . . . . and, dear God, the worst place for those ‘exceptions’ is around service members . . . .

    Great post, Eagle.
    I’m sorry Dee took you off of the list of posts on TWW, but nothing makes sense there to me after what happened to ‘Velour’ at the hands of some of ‘those people’ who seemed so ‘negative’ . . . .

    what is it with their ‘negativity’???
    I am not sure of this, but I sometimes think there is trouble in how people communicate and they get too easily offended by those who are not as negative as they are . . . . hence the targeting. I’m thinking that ‘communication’ difficulties may not be the fault of those who get easily offended at others . . . there is a range, for example, of autistic symptoms that affect how people communicate socially and on social media . . . I am trying not to judge, but my goodness, so much ‘negativity’ out there is hard to witness, yes.

    I don’t know what Velour ever did to upset Dee, but I am familiar with how hurt she was at the end. I don’t know how she is doing. Hope all is well for her, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This article was a lot of research to do but I enjoyed the history. Stops and gives one pause. As for the second part of what you said, I wish people well. I do. We are living in a time that is divided. I wish more people studied history, if they did they would look at things differently. But I wish other people well even if they don’t understand what they have done or how they have behaved.


    • I remember some terrible stories about the goings-on at the USAF Academy in Colorado with some heavy mistreatment of Jewish cadets.

      I cross-index that with James Dobson’s Reagan-era statement about how much of the US military was now “Born-Again Christians” and how “The rot of Vietnam has been expunged”. Cross-indexed with the calls from pulpits for a military coup during the 2013 Federal government shutdown.

      Great post, Eagle.
      I’m sorry Dee took you off of the list of posts on TWW, but nothing makes sense there to me after what happened to ‘Velour’ at the hands of some of ‘those people’ who seemed so ‘negative’ . . . .

      what is it with their ‘negativity’???

      I think Trumpism is a factor.
      TWW took Eagle off the list of posts around the time Eagle was posting some political subjects shall we say “critical of Trump”. The same series where ChapmanEd rang in with “I give Trump Praise and Adoration”.

      Over last weekend I posted an aside about my evolving thoughts as to why Born-Agains went so solid for Trump and the next comment indirectly denounced me as a Clintonist. In my experience (outside of the blogs), the lecture on “The Clintons! The Clintons! The Clintons!” is always followed by the one on “Trump Can Do No Wrong!”

      For the record re “Trump is LORD”, a quick summary of my current conclusion is that there was something about American Evangelical culture — elements, tropes, attitudes, doctrines — that “groomed” Born-Agains for Trumpism. Still half-formed, but something I’ll mention to Eagle next time I phone him.


      • Thanks Headless,
        ‘Trumpism’ and ‘evangelicalism’ doesn’t make any SENSE to this Catholic girl.
        The whole Trump scene is too bizarre . . . I’m too old to get used to this neo-Nazi stuff. I miss my good father who passed on very much, but for his sake, I’m glad he didn’t live to see Trumpism take over. Well, I’m still hopeful for the Resistance.
        If only the House and the Senate would do their jobs as ‘checks’ on Trump’s nonsense, it would save so much grief. But they don’t. (?????) I don’t get it.


  3. Pingback: Open Letter to Bryan Laughlin (When is the Senior Pastor of Remnant Deploying to Afghanistan?) | Wondering Eagle

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