Ministering in the Midst of Hell: The Chaplains at Pearl Harbor


In the 110 minutes of the attack on Pearl Harbor, our forces suffered 2,403 killed in action, 1,178 wounded in action, 640 that were never accounted for; plus, 188 planes lost, 158 damaged, and every battleship of the Pacific Fleet, eight, crippled or sunk, plus other ships.  Roosevelt, who was never at a loss for words, said it was “A date that would live in infamy.”  Military leaders said it was the most disastrous defeat that our military had ever suffered in a single day.

On that day there were 28 chaplains on Oahu, and keep in mind that the island of Oahu could be dropped inside the city of Los Angeles with just a little bit flowing out over the borders of the city.  Hence, the intensity of this attack.  9 were Army, and 19 were Navy.  So many more with the sea-going service because, contrary to usual procedure and wisdom, the Navy had 94 ships in the harbor on that weekend.  And, of course, every chaplain who was there remembered exactly what he was doing at the moment of that attack.

Chaplain Stan Salisbury, and incidentally, every name I mention will be that of a chaplain.  Salisbury, who later became Navy Chief of Chaplains was driving from Honolulu to the Navy Yard.  He had just stopped to pick up flowers for his service aboard the USS Pennsylvania which was in dry dock. Terrence Finnegan, who later became Chief of Chaplains of the Air Force had parked his 1931 Buick in front of the chapel at Schofield Barracks.  He planned to run in and get some candles for a service of dedication of a new chapel that he had later that day. Bill Maguire, Fleet Chaplain, was standing down on the officer’s landing waiting for the motor launch that would take him out to the flag ship of the fleet, the USS California, for an 0830 Mass.

Howell Forgy, aboard the New Orleans, known as the “NO boat” (Sailors always give nick names to their things; New, “N” Orleans, “O,” hence the NO boat.) was flat on his back in the rack as he mulled over his sermon for that Sunday.  He never got to deliver it, but actually it was a better sermon the following Sunday.  His text was taken from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the third chapter, the thirteenth verse, “Forgetting those things which are behind, we press on…”  It was called “New Life in Christ.” As he lay there on his rack mulling over this sermon suddenly the PA system sounded out, “Now hear this, battle stations!  Battle stations!  All hands to your battle stations!” He said to himself, “Someone is going to catch it for this.  Sunday morning and the time for Divine Services and they are running some kind of exercise.  It must be the Army.”  And then he heard, “This is no drill!  This is no drill!”  He ran to the port hole to look out just in time to see the first of the 353 planes coming across the mountains for their attack on the harbor.  The time, 0755.

One pilot dropped a bomb right down the smoke stack of the USS Arizona.  It went five decks down into the boiler room and exploded like a volcano up the stack of the ship.  But the most devastating bomb hit the forward magazine area and exploded with the intensity of one million pounds of TNT.  Those who witnessed the Arizona said she veritably lifted out of the sea and then settled down to the bottom of the harbor.  From the first bomb to her demise was a total of nine minutes. As you go up onto the Arizona monument, you see a beautiful marble slab.  On that marble slab are the names of 1,177 sailors still entombed in that Arizona.  And two thirds the way down the left hand list, you will read the name Thomas L. Kirkpatrick, Chaplain. He is still on the Arizona.

Over on the USS Oklahoma was Chaplain Al Schmitt.  This was to have been Al Schmitt’s last service on board the ship.  He had gone three decks down to prepare for the service and to hear confessions.  The following week, he would have been transferred over to duty on shore. Suddenly, they felt four tremendous explosions.  Four torpedoes had struck the port side of the Oklahoma.  The lights went out.  Al, with those in the compartment with him, made their way out and tried to get up to the starboard side where they hoped they would find an open port hole.  They did.  Al Schmitt assisted men out of the port hole.  He then tried to get through it, and couldn’t.  When they recovered his body weeks later, they discovered he had attached some of his ecclesiastical gear to his belt and that was prohibiting his getting through the port hole.  But realizing there were other men who had come into the compartment and they were being prevented from escape, he had the men outside push him back in. Four weeks later in a Protestant service in San Francisco, a Jewish sailor told how he lived because a Catholic Chaplain had pushed him out the port hole.

The Army was also suffering on the shore.  You see, the pilots had meticulously planned the attack.  It was assiduously followed.  They had choreographed it on an island off of Kyushu for weeks.  They knew exactly where every military installation was located, Fort Shafter, Schofield Barracks, Hickam Airfield, Wheeler Airfield, Bellows Airfield, NAS Kaneohe, Marine Corps Ewa Station, Ford Island and the sub base.  Every bomber that came in had a 1,760 pound bomb under its belly with the name of a specific ship on it.  Nothing was haphazard.  It was all planned.

Terrence Finnegan stopped at that chapel, I said, to pick up candles.  He was 25 minutes before his 0815 service.  He just stood out in the sunlight enjoying the warmth of the trade winds.  He watched a formation of planes come in.  They circled Wheeler Field twice.  His first reaction was the same as Howell Forgy’s.  “Someone is going to catch it for this.  It must be the Navy,” he said.  They then opened their bomb bay doors and the projectiles began to come down and he realized what was happening. He went back into his Buick and headed down the road.  He almost cracked it up on a culvert to get to the Ewa Plantation Chapel where 700 of his men would be gathered together for services.  He dispersed them.  He then took off across the countryside for the artillery barracks. Realizing that he was the only officer present, he had the men break open the magazine and mount the guns on the roof of the barracks.  Just then a bomb fell killing six of his soldiers.  He gave them Last Rights, moved them into a secure place, put the wounded in a car, took off for the hospital and within one hour, 400 litters arrived with the dead and dying.  Thus began the crucial ministry for the day.

Harry Richmond was the only Jewish chaplain with the Army.  He was doing what every good Jewish chaplain was supposed to do on a Sunday morning.  He was sleeping.  But by 0830 he had made it to the Schofield Barracks hospital.  With Terrence Finnegan, they began their ministry, irrespective of an individual’s faith.  They began their ministry to those who were the dead and the dying.

Hickam was one of the main targets of the attacking planes.  The General, the day before, had all of the planes lined up wing tip to wing tip on the runway.  They were sitting ducks.  The bombers came in and what they didn’t destroy, the strafing planes did. Elmer Tiedt was the chaplain there.  His children alerted him.  They came running into the house and said, “There are planes with big red balls on their wings and they are flying over the base and they are dropping things all over the place.”  Well, Elmer Tiedt had already heard the explosions.  He looked out, and there was the runway one mass of flames of the planes, plus the hangers.  Tiedt went over to the dispensary.  Two of the first bodies he found were his clerks. One had been setting up the service, dressing the altar.  He was struck by a strafing bullet.  We might say, where better to die, than doing your work at the altar.  The other one was trying to man a machine gun and he was caught by the planes and he died.

Tiedt then went over to the hospital and the General sent him a message – Mrs. Tiedt has been killed.  I know of no illustration that better portrays the commitment and dedication of those chaplains in Pearl Harbor than this.  It is recounted in both the Air Force and Army history, Elmer Tiedt, with a burden on his heart labored all Sunday and all Sunday night, all Monday and then went home and discovered that the General’s report had been wrong.  Mrs. Tiedt was alive as were the children and they were well.

Down at the harbor things were as bad as ever.  Bill Maguire finally got that motor launch out to the USS California.  They had to detour to a destroyer because some planes came in to attack anything that was moving in the water.  But when he got out to the California, it was apparent the Arizona was gone, the Oklahoma was gone, and the the California was the next to sink.  The West Virginia was the fourth battleship to go down.  They had to get the casualties off, so they gave Bill Maquire a motor launch and a crew and he began to ferry the casualties from the California to the Naval Hospital which was out at Hospital Point.  You may know it.  It was at the entrance to the harbor.  The hospital was equipped for 300 beds.  By that night they had 960 casualties.  Every square foot of corridor space, 75 yards long, each corridor, was lined with litters.  The report said, “The dead were stacked like cordwood outside the door.” He made three runs with casualties to the hospital.  On the third one back, however, he ran into a barrier of flames.  You see, part of the problem was the fuel oil seeping out of the ships came to the surface and ignited.  The harbor was a veritable inferno.  The Arizona today still leaks a gallon of oil a day after these 50 years.  Maguire made it over to the shore.  He swam over and waded in the muck.  Over on the beach he corralled 15 trucks.  Into the trucks he got mattresses and blankets put them in the back of these trucks. The sailors on shore were bringing the wounded onto the shore – those that had been exploded off the ships, those that had tried to swim through the fire – and they put them into the trucks.  Maquire commandeered a Navy ferry got the 15 trucks onto the ferry.  When they passed to the other side he dispatched them to three different hospitals.

As quickly as the attack began, it ended, 0755 – 0945, 110 minutes;  2,403 dead, 1178 wounded, 640 unaccounted for.  Now began another horrendous task for the chaplains, a horrendous task, the ministry to the dependents.  On the same day they had a ministry to the dead, to the dying,  When the bombing ceased the dependents flooded in.  They wanted word. The Navy had 10,000 dependents – 1,000 lived on the base and 9,000 lived out in town. The Army had the same.  The Arizona had gone down with almost 1,200 on board – 346 survived.  Who were they and where were they?  The Oklahoma went down with 400 on board – 1,200 survived.  Who were they and where were they?  The dependents wanted to know.  in those days there was no casualty assistance office.  There was no family service.  The chaplain was the only one that dealt with dependents.

H. C. Strause,  the only Jewish chaplain with the Navy, came into his duty station, which was the 14th Naval District Office.  He acquired a newly constructed, but yet uncompleted warehouse right next to the office and he made that into the receiving station for dependents. A thousand civilians, including dependents were casualties in this attack as well.  He ministered to them along with Thornton Miller the District Chaplain.  Chaplain Paul Forsander came off the West Virginia when she sank and He ministered to them as well.  Over the next two weeks those three chaplains ran continual ministry to the next of kin of the dead, the dying and the casualties.

The Navy, and we can understand why, didn’t help matters.  As soon as the Navy found a survivor from a ship that had gone down they immediately took that sailor and assigned him to a ship that was seaworthy and sent him out to sea.  Often times before he had time to go home and tell his family where he was or where he was going.  They didn’t know. There was one Herculean task that the chaplains were deeply involved in.  The dead, the dying, the casualties, the dependents and the burial of the dead – 2,403.  The Army and the Navy couldn’t keep that number of bodies.  They had to commence burial immediately.  But, first of all, they had to identify the dead.

Chaplain Albin Fortney lived in the Army and Navy YMCA in Honolulu.  He was all decked out in his whites for his service at Fort Shafter.  He came rolling into the base in the midst of the onslaught.  Immediately, he was taken and give the responsibility at Fort Shafter for identifying the dead.  The most horrendous task he said he had ever had.  So few of the soldiers wore dog tags, they had to use billfolds, letters in the pockets, inscriptions on rings.  When that failed they used tattoos.  But, he said, the worst of it all was trying to match up two legs, two arms, a head and a torso for the burial. The Army selected a piece of ground in Schofield Barracks.  The Navy selected Nuuanu Cemetery, but they had only 300 plots.  So they chose Red Hill.  Red Hill, some of you may know, overlooks Pearl Harbor.  For both services, the ceremony was the same.  A large trench was dug.  The chaplains demanded that each plot be surveyed and marked.

Thornton Miller was the Navy Chaplain.  The honor guard lined up on two sides of this large trench.  The firing squad and the bugler on the third side of the trench and three chaplains on the fourth side of the trench –  a Protestant, a Catholic and a Jewish chaplain.  If the faith of the individual was known, that chaplain stepped forward and conducted the interment.  If the faith of the deceased was not known, or if the deceased was unknown, as was the case in many instances, all three chaplains stepped forward.  A brief scripture, acceptable to all, was read and then each chaplain offered a prayer in the English, in the Latin, and in the Hebrew.  It was the integrity of burial so that every man could have in death what had been his choice in life.  As one of the chaplains later wrote, “The God of the universe heard the prayers of us all.”

Pearl Harbor changed America.  Pearl Harbor changed the military.  The war changed the chaplaincy.  The chaplaincy came forth with a new mentality at the the end of the war.  The war changed the religious community of America.  Many will say that the ecumenical movement was born in military chapels where people of all faiths sat down next to each other.  They had never done this before – sang hymns, and prayed and listened to a chaplain whose faith they didn’t know, but yet, they were spiritually enriched. In all of the darkness, in all of the chaos, the chaplains of Pearl Harbor did their duty, ministering in the midst of Hell.

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