Three Generations of Chaplains

In honor of the 243rd birthday of the Navy Chaplain Corps, here is the story of three generations of Navy chaplains in one family, who served with the British, the Revolution-engulfed American colonists and the new United States.


William Balch. Artwork by Clayton Braun, circa 1940s

The Balch family chaplain-legacy begins in 1744 when Thomas Balch (1711-1774) was selected by the British government to accompany British troops, as their chaplain, on their deployment to fight the French in what is now Canada. “In 1744, when the War of Austrian Succession broke out in Europe, the Committee of War chose Thomas to be a Chaplain to the forces that led an assault at the Siege of Louisbourg. This siege was carried out, by the British, against French forces in modern Canada.

Read more about the Balch chaplains in America here (537 more words)…




I Walked to the Gallows With the Nazi Chiefs

Five years after he was a chaplain at the Nuremberg Trials, Henry Gerecke told his story to the readers of the Saturday Evening Post. It was a story of hope, redemption and evil.


I Walked to the Gallows With the Nazi Chiefs

By Chaplain Henry F. Gerecke

As told to Merle Sinclair
[as it appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, September 1, 1951]

It was the duty of the Chaplain of Nuremberg Prison to offer Christian comfort to Hitler’s gang. Now, after five years under a bond of silence, he tells how they repented before the hangman’s trap fell.

Gerecke-SEPost-1951-7 (2)

“Chaplain Gerecke. The Nazi prisoners wrote to his wife, asking her to urge him to stay in Nuremberg” (photo by Ralph Boyle).

It is five years since I served my stretch in Nuremberg prison–as chief chaplain during the trials of the Nazi leaders by the International Military Tribunal and spiritual adviser to the fifteen Protestant defendants. My assistant, Catholic Chaplain Sixtus O’Conner, and I spent eleven months with the perpetrators of World War II. We were the last to counsel with these men, and made ten trips to the execution chamber. The world has never heard our story.

When, some years ago, I asked the United States Army for the necessary permission to share this experience with my fellow Americans, I was asked to wait. I believe the public’s reaction to the trials was responsible. Consequently, my reminiscences have been confined to two reports, both written previously and read only by fellow chaplains and certain young fold of my Lutheran faith.

However, I believe that the story, told now, will help to stress the lessons we should have learned from the careers and downfall of Hitler’s elect, at a time when we need such lessons worse than ever.

Continue reading this article here (5568 more words)…



Chaplain Ministry at Sea


Travelling from the United States to their duty in the Philippines onboard a transport ship, Soldiers relied on the chaplains onboard to provide for their religious and spiritual needs. In October 1945, just weeks after the Japanese surrender ending WW2 in the Pacific, a contingent of 252 officers and 1055 enlisted men travelled onboard the Kota Baroe en route to Leyte in the Philipines which was anticipated to take about 20 days.

Pacific-Voyager-Oct-1945-2The ship’s daily newspaper, the Pacific Voyager, regularly included “The Chaplain’s Corner” by Chaplain (Capt.) Charles H. Toogood. The first issue helped to prepare the passengers for what religious services would be provided on their journey, including available resources:

Religious news and announcements from the ship’s chaplain, Capt H. Toogood, will be printed daily in this section of “The Voyager.”

Thursday Capt Toogood stated that:

A good supply of Testaments, Prayer Books, Rosaries, Mezuzahs and Devotional literature is available to men of all faiths if they will ask at the Library or see the Transport Chaplain.

He also announced that men of the Jewish faith interested in a Friday night service should see the Transport Chaplain.

Religious services will be conducted this Sunday, October 7, on hatch No 3. At 0900 a Rosary service for men of the Catholic faith. At 1000 a General Worship service for men of the Protestant faith.

A Bible Study and Discussion class will be held each Tuesday and Thursday afternoon between the hours of 1400 and 1500. Men interested in the formation of such a class are invited to attend a meeting next Tuesday afternoon at 1400 in the Army and Naval Permanent Personnel Mess hall. This room is situated in C deck Port side aft of the ships housing.

Of course, the events onboard ship sometimes interfere with religious services, like what happened about midway through the Kota Baroe’s journey to the Philipines, but other opportunities were made available:

The Bible study and discussion class scheduled for Tuesday has been cancelled, Chaplain H. Toogood announced.

The meeting was called off to avoid interfering with the boxing tournament. The next meeting of the group will be Thursday afternoon.

Chaplain Toogood also stated that a hymn sing similar to the one last Sunday, will be held on hatch no. 3 on Thursday afternoon at 1500 hours.

In the last issue of the Pacific Voyager, Chaplain Toogood expressed his appreciation for those who participated in the religious services and helped to prepare them for what they would find when they arrived in Manila:

With the final edition of the “Voyager” we take this opportunity to express our thanks to all who have contributed to the enjoyment of this voyage.

The city of Manila where you will land was once a large and flourishing metropolis. It enjoyed all the modern conveniences found in any great city but Manila came in the path of war and so today the city lies in ruins. Its parks and buildings show the destructive power of modern warfare. Its people have also suffered. This you should try to remember as you live and work among them. They have a high regard for Americans and you can, by your conduct, help to maintain that standard of respect. We wish for each of you a pleasant tour of duty, good health and a safe and speedy return to your homes and loved ones.

-Charles H. Toogood.



Quoted articles from Pacific Voyager, No’s. 1, 11 & 18, October 1945 (author’s collection).



Army Chaplain

Life-1942-Army-Chaplain-009-50 (2)“The chaplains who went to war with U.S. soldiers in 1917 were often called ‘Holy Joe.’ The chaplains who are going to war in 1942 are more apt to be called ‘Chappie,’ a nickname indicative of an enlarged relationship. Army chaplains today have assumed a multitude of functions that make them resemble unofficial morale officers Apart from his purely religious duties, the average chaplain acts as adviser to the lovelorn, consoler of the sick, jailed and troubled, athletic director, organizer of recreation, banker, postmaster, lending librarian. He is, says grateful rookies, ‘the lonely soldier’s best friend.


Read the rest of the article (161 words) and see the accompanying 11 pictures here…



Chaplain, we are glad you are here

“With the Red army broken, there was another trick left in MacArthur’s game–use of airborne troops. When they dropped Oct. 20 [1950], LIFE photographer Sochurek jumped with them.” One of the men he jumped with was Chaplain James A. Skelton who had quite a story to tell.

“…The jump was a day late for one of its important objectives–to rescue American prisoners. I met Chaplain James A. Skelton of Hannibal, Mo. after he had returned from burying 75 American prisoners. He told me how, on the night of Oct. 20, only hours after the airborne troops had jumped, the prisoners had been herded from their prison train in groups of 15, then under the pretext of being fed were led to separate areas, blindfolded and shot.

“Of the 75 the chaplain was able to identify only 29, and even that was difficult, for the clothing of many of the boys contained as many as three dog tags on a single person. He told of the 20 men who had escaped this murder train, how they were hardly able to stand, of a small, rock-hard cracker that had been their only ration for weeks, of their bushmanlike appearance. One of the men who survived, upon seeing Chaplain Skelton, said,

Chaplain, we are glad you are here. Let’s have a prayer.

“With the chaplain were two men. They carried the paper-wrapped personal effects of the 75 murdered Americans, which neatly filled two GI helmets.”



Quoted text and photo from “Camera Records A Combat Jump,” by Howard Sochurek. LIFE, 6 November 1950, 36-38 (author’s collection).



Current Army Chaplain Provides Vietnam Field Service

The 3/4 scale replica of the Wall in D.C. is 375 feet in length and stands 7.5 feet high at its tallest point.(photo courtesy of Chaplain Daryl Densford)

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, founders of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. also sponsors a mobile Vietnam Memorial Wall that is 3/4 the size of the original and travels around the country to give veterans, their families, and citizens an opportunity to visit The Wall That Heals even if they can’t travel to our nation’s capital.

The mobile wall just had one stop in Missouri this year, in the small town of Ava, near Fort Leonard Wood. When requested by the Douglas County Veterans Memorial Association, Fort Leonard Wood Chaplain Resource Manager, Chaplain (MAJ) Daryl Densford, willingly volunteered to go to Ava to give visitors a feel for what Vietnam Soldiers may have experienced when they worshiped in the field, as chaplains traveled around Vietnam to provide religious support to those fighting there.

(Photo courtesy of Chaplain Daryl Densford)

Chaplain Densford, dressed in a Vietnam War-style uniform, used one of his Vietnam-era chaplain kits to provide a worship service with Communion for about 60 participants who were visiting the mobile wall on 22 September 2018. According to Densford, while he took time to describe chaplain ministry during the Vietnam War and how it compares to today, “it wasn’t just an exhibition but a worship service for many Vietnam veterans, their family members and other visitors to the Wall.”

Following the “Field Service” there was an Honors Ceremony to remember the Soldiers whose names are on the Wall. Chaplain Densford provided a prayer at this ceremony which also included addresses by Missouri Governor Mike Parsons, Missouri State Representative Lynn Morris, Ava Mayor David Norman and President of the College of the Ozarks, Jerry Davis. One of the features of this ceremony was the sharing of memories by family members of six residents from Ava who died in Vietnam.

(Photo courtesy of Dr. Tommy Goode)

Whether caring for Soldiers and Family members serving today, or for Veterans, their families and families of the fallen from other wars, chaplains are willing to serve. “It was a great honor to represent the Chaplain Corps and Fort Leonard Wood at this event, and to honor those who died during the Vietnam War,” said Densford, “It’s what we do as chaplains on a regular basis as we ‘nurture the living, care for the wounded and honor the fallen’.”



Here are some more pictures from the day:

(Photo courtesy of Dr. Tommy Goode)


(Photo courtesy of Dr. Tommy Goode)


(Photo courtesy of Dr. Tommy Goode)


“Altar” set-up using two 5 gallon cans and two ammo boxes with the Vietnam-era chaplain kit (photo courtesy Chaplain Daryl Densford)


This gentleman with Chaplain Densford was a machine gunner in the Navy but was a lay-volunteer for his chaplain when out to sea. He currently is a civilian minister and assisted Chaplain Densford with the worship service (photo courtesy Chaplain Daryl Densford)


Chaplain Densford with Missouri governor Mike Parsons (photo courtesy of Chaplain Daryl Densford)


Chaplain Densford with Missouri Representative Lynn Morris (photo courtesy of Chaplain Daryl Densford).


Chaplain Densford with Dr. Jerry Davis, President of the College of the Ozarks (photo courtesy of Chaplain Daryl Densford).




The Chaplain is the Friend of Every Soldier

In 1941, as the United States was gearing up for its inevitable entry into World War 2, the Army published a booklet to prepare men (at that time) to enter the military service, titled “The Army and You.” It included topics like military courtesy, health, equipment, chow (“Good Food–and Plenty of it”!), promotions and pay; as well as what to expect at the Induction Station, Reception Center and Replacement Training Center.

Of course, one of the benefits of military service this 14-page booklet discusses is the chaplain, as did many promotional pieces of the day. Here’s the paragraph dedicated to soldiers’ religious life and the chaplain who is there for them:

The Chaplain is the Friend of Every Soldier

There are opportunities for religious worship at all posts, camps, and stations. Although attendance is not compulsory, every inducement is offered the soldier to attend church services, either at the post chapel or at the church of his faith in the nearby towns. Become acquainted with the chaplain. Part of his duty is to serve as your friend, counsellor, and guide, no matter whether you belong to his church, another church, or to no church.



The cover invites the potential soldier into the camaraderie found, among other places, a formation of men marching with weapons. “The Army and You,” U.S. Government Printing Office, 1941 (author’s collection).



A Chaplain’s Reflection on 9/11

September 11, 2001 began like any other day for me. I wasn’t a chaplain yet, but was a pastor at a civilian church in Upstate New York. It was a Tuesday, so I was meeting with men from the church for breakfast at the Corner Cafe just a few miles down State Highway 96 from my church in Clifton Springs, New York.

The breakfast for us was uneventful.  As I recall, there were just a few who showed up this particular week, but we enjoyed a great breakfast and good conversation as we always did. Eventually it was down to just Cliff and I finishing our coffee before we left, when another patron mentioned that a plane had run into the World Trade Center. I found that a bit hard to believe and Cliff and I exchanged looks of disbelief. I finished my coffee and headed home, only mildly curious what may have happened that caused that other customer to think a plane had hit such a large building in broad daylight.

When I got home, I knew it was more than a misunderstood news story. I saw it in my wife’s eyes.

9-11 WTC

A friend of my wife had called and told her to turn on the TV so it was already on as I took my place with millions of other people around the world to watch what was going on in New York City, just 300 miles away from me.  It wasn’t long before I saw the 2nd plane hit the 2nd tower and the news anchors begin to speculate that perhaps this wasn’t some sort of freak accident.

Over the next several minutes, or maybe it was hours, I watched many other images that have become iconic in our country’s collective memory: flames and smoke bellowing out of the twin towers; men and women jumping to certain death to escape what must have been unbearable heat; rescue workers rushing to the scene, many of whom would not survive that day; first one, then the other tower of the World Trade Center cascading down to a mound of rubble.

Then came news of the plane that hit the Pentagon and later the downed plane in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Our country seemed so vulnerable.  We were under attack and it appeared as though it couldn’t be stopped.

About then my “pastor sense” kicked in and I knew that I needed to do something, anything.  If I was torn up inside watching what was going on, I knew that many in my community would be too.  I immediately went over to the church, unlocked the doors and turned on the lights.  I started soft music playing in the sanctuary and put a message on the church marquee which simply said, “Open for Prayer.” As it turned out, churches across the country had been doing the same thing.  In a time when people felt alone, vulnerable and helpless, being able to pray gave them a way to do something to help. It gave us something to do.

Mother Hen and chicks

My kids had a 4-H meeting that night, but with all that was going on, my wife needed to keep them close. She couldn’t let them out of her sight. When I think back on it, it reminds me of the passage, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart” (Psalm 91:4). I think my wife wanted to keep the children close for her peace of mind, but also not knowing how widespread this situation may be and where the next attack may take place, she was doing what she could to protect them.

I knew that in just a few days it would be Sunday and I would be facing my congregation so needed a word from the Lord. My mind went to Luke 13:1-9:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

I did not claim that the attack was a result of the sins of the United States.  Neither did I claim that those who died, died because they needed to repent.  Instead, I expressed what seemed to be the thrust of the passage, that those who die by tragedy are no worse sinners than we are, but if we need to repent and don’t, judgment may truly befall us-both physical and spiritual-both individually and corporately.  As I recall, it was well received as the tragedy of 9/11 caused many Americans to really reflect on what was important in life and if our relationship to God was all it could be.

I had already been talking to a chaplain recruiter for over a year about going back into the Army as a chaplain, and had been attending Northeastern Seminary since the Fall of 2000 working toward meeting the Army chaplaincy’s educational requirement. This new attack on my country, however, caused me to redouble my efforts with a greater urgency.  I knew that the world we lived in would be changed forever, especially for our military members, so I wanted to do my part. Many in the United States had the same desire as enlistments spiked a bit after 9/11 not leveling out until 2005.

Chaplain Densford

Me (on left) with one of my Chaplain Assistants in Basrah, Iraq, about to go visit our troops.

The attacks of 9/11 did cause me to review my reasons for joining the Army, however.  Before 9/11, it was essentially a garrison Army training for war. Now, there was little doubt that anybody who joined would deploy to a combat zone in some far away land (for me and many others, it was both Afghanistan and Iraq). But I recognized that this is the time when service members would most need spiritual guidance, encouragement and support. As a non-combatant by virtue of my position as a minister, this is what I could offer them.  I could go with them, even into harm’s way, and “bring God to Soldiers and Soldiers to God.” Finally receiving my commission and reporting for duty in January 2004, this has been my life ever since.



A Prayer of Benediction for Chaplain Dale Goetz

Eight years ago (30 August 2010), Chaplain Dale Goetz was killed in Afghanistan ministering to his Soldiers, the first chaplain to die in combat since the Vietnam War. Wanting his sacrifice to not be forgotten, I’m reposting this short prayer from a Memorial Ceremony for him at the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School held a few days after he died.


FT. JACKSON, SC (3 Sep 10) – Recently, the Chaplain Corps lost one of its finest chaplains, Chaplain (CPT) Dale Goetz, in Afghanistan.  We received the news here at the Chaplain School while attending the Chaplain Captain’s Career Course.  Since many of us knew Dale, and the rest of us felt the camaraderie of a “Brother in Arms,” we felt it appropriate to have a Memorial Service for him.  My part was to pray the benediction.  As I prepared the prayer, I felt very impressed that Dale needed to be remembered.  His sacrifice needed to be remembered.  As I post it here, I pray it again . . .     -Daryl

Our most Gracious God and Father,

100_3560We thank you for your presence and love which helps us to endure through difficult times.  We thank you for moments like these when we don’t have to be alone but can gather among brothers and sisters in the faith.  We thank you for the peace that you have brought us today, your peace—that can exist within us even when all around us there is no peace.

As much as you comfort us who have gathered here today, we pray that in an even greater measure you will comfort Dale’s family, especially his wife Christy and their three sons Landon, Caleb and Joel.  Be for them all that they need you to be just now and continue to provide for them in every way in the days, weeks, months and years ahead that they face life without their husband, father and son.

Finally Lord, we pray that you will bring real peace to our land, so that we can rest in safety and comfort and not have to send our sons and daughters into harm’s way.  Bring to us, we humbly ask you, the time when parents don’t have to grieve the loss of their children killed in war; hasten the day when spouses don’t have to say goodbye to their loved ones because they serve their country; provide for us, dear Father, a world whose children do not have to grow up fatherless because of the sin that envelopes us; and be victorious, Almighty God, over the Evil One, establish your Kingdom on Earth finally and forever, that we may enjoy your loving and peaceful presence for all eternity.

Go with us now, Lord we pray, as we reluctantly return to the world out there.  Please don’t let us soon forget our brother Dale but help us to honor his sacrifice through our lives lived for your glory and Christ’s life lived through us.

“May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever.  Amen.”  (Heb 13:20-21)




“Chaplain” John McCain

While not officially a chaplain, John McCain was elected one by the group of POWs who shared a cellblock with him late in the Vietnam War. McCain wasn’t chosen as chaplain “…because the senior ranking officer thought [he] was imbued with any particular extra brand of religion, but because [he] knew all of the words of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.”1

As chaplain, McCain would give talks and lead services to help keep his fellow POW’s spiritual resiliency alive. In a 2007 interview, McCain spoke of a Christmas Eve service that he led recalling “…looking at the faces of those guys – skinny, worn out – but most of them, a lot of them, had tears down their faces. And they weren’t sorrow, they were happiness that for the first time in so many years we were able to worship together.”2

McCain related more detail of that Christmas service while POWs in North Vietnam, in his book, Faith of My Fathers:

On Christmas night we held our simple, moving service. We began with the Lord’s Prayer, after which a choir sang carols, directed by the former conductor of the Air Force Academy Choir, Captain Quincy Collins. I thought they were quite good, excellent, in fact. Although I confess that the regularity with which they practiced in the weeks prior to Christmas occasionally grated on my nerves.

But that night, the hymns were rendered with more feeling and were more inspirational than the offerings of the world’s most celebrated choirs. We all joined in the singing, nervous and furtive at first, fearing the guards would disrupt the service if we sang too loudly. With each hymn, however, we grew bolder, and our voices rose with emotion.

Between each hymn, I read a portion of the story of Christ’s birth from the pages I had copied.

‘And the Angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.’…

The lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling illuminated our gaunt, unshaven, dirty, and generally wretched congregation. But for a moment we all had the absolutely exquisite feeling that our burdens had been lifted. Some of us had attended Christmas services in prison before. But they had been Vietnamese productions, spiritless, ludicrous stage shows. This was our service, the only one we had ever been allowed to hold. It was more sacred to me than any service I had attended in the past, or any service I have attended since.

We gave prayers of thanks for the Christ child, for our families and homes, for our country. We half expected the guards to barge in and force us to conclude the service. Every now and then we glanced up at the windows to see if they were watching us as they had during the Church Riot. But when I looked up at the bars that evening, I wished they had been looking in. I wanted them to see us–faithful, joyful, and triumphant.

The last hymn sung was ‘Silent Night.’ Many of us wept.3

While not an official chaplain, “Chaplain” John McCain recognized the need of his congregation and provided for them a sense of the holy in the midst of a hell, a task chaplains are charged with today regardless of the uniform they wear or the insignia they display.



., accessed 25 Aug 18.


3John McCain, Faith of My Fathers. New York: Random House, 1999, 331-332.



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