A Brief History of the Navy Chaplain School, WW1-WW2

by Chaplain (MAJ) Daryl Densford

Before World War One, there was no formal training for civilian clergy who were becoming Navy chaplains. Beginning in World War One, the Navy used an apprentice system for the training new chaplains. Newly accessioned chaplains would be assigned to larger bases and put under the tutelage of an experienced chaplain for several months before given an assignment where they were on their own.

During this period, Chaplain E. L. Ackiss, one of the senior chaplains who received new chaplains for training, had a list of the curriculum he used which included “some standard works on navy history, various Navy Manuals, including Frazier’s Manual, and Navy Regulations. The outline of action projects afforded some contact with major problems which face a recruit from the time he is received at a training station to the day he reports aboard a ship. The blue jacket’s life afloat was also studied and the student chaplain was given opportunity to observe conditions at various shore activities and aboard ships of the fleet.” (Drury n.d., 56)


New chaplains receiving classroom instruction at the Navy’s Chaplain School at Naval Station Norfolk (from “Sunday News, New York Picture Newspaper,” May 17, 1942, author’s collection).

The Navy’s apprenticeship program suffered in not having uniform training among the experienced chaplains selected and the bases on which they served, complicated by the fact that there was very little printed material published by the Navy that chaplains could look to for information about the day-to-day duties of chaplains in the fleet. Additionally, the influx of new chaplains to meet the need of the expanding fleet needed by the United States’ entry into World War Two resulted in the need for a more standardized and formalized chaplain training, which began in January 1942 under Chaplain C. A. Neyman at Newport Naval Base then more formally in February 1942 at the Naval Operating Base, Norfolk with Chaplain Neyman reporting as the Officer-in-Charge on 28 February 1942, making this date the official date of founding of the Navy Chaplain School. (Drury n.d., 58)

It was no less expected during the early days of the Navy Chaplain School than in the early days of the country, that ministers “came fully prepared professionally, according to the standards of his church” (Drury n.d., 63) so the School spent its limited time “transform[ing] a civilian into a Navy officer and help[ing] him fit into his future duties as a chaplain.” (Drury n.d., 63)  Even so, instruction at the Chaplain School pertained to the duties the chaplain would be required to do which were “distinctly religious” but in a naval setting, such as “how to rig for church; how to conduct military funerals, weddings, a burial service at sea; how to adapt Divine Services to the peculiar circumstances of life aboard ship or at a shore station; and how to meet the special spiritual needs of naval personnel.” (Drury n.d., 63-64)

There were also classes which taught the different aspects of the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish faiths, and what each chaplain could do for sailors of another faith when faced with death aboard ship or on shore without the luxury of a chaplain of the sailor’s faith, which included being able to “read or repeat with the dying man a prayer acceptable to the dying man’s belief” being “advised to have with him at all times, especially in combat, copies of these prayers.” (Drury n.d., 64)

Students were also afforded the opportunity for onsite internships which gave them two weeks of first hand exposure to the practice of naval ministry, though sometimes with the YMCA or Red Cross working at the Chaplain’s Desk. This field time gave the students “a new appreciation for the importance of the School. There was so much to master and the time was so short before they would be sent out on their own, perhaps on independent duty.” (Drury n.d., 66)

In March of 1942, just after the official start of the Navy’s Chaplain School, a press release was issued by the Navy Department which stated that as many Navy chaplains as possible would be trained at the school when entering active duty and described the school’s two-month long curriculum:

It will include lectures and reading courses on Navy Regulations and Procedure, Customs and Traditions, Etiquette, Naval History, Marine Corps History, Applied Psychology, Counselling, a course in physical fitness, and actual practice among the men of the area. Students will be made thoroughly acquainted with the sociological program of the Naval Service, particularly as it concerns the work of the Navy Relief Society and the American Red Cross. There will be an extensive general reading course in addition to the foregoing. (Drury n.d., 58-59)


“NAVY TRAINS JEWISH CHAPLAINS. NORFOLK, VA- Before Pearl Harbor there were only two Jewish chaplains in the entire Navy. Today these four new ones are completing their training at the Chaplains’ School of the naval operating base here (US. Navy Official Photo…) 8/21/42.”

The normal day for chaplains in training at the new Navy Chaplain School began with a brief time of worship or Mass each for the Protestant and Catholic chaplains, followed by classroom instruction from 0800-1200 then for another two hours after lunch. The rest of the afternoon was used for physical training leaving the evening for “study, educational motion pictures or special classes.” (Drury n.d., 63)

As the Navy Chaplain School continued to grow, the need for more classroom and billeting space prompted a move to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia in the spring of 1943. With the move, the number of classes could be expanded necessitating a larger faculty. Early on, school policy dictated a rotation of Navy chaplains into the school to provide a breadth of experience for the students to be exposed to. In describing the mix of chaplains used as instructors at the school, Chaplain J. F. Robinson reported to the Catholic Hour on NBC:

The officer in charge and the faculty are Navy chaplains—all of whom have seen active duty. Two are survivors of sunken aircraft carriers; one is from a battleship; another from a cruiser; one from foreign duty on an island in the Southwest Pacific; a Navy transport’s chaplain; and the most recent from combat duty with the United States Marines. These men do not pretend to be pedagogues. They were ordered to the School because each has a story to tell and these combined experiences present a fairly composite picture of the 1943 Navy Chaplain. (Drury n.d., 61)

In order to graduate, students had to not only pass the classes on record but also be examined by a board of ranking chaplains. Graduation was not guaranteed once the coursework was completed. While most of the students graduated and were given assignments in the fleet, some were recommended for an additional two weeks of training at the Chaplain School and some were even advised to resign their commission in the Navy. Knowing they would have to meet with this board in order to graduate gave students “additional incentive for hard work in the School.” (Drury n.d., 66) However, of the 2,742 students who were ordered to the school during its inception on 28 February 1942 through its closure on 15 November 1945, only 43 did not ultimately graduate.

After completion of the course of study and graduation from the Navy Chaplain School, new chaplains were more often assigned to shore duty where they could benefit from the experience and mentorship of senior chaplains, though a few would be sent overseas or to sea, particularly “the top Protestant and the top Catholic men…as a reward for their scholastic standing” (Drury n.d., 67).




Drury, Clifford M. The History of the Chaplain Corps, United States Navy, Vol. 2, 1939-1949. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Naval Personnel, n.d.



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