Battle Chaplain

Battle Chaplain

This article appeared in Yank magazine, 13 April 1945. Titled, Battle Chaplain, it highlights the ministry of Chaplain Yoder P. Leith of the 338th Infantry Regiment, 85th Division, typical of a chaplain in combat in the European Theater of Operations during World War Two:

He goes up under fire without arms, listens to the TS gripes of his GIs and writes home to their families when they fall.

By Cpl. George Barrett, YANK Staff Correspondent

WITH THE FIFTH ARMY– “I was the traditional clergyman before I came into the Army,” the chaplain said. “Guess I had the idea that being in the clergy I was favored by the Almighty-privileged, in a way. But my first experience under shellfire was with screaming meemies, and when the Jerries opened up with a barrage against my dugout I remember saying ‘Oh, God, wait a minute. Let’s talk this over.’ “

Yank April 13, 1945

“On the Fifth Army front, Chaplain Yoder P. Leith (right) gets a light from Catholic padre Alvin J. Jasinski” from Yank magazine, 13 April 1945 (author’s collection).

Chaplain Yoder P. Leith, padre of the 338th Infantry Regiment, 85th Division, is a slit-trench chaplain who talks GI.  He wears the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart and has been with the division as regimental and battalion chaplain almost since its activation, serving in maneuvers in Louisiana and California, in training in Africa and in combat in Italy.

Before the war Chaplain Leith was a Presbyterian minister in the blast-furnace section of Pittsburgh, Pa. He went to Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, did graduate work at the University of Pittsburgh and complete three years of training for the ministry at Pittsburgh’s Western Theological Seminary.

The chaplain is 39 years old. He has a year-old by -his first- whom he has never seen. He follows Li’l Abner faithfully and thinks Sad Sack’s prophylactic “Dream” was hilarious. The padre likes an occasional drink and confesses he’s a bad poker player.

“We’re no crusaders,” he says.

It was in th September push in Italy, when the 338th was advancing slowly against enemy positions, that Chaplain Leith got his Purple Heart. Some of the companies lost two-thirds of their men, and casualties were high in every unit. Moving to a new position below the heights, the chaplain’s battalion bypassed a Kraut strong-point without knowing it. Jerry watched the whole battalion go down into the valley, then let them have it.

Under the heavy fire the battalion split up, and the padre found himself at the end of a column of soldiers trying to get out of the valley. They started out, through a defile, when a medical sergeant at the head of the column asked the chaplain to change places so he could watch for casualties. They switched, and 10 minutes later the sergeant was killed.

“That made a very great impression on me,” the chaplain says. “I’m not superstitious. I realized that all of us here, more or less, are in the position of giving our lives for one another, and it might have been me who got it instead of him.”

The Jerries pounded the column with shells, and the chaplain got a fragment in his leg. The Germans kept up a steady machine-gun fire, and while Leith was scrambling along a ditch a Kraut bullet pierced his pack and tore a hole through a New Testament he was carrying. “I don’t know whether that Bible deflected the bullet,” he says, “but I sent it home to my wife to keep.”

The duties fo all chaplains are pretty clearly defined. In quiet periods up front the one Catholic and two Protestant chaplains who are in the regiment (the Jewish chaplain is assigned to the division) divide the work so that each will be generally responsible for the welfare of a battalion. But in action or during a push the two Protestant chaplains serve with the forward troops while the Catholic padre is stationed at the medical collecting point ot aid the wounded and give last rites. The catholic padre with the 338th, Father Alvin J. Jasinski, Michigan City, Ind., wears the Purple Heart in addition to a Bronze Star for his work at an aid station.

There are many tight squeezes at the front, and Chaplain Leith’s assistant, T-5 Warren B. Cramer, 26, of Paola, Kans., (“I knew how to play the organ, so I was made a chaplain’s assistant”) wears a Combat Infantryman’s Badge and carries an M1 -or carbine, if he can get it- when he drives the chaplain, who goes unarmed.

ONE of the hardest duties of the chaplains, Leith says, is writing letters of condolence to the families of soldiers killed or wounded in action. They try to supplement the War Department’s terse telegram with a complete story of how a soldier died or was wounded. This involves considerable inquiry. In one push, for example, the chaplains of the regiment and their assistants wrote 900 letters, sometimes as many as six to one family, giving details of battle casualties.

In a recent letter to the wife of a soldier killed in action, Chaplain Leith described in blunt sentences the details of his death. “. . . Those who were with Richard at the time have told me how it happened. On the evening of November 18, 194, he was helping a group of men from his company in setting up defensive mines to guard against a possible counterattack by the enemy. An enemy machine gun opened up on the group from an unexpected quarter. Bullets hit Richard in the head and chest, killing him instantly . . . .”

Every case is a different and moving case, Leith says, and the chaplains do long research to give the families the information they are anxious to get. One wife asked a chaplain to get five buddies of her dead husband to write to her. He had to reply that all five had been killed.

Other letters Chaplain Leith writes are less sad–like this one: “. . . Received your letter concerning your husband, who has been reported to you as ‘missing in action.’ . . . I regret to have to tell you that your husband is now under guard serving a sentence for leaving his organization without permission. . . . I trust that none of us may be too harsh in judging his mistake. . . .”

The chaplains of the Fifth Army often hold religious services under fire. In forward areas they get groups of four of five men together to worship; back in the rear they hold services in buildings and caves directly under shellfire. Last Christmas many of the front-line services were conducted in stables.

A sense of humor is important. Recently Chaplain Leith dropped in on a unit whose men were eating fresh pork. “You see, Padre,” a sergeant explained, “this pig was walking through a mine field. We were afraid the pig would step on a mine and hurt somebody. So we shot him.” The chaplain joined them in a pork-chop dinner.

Once a Catholic chaplain found a couple of GIs eating fresh chicken. They hadn’t eaten fresh mean in 18 days, and when they tried to buy a chicken from a local farmer he refused to sell. So they killed one anyhow and ate it.

TS, incidentally, is something chaplains can often do something about, despite GI opinions to the contrary. Sometimes, of course, they don’t try, as when a soldier came to Leith and gleefully said he had a grave physical defect because a hospital reported him as “lacking in moral fiber.”

But there’s plenty of sense in the crack, “Go see the chaplain.” Transfers in combat areas are usually as hard to get as rotation, but Chaplain Leith tells about the rifleman in an Infantry company who was only moderately good in his job because he wanted to get into the Medics where he could continue his training for medicine. “I saw the proper authorities,” Leith says. “He got transferred. Today he’s doing a whiz of a job.”

The chaplain insists that there are no atheists in foxholes. “German 88s,” he says, “convert to Christianity.”

Much of the work of forward-area chaplains is with the Medics. As one aid-station captain says, the padre sometimes does more good than the medics; “there are times when the chaplain’s words give a man just enough to hold onto.”

“Funny thing, though, ” Chaplain Leith says. “The Army asks us to give the sex-morality lectures up here–not before the outfit goes into a rest area, but before it goes into the line.”

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Article and picture from YANK, 13 April 1945, page 6 (author’s collection).

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Here is the page (in two pictures) that contains the above article (author’s collection):

Yank-1945-Apr-13-5

Yank-1945-Apr-13-6

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