Navy Chaplains at Pearl Harbor

Navy Chaplains at Pearl Harbor

[Navy] Chaplains at Pearl Harbor1

USS Arizona

In a well-coordinated attack, which revealed detailed information about the disposition of the ships in the harbor, the Japanese planes dropped their torpedoes and bombs with devasting effect. According to reports, one Japanese pilot realized a dive bomber’s dream by dropping a bomb down one of Arizona’s stacks.2 A tremendous explosion followed. The forward magazine blew up. Oil from her tanks poured out upon the water and began to burn. In an instant the proud Arizona was a roaring inferno, entombing most of her crew. Only a few escaped the holocaust and Tom Kirkpatrick was not among them.

Aloysius H. Schmitt

Four enemy torpedoes plunged into the port side of the Oklahoma, in which Chaplain A. H. Schmitt was serving his first tour of duty at sea in the Navy. The vessel began to list to port as water poured into her hold. Gradually the ship rolled over, settling with the starboard side of the bottom above water. Many men were trapped. Chaplain Schmitt made his way with several of the crew to a compartment. An open port-hole afforded means of escape, and through this the men, one by one, with the Chaplain’s help, crawled to safety. When all of the men were outside, Schmitt then tried to get through the small opening. It was most difficult, even with the frantic assistance offered by the men who were already out. While struggling in the aperture, the Chaplain became aware that others had come into the compartment from which he was trying to escape. Realizing that the water was rising rapidly and that even this one exit would soon be closed, Schmitt insisted on being pushed back to help others who could get through more easily. Months later, a Jewish lad told a Protestant church audience in San Francisco how a Catholic chaplain had died that he might live. Later, the Navy and Marine Corps Medal was posthumously awarded to Chaplain Schmitt for his heroic and self-sacrificing conduct.

Although official records show that the Arizona was struck before the Oklahoma, there is no way of determining who actually died first, Kirkpatrick or Schmitt. These two men were the first chaplains of any branch of the United States forces to give their lives in World War 11 and the second and third to die in action in the history of the United States Navy.3

The experiences of Chaplain R. C. Hohenstein aboard the California are summarized in a report submitted to Chaplain Maguire, written shortly after Pearl Harbor. Hohenstein happened to be on deck when the first attack came. He noticed three bombs in mid-air which had just been dropped by a plane flying over Ford Island. He stated:

While I stood and watched, general quarters was sounded aboard. I proceeded immediately and on the double to my battle station (forward battle dressing station), on the third deck just abaft turret No. 2, telling all as I went that this was not practice, but a real raid.

When I reached my battle station, the men there were already closing the watertight doors, and we all worked to complete the setting of condition Zed. [All water-tight compartments closed.] A few moments later, however, the ship shook violently from an explosion which seemed to have been directly beneath us. Before long, fumes were detected in the air. No one seemed to know what the fumes were, but all began to feel a bit dizzy. Our first thought was to get gas masks. Accordingly, we broke open the watertight door on the starboard side to the passageway around the barbette of turret No. 2, but once the door was open, we forgot all about the masks because we saw men knee deep in fuel oil, some already overcome by the fumes. Our immediate concern was to help these men over the high coaming into our compartment, the starboard side of which was still dry. The ship already had begun to list to port. Before long, however, the fumes began to affect us all, and when my legs would no longer support me, I tried to get out of the way of the others who could still work, and lost consciousness.

How much time elapsed, I do not know, but when I came to again, I was lying on the starboard quarterdeck directly outside of the door to the crew’s lounge.

When Chaplain Hohenstein lost consciousness, someone in a rescue party carried him up the ladder to the second deck and later to the starboard quarter-deck. Shortly after being moved from the second deck, a bomb struck the area where he had been laid, thus, giving rise to the rumor that the Chaplain had been killed. Hohenstein’s account continues:

Someone was shaking me and I recall his saying that all of the injured would have to be moved inside because the Japs were strafing the ships. In the passageway was one of our Guamanian mess boys, also semiconscious from the fumes. When he recognized me, he clung to me for dear life. In that moment all of the color, creed, and military differences were gone, and we were simply two Christians praying for God’s mercy and professing our common Christian faith in the words of the Apostle’s Creed. In the midst of this moment of prayer, another terrific explosion shook the ship (evidently the bomb amidships) which filled the passageway with smoke and debris, and once more I lost consciousness.

The next time I awoke, I was on the starboard quarterdeck again. Thinking that the ship might capsize as someone had said the U. S. S. Oklahoma had already done, I kicked off my shoes, but already the injured were being taken off the ship. Somehow I got over to the key and then into a motor launch filled with men, which took us to the Ford Island landing. We were taken to the dispensary- and from there to the Marine barracks where we were put in bunks.4

Crew abandoning the damaged USS California

Hohenstein received flash burns from falling shrapnel which qualified him for the Purple Heart Medal. He was the first chaplain (excluding consideration of Chaplains Kirkpatrick and Schmitt) to be wounded in World War II. From the marine barracks, Hohenstein was taken with other wounded from the California to the hospital in the Aiea Sugar Plantation. Considerable anxiety for his safety was felt by his brother chaplains until his whereabouts was discovered the next day. After a few days Chaplain Hohenstein was able to return to duty.

The West Virginia had the unhappy distinction of being struck by a greater weight of enemy explosive than any other ship in the harbor. Chaplain J. P. Forsander was about to go to the wardroom for breakfast when the first torpedo struck. In the following words he described his experiences:

It was several minutes before I was fully aware of the fact that we were under attack by an enemy. I did not fully realize I was in danger until I looked out of the port and saw the water up to the level of the port, and at the same moment felt the concussion of a second hit. I was in the act of dogging down the port when a third blast was heard and felt. Almost immediately after this blast, there was a mighty rushing of water all around me. I reached for my blouse and cap, and stepped out in the passageway and was barely able in the darkness to sec men moving about. Our ship’s communications and lights had gone out after the second torpedo struck. I inquired what was wrong, and was told that we were being attacked by the Japs, and naturally started for my battle station. The ship’s communications being disabled, it was not possible to pass the word over the loudspeaker system or ring the general quarters gong.

The passageway to the port side of the ship was blocked by oncoming traffic of men. Unable to reach the port side through this passageway, I then decided to approach my battle station, which was forward, by going up the ladder to the quarter-deck, and then over to the starboard side. By the time I reached the top of the ladder, the ship had settled to the bottom of the bay, and was listing to port so much that the whole port side was under water up to the barbettes.

I attempted to get out on deck, but was unable to walk because of the list of the ship, plus the added hazards created by the sudden wave of planes strafing and dropping incendiary bombs on the ship. I decided to take my chances under the hatch cover of the ladder. This ladder was about 4 feet from No. 3 turret. While still hanging on the stanchions, holding the hatch cover, a plane from high altitude dropped a 1,000-pound bomb which went through No. 3 turret all the way down to the deck of the handling room, tearing one of two planes loose on the deck about 10 feet from where I was standing. Fortunately, this bomb proved to be a dud. I was told men were killed in the turret and nearby when this bomb crashed through the turret.

The abandon-ship order was given as the West Virginia sank in her berth. Chaplain Forsander, not being able to swim, donned a life-jacket and helped to get a life-raft into the water. He and his companions then succeeded in picking up a dozen men in the water, including some survivors of the Oklahoma and Arizona. Soon afterwards a motor launch rescued all on the raft, but on its way to the Navy landing near the receiving station was strafed by a Japanese plane. En route, the boat picked up other survivors, some of whom were covered with oil.

Upon landing, Forsander went to the chaplain’s office where he found Chaplains H. Cerf Straus and Thornton C. Miller,

who gave me a raincoat to wear, after I had disposed of my oily and watersoaked white uniform. Then a search for some additional clothing was started. A pair of socks found here, shoes there, some dungaree pants, and finally a shirt. Later in the day, underwear and a pair of better fitting shoes were given me. After having assembled this wardrobe, I turned to with Miller and Straus to help erect temporary hospital quarters for the wounded being brought ashore.

Forsander had reported to the West Virginia a few weeks earlier, after a tour of duty with the Navy Relief at Long Beach. He was thus well qualified to assist in the tremendous relief work for naval dependents which devolved upon the chaplains after the Pearl Harbor tragedy. Writing to Chaplain Workman on 27 December, Forsander declared:

Everything I had is gone and need everything from A to Z. Many of the things I cannot get here for some time to come. I have three suits of khaki and that is all. I have no books to carry on my work.5

Just before the attack, Chaplain and Mrs. Salisbury paused at a floral shop to buy flowers which they intended to use on the altar for the morning service aboard the Pennsylvania. Large Japanese torpedo planes on their way to attack the battleships in the harbor swung over the Salisbury car as it arrived at the navy yard gate at 0755. Chaplain Salisbury returned to Honolulu where he left his wife at their hotel. He then hurried to pick up the gunnery and supply officers of his ship. A Japanese pilot spotted the moving car proceeding toward the navy yard and, correctly assuming that it contained naval personnel, strafed it. Bullets hit the trunk of the car and the road immediately in front of the moving vehicle. In his report of this experience, Salisbury stated:

In the car was our paymaster and our gunnery officer who tried to advise me how to drive under fire. As an old army veteran, I chided him and told him I knew how to handle myself and the car—just drive at even speed The next day at lunch the paymaster complimented me on the calm, cool manner in which the chaplain drove his car while we were strafed by an enemy plane (one bullet and its hole area still in the car just 18 1/2 inches behind our heads). He said that I had a steady hold on the steering wheel, my eyes were on the road, my attention was wholly on my driving, and my right foot was holding down the accelerator at even speed. Then I said, ‘Oh yeah, but you didn’t see my left leg bobbing up and down! ! !’ 6

When Chaplain Salisbury reported aboard the Pennsylvania, he found that she had been hit by a bomb. He assisted in caring for the wounded and in getting the dead moved ashore. In the afternoon he called on the families living in Honolulu or vicinity whose relatives had been killed or wounded aboard his ship.

Chaplain W. S. Peck, aboard the Curtiss in his description of what happened aboard his ship, wrote:

As I went forward from number four gun mount a plane which we had shot, turned, made a half arc and dove into the ship a few yards forward of number four mount making what I would call the first kamikaze of the war.7

The Curtiss suffered 25 percent casualties, having also been torpedoed.

Throughout the attack Chaplain Peck was busy ministering to the wounded and helping put out the fires. In the evening he went ashore and located about 75 of the families of the men attached to his vessel, passing on such information as was available. He returned to his ship at three o’clock Monday morning, bringing the assuring messages to many of the men that their families were safe ashore.

An incident occurred aboard one of the cruisers during the fury of the attack which was later given unusual publicity through the words of a popular song, Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition. Chaplain H. M. Forgy on the New Orleans was the central figure. When the general alarm sounded, he hastened to his battle station in the sick bay. Since nothing unusual was happening there, Forgy went topside.

Running to the well-deck to gain an unobstructed view of the harbor, Forgy saw great masses of black smoke billowing from the Arizona. He noted that several ships had been hit and that hundreds of men were struggling in the water. Japanese planes were maneuvering overhead. Every available antiaircraft gun on the New Orleans was blazing away. This ship was under temporary overhaul which left the ammunition hoists without power. Five-inch shells, weighing about 100 pounds each, were being hauled up by lines. Men were heaving and straining under the staggering loads. The gunners were calling for more shells. Chaplain Forgy went along the line of men and encouraged them by slapping them on their backs and saying: “Praise the Lord” and “Pass the Ammunition.”8

After the initial attack had ended, one of the engineer officers on the New Orleans, with the lines of his face tightened with hate and anger, turned to Chaplain Forgy and said, as he surveyed the scene of desolation in the harbor: “That is the end of the Japanese Empire.”

According to his custom, Chaplain R. B. Drinan of the Nevada had gone to the Solace to officiate at an 8 o’clock mass before going to his own ship. Neither Drinan nor Chaplain C. D. Chrisman held divine service on the Solace that day, for the wounded and dying were brought to the hospital ship soon after the attack started. The two chaplains were busy comforting the wounded, praying with the dying, jotting down farewell messages, administering the last rites, and conducting brief services for those who had died. Chaplain D. L. Reardon of the Tangiers came aboard later in the day to assist his Catholic colleague. Chaplain Drinan, in ministering to those of that faith.9

The staff motorboat came along the officers’ club landing to take Chaplain W. A. Maguire to the California just when the squadron of Japanese torpedo planes swung low to drop their deadly missiles. He saw one strike the Oklahoma, causing a great geyser of water to rise. He noticed the “Rising Sun” insignia on a plane and “felt stunned and strangely sick” as he realized that this was no sham battle. Believing that there would be a lull in the attack, Chaplain Maguire had the coxswain take the boat to a destroyer moored near the landing. After the fury of the second torpedo plane attack, he was able to get to the California. In another boat, a motorwhaleboat which was placed in his charge, he assisted in transferring wounded to a hospital ashore. On the third trip the boat ran into a barrier of burning oil which necessitated beaching the craft. Chaplain Maguire, with the others, was forced to wade ashore through the muck and oily waters. The rest of the day was spend in ministering to the wounded and dying.

Chaplain T. C. Miller, the District Chaplain at Pearl Harbor, reached his office a few minutes after 0800 while the bombing was still in progress. He turned his attention immediately to establishing a firstaid station in the receiving barracks. Chaplain H. C. Straus, the only Jewish chaplain at Pearl Harbor at the time of the tragedy, was at his home when the Japanese struck. He hurried to the District Chaplain’s office in the Navy Yard, arriving there about 0830. Chaplain Miller was about to leave for the Pearl Harbor Hospital and told Straus to stay in the vicinity of the receiving barracks. The wounded began to arrive. A new but unfinished building was turned into a hospital. All equipment, even water pipes, had to be brought in. Straus joined the men who were frantically preparing to receive the casualties.

The District Chaplain’s office began the day with one yeoman. In the afternoon an order was sent out by the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, calling for the survivors of all ships to report to the Chaplain’s Office in the Navy Yard. By 1700 of that afternoon, a chief yeoman and 15 assistants were on duty. The office remained open day and night (with properly blacked-out windows after sundown) for about 10 days. The fleet personnel office grew out of this emergency office situation about a month later.

Chaplain Miller spent the day ministering to the wounded at the Pearl Harbor Hospital. There he was assisted by the only Catholic chaplain assigned to the district, T. J. Odium. Chaplains Volbeda at the Air Station, Ford Island, and Twitchell at the Submarine Base were likewise busy with tasks arising out of the attack.




1 Entire article from Clifford Merrill Drury, “The History of the Chaplain Corps, United States Navy, Volume Two, 1939-1949.” Bureau of Naval Personnel.

2 Karig and Kclley, Battle Report, p. 33.

3 The first chaplain to be killed in action was John L. Lcnhart who went down with his ship, the Cumberland, when she was sunk by the Merrimack in Hampton Roads on 8 March 1862.

4 CoC, Hohenstein file.

5 CoC, Forsander file. Letter, 28 January 1946.

6 CoC, Salisbury file. Biographical Report, 23 December 1944.

7 CoC, Peck file. Letter, 20 June 1 946.

8 The 2 November 1942 issue of Life published Chaplain W. A. Maguire’s picture on the front cover of that number and indirectly, but erroneously, attributed the saying to him. Chaplain Maguire denied making the remark. An account of the incident, which credited Chaplain Forgy with the words, is made by a line officer of the New Orleans, who was present at the time, and is found in the introduction of Forgy’s book And Pass the Ammunition. It should be pointed out that the author of the popular song, Frank Loesser, took liberties with the story and pictured a chaplain manning the gun, which was not the case. Forgy, as a chaplain, was a noncombatant and did nothing contrary to the regulations of the Geneva Convention governing his office.

9 CoC, Chrisman quarterly report.




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