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.
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.
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.
1 https://www.csmonitor.com/2007/1018/p01s06-uspo.html, accessed 25 Aug 18.
3John McCain, Faith of My Fathers. New York: Random House, 1999, 331-332.