It may be difficult not gathering for worship together during the COVID-19 pandemic, but just think, you could be gathering for worship in a barn … away from home … using a portable pump organ … in a combat zone!
The caption to this U.S. Army photograph dated 1944 reads:
Artillerymen attached to an Armored Unit attend Protestant Services held in a barn near France.
“Every camp in the country and every organization in action overseas has facilities for divine worship. The chaplains who serve in the camps and with the fighting men extend their efforts and compassion into every element of their men’s lives.
“The chaplains are available for advice or consultation on any religious or moral problems, and they are also considerately helpful in any other personal matters brought to them. You can see your chaplain without asking the permission of any superior. You can attend the church service of your choice each week, unless you have specific duties with which such attendance would interfere. Most chapels also conduct programs during midweek.
“Religion is always most strengthening and helpful to people whose lives are troubled, and whose realization is greatest that forces beyond their own control may alter their lives. As a soldier in a savage and brutalizing war, you can find peace and comfort in religion. With a foundation of religious understanding, you can build a broader character out of the experiences which await you.
“At the very beginning of your military service, establish the habit of attending chapel; get to know your chaplain. Preparing your mind for the shocks of combat is an opportunity which will always be yours in the Army, but it is not the kind of thing you can accomplish frantically at the last moment when you may need it most.”
* From Army Life, War Department Pamphlet 21-13, 10 August 1944 (TCK Archives).
As troops sailed home from the fighting of WW2, transport ships published “newspapers” to pass on information and help pass the time of the travelers. The S.S. Marine Cardinal published White Caps for those she was taking home. Here’s the “Chaplain’s Corner” from the 2 January 1946 issue, urging the war-weary troops to make the world a better place as they return home.
“After a great convention had left a certain city, a man passing by the convention hall, saw a delegate’s badge in the gutter. ‘The show was over’; this was the aftermath. And now that the war has ended, what will be its aftermath——a badge in the gutter or war’s destructive energies turned to constructive use:
“The answer lies with the millions who like yourselves are returning home. You can make the world just about what you want it to be if you do not toss aside the idealism, cooperation, and comrades which led our forces onto victory.”
Author unknown, White Caps, 2 January 1946 (author’s collection).
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.
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.
Soldiers transitioning through the 16th Reinforcement Depot at Compiegne, France in 1944 and 1945 had many opportunities to worship while there, to include Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Latter Day Saints and Christian Science services and studies.
Ministering in the 16th were 2 Catholic chaplains: Chaplains Welsh and Duggan; 1 Jewish chaplain: Chaplain Decter; 4 Protestant chaplains: Chaplains Powers, Swartz, Jones and Grim; and 2 “lay readers”: Major Hotaling (Christian Science) and Sergeant Mitchell (Latter Day Saints).
Here’s the schedule:
In our modern wars, service members are more likely to send an e-mail, video chat or even have a cell phone to talk with family back home rather than send a letter, but back before today’s technology, families had to wait for handwritten letters to make it to the battlefield and home again before hearing from their loved ones.
Often, the time taken to compose these letters created interesting combinations of thoughts that people at war experienced. This particular letter was written on 3 February 1945 by Chaplain Clarence W. Baldwin to a friend named Grace Byers who was living in Pasadena, California during the war.
In this interesting letter, Chaplain Baldwin talks a bit about the assignments he had already had during the war and how his current assignment takes him all around England and into London many times. He wrote about some “food for thought” from a gentleman named Clifton, that Grace had included in one of her letters. He later develops that “food” into a sermon outline for future use with his soldiers. Chaplain Baldwin also describes to Grace how he enjoys receiving letters from home though he does not always have time to answer, but has a system to reply when he has time.
Disconcerting in this chaplain’s letter, however, is his confession that his work as a minister is “too hard” and that he is “thinking about giving it up when the war is over” questioning “who the chaplain is supposed to see when his morale is low.” Fortunately, though, things must have gotten better for Chaplain Baldwin as he continued in the ministry after the war, pastoring at least one church in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Here is a transcript of the letter, followed by a picture of the original v-mail Chaplain Baldwin mailed to Grace:
It was very nice of you to write to me. I enjoyed your Christmas card, the letter and the enclosure of ‘Clifton’s’. He does have a nice idea and the ‘food for thot’ [sic] is very appropriate.
So you like California? I do not blame you at all. After being over here I like everything about the USA. The weather is perpetually poor over on this side of the world and there is no place to go to find the kind of weather you like as we do back home. We can’t do as you have done [and] go to California or to Florida.
You notice that my address has changed again. I really get around. I have been in the Infantry, Medics, Ordinance and now I have a supervising job as District Chaplain. This work entails a great deal of traveling and I am seeing England at government expense. I get into London often and find myself better acquainted with that city than I am of most cities back home.
I hear regularly from home. Sis writes to me very often and I do not always find time to answer her. You will excuse my tardy reply to your letter. I always relish the idea of getting letters and most always answer them even though I may not do so very soon. I keep a file of unanswered letters and when I have a day off as I do today I get busy and answer many of them. There is no use for me to go anyplace on my day off. It would be too much like the proverbial Busman’s Holiday.
I just now stopped writing this letter to read again the ‘Food for Thot’ [sic] and I find at least one good sermon in the material. I think I shall call it ‘This is the Time and the Place.’ The material suggests that yesterday was mine, tomorrow will be mine but today is mine. The other two belong to God. Also, another bit in this paper suggests that we should not look at the grass in other person’s yard to our own opportunities wherever you are. [sic] Time and place, today and here. It should work out don’t you think? I could use the text ‘Do not be anxious about tomorrow’ which should be appropriate.
Some of these times I will let you know how the men like it. Already I have an illustration to pop into my mind. Always the preacher. Walking around the streets building sermons – day dreaming and what not. Seriously though, I am thinking about giving it up when the war is over. Believe me it is too hard, I know. A ministers life is very difficult. Always thinking about sermon material, programs, attendance, sick calls, problems, problems, problems. The other person never realizes that you may have a problem of your own. So they continue to pile them up on your shoulders. I have often wondered who the chaplain is supposed to see when his morale is low. It is, in a way a lonely life. Well, now you know, the chaplain comes to you.
31 July 1944: Twenty-four Army chaplains have been killed to date, the War Department announced yesterday and 33 have been taken prisoner. Some 3,400 chaplains are now serving overseas.
Meanwhile SHAEF announced the names of 13 chaplains who jumped with the paratroopers in Normandy on D-Day from four to six hours before the first seaborne unit landed. They were:
Capts Raymond S. Hall, Episcopalian, the first jumping in the U.S. Army, who was injured; George B. Wood, Episcopalian; Matthew J. Connelly, Catholic; Robert H. Hennon, Baptist; John J. Verret, Catholic; James L. Elder, Baptist; Ignatius P. Maternowski, Catholic; killed in action; Kenneth M. Engle, Methodist; Francis L. Sampson, Catholic; Joseph Andrejewski, Catholic; Tilden S. McGee, Baptist; John S. Maloney, Catholic, awarded the DSC; and William Reid, Methodist.
“The Stars and Stripes,” Vol. 4, No. 231, July 31, 1944, pg. 5.
Truce in the Forest: The Story of a World War II Christmas Eve Truce Between German & American Soldiers During the Battle of the Bulge
Most people have heard the story of the front-line, Christmas-time, truce in France during World War One, partially due to its retelling in the 2005 movie, Joyeux Noël, but not many have heard of the small Christmas Eve truce forced upon a handful of American and German Soldiers by a godly German woman during the Battle of the Bulge in World War Two. In 1973, Fritz Vincken told the story of what young Fritz witnessed as a child, in his home on the German-Belgian border that miraculous Christmas Eve. It is reposted here, in its entirety, for educational purposes:
Truce in the Forest, by Fritz Vincken1
It was Christmas Eve, and the last desperate German offensive of WWII raged around our tiny cabin. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door…
When we heard the knock on our door that Christmas Eve in 1944, neither Mother nor I had the slightest inkling of the quiet miracle that lay in store for us. I was 12 then, and we were living in a small cottage in the Huertgen Forest, near the German-Belgian border. Father had stayed at the cottage on hunting weekends before the war; when Allied bombers partly destroyed our hometown of Aachen, he sent us to live there. He had been ordered into the civil-defense fire guard in the border town of Monschau, four miles away.
“You’ll be safe in the woods,” he had told me. “Take care of Mother. Now you’re the man of the family.” But nine days before Christmas, Field Marshal Von Rundstedt had launched the last, desperate German offensive of the war, and now, as I went to the door, the Battle of the Bulge was raging all around us. We heard the incessant booming of field guns; planes soared continuously overhead; at night searchlights stabbed through the darkness. Thousands of Allied and German soldiers were fighting and dying nearby.
When that first knock came, Mother quickly blew out the candles; then, as I went to answer it, she stepped ahead of me and pushed open the door. Outside, like phantoms against the snow-clad trees, stood two steel-helmeted men. One of them spoke to Mother in a language we did not understand, pointing to a third man lying in the snow. She realized before I did that these were American soldiers. Enemies!
Mother stood silent, motionless, her hand on my shoulder. They were armed and could have forced their entrance, yet they stood there and asked with their eyes. And the wounded man seemed more dead than alive. “Kommt rein,” Mother said, finally. “Come in.” The soldiers carried their comrade inside and stretched him out on my bed.
None of them understood German. Mother tried French, and one of the soldiers could converse in that language. As Mother went to look after the wounded man, she said to me, “The fingers of those two are numb. Take off their jackets and boots, and bring in a bucket of snow.” Soon I was rubbing their blue feet with snow.
We learned that the stocky, dark-haired fellow was Jim; his friend, tall and slender, was Robin. Harry, the wounded one, was now sleeping on my bed, his face as white as the snow outside. They’d lost their battalion and had wandered in the forest for three days, looking for the Americans, hiding from the Germans. They hadn’t shaved, but still, without their heavy coats, they looked merely like big boys. And that was the way Mother began to treat them.
Now Mother said to me, “Go get Hermann. And bring six potatoes.”
This was a serious departure from our pre-Christmas plans. Hermann was the plump rooster (named after portly Hermann Goering, Hitler’s No. 2 man, for whom Mother had little affection) that we had been fattening for weeks in the hope that Father would be home for Christmas. But, some hours before, when it was obvious that Father would not make it, Mother had decided that Hermann should live a few more days, in case Father could get home for New Year’s. Now she had changed her mind again; Hermann would serve an immediate, pressing purpose.
While Jim and I helped with the cooking, Robin took care of Harry. He had a bullet through his upper leg and had almost bled to death. Mother tore a bed-sheet into long strips for bandages.
Soon, the tempting smell of roast chicken permeated our room. I was setting the table when once again there came a knock at the door. Expecting to find more lost Americans, I opened the door without hesitation. There stood four soldiers, wearing uniforms quite familiar to me after five years of war. They were Wehrmacht – Germans!
I was paralyzed with fear. Although still a child, I knew the harsh law: sheltering enemy soldiers constituted high treason. We could all be shot! Mother was frightened, too. Her face was white, but she stepped outside and said, quietly, “Froehliche Weihnachten.” The soldiers wished her a Merry Christmas, too. “We have lost our regiment and would like to wait for daylight,” explained the corporal. “Can we rest here?”
“Of course,” Mother replied, with a calmness, born of panic. “You can also have a fine, warm meal and eat till the pot is empty.” The Germans smiled as they sniffed the aroma through the half open door. “But,” Mother added firmly, “we have three other guests, whom you may not consider friends.” Now her voice was suddenly sterner than I’d ever heard it before. “This is Christmas Eve, and there will be no shooting here.”
“Who’s inside?” the corporal demanded. “Amerikaner?”
Mother looked at each frost-chilled face. “Listen,” she said slowly. “You could be my sons, and so could they in there. A boy with a gunshot wound, fighting for his life, and his two friends, lost like you and just as hungry and exhausted as you are. This one night,” she turned to the corporal and raised her voice a little, “This Christmas night, let us forget about killing.”
The corporal stared at her. There were two or three endless seconds of silence. Then Mother put an end to indecision. “Enough talking!” she ordered, and clapped her hands sharply. “Please put your weapons here on the woodpile, and hurry up before the others eat the dinner!:
Dazedly, the four soldiers placed their arms on the pile of firewood just inside the door: three carbines, a light machine gun and two bazookas. Meanwhile, Mother was speaking French rapidly to Jim. He said something in English, and to my amazement I saw the American boys, too, turn their weapons over to Mother. Now, as the Germans and Americans tensely rubbed elbows in the small room, Mother was really on her mettle. Never losing her smile, she tried to find a seat for everyone. We had only three chairs, but Mother’s bed was big, and on it she placed two of the newcomers side by side with Jim and Robin.
Despite the strained atmosphere, Mother went right on preparing dinner. But Hermann wasn’t going to grow any bigger, and now there were four more mouths to feed. “Quick” she whispered to me, “get more potatoes and some oats. These boys are hungry, and a starving man is an angry one.”
While foraging in the storage room, I heard Harry moan. When I returned, one of the Germans had put on his glasses to inspect the American’s wound. “Do you belong to the medical corps?” Mother asked him. “No,” he answered. “But I studied medicine at Heidelberg until a few months ago.” Thanks to the cold, he told the Americans in what sounded like fairly good English, Harry’s wound hadn’t become infected. “He is suffering from a severe loss of blood,” he explained to Mother. “What he needs is rest and nourishment.”
Relaxation was now beginning to replace suspicion. Even to me, all the soldiers looked very young as we sat there together. Heinz and Willi, both from Cologne, were 16. There German corporal, at 23, was the oldest of them all. From his food bag he drew out a bottle of red wine, and Heinz managed to find a loaf of rye bread. Mother cut that in small pieces to be served with the dinner; half the wine, however, she put away, “for the wounded boy.”
Then Mother said grace. I noticed that there were tears in her eyes as she said the old, familiar words, “Komm, Herr Jesus. Be our guest.” And as I looked around the table, I saw tears, too, in the eyes of the battle-weary soldiers, boys again, some from America, some from Germany, all far from home.
Just before midnight, Mother went to the doorstep and asked us to join her to look up at the Star of Bethlehem. We all stood beside her except Harry, who was sleeping. For all of us during the moment of silence, looking at the brightest star in the heavens, the war was a distant, almost-forgotten thing.
Our private armistice continued next morning. Harry woke in the early hours, and swallowed some broth that Mother fed him. With the dawn, it was apparent that he was becoming stronger. Mother now made him an invigorating drink from our one egg, the rest of the corporal’s wine and some sugar. Everyone else had oatmeal. Afterward, two poles and Mother’s best tablecloth were fashioned into a stretcher for Harry.
The German corporal then advised the Americans how to find their way back to their lines. Looking over Jim’s map, the corporal pointed out a stream. “Continue along this creek,” he said, “and you will find the 1st Army rebuilding its Forces on its upper course.” The medical student relayed the information in English.
“Why don’t we head for Monschau?” Jim had the student ask. “Nein,” the corporal exclaimed. “We’ve retaken Monschau.”
Now Mother gave them all back their weapons. “Be careful, boys,” she said, “I want you to get home someday where you belong. God bless you all!” The German and American soldiers shook hands, and we watched them disappear in opposite directions.
When I returned inside, Mother had brought out the old family Bible. I glanced over her shoulder. The book was open to the Christmas story, the Birth in the Manger and how the Wise Men came from afar bearing their gifts.
Her finger was tracing the last line from Matthew 2:21, “…they departed into their own country another way.”
Not long after Vincken’s story appeared in Reader’s Digest, a short video was produced based on that event:
1 Vincken, Fritz, “Truce in the Forest,” Readers Digest, January 1973, pp 111-114.
Chaplains have always found ways to remind their Soldiers, Sailors, Marines or Airmen about worship services. During WW2, one chaplain used these “Greeting” cards with a calendar to encourage attendance.
Likely distributed by the chaplain around Christmas 1943, this folded card includes a couple of verses and an invitation to attend Chapel Services. There is also an invitation to see the chaplain with any problems the Soldier may have. The inside includes a 1944 calendar to check off Sunday worship attendance as well as communion participation with the encouragement to “make 1944 a record year” and is pre-signed by the chaplain, Gilbert Johnstone (author’s collection).
You can see more items that chaplains gave to Service Members on this page.