Sky Pilots:
Clergy at War, Part One

By Thomas F. Oxley III
December 2014

One of the most overlooked pieces of military history is one that many veterans will talk about easier than many of the stories we want most to hear from them in their experience: the time they spent with their chaplains in the field and at war. Not limited just to the United States military, a chaplaincy of some sort is present in most of the world’s armies, and many of them operate in a similar fashion. For now, I’m just focusing on the US forces available in many of the games of the Panzer Grenadier system.

In The Beginning

As the US struggled with its desire to avoid entering into a new war, isolationism had spread to much of the clergy of the nation. Seminaries in the 1920s and 30s taught a “just war” principal, and many students and graduates weren’t sure if the rumors of war in Europe justified American involvement or if people of faith could join the military and fight in such a war. Only in the days following Pearl Harbor did many clergymen decide to seek an opportunity to serve as chaplains in US military organizations.  Even then, the civilian and military channels for recruitment and training of chaplains made it difficult to fill the growing number of positions becoming available. Many faith organization leaders were hesitant to allow their clergymen to volunteer for military service, and even when they did, the process to become a chaplain wasn’t clear. Many clergymen waited for months after initiating their applications before receiving their orders to attend one of the early chaplain schools being started. 

The Army first organized a Chaplain School at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana, while the Navy established one at the Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia. As the numbers of students outgrew the facilities, contracts were made at several civilian colleges, and soon Chaplain Officer Students were graduating from programs at Harvard among others. Navy chaplains assigned to cover Marines went on to additional training with the Marines at Paris Island. All chaplains were expected to achieve the same physical fitness level as the troops they served. For some who came from athletic backgrounds, this was no problem, but for many, it seemed the thing that many of them found the hardest part of their training, some even going so far as threatening to resign their commission and leave the military. Nearly all persevered and went on to serve next to their troops with distinction.

The chaplaincy was one of the first parts of the US military to integrate, as both white and African-American clergy studied together. Many white clergy persons had never known an African-American before attending training together, and many close ties were formed while in school together. Many African-American clergy came from denominations where little or no education was available, so through the course of the war, many African-American units were assigned white chaplains, simply because of a shortage of African-American chaplains. Even so, many of the less-educated African-American clergy, those who could not meet the required education levels, served as enlisted men among the African American units.


Each branch of the US military had a different structure for the number of chaplains needed to serve their units. The Navy used a number based on one chaplain for every 1,200 members. The Army was set up for one chaplain for every 1,000, or roughly one for each battalion, with one additional at each higher headquarters. Marines intended a structure that included one Protestant, one Catholic and one Jewish chaplain for each battalion. In all cases, these numbers were never met, especially in the numbers sought by the Marines, and faith group was usually not considered when sending chaplains to units. The Navy usually had one or two chaplains serving in the largest warships, aircraft carriers and battleships, and most other capital ships had only one, where the smallest ships in the fleet, the destroyers, submarines and smaller vessels, often had only one chaplain for a squadron or flotilla. Hospital ships were usually assigned one chaplain.

Army and Marine battalions usually were assigned one chaplain per battalion, but many units went without. The absence was somewhat covered by the brigade or regimental chaplains spending more time traveling throughout their unit area to provide worship opportunities and counseling for the troops. The intent behind unit assignments was that each brigade- or regimental-sized organization would have one Protestant, one Catholic, and one Jewish chaplain that could both cover their own units and could also make arrangements to cover specific faith programs for troops of their own faith within the brigade or regiment, but there were never enough Jewish chaplains to cover the needs of all the Jewish troops. Because of this, the military chaplaincy was a great part of the advancement of the ecumenical movement in America, as chaplains of one faith group provided support for soldiers of other groups, either through the use of appropriate literature or finding lay leaders within the organization who had the basic skills for conducting some form of religious program for troops of their faith.

Chaplains were assigned an enlisted assistant by the unit they served. The requirement was for a soldier, sailor or Marine of good moral conduct who could type the many reports needed and play a musical instrument to accompany religious services. The usual service member put forth for this role was more usually the unit “screw-up,” somebody who was not bad enough to be in the brig, but not somebody they wanted taking a position in the line at a crucial time. It was thought that close interaction with a chaplain might help turn the person around, help him become a better person. Numbers are not available in how successful this was, and what little has been seen in chaplaincy history only talks about the good chaplain assistants, while many memoirs and much correspondence from chaplains does not mention them at all.

Fully-ordained Chaplain candidates usually entered active duty at the rank of 1st Lieutenant and were promoted to Captain immediately after completing the Chaplain Officer Course, but there were many smaller denominations that ordained clergy without meeting all the requirements that most denominations and faith groups had for education of their clergy, primarily in the area of individual counseling and leading training in moral conduct. These chaplains were still allowed to enter duty with the support of their denominations but entered at one rank less than those who had all the education and experience requirements of most denominations.

Sergeant First Class (Retired) Thomas F. Oxley, III served as the Instructor of Military History at the US Army Chaplain Center and School, 1993-1995, retiring from the Army in November 1995. He continues in religious support and church management, and works with military chaplains whenever possible. He is married, has two adult children and six grandchildren, and currently lives in Dayton, Ohio.