Sky Pilots:
Clergy at War, Part Two

By Thomas F. Oxley III
December 2014

Tom Oxley resumes his story of American chaplains at war.

Chaplain Duties

Chaplains were required to offer general faith services as well as services for members of their own faith or denomination as opportunities presented themselves. The old stories of Circuit Rider pastors, going from place to place and preaching to those who wanted to attend their services, speaks to how the chaplain covered this requirement. While the chaplain was in a unit area, he would make himself available to soldiers who wanted to talk, or who needed help writing letters home. Chaplains were an important part of Graves Registration, and helped keep track of names and information of those killed in action. In many Army units, the vehicle assigned to the chaplain was the 1-and-1/4-ton truck, not that the chaplain and assistant needed that much room for their equipment, but because it was to be used as part of the Graves Registration process and that they would help move bodies after an action to the place picked as a temporary burial site. The chaplain would note as well as possible the location of the site for later disinterment and proper burial services. They often did this along with the Battalion or Regimental Sergeant Major, who shared a responsibility to keep track of unit losses from the roster.

In times of training or inactivity, the chaplain was the unit morale officer and helped organize sports events. He often carried a lending library of books for the troops to borrow and read. Many troops came from parts of the country where they hadn’t learned to read or write well enough to write letters to loved ones or to read the letters they received, so the chaplain often assisted in reading and writing for them. 

In the combat zone, he had choices to make. To be with the units in combat and be there to minister to the dying, to assist the combat medics with the wounded, to assist as litter bearers and generally anything else that was needed when nobody else was available, or to be at the unit aid station, waiting for the wounded to be brought in for medical care, and there to give comfort and to pray with the wounded. Many chaplains took time in both areas during their tours of duty.

In the midst of combat, chaplains kept busy when not directly assisting with morale or medical support by helping redistribute water or ammunition between members of their unit. They often put themselves at risk to move wounded troops to safer spots away from immediate danger. Many troops told friends, family members and other troops how much it meant to them that a clergyman was so near at hand when he faced imminent death.

Chaplains were issued a chaplain’s kit that held communion supplies, small hymnals and altar equipment, and opened to form a small altar that could be set up just about anywhere. The Jewish kit differed from the Protestant and Catholic kit primarily in that a small Torah, the Jewish scriptures in scroll form, that was in the upper part of the kit. The kit was in a black metal box, approximately 1.5 feet square by 1 foot deep when closed. Other equipment included a small portable pump organ that folded up from a box just a little bit bigger than a large suitcase. These would be brought along when possible, but they are sometimes seen in photos of chaplains conducting services just behind the lines.

Chaplain Francis Sampson

There are many examples of chaplains going about their business in World War Two, but one of the best is the story of Chaplain Francis Sampson, Regimental Chaplain of the 501st Airborne Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. Sampson was one of several chaplains trained and experienced in parachute jumps. He jumped into Normandy in the early hours of June 6, 1944, and lost his chaplain kit when landing among the flooded areas behind the beach. While taking time to look for his kit, he was captured by German soldiers for a brief time before being rescued by members of his unit that had landed nearby. After serving alongside of the troops through the hedgerows, he left with them to re-equip and prepare for Operation Market Garden.

Again, Chaplain Sampson jumped into action with his men, and once again, he was captured briefly after landing in shallow water. And once again he was rescued almost immediately by members of his unit.

Chaplain Sampson continued to serve his battalions and as the Catholic chaplain in his regiment for the months leading up to the Battle of the Bulge. While supporting his men in Bastogne, he was notified that one of the units on the perimeter had taken several casualties and he decided he needed to get to them quickly. His enlisted assistant drove a jeep to get Chaplain Sampson to the troops, but either missed a turn or drove past the friendly lines, as the last thing Chaplain Sampson remembered hearing from him at the time was that the tanks and trucks they were passing through were not friendly. They were stopped at gunpoint and captured, the chaplain’s kit tossed aside by their captors, and Chaplain Sampson spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war. A Belgian priest found the kit and held on to it until after the war and was able to return it to Chaplain Sampson.

Francis Sampson continued to serve in the Army during the drawdown following the war, and became the Chief of Chaplains of the Army by the time the Korean War started.

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.