During the war in Europe Gerecke certainly served courageously and ably, but he did nothing that was not commonly done by other chaplains. As soon as the Germans surrendered, however, this chaplain, who had not seen his wife for nearly two years, was asked to do something more courageous and heroic than anything he had done before the cessation of hostilities.
The Allied armies in April and May 1945 began capturing every high ranking Nazi official they could find in order to bring them to trial for war crimes—including the murder of over six million Jews and seven million other so-called "undesirables," as well as the torture and forced labor foisted upon millions more for the German military machine. By August 1945, 21 of the highest ranking Nazi officials, including men very close to Adolph Hitler, were captured and imprisoned in Nuremberg for trial in the city's Palace of Justice.
In the summer of 1945, while Chaplain Gerecke prepared to say goodbye to the soldiers with whom he had served and return home, Colonel Burton Andrus, the commandant of the Nuremberg prison, made a shocking announcement: He would need one Lutheran and one Catholic chaplain to minister to the spiritual needs of the 21 high-profile Nazi prisoners. Colonel Andrus learned about a Catholic (Sixtus "Richard" O'Connor) and a Protestant (Henry Gerecke) who were both superb chaplains, as well as being fluent in German. Both men were free to return to the United States, but the colonel implored them to stay behind to serve as pastors to the arrogant and defiant German leaders during their trial.
The Chaplains' Dilemma
Townsend is at his best when he uncovers the dilemma faced by both chaplains. They had seen countless American soldiers maimed and killed by the German military machine. They had witnessed the savage effects of German aggression all over England and Europe, and they had seen, touched, and even smelled the horrors of the Nazi concentration and death camps. Now they had to decide if they really believed what they taught and preached: that Jesus Christ came to seek and save the lost, and that he died for sinners.
These chaplains were confident God had called them to care for souls. Would they delay going home to minister to such unrepentant Nazis? Would they have the courage to close their ears to the opinions of officers and men of the United States Army who hated these Germans and everything they stood for? Many American servicemen argued that these criminals did not deserve ministry from American chaplains. Some even suggested that spiritual care for these Nazis bordered on treason. Many people on the home front also shared these deep anti-German sentiments, and letters filled with anger and threats inundated the pastors. In the same vein, a chorus of Jewish people argued that ministry to such loathsome men as Hermann Goering, Wilhelm Keitel, Alfred Jodl, Hans Frank, and Ernst Kaltenbrunner could only be construed as anti-Semitism.