Lyle W. Dorsett's many books tell the stories of heroes of the Christian faith—men like D. L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and A. W. Tozer. In his latest book, Serving God and Country: U.S. Military Chaplains in World War II (Berkley), the Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism at Beeson Divinity School tells the stories of men who, if less famous, were no less heroic. Author and military wife Lisa Velthouse spoke with Dorsett about the Protestant ministers, Catholic priests, and Jewish rabbis who braved the battlefield to care for souls.
What sparked your interest in World War II chaplains?
I'm a historian by training, and I've always had an interest in World War II—it absolutely fascinates me. In my early adulthood I was an agnostic living in a secular academic world, and then in midlife I became a convert to the Christian faith. Gradually my interest in the faith began to coincide with my interest in World War II, and I started wanting to know more about chaplains. We don't know much about them.
Over the years, I began to interview chaplains. I also interviewed a lot of soldiers, sailors, and Marines who had served in World War II. Much of my material comes from them.
Why is it important to look back on this period in history?
World War II chaplains made sacrifices in great numbers—next to the Army Air Corps, more chaplains were killed in World War II per capita than any other military group. That blew my mind when I found it. That shocked me.
Shortly after the war, General [Alexander] Vandegrift, who had become Commandant of the Marine Corps, praised the chaplains' work. He was a brilliant commander, a no-nonsense fighting man, and he did not romanticize or overly generalize about anything. I'm quoting him: "The ministrations you have carried to our fighting men have been an epic of spiritual heroism. Never at any time, to my knowledge, have our men lacked for religious care and guidance. You have gone wherever they have gone. To millions of American boys, you have been 'A friend that sticketh closer than a brother.' In this war, they turned to you constantly. You were more than conductors of devotional services. You were helpers, advisers, listeners and comforters."
Did anything in your research surprise you?
Certainly the courage of so many chaplains. It's not that I think they would've been less courageous than other people. I just was astounded by the unusual dedication and heroism, to be with these men in the areas of greatest danger. As I would read memoirs or hear testimonies of men who fought, I realized these chaplains became true shepherds like Jesus. Not just some teaching leader, but a true shepherd who saw these men as their flock and wanted to be with them.
There's a story of a Catholic priest at the Battle of the Bulge who was charging right into the Ardennes, into the forest. I interviewed a man who was a young officer at the time, coming off the front briefly to have a leg wound bandaged. He saw this priest crouched but running full speed towards the heavy fighting. And the officer said, "Chappie, what in the world do you think you're doing? People up there are dying by the scores!" The chaplain said, "That's precisely why I need to be there." And he just kept going. Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish chaplains, there was no difference. It was an amazing group of men.
I was also surprised at how much chaplains did to encourage families at home, to say, Hey, we're caring about the spiritual life of your son or your husband. And a lot of these chaplains went to great lengths. They'd have postcards printed up with blanks to fill in. Among my uncle's belongings was a postcard that went to my aunt, saying, "Your husband, Jack Dorsett, has been a faithful attendee at our chapel services." Or a Catholic priest might say, "Your son is faithfully receiving Communion." On the other hand, I found a letter that one chaplain wrote to a woman, saying, "Your husband has no excuse not to come to Mass. He never does, and, you know, you ought to do what you can to encourage him. This is a disgrace."
How did chaplains contribute to the breakdown of racial and religious barriers?
The American armed forces were not desegregated until after World War II, but prior to that, there was de facto desegregation in certain areas. For instance, already in early 1942, the Army had both black and white chaplain candidates in chaplain school together. In combat, you had white chaplains serving black troops and black chaplains ministering to white troops. They were all in the middle of a life-and-death struggle, and the walls of prejudice began to go down.
I read accounts of, say, a Jewish chaplain who, until Chaplain Corps, had never had social contact with a Catholic priest or a Protestant minister! And vice versa. A Catholic priest would write in his memoir, Having to share a room with a Jewish man and a Protestant man broke down barriers that we never would've broken down.
Why do you encourage readers to consider becoming chaplains?
I teach in a divinity school, and I have a lot of friends who are active-duty military. And the more I talk to those friends, the more I learn how few chaplains there are, or how few are truly orthodox, biblically-grounded evangelical Christians. I keep hearing people say, "We can't find a chaplain!" This is a national need, and it's every bit as important as having another good artillery commander or another good rifleman.
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