In past Christmas Deck Log entries, I’ve written about wondrous events that took place when people were imbued with the Christmas spirit, that feeling that transcends religion and fills one with the heartfelt desire to help his fellow man.
This time, I’m going to write about those for who feel that spirit of Christmas every day of their lives.
The movie The Fighting 69th (Warner Brothers, 1940) tells the semi-fictional account of the U.S. Army’s 69th Infantry Regiment and its activities during the first World War. In real life, the 69th was composed almost exclusively of Irish-American soldiers with a reputation for ferocity in battle. The film iterates this, which forms the backdrop for various sub-plots. One of the sub-plots follows the participation of Mischa Moskowitz, a Russian-American Jew who so desires to be a part of the “Fighting 69th” that he enlists under the name of “Mike Murphy” and affects an Irish accent. Because of his determination to live up to the outfit’s reputation, his comrades look the other way, despite the fact that “Mike’s” prominent nose and occasional lapses into Yiddish make him about as Irish as the Kaiser.
One of the most poignant moments of the film occurs near the end. The regiment is engaged in a massive push across no-man’s land to take a couple of French villages from the Germans, resulting in a staggering number of casualties. In a makeshift field hospital, the unit’s senior chaplain, Father Duffy, visits “Private Murphy”, who lies grievously wounded by a shell from a German field cannon. Mike asks the priest to say a prayer for him.
“No time,” replies the wounded soldier.
“You mean you want me to help you pray,” says the father, tiptoeing around the denominational conflict. He draws out Mike’s Jewish prayerbook and reads a prayer of redemption, concluding with, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is one.”
With his final breath, Mike whispers “Shema Yisrael . . . ,” and Duffy recites in Hebrew, “Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.”
In a earlier scene, after the 69th has arrived in France, the brigade commander holds a staff meeting on Christmas Eve. The colonel checks on the religious preparations for the following day. Father Duffy replies that he has made provisions for hearing confessions in the afternoon and conducting Mid-night Mass that evening.
Duffy replies, “All taken care of, sir. Lieutenant Holmes, the Methodist chaplain, is going to arrange services for the Protestant boys. Oh, and of all people, Mike Murphy’s going to build a pulpit for him. I’ve wired to GHQ for chaplains for both the Alabama and the Illinois [regiments].”
The brigade commander is satisfied, and Duffy adds, “You know, colonel, if a lot of the people back home knew how well the various faiths get along together over here, it’d cause a lot of scandal to some pious minds.”
Twenty years later, this subject of interfaith coöperation is emphasised even more in another fictional treatment. Hennesey (CBS, 1959-62), starring Jackie Cooper, was a television series about a Navy physician stationed in San Diego. In the 1960 episode “Tell It to the Chaplain”, Hennesey has to tell the Chief of Chaplains, Rear Admiral Robertson, that he has failed his latest medical examination and must retire.
“Doctor Hennesey, have you ever heard the expression ‘Tell it to the chaplain’?” asks the admiral.
“Yes, sir. Many times.”
The admiral continues:
“It’s used as a joke. As a comeback to the man who feels he’s being treated unfairly. And it implies that what the chaplain says won’t make any difference. It’s a joke I don’t resent. Because it recognises that the chaplain is always available, as the compassionate friend. But the chaplain needs to be more than just a clergyman. Do you realise that a good deal of the time, he isn’t even dealing with members of his own faith? Do you know that?
“Each group of men has a chaplain who is not assigned on the basis of their religion. When a man feels that he needs help, he has to go to that chaplain first. Of course, if it’s a religious problem, he’s referred to a chaplain of his own faith. But if it’s a problem of a personal nature, he sees that chaplain, and that chaplain alone.
“You should make a point of seeing it yourself sometime. You’d find priests helping Protestants . . . rabbis helping Catholics . . . not as clergymen helping parishioners, but as human beings helping their fellow men. It’s a profoundly stirring tradition. It’s religion in its highest sense.”
So, were these just fictionalised presentations of a noble ideal? No. I can tell you from first-hand observation that military chaplains manage a unique balancing act, in that they represent their religious faith in its tenets and rituals and tend to the spiritual needs of those of the same faith; but at the same time, they provide advice, comfort, and hope to everyone in the units to which they are assigned. No-one seeking counsel is turned away by the chaplain because he prays to a different god, or to no god at all.
But don’t take my word for it. I have for you a few examples of chaplains demonstrating their fullest measure of good will to all men.
On a Sunday morning, just over seventy-five years ago, at Pearl Harbor, Lieutenant (junior grade) Aloysius Schmitt, the chaplain assigned to USS Oklahoma, was conducting Mass for Catholic sailors on the ship. It was scheduled to be Father Schmitt’s last service on board; in a couple of days, he would transfer to shore duty.
Just as Father Schmitt finished his liturgy, four aerial torpedoes slammed into the port side of Oklahoma, knocking out the lights and causing the battleship to list severely. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had begun. By feel, the chaplain led his parishioners down the starboard side until they found a ladder leading topside, through a porthole, into open air. By now, the tiny space they occupied was flooding with water. Schmitt insisted that the other men precede him up the ladder.
Once they were on the open deck, the chaplain began his own climb to freedom---when suddenly a hatch opened, and more men stumbled into dark, wet chamber. Non-Catholics, they had been enjoying the opportunity to sleep in on a Sunday morning, until the Japanese bombs hurled them out of their racks. Without hesitation, Schmitt dropped back into the now-chest deep water and, one at a time, led the newcomers to the ladder and pushed them up.
Nobody knows for sure how many of those men escaped to the open deck before the ship capsized, but Father Schmitt wasn’t one of them. Four weeks later, at a memorial service for those lost in the attack, a Jewish survivor of Oklahoma told how he was alive because a Catholic chaplain pushed him out a porthole.
The Army chaplains weren’t idle that fateful morning. Father Terence Finnegan was setting up for Mass in the chapel at Schofield Barracks when he spotted the Japanese planes diving on Pearl Harbor. Chaplain Alvin Katt was at Wheeler Field, preparing for his Protestant Sunday service when Zeroes started strafing the flight line.
Hickam Field’s chaplain, Elmer Tiedt, heard the explosions and saw one runway was a mass of flames from the burning aircraft. He drove to the wooden hangar set aside for church services and discovered his two clerks had been killed while dressing the altar for morning prayer.
Only the Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Harry Richmond, had nothing to do on a Sunday morning. He was at home when he heard the reports of the attack over the radio. He immediately rushed to the hospital at Schofield Barracks, as did Finnegan and Katt and Tiedt.
There were no empty beds left at the hospital; over four hundred litters carrying wounded men lined the corridors and whatever open space there was. Immediately, the four chaplains began providing ministry to the injured and last rites to the dying. They helped each man as he came, without bothering to see if his dog tag bore a “P” or a “C” or an “H”. All that mattered was easing each victim’s suffering or providing that final comfort in death. And they did this for over forty hours without stopping.
It was Chaplain Tiedt, though, who showed a level of commitment and selflessness to others that cannot be measured. In the middle of his ministrations that Sunday morning, Tiedt received a message from the commanding general’s office: his wife had been killed in the bombing. Yet, with this unbelievable burden on his heart, he continued to care for the wounded and dying throughout Sunday and most of Monday.
Finally, Monday evening, having reached the limit of human endurance, the exhausted chaplain allowed himself to be driven home---only to discover that the general’s report was wrong! Mrs. Tiedt was alive and well.
(You guys knew I had to put a Christmas miracle in here somewhere, right?)
To be sure, benevolence toward those of other faiths isn’t limited to military chaplains. Civilian men of the cloth would extend the same charity. It’s just that, for the most part, the compulsion to do so isn’t there. The civilian clergyman’s flock is populated by those who attend his church and, thus, share the same denomination. But chaplains assigned to police and fire departments serve a constituency assigned to them irrespective of individual faith, just as military chaplains do.
The demands placed upon the chaplains of the armed forces require, more often than not, that they put aside the cross or the tablets or the crescent that symbolise their respective faiths and minister to those of all faiths. And so often during wartime, when conditions are arduous and those under his care suffer the most terrible crises of morality and conscience.
To-day, on this day of days, as you prepare to enter the house of worship of your choice, or sit down at the dinner table and offer a prayer, please take a moment to remember the various men of God wearing our nation’s uniform whom, every day, embody the Christmas spirit of good will toward man, to all men.
That is, indeed, religion in its highest sense.
* * * * *
From Cheryl and myself, to all of you, our fondest wishes for a Merry Christmas, and many more of them!
Merry Christmas to All!
Merry Christmas, sir!
Merry Christmas to you, and to us all!
As always, a great holiday post.
I'll second that!
Merry Christmas to you and yours, Commander.
Fraser Sherman said:
As always, a great holiday post.
I've been out of town and off line spending Christmas with family. Great post, Commander. Here's hoping that everyone has been able to enjoy their holiday season.
Happy New Year Commander. No idea if you remember me but we use to chat a little on Comicboards.com