In researching WWII chaplains for previous articles, I wondered how a man of the cloth viewed war and his own involvement in it, how he reconciled the brutality of war within his own faith. How could these men of God, who volunteered to stand beside the officers and enlisted men of the various branches of service, rationalize and justify the killing of his enemies and destruction of his enemy’s homeland?
I wondered especially about the chaplains of the 384th Bomb Group and how they felt at the end of the day when many of the men that they had blessed that morning before the day’s mission didn’t return with the group that afternoon. Did they feel helpless knowing that they couldn’t protect or save every one? Did they wonder, when they looked into the faces before them on the morning of the next mission, which of these faces they were looking into for the last time?
It would not be surprising for the men who flew and returned from mission after mission to suffer from “shell shock,” or what we call today PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). They had flown through flak fields, faced enemy fighter attacks, watched other crews go down, and seen their own bombs’ destruction below on the enemy’s soil. But I would expect a military chaplain who had to witness the hell of war through the eyes of those he was shepherding could be as consumed with the guilt, terror, and grief as his flock.
When I read that the 384th’s Catholic chaplain Herbert Butterbach died of a heart attack at the age of thirty-five, shortly after returning to the States after the war, I wonder if his heart had been broken so severely from the many losses of his Group that he could no longer go on.
I began by looking at the rules and regulations the military set forth for these men, their guidelines of service. The US War Department’s AR (Army Regulations) 60-5 Chaplains General Provisions, spelled out the duties of a military chaplain, which included their duties to:
- Hold religious services
- Serve as friends, counselors, and guides, without discrimination, to all members of the command to which they are assigned, regardless of creed or sect
- Strive to promote morality, religion, and good order
- Conduct ceremonies including burial services, marriages, baptisms, etc.
- Interview or address new recruits in matters pertaining to morals and character
- Advise enlisted men under arrest or in confinement
- Make regular visits to the sick in the hospital
- Encourage correspondence between enlisted men and their relatives and friends
The 384th’s Protestant Chaplain, Dayle Schnelle, who was with the Group from the beginning, wrote an article for the Group’s very first WWII edition of their news publication, The Plane News, on April 17, 1943. This issue was published while the Group was still in the States, in Sioux City, Iowa. (Transcription below).
The Chaplain Says… by Chaplain Dayle R. Schnelle
Some time ago a very famous American was giving an address in the interest of public morale. In this speech he made this remark, “We are fighting God’s war for Him.” The two following questions may help us clarify our thinking.
First, what kind of war is God waging? This is no difficult question. His is a war against Sin and all the forces of Evil. Surely, we say, this describes Hitler. But God’s war is not against a man or men. His war is for them. He would destroy the evil that makes men like Hitler possible.
Second, who can fight God’s war? Naturally, the only soldier who can fight for the United States are soldiers of the United States. In like manner, God’s war is fought by His soldiers. Just any man cannot claim that honor. God has laid down certain requirements to which we must conform if we are to be in His army.
From this we may draw our conclusions. We must not blame God for our failures and our weaknesses. We cannot force God to join “our side” and exclude another. Our only hope for a final victory and a lasting peace is not in getting God on our side but for us to join “God’s side.”
The Christmas 1943 edition of The Plane News included a photo of Protestant chaplain Dayle Schnelle (on the left) and Catholic chaplain Method Billy (on the right) standing in front of the Group’s chapel at their base in Grafton Underwood, UK with Major Roy Dier, who supervised the church’s construction.
During my research, I ran across a paper written by a History Department Undergraduate at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, Jeremiah Snyder. The title of Jeremiah’s paper, which was published in the Undergraduate Research Journal at UCCS in the Spring of 2009, is Let Us Die Bravely: United States Chaplains in World War II. (I’ve included a link at the bottom of this article).
Jeremiah looks at the role of military chaplains in WWII and how they fit into “America’s War Machine.” For those interested in more information on the role of military chaplains, I urge you to read Jeremiah’s entire paper. I will include only an excerpt here:
World War II chaplains served in the military for a number of reasons. One staunch pacifist clergyman turned military officer, Russell Cartwright Stroup, eloquently articulated the Christian justifications for the war. In a letter home to his brother and mother, Chaplain Stroup wrote:
I have asked myself so many times, “What am I doing here?”…I love peace so passionately and hate war so utterly. More than a hatred: I am convinced that war is utterly futile and senseless…yet here I am in the midst of it, feeling that it is right for me to be here and that, indeed, I could be nowhere else—even though this might cost me my life…
There is the challenge of the work. Here are men who need me…I feel that the church has never faced a greater opportunity, a heaven-sent chance to touch tomorrow’s manhood and to save America for Christ…
…I may be mistaken, but I doubt that there can be effective leadership in the church of tomorrow by men who, able to serve in the war, chose not to do so. Too many of our church men will be veterans…
…I must follow the Master: He would be found where mankind is suffering, and He would be sharing that suffering.
There is also the motive of “patriotism.” I have always loved America deeply…I cannot be indifferent to the call of my country, even though I may hate what we are called upon to do…
We are compelled to halt the aggression of an evil movement in the world. I do not think war will make a better world…But if we had stood by and allowed the Nazi, the Fascist, and the militarist to run wild in our world, the darkness would become deeper and the night longer…
…I want to be found on the side of the dignity and worth of human personality, of liberty, of the rights of man. I want to be found opposing tyranny, oppression, bigotry, and the exultation of materialism. I do not think that God blesses war, but I do hope that He blesses those who, in good conscience, are willing to sacrifice, in peace or war, for what they believe are principles in accord with His Holy Will.”
Jeremiah quoted Chaplain Stroup’s letter from Letters from the Pacific: A Combat Chaplain in World War II (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000).
I also wondered about the faith of the men who served in WWII in other capacities. The faith of some, it seems, strengthened. They believed God brought them through their ordeal. But some lost their faith in God. My grandmother, my father’s mother, was a Sunday School teacher in the Presbyterian church. I’m sure she believed that God brought her son home from the war. God guided him through his missions, watched over him in the prison camp, and held his hand on the Black March through Germany. But after WWII, I don’t believe my dad had the same relationship with God that he did before he fought in it. I think he may have felt abandoned by God and wondered how his God could leave him as the only survivor of his ship while taking the lives of all the others, how God could let him nearly starve to death, and why his God would let the memories visit him every day and every night for the rest of his life.
At the end of my dad’s military training, just before he was shipped overseas to his air base, he wrote his mother…
I’ll write you as often as I can, and I want you to know that I haven’t waited this long to start asking God to help me. That is one thing I have never been too proud to do, and I think it helps a lot, too.
But after the war, I think he lost his faith. I never knew my dad to step foot in church when I was growing up except for a handful of weddings and funerals. He and my mother were married by a Justice of the Peace in the county courthouse, not by a Minister in a church. We blessed God and thanked him for the food on our table every night before dinner, but other than that, God was not invited into our home. I was sent to Sunday School in the Presbyterian Church, the church of Dad’s mother, only sporadically, and never taken to a church service, although I went once by myself. I chose not to go back after the preacher’s sermon taught me that I was surely going to Hell and that my God was a vengeful God, not the kind and loving and caring God that I had imagined him to be. Upon announcing one day when I was in my teens that I didn’t believe in God, Dad told me, “Don’t you ever say that again.” End of discussion. Apparently his belief in God was still strong, the relationship just strained.
I found God later on my own. I consider myself spiritual, though not religious, meaning that I do have my belief in a kind and loving God, but do not care for organized religion and the structure of the church. I feel God outside in the fresh air among the flowers and trees. I hear God in the gentle breeze and see Him in the sunrise, in the sunset, and in the faces of friends. I feel His presence in the roar of the ocean and the first cry of a newborn. I feel my closest connection to God when I walk alone on a beach, not sitting in the pew of a church. I don’t talk to God often, but when I do, I thank Him for another beautiful day in this world. I do believe in God. I have Faith in God. But then, I’ve never been to war.
To read the entire AR 60-5 Chaplains General Provisions document, click here.
The Plane News was brought out of retirement from WWI, where it originated aboard the warship, The Baltic. To read the entire story or more of this issue and others on the 384th Bomb Group’s web site, click here.
To read Jeremiah Snyder’s Undergraduate Research Journal at UCCS paper, Let Us Die Bravely: United States Chaplains in World War II, click here.
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2017 (with the exception of Jeremiah Snyder’s excerpt)