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In WWII, clergy could not be drafted for military service. However, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, many felt patriotic and enlisted. Although there were a few exceptions, the requirements for a military chaplain at the time of initial examination included:
- Male citizen of the USA
- 23 to 34 years old
- 4-year college degree
- 3 years of theological seminary education
- Ordained, accredited by, and in good standing with a religious denomination or organization
- Primary occupation in the ministry with 3 years of experience
There were Christian-faith (Catholic and Protestant) and Jewish-faith chaplains in the Chaplains Corps. But there were very limited numbers of chaplains, so often one chaplain would minister to all faiths.
As far as I can tell, the 384th Bomb Group had three chaplains during its stay in Grafton Underwood. Two of those chaplains were Catholic, Method Billy and Herbert Francis Butterbach. The other chaplain was Protestant, Dayle R. Schnelle. I cannot find record of a Jewish chaplain, or Rabbi, but I am still searching.
The importance of the group chaplain to the men of the 384th cannot be underestimated. Eugene Spearman, a radio operator with the group, wrote about the importance of the presence of this religious figure to him before missions.
One thing that I was thankful for was that a minister or priest stood holding a Bible beside the runway just before we released the brakes and raced down the runway on every mission, rain or shine. Standing just beside the end of the runway, where we made that final check of instruments before releasing the brakes, stood a minister. I don’t know what denomination he represented, but it was an inspiration to me to see him there. And then we were on our way.
The first Catholic chaplain was Method C. Billy. Brother Billy or Father Billy, as he was known, served under the first group commander, Budd Peaslee, and the second, interim commander, Julius Lacey. In the Fall of 1943, Dale Smith took command of the 384th. Smith wrote in his book “Screaming Eagle” that his service with the 384th was the “most challenging and terrifying year of my life.”
Smith found that the men of the 384th had such respect for original commander Budd Peaslee that any replacement could not measure up to the great man. Ask anyone familiar with 384th Bomb Group history today who the commander of the 384th was and the answer will be Budd Peaslee. There was a succession of commanders, six of them in fact, but the only name you will likely hear in answer to that question is Peaslee’s.
Smith felt like an outsider at Grafton Underwood and felt the continued allegiance of the men to Peaslee to such an extent that he replaced many of the group’s leaders. Perhaps Brother Billy was one of those or who did not fit into Smith’s plans for the group. In the Fall of 1944, Smith transferred Brother Billy and replaced him with Herbert Francis Butterbach.
At the end of WWII, when the 384th Bomb Group moved to Istres, France, they had at least one chaplain with them with the last name Duvall. He could have been James T. Duvall, who served during the war as chaplain of the 398th Bomb Group, according to the American Air Museum in Britain.
For more information about the Chaplain Corps, click here.
Thank you to 384th Bomb Group Combat Data Specialist and Researcher Keith Ellefson for contributions to this article.
I will continue this series with separate posts about and photos of Chaplains Billy Method, Herbert Francis Butterbach, Dayle R. Schnelle, and James T. Duvall…
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2017
Eugene Spearman wrote some wonderful stories about his WWII experiences with the 384th Bomb Group. One person he mentioned in several stories was not a flight crew member or even part of the ground crew. But this one man’s work at Grafton Underwood touched many lives. He was Chaplain Method Billy, known to the boys of the 384th as “Brother Billy.”
Brother Billy was born December 12, 1910 to Joseph and Elizabeth (known as Baca) Billy. Joseph and Elizabeth immigrated to America from Slovakia in 1897. Joseph earned a living as a coal miner in the Midvale section of Plains Township, Pennsylvania. Elizabeth was a housewife and mother. The Billy’s raised nine children and Method, born Michael, was their fifth.
They were a religious family and Michael/Method was not the only Billy child to be called into religious service. All three Billy sons became priests: Joseph (Monsignor Florian), John (Reverend Anthony), and Michael (Monsignor Method). Four of the six Billy daughters became nuns and served as teachers: Anna (Sister Ulphia), Elizabeth (Sister Emiliana), Margaret (Sister Gemma), and Cecelia (Sister Elise). Only two daughters, Mary (the oldest daughter) and Emily (the youngest daughter), married and had children.
In 1929, Michael Billy graduated from St. Francis Seminary in Staten Island, New York. He entered the Novitiate of the Conventual Franciscan Friar in Syracuse, New York where he received the religious name, Method, and professed his religious vows in 1930. He also studied theology at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. Method Billy was ordained a priest on July 26, 1935. In 1936, he was assigned as a professor at St. Anthony-on-Hudson Seminary in Rensselaer, New York, where he remained until at least 1940, according to the 1940 census.
Method Billy enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942 and served as a Chaplain for four years. He was detailed as Group Chaplain of the 384th Bomb Group on SO #158 dated December 1, 1943. In addition to holding regular church services for the men of the 384th, he performed another very special service that impressed Eugene Spearman enough to write about him in several of his stories.
We then taxied out to the end of the runway and awaited our signal for take-off. Standing just outside the plane during most of my missions even in rain or snow stood a man, Bro. Billy, holding a Bible. His being there was such a blessing for me. Just knowing that someone was praying for me made me feel better.
Standing just beside the end of the runway, where we made that final check of instruments before releasing the brakes, stood a minister. I don’t know what denomination he represented, but it was an inspiration to me to see him there. And then we were on our way.
One thing that I was thankful for was that a minister or priest stood holding a Bible beside the runway just before we released the brakes and raced down the runway on every mission, rain or shine.
After the war, Method Billy was Guardian at St. Bonaventure Friary in Washington, D.C. There he pursued advanced studies and received the Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Catholic University of America, after which he became a Professor of Theology. In 1957, he was appointed Pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Endicott, New York, and later served as Professor of Religious Studies at Maria Regina College in Syracuse, New York. He later was assigned to Saints Cyril and Method Friary in Binghamton, New York.
Monsignor Method Billy died Nov 9, 1995. He is buried in the Saint Cyril Slovak Catholic Cemetery in Binghamton, Broome County, New York.
Photos provided by Chris Benson and 384thbombgroup.com, used with permission.
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2016