Military Chaplains: Some of Our Most Unheralded Heroes

One of the least known parts of the United States’ military history might be the dedicated and deeply valued service of military chaplains from the beginning of our country’s history to the present. With this article, we hope to bring that self-giving and often heroic service to your attention.

This past November 28th was the 245th birthday of the United States Navy Chaplains Corps. It was on November 28, 1775, that the U.S. Congress established the United States Navy Chaplains Corps to serve on ships during the Revolutionary War. This makes the US Navy Chaplains Corps the oldest staff corps in the military.

Chaplains in the USN Chaplains Corps today provide religious services to the men and women of the United States Navy, the United States Marine Corps, and the United States Coast Guard. They serve members and their families on bases, on ships, and wherever our troops are deployed around the world.

Photo: Adobe Stock/seanlockephotography

Over the history of the Chaplains Corps, some 270 chaplains have been killed in action while providing aid and spiritual comfort to troops on the battlefield or while serving aboard ships. In WWII alone, 100 chaplains were KIA, which represents the 3rd highest casualty rate, per capita, of all the units that served in that war. Over 400 chaplains have died of other causes while on active duty serving their men and women. At the present time, there are over 800 Navy chaplains serving in the USN, USMC, and Coast Guard.

One of the most impressive things to know about the history of the Chaplains Corps is its record for valor on the field of battle. The most highly decorated chaplain in U.S. Army history is Fr. Francis P. Duffy, who served in WWI with the Fighting 69th of the New York Army National Guard. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, The Conspicuous Service Cross, The Legion d’Honneur (France), and the Croix de Guerre.

Photo: Facebook/Naval History & Heritage Command

There have been 9 chaplain recipients of the Medal of Honor. They include four chaplains from the Civil War and:

  • Fr. Joseph O’Callahan, who served aboard the USS Franklin in WWII
  • Fr. Emil Kapaun, with the 1st Cavalry Division, Korea
  • Fr. Charles Liteky, who served with the 199th Infantry Brigade, Vietnam
  • Fr. Vincent Capodonno, the “grunt padre” with 3rd Bn, 5th Marines, USN/USMC in Vietnam
  • Fr. Charles Watters, US Army, 173rd Support Bn., Vietnam

There have been six USN ships named in honor of USN/MC Chaplains.

Photo: Adobe Stock/SPD

Those of us who have been in combat and benefitted from the services of military chaplains can attest to their courage and their dedication to their men in providing counseling, prayer, religious services, and spiritual comfort under fire.

I knew one of these brave chaplains personally at Khe Sanh. He was USN Chaplain Fr. Robert R. Brett. He was serving with the 26th Marines at Khe Sanh during the 77-day-long Tet Offensive siege at Khe Sanh, from January 21 to April 12, 1968. On February 26th, while caring for the wounded in a bunker down by the airstrip where they were awaiting evacuation helicopters, Fr. Brett was KIA, along with many of the wounded, when the bunker took a direct hit from an NVA artillery round.

Photo: Adobe Stock/Wirestock

I, along with a couple of other Hospital Corpsmen from my unit, Bravo 3rd Recon, were called down to Graves Registration that terrible day to help identify, tag, and bag the bodies. Seeing Fr. Brett among the dead laid out on stretchers in that tent that day really stunned me. I cannot put into words what that did to me. I will never forget that vision.

Those who have served in our military owe the chaplains of the US Army, Air Force, and Navy/Marine Corps. We will never forget the care and the selfless service that those men and women have given us in our hours of need whether in combat or at home. They are the most unheralded heroes in our military services.

Today we remember the United States Navy Chaplains Corps as it celebrates its 245th birthday. We say to them both “Fair Winds” and Semper Fi! OoRah!

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