You may have heard the phrase, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” While the phrase may be a bit flip, the sentiment comes from experience.
There is no greater mystery that we human beings face than that of death. In war, death is an ever present reality. It is present in every space, in every moment, even in the quiet between battles. You see it, hear it, smell it, and even taste it in the wild chaos and violence that is common to war fighting.
Those who have experienced that particular and peculiar madness of war up-close-and-personally, have all confronted that great mystery. As Shakespeare’s great character, Hamlet, says to his highly educated friend, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” In war, when death is so present, so violent, and so potentially immediate in any given moment, even the most steely among us think about the possibility of dying and are filled with questions and fears about the “unknowns.” In the military, such transcendental questions are the domain of those men and women we call chaplains.
Chaplains have served our men and women in the military since 1775. In fact, since that time, over 25,000 chaplains from all religions have provided spiritual comfort and assistance to the troops. Though they are non-combatants, they often become targets because they place themselves in harm’s way to pull the wounded to safety and to administer comfort and last rites.
This was true during the Vietnam War as well. In fact the names of 16 chaplain’s names are carved into the black granite of the Vietnam Memorial, or what Vietnam veterans call “The Wall” in Washington, D.C. This article is written to honor those chaplains who fell while serving their men in Vietnam.
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The following are the 16 chaplains inscribed on The Wall:
- William J Burragy. Roman Catholic serving with the 101st Airborne Division. Died in a helicopter crash on his way to provide religious services. His name appears on the wall at Panel 7E/22.
- Don L. Bartley. Killed by a mine on May 4, 1966. United Presbyterian Church. Appears on panel 23W/109.
- Robert R. Brett. Roman Catholic. Killed while assisting the wounded in a bunker by the airstrip during the siege at Khe Sanh on February 22, 1968. He was attached to the 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines. Appears on panel 40E/58
- Merle D. Brown. Lutheran. Killed on Easter Sunday 1971 when the helicopter he was riding in on his way to conduct religious services for the men of 1st Bn., 20th Infantry, Americal Division, was shot down. Appears on panel 4W/118
- Vincent Robert Capodanno. Roman Catholic. Serving with 3rd Bn, 5th Marines was killed by small arms fire while recovering and attending to the wounded and giving last rites during an intense battle. For his actions that day, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Appears on panel 25E/95
- Meir Engel. Jewish. A veteran of WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Died of a heart attack in Saigon 12/16/1964.
- William N. Feaster. Congregational Christian Church. During an enemy artillery attack on September 18, 1966 while he was serving with the 196th LIB. Chaplain Feaster was helping the wounded. It was discovered later that he too had been wounded. He died several weeks later from infection associated with his wounds. Appears on panel 11E/109.
- William J. Garrity, Jr. Roman Catholic. Died as the result of being overwhelmed by smoke and heat while providing assistance to the wounded and giving last rites to sailors who were burned in the fire that broke out on the aircraft carrier, USS Oriskany, on October 26, 1966. Appears on panel 11E/110.
- Ambrosio S. Grandea. Methodist. Died as a result of infection from wounds received from hostile mortar fire while conducting a church service for the 1st Bn., 14th Infantry June 13, 1967. Appears on panel 21E/97.
- Roger W. Heinz. Lutheran. Attached to the 5th Special Forces Group. Killed in a helicopter crash on December 9, 1969. Appears on panel 15W/42.
- James J.L. Johnson. Baptist. Died with 22 others when the Navy VC-47 aircraft he was in lost a wing during flight. He was attached to the 4th Infantry Division. Appears on panel 16E/53.
- Aloysius P. McGonigal. Roman Catholic. Was attached to the 1st Bn. 5th Marines. Died while caring for the wounded, giving comfort and last rites to wounded Marines as his unit conducted the final assault on the Citadel at Hue during the Tet Offensive on February 17, 1968. He was killed by small arms fire. Appears on panel 39E/75
- Phillip A Nichols. Lutheran. Died as a result of shrapnel wounds, along with several others in the 1st Bn. 52nd Infantry, Americal Division, when one of the men tripped an enemy booby trap in the field on October 13, 1970. Appears on panel 7W/133.
- Michael J. Quealy. Roman Catholic. Killed by machine gun fire during an intense battle with the NVA 101st Regiment while providing comfort and giving last rites to the wounded in the 1st Bn. 28th Infantry Regiment near Saigon on November 8, 1966. Appears on panel 12 E/43.
- Morton H. Singer. Jewish. Was in country only one month when he died in a C-123 crash after take-off on his way to perform Chanukah services on December 17, 1968. Appears on panel 36W/37.
- Charles J. Watters. Roman Catholic. Killed in action while assisting medics and providing spiritual comfort and last rites during a battle. Served with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. He was credited with recovering 20 wounded men under intense directed small arms and machine gunfire. For his actions, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Appears on panel 30E/36.
Those who have experienced combat, who have seen the violence and stared death in the face, know too the comfort and aid that our military chaplains made available to us on a daily basis, both in the rear and in the field of battle. They were there to listen to our fears, to counsel us, to meet our spiritual needs and to provide our religious services.
We knew they didn’t have to be there in the thick of battle, but they often were. And it was a comfort to know that they were there for us in life, and if necessary, to help us “cross that final threshold” into that great mystery of death.
We here at The Veterans Site are humbled by the courage and conviction of our military chaplains. Those men and women are true saints among us. We thank all who have served and those who continue to serve in the Chaplain Corps.
We cannot thank you enough for what you do.
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