Commentary Magazine

From the American Scene: Chaplains on Land and Sea

In the March 1948 COMMENTARY, a “returned chaplain” had some candid words to say about his congregations, both civil and military. Harry Gersh here tells us how the chaplains looked to at least one soldier and sailor—by happy circumstance he was both. COMMENTARY’S anonymous chaplain drew some fairly strong generalizations about the state of American Israel; Mr. Gersh leaves us to draw our own generalizations about chaplains, if any—and incidentally about another much mulled-over topic, anti-Semitism in the armed forces. Mr. Gersh will be remembered by readers of this department for his exercises in informal sociology: “Mama’s Cooking: Minority Report” (October 1947) and “The Jewish Paintner” (January 1948).



I was having a drink with this guy recently and he told me about his experiences in the war. His chaplains must have climbed out of some recruiting poster or movie script. All, without exception, were good, kind, patient, secure in their faith and beloved by their men. Well, mine weren’t.

Army chaplains, this guy said further, and here too he was echoing a universal conception, were better than navy chaplains because the army is more progressive in race and religion than is the navy. Etc., etc.

(There is another intellectual dictum to which the preceding paragraphs bow: magazine articles must have a unifying idea, teach a lesson. The following incidents have a unifying theme: chaplains. And they teach a lesson: about time-honored beliefs. Some check, some quite distinctly do not.)

For the purposes of settling arguments, acting wiser than other veterans, and being also an authority on chaplains, I was fortunate in the last war. I served in both the army and navy during the period of active hostilities.

The army came first.



I was an armored force man, qualified to shoot eight weapons, drive tanks, halftracks, and jeeps. I was a platoon sergeant, too, boss of sixty basic trainees. The stripes were a reward for a high I.Q., for careful attention to all field manuals, and to shoe polishing equipment, and for a loud voice. There was one other Jew in the platoon. About six in the whole company.

I met my first chaplain as sergeant, 2nd Platoon, C Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Group. Our group insignia was a charging rhinoceros.

The sergeant of a training platoon has a hard job. Each training period ended with a thirty-two mile hike with full pack. And me with my gassen-geyer feet. Teaching trainees to shoot the M-r is fairly easy. But there are bad moments when a new soldier turns casually from the firing line to ask a question, and as casually turns his rifle until the muzzle is six inches from your belly. But the hardest part of the job had to do with weekend passes.

Every Saturday noon, after inspection, the men lined up outside my barracks cubicle for their weekend passes. I would sit at a table and dispense largesse as if it were my own. The men came in alphabetically and I filled out their names and numbers over the captain’s signature.

Soldiers come in conflict with the Articles of War, with army and post regulations, with orders from superiors and with officers. The conflict is caused by stupidity, forgetfulness, stubbornness, and the sheer impossibility of conforming to every order and regulation. But they do come in conflict with them—and then the soldiers are punished. The most common, and the most feared, punishment is restriction to the company street over the weekend. That means no pass. And no pass means no city, no bars, no girls, no privacy, no blessed freedom.

Refusal of a pass is always the sergeant’s fault. He’s the one who gives passes to the lucky ones and withholds them from the lawbreakers. Sometimes it is the sergeant’s fault. He can recommend punishment for non-compliance with his orders. But mostly it isn’t. He has more effective ways of maintaining discipline.

Men have to curse when they are punished. They curse their fellows, the noncoms, the officers, the generals, the army, the system, and God. All are held accountable for their plight. It’s allowable. But there are limits.

Each Saturday I gave out the passes and each Saturday I had to say, “None for you, Joe,” to a select few. There was always one who took it personally. From me to him. Then the cursing took on a new note.



There is something about hate that sharpens the hater’s eyes. Men who had been taking orders from me for weeks—in a most friendly manner—without a thought of my antecedents, would suddenly discover that I was a Jew when they couldn’t get a pass. Maybe the fear I felt every Saturday noon elongated my nose, curled my hair, put the mark of phylacteries on my brow. The restricted men were always conscious of my Jewishness.

In the language of fear and hate the letter “b” has a peculiar affinity with the word Jew. Contempt is usually expressed by Jew-bunny. Active hatred by Jew-bastard. I have been cursed a thousand times and each time these hyphenates reappear. It’s odd.

So the disappointed soldiers would walk out of my room mouthing curses. If the words were mumbled and only faintly heard, I did nothing. My majesty was not assailed. But if the words were plainly heard—not by me, I heard them before they were formed—by the waiting soldiers, then I had to do something. Thus are we creatures of a culture. My grandfather, a wiser and more faithful man, would have let the words go regardless of the listeners. I didn’t.

It is a COMMENTARY on something or other. The men who voiced most strongly their “God-damned Jew-bastards” were always larger, stronger, and more adept than I. But I am a brave man. Each Saturday noon I rose to the bait.

“What’d you say, Joe,” my eyes bleak, my voice hard, my sergeant’s stripes prominent.

Sometimes they backed down. Usually they didn’t. “You heard me, you kike.”

There would be a flurry of arms, grunted breaths and the exciting sound of fist on flesh. Then we were separated. But not before it was obvious that he was the better man.

After the fight I continued to give out the remaining passes, tenderly feeling the bruise on cheek or chin, exploring the growing blackness under an eye, catching the blood dripping from nose or lip.

I was not interested in silent martyrdom. After my Saturday chores I would hang around the company day room. I’d ask the first sergeant some unimportant questions, making sure that my wounds were not hidden. I’d wait until the officers came out and face them directly, stop them with a pleasantry. But they never asked me about the split lip, the black eye. They knew why the blood and bruises were on my face. And I knew that they knew. Week after week I knew that they knew. It was quite a game. But the men have to settle things among themselves. Mustn’t coddle them or interfere.



One Saturday afternoon I got tired of being beaten up. I went to see the chaplain.

I didn’t know what I was looking for. I still don’t. Perhaps I wanted comforting. Perhaps a lessening of the pain by sharing. Maybe I wanted an officer to acknowledge my bruises, an officer who would have to listen and maybe understand. Wasn’t he a soldier, a Jew, a Rabbi in Israel?

The chaplain’s assistant took my name, rank, and serial number. He wanted to know the reason for my coming. We sparred about with that for a while. He offered the fact that it was Saturday afternoon, the chaplain was busy, he had to go home, maybe the assistant could help me and suchlike irrelevancies. But finally I was admitted to the chaplain’s office.

The office was in the chapel. On Friday evenings and Saturday mornings the chapel was Jewish. On Sundays and Wednesday evenings it was Protestant. The Catholic chaplain had his own church. Jewish services were over for the week and the Ark and Torah were in a closet behind the chaplain’s desk. Folded prayer shawls were piled carefully on a lower shelf. I had never worn a prayer shawl nor read my portion of the Law from the scroll, but I looked at them and felt better.

The chaplain was a small man, quick, graceful. He had had all the required courses and knew his business. But he didn’t have the answer to my question.

I told him the story of the 2nd Platoon, C Company. He listened sympathetically with the correct half questions and nods of the head. The occasional glances at his watch were almost imperceptible. After the story was told I looked at him expectantly. He looked back.

“Yes, sergeant, it’s tough. That’s the way it goes.”

And that’s the way it went. I don’t know what I wanted from the rabbi. He couldn’t change my soldiers and I didn’t want him to make an issue of my troubles before the captain. But whatever he gave me wasn’t enough. I felt put off.

I knew all the stock answers for anti-Semitism. The economic, the sociological, the psychological. The cures were beyond me and beyond the chaplain. Maybe I had come seeking a deeper refuge. I didn’t find it.

He was the first chaplain, the first rabbi I had turned to—and been turned away from. If I had had a foxhole, I would have been an atheist.



Next episode, in another place. A wooded place with fifty or sixty light tanks and auxiliary vehicles hidden under the trees. Each tank entered the wood from another direction so that no rutted path would betray our position to the air. Inside the wood, lounging about their tanks, were about four hundred men—some loud, some silent, some sleeping. All scared.

I was casually bitching to my crew about the mud on the bogie wheels and did they grease the drive sprockets enough when the chaplain came up. He was a real hell-for-leather armored force chaplain. Tall, well-built, well-dressed for a forward area.

The boys started to get up when they saw the shine of brass approaching but they relaxed when they saw the metal cross. A chaplain wouldn’t dare report a man. He didn’t disappoint them.

“Sit right still, boys,” he said, “it’s only Chaplain Mac.” Later we decided he had seen too many movies.

The men were scared and would have listened to anyone. The fresh-faced shave-tail could have won their eternal loyalty had he known how. The chaplain should have known how. But he was one of the boys. He didn’t want differentials—except in uniform, chow, and latrines.

Chaplain Mac asked us how things were going, taking care to include several technical questions about the tank and guns. That, too, proved he was one of the boys. But the crew was tired of tanks and guns. Right now they wanted home and momma. So Mac pulled his best, sure-fire gag.

He pulled out of his musette bag two large, shiny punches. The kind conductors use to punch tickets. He brandished them under our noses and smiled broadly.

“OK, boys, you seem to have a lot of grief. Pull out your T.S. cards and I’ll punch them.”

That was it and I still don’t know what was wrong with it.

T.S.1 was the most useful phrase in any service. Any dogface past basic training could put more meanings and expressions into those two words than my grandfather could put into staitch. A phrase useful for all occasions. Except this one.

And still I don’t think I expected the chaplain to walk about with blessings or miracles flowing from his fingertips.



A couple of months later I switched to the navy. Because of my previous military training the navy allowed me to cut boot training from sixty days to eight weeks, and they made me acting company commander.

Rules, regulations, and rank are more sacred in the navy than in the army—if possible. I saw my first navy chaplain immediately after breaking my first navy rule.

Sunday morning at 0900 all Catholic boots were mustered and marched off to services. At 1000 Protestants and Jews were marched off to their respective services. By this time I was tired of being a boot and looking for a good issue to fight about. Like a bored Communist looking for a protest picketing. I found it in the Sunday services. I refused to go.

The first time I was caught looking through a Captain Midnight comic book while everyone else was communing with God, I could have got away with it. The navy is easy on boots. I could have said I was lost, didn’t know where I belonged. But I was tough. I said I didn’t want to go to services. Bells rang, gongs clanged, and fire flashed in the battalion commander’s eyes.

“What the hell do you mean you won’t go. You’re in the navy now. You go where we tell you. Don’t pull any of that army crap around here.”

(Back then I could have warned Harry Truman of the difficulties of a unified military establishment.)

I was reasonable with the battalion commander. After all, he was a chief petty officer—a boatswain’s mate at that—therefore a reasonable man.

“I’m not trying to break regulations, Chief. But I don’t think anyone in the American Army or Navy can be forced to go to church. We do have freedom of worship. I might be a Mohammedan. Maybe it’s against my religion to go to church.”

The chief was reasonable but it was unreasonable for me to suggest that a Mohammedan might be in the US Navy. He threatened me with everything from eighty days bread and water to flogging. Then he put me down for a visit with the training officer.

The training officer was a genuine, gold braid, jay gee, officer-of-the-line. The emblem on his cap was salt-tarnished. He knew that he could order me to attend services and then hang me for disobeying a direct order. But he knew also that I was old enough, mad enough, and stubborn enough to make a fuss with some Congressman or newspaper. He had read my records and found that I claimed to have been a newspaperman.

So he sent me to the senior chaplain. The senior chaplain was a man to strike fear in the hearts of all enlisted men and officers to the rank of lieutenant-commander. He was a regular Navy captain. Four gold stripes encircled his forearm and his cap visor was heavy with command braid.

It’s hard to describe a navy captain to a non-navy man. In the army awe and fear mount with rank right on up to the top—the five star boys. But the navy captain has a special niche. He is equal in pay, perquisites, and protocol to an army colonel, but he’s much more. He is lord and master and on the right hand of God. A battleship may carry an admiral as fleet or force commander, but the captain of that battleship is boss.

And I had been sent to see a Captain, USN, Chaplains Corps. He had twenty-six years in and knew how to see an ordinary seaman. He asked me wasn’t I proud to be a Jew and didn’t I believe in God. Then tried the one about older men and company commanders being examples to the young boys. Finally he gave up and said I could do as I pleased about services but to watch my step.

The next Sunday I flaunted my Godlessness and read comics while the boys marched off to services. On the second Sunday I mustered my company, told the Jewish boys to fall out and re-form and marched them off to the chapel with myself at their head. The navy always wins. Here’s why in this case.



One of the indoctrination sessions scheduled for all boots was a talk by the chaplain of the base. A couple of days after my victory over the chaplain captain our battalion was marched into the theater to hear the lecture. We sprawled in the unaccustomed luxury of the officers’ seats and waited. The chief let go with a storm-at-sea voice.

“TALion, HUTenSHUN.”

We snapped to our feet as three officers walked out on the stage. Two jay gees and one full lieutenant. They seated themselves and we followed.

The chief cautioned us to sit upright, listen closely, and remember well what was to be said, for out at sea we would be damn (pardon me, sir) glad for what the chaplain was about to tell us.

The lieutenant rose, walked forward, and said, “I am a rabbi.”

My reaction was similar to that of every boot in the battalion. I sucked in my breath, and sat forward. Then I sat back and listened hard.

The speech was unimportant. It was the standard M1A3 chaplain’s spiel to new servicemen. But the man was smart. His first sentence proved it. Most of the boys had never seen a real, live rabbi before. Most of them had never even thought of one. If they had run across the word it had evoked a mental picture of some anti-Semitic stereotype. And here was a man, an officer, the senior officer present, the man whom the chief and the jay gees made way for and said “sir” to, a man who calmly walked forward and said, “I am a rabbi.” I loved him.

After he finished speaking the two jay gees, one the Catholic chaplain, the other Protestant, seconded his speech. But the rabbi had given it.

I don’t know whether the training officers thought about it or whether they fought against it. But that’s navy. The senior working chaplain was a rabbi. He ranked all but the administrative chaplains. So he gave the welcoming speech. Thousands of young men saw the navy for the first time at this station. The tough, rough, manly, do-or-die navy. And the first official chaplain they saw said, “I am a rabbi.”

It was a kind of snobbism that made me smile at that chaplain, that allowed me to sit back and shep noches as he spoke. He was not the senior man because of special worth or because he was a Jew. He got there because he was older or had more degrees or more seniority. He was there, though.

The rabbi and his speech was one reason for giving up my costly victory over the US Navy. This is the other.

Each Sunday morning the Jewish women of Fall River left their warm homes, their husbands and children, packed great hampers of food, and came to Newport Naval Training Station. They unpacked their goods on the ping-pong tables in the rear of the Quonset hut that served as synagogue. They uncovered coffee with real cream, bagel, and lox and cream cheese. All during the services we would sneak glances backward to see the steam rising from the coffee pots, the bright red-pink salmon peeking from the light brown bagel. The services always ended with the singing of Elohenu. The tempo was much faster than a good cantor would allow because the odor of the coffee kept drifting toward the Ark.



The last week of boot training was feverish. Men who had never read the front page of a newspaper suddenly displayed great interest in current events. It’s nice to know in what ocean you’re soon to be floating and who’s going to be lobbing shells at you. Even the men assigned to specialist schools for further training became interested in the progress of the war, in their own progress in the navy, in their families, and in what happens when you are sick, wounded, or dead.

During that week the Catholic chaplain sent word that he would distribute St. Christopher medals to any boy wanting or needing one. The Jewish chaplain passed the word that he had sacred scrolls to be worn about the neck. One evening the Jewish boys lined up outside the chaplain’s office to receive the talismans. I, too, was there, but hanging back to be last. When my turn came I went into the office quickly and sat down looking at the floor. The chaplain looked up and started to frown, then smiled.

“You’re the man who wouldn’t come to services.”

“Yes, sir.”

“But I’ve seen you at services these past weeks, haven’t I?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, not being very helpful.

“And now you want one of these.” He tossed the small gold cylinder on its nylon string at me. “Why?”

I thought a while before answering. I had been thinking about that same question all day. “Conformity is part of the answer, I guess. This is a good time to be part of the gang. And in part it’s not wanting to miss any bets. The risk is great enough. I’ll hedge on anything.

“I’m quite sure that my grandfather would never approve of these gadgets. It smacks of idolatry and golden images. But I’m scared and know I’ll be more scared. If I can grab this string and get any strength out of it, I’ll be glad.

“There’s one more reason. When I go aboard ship I’ll sound silly announcing ‘I’m a Jew.’ This way they’ll know as soon as I take off my shirt.”

The chaplain smiled again and asked if he could put one more question.

“If you were seriously wounded would you want a chaplain near you, a rabbi? Would you say ‘Shema Yisrael’?”

I thought a bit on that too. “Yes, I guess I would. Maybe it wasn’t only the lox and bagel.”

As I was leaving the chaplain said, “Well, I’m satisfied. Are you?”



At The very next base I heard the Jewish chaplain talking to a group of Jewish sailors.

“I don’t want you to go around acting like a bunch of Yidlach,” he said.



The Islands are any collection of sand, rock, or coral mountain tops big enough to support a palm tree. If you knew to which fleet or task force a man belonged you knew to which islands he referred. But Marshalls, Leeward, Mariannas, or Windward, they were called “the Islands.” Down in one of them I found another Jewish chaplain.

I found him sweaty and broken-hearted behind a desk in a Quonset hut. There was an inconspicuous sign that read “Chaplain” outside the hut but no one ever bothered to read it. Bureau of Personnel must have had a quick recount one day and found that they were one Jewish chaplain over quota. This was the chaplain. He had no more business on that bit of sweaty ooze than an enlisted man in nurses’ quarters. But BuPers sent him there and only God or BuPers could take him away.

There was no fighting on or near that island. Ships too small or too slow to make the big jumps stopped there for stores and a useless liberty. The men came ashore wanting a movie, some beer, and women. They could usually find the movies if they came at night.

The Catholic chaplain had some legitimate business. He heard confession and celebrated mass on Sunday. The Protestant chaplain also held services on Sunday and several officers turned up dutifully. He ran a pretty good sports program too.

The Jewish chaplain didn’t even have a minyan on Yom Kippur. It was heartbreaking.

I stopped in to see him because I had nothing else to do and because I was curious. (In one camp I checked the names of borrowers of “good” books and then went to see what they looked like.) The chaplain greeted me nervously and asked whether he could do anything for me. I told him I just wanted to say hello and talk. I don’t think he had talked to anyone since he arrived on that island. So he talked to me.

Most of his infrequent visitors came to him by accident or in desperation. They wanted someone to help them out of a scrape. If the trouble was at home the chaplain could set the machinery in motion and feel a sense of accomplishment. But mostly the men were in trouble aboard ship. And they would ask that jay gee chaplain for help.

I was not a B.T.O., a big time operator, but I could far more easily have fixed a summary court martial on a charge of stealing the captain’s whisky than that chaplain could have fixed a mast charge of “out of uniform.” His clients never came back.

So we sat and talked and smoked. The chaplain and the sailor. He poured out his heart and I listened. He was young and still plagued by the doubts that must plague every seminarist. The meaning of the end of things. His own fitness to lead people to God. Then to his personal problems. The shock of feeling useless while men died fighting for great ideals. Slowly I swung the talk from personal things to general. Things of the mind and soul that make personal problems seem small. From there to the theological answers to these problems. We argued a bit, but not much.

For hours we sat and talked. It was good. Then I left.

The next day I sat on the fantail ready-locker and watched the wake uncurl. I thought about that chaplain and the conversation and suddenly I was shocked. I had been imposed upon. Who was the sailor, who the rabbi anyway?




1 Free (and inaccurate) translation for civilians: tough situation.

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