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A wounded chaplain reads a memorial service over the snow-covered bodies of dead Marines at Koto-ri, Korea. (National Archives)
Chaplain Corps Celebrates 225 Years

Since 1775, U.S. Army Chaplains Have Gone Everywhere Their Troops Have Gone

WASHINGTON (July 30, 2000) -- The Army celebrates the 225th anniversary of the Army Chaplain Corps today by showing a 14-minute video in every one of the service's chapels, worldwide.

Maj. Gen. Gaylord T. Gunhus, chief of Army chaplains, narrates the video, which conveys the history of the chaplaincy and highlights the contributions of two Medal of Honor recipients -- Cpl. Calvin P. Titus, a chaplain assistant during the Boxer Rebellion, and the Rev. Charlie Watters, a Vietnam War chaplain. Gunhus also will lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and conduct a brief memorial service at Chaplain's Hill at Arlington Friday morning to observe the anniversary.

"For a few moments, I want to look back to the noble successes of our Army Chaplain Corps," Gunhus said. "By looking at these reference points, the legacy of those who have gone before us during these 225 years, I believe we can make our way into the future."

The history of the Chaplain Corps goes back to the early days of the American Revolution. Historians say that chaplains were present for duty as unpaid volunteers before the nation was born. Fifteen chaplains served with the 23 regiments gathered around Boston when Gen. George Washington assumed command of the Continental Army there. After realizing the importance of chaplains for the religious welfare of the Army, the Continental Congress officially recognized them on July 29, 1775, and voted to authorize the position of one chaplain for each regiment, with the pay equaling that of a captain.

Unchanging Mission

Before the Spanish-American War in 1898, there were 34 chaplains in the regular Army. By the end of the 20th century, their numbers had grown to nearly 1,300 active-duty chaplains, with nearly 1,200 more in the reserves. Today, chaplains represent five major faith groups and over 120 denominations.

The Mexican-American War saw the first Catholic priests joining with their Protestant counterparts. During the Civil War, chaplains of the three major faith groups -- Protestant, Catholic and Jewish -- served valiantly.

"The service of the Army chaplaincy has always been to provide religious support to America's soldiers through worship, rites and sacraments, prayer, and pastoral care," said Col. Gilbert H. Pingel, commandant of the U. S. Army Chaplain Center and School in Fort Jackson, S.C. "That mission has not changed since the Revolutionary War."

One chaplain and one chaplain assistant form each unit's ministry team, working together to provide for their unit's free exercise of religion.

Medal of Honor recipient Cpl. Calvin P. Titus, an infantryman who became one of the earliest chaplain assistants, worked with Chaplain Leslie R. Groves in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Titus volunteered to scale the wall of the Tung Pien Gate under heavy fire, leading the way for the allied infantry to move into Peking. Image
Protestant Chaplain Rufus W. Oakley holding services within a few hundred yards of Japanese positions, well within range of their mortars if they had chosen to throw them. Peleliu, September 1944. (National Archives)

"Since 1909, the chaplain assistant has been recognized as an integral part of the Army's commitment to provide for the spiritual and religious needs of soldiers, as those chaplain assistants serve alongside and support the work of the chaplains," Pingel said.

Early in 1918, just in time for World War I, chaplains were being trained for duty at the new U. S. Army Chaplain School located at Fort Monroe, Va.

World War II would see over 8,000 chaplains serve in the Army. In 1949 when the U. S. Air Force was formed, more than 140 regular Army chaplains became Air Force chaplains.

More than 1,600 chaplains served in the Korean War period, during which the Army officially organized the position of the chaplain assistant by designating it a Military Occupational Specialty, MOS 71M.

'A Costly Discipleship'

The conflict in Vietnam claimed the lives of 13 chaplains and eight chaplain assistants.

Charlie Watters, who served as chaplain for the 173rd Support Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade, in 1967 received the Medal of Honor for selfless service during the Vietnam War. Watters faced small arms and mortar fire while carrying wounded troopers to safety, then ministered to soldiers before he was mortally wounded.

"Army chaplaincy can be a costly discipleship," Gunhus said. "In the 20th century alone, a total of 124 chaplains gave their lives in service to our nation."

In recent times, more than 560 Army chaplains and 530 chaplain assistants served in Southwest Asia during Desert Shield/ Desert Storm.

As each new battle streamer takes its place on the Army flag, it represents a new chapter not only in the country's history, but also in Chaplain Corps history. Members of the Chaplain Corps continue to serve today wherever they are called to provide religious support to the Army -- whether in Europe, Korea, the Persian Gulf or the Balkans, officials said.

"The pluralistic religious landscape of the United States reflected in the increasing religiously diverse soldier population of the Army presents a unique challenge to Army chaplains as they fulfill their oath of office -- to 'support and defend the Constitution of the United States' by providing for the free exercise of religion by all soldiers in the Army," Pingel said.

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