War has been around for a very long time. Since the beginning of
history, men have engaged in military conflict. Here in America,
our own country was born as the result of a war for independence.
And, in recent months, we have been engaged in yet another war to
bring freedom to the people of Iraq.
As long as there has been war, there have been men who willingly
placed their lives in jeopardy because of their belief in a particular
cause, and/or because of their great love of country.
War brings fear and the reality of death, and most who engage in
a military struggle become concerned about what will happen to them
if they are killed. Will they go to heaven? Will they go to hell?
Is there a heaven and a hell? Where is God in all this?
Here in America, as far back as the Revolutionary War, there has
been a recognized need for spiritual guidance and comfort for those
fighting on the battlefield. In that war, ministers took leave from
their churches and served as the nations first chaplains.
Since World War II, U.S. chaplains have not carried weapons and
are classified as non-combatants, consistently leaving themselves
open to being wounded or killed.
Chaplains have served in every American war. Thousands of valiant,
godly men have risked their lives for the wounded and dying
to give a drink of water, to bandage a bloody wound, to comfort
and pray, or to hold the hand of a fallen brother as he slips into
eternity. Many chaplains have lost their own lives while in service
to God and country. Men such as these epitomize John 15:13: Greater
love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
This Memorial Day, it is the AFA Journals privilege to honor
Americas chaplains by relating the stories of some who gave
their last full measure of devotion.
John L. Lenhart Civil War 1805-1862
Lenhart was Pennsylvania born and bred. His initial calling was
as a Methodist minister, but in 1847 he became a Navy chaplain and
served aboard the USS Brandywine for three years. His chosen vocation
was apparently rewarding, since he continued as chaplain aboard
various vessels for the next several years.
In the early 1860s, as the Civil War loomed on the horizon,
Lenhart was assigned to the USS Cumberland, a sailing frigate that
had been converted to a war sloop. On March 8, 1862, the Cumberland
was anchored off Newport News, Virginia, when the CSS Virginia,
an iron-clad warship powered by steam, came out to attack federal
warships in Hampton Roads. In a battle that decisively demonstrated
the superiority of the armored ships over wooden sailing sloops,
the Virginia rammed and sank the Cumberland.
John Lenhart was killed in that encounter, and became the first
Navy chaplain to lose his life in battle.
George S. Rentz World War II 1882-1942
Another Pennsylvanian, George Rentz graduated from Princeton Theological
Seminary and was ordained by the Presbytery of Northumberland in
1909. When the U.S. became involved in World War I, Rentz was appointed
acting chaplain and was assigned to the 11th Regiment of Marines
in France. He attained the rank of Commander in 1924 and served
on several vessels in the years following.
In 1940, Rentz transferred to the USS Houston and devoted his life
to providing the ships crew and officers with spiritual guidance
and hope. With the onset of World War II, the Houston became a part
of the allied fleet. On March 1, 1942, the battle cruiser was in
the Java Sea, along with Australias HMAS Perth. The two ships
were overwhelmed by a Japanese troop convoy, but fought valiantly
to the last. Both took direct hits, ultimately causing them to sink.
Chaplain Rentz found himself in the sea with several other sailors,
holding onto a floating piece from one of the Houstons planes.
The float was dangerously overloaded, and Rentz tried to get several
of the wounded sailors to take his life jacket. After all, he told
them, you men are young; I have lived the major part, and
I am willing to go.
When he got no takers, Rentz tried to leave his life jacket and
float away, only to be brought back by the others. He became an
encouragement to all as he prayed and sang hymns. Ultimately, the
chaplain placed his life jacket near a wounded sailor who had none,
and quietly slipped into the sea.
For giving his life, Chaplain Rentz was awarded, posthumously, the
Navy Cross. In addition, a guided missile frigate, the USS Rentz,
was named in his honor.
Captain Herman G. Felhoelter Korean War 1914-1950
A Catholic priest from Washington state, Chaplain Herman Felhoelter
had been assigned to the U.S. Armys 19th Infantry Regiment.
It was July 16, 1950, and Felhoelters unit had been involved
in heavy fighting near Taejon and the Kum River in North Korea.
U.S. troops had been met by wave after wave of North Korean troops.
Many from Felhoelters regiment were wounded, and as he and
another 100 men struggled up a hill near the river, they carried
nearly 30 wounded as they fled the communists.
It soon became clear that if the men continued carrying the wounded,
they would not be able to escape. In a selfless act of bravery,
the chaplain urged a medical officer to leave with the others, and
he stayed behind with the wounded men. Not long after, a sergeant,
concerned with the fate of the rag-tag bunch, lifted a pair of binoculars
to his eyes and was shocked and sickened to see enemy soldiers overtake
the group and savagely murder them all, including the chaplain who
was praying for his friends.
Herman Felhoelter would have been 37 years old the following day.
He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously. Four
days before his death, he had written his mother: Dont
worry, Mother. Gods will be done. I feel so good to know the
power of your prayers accompanying me. ... I am happy in the thought
that I can help some souls who need help. ...
Robert R. Brett Vietnam War 1936-1968
A touching story with a poignant twist is that of U.S. Navy Chaplain
Robert Brett. Born in Pennsylvania, Brett earned a B.A. and a masters
degree from Catholic University. After graduating from the Naval
Chaplains School in August of 1967, he soon joined the 2nd Battalion,
26th Marines near the Khe Sanh Combat Base in Vietnam.
Brett was known among the troops for his daring and determination
as he traveled from post to post, celebrating Mass in the face of
nearly constant enemy fire. The chaplain had a special assistant
in PFC Alexander S. Chin from Maryland, a religious young man, who
had already earned two Purple Hearts for his bravery. Chin had told
his superiors he could not kill another human, and had been assigned
to help the chaplain. The two were inseparable and became steadfast
On February 22, 1968, the chaplain and his aide found themselves
on an air strip in Khe Sanh where they were waiting for a chopper
to take them back to battalion headquarters. They were about to
board the helicopter when they came under enemy fire. Witnesses
said that Brett told the chopper to take off without him and his
aide, which allowed Lt. Pete Post to go instead. As the two headed
back to the trench, Post watched helplessly as an incoming rocket
struck, killing Brett, Chin and eight others. Fifteen were wounded.
Honored for their bravery, Brett and Chin were buried in their respective
family burial plots, where they rested for 30 years. But their story
doesnt end there.
Edward Rouse, nephew of Chaplain Brett, had been 13 years old when
his uncle was killed. He had always greatly admired Brett
so much so that he followed in his uncles footsteps by becoming
a Marine. Because of Chaplain Bretts sacrifice, Rouse and
his family believed it was fitting for him to be buried at Arlington
National Cemetery. In late 1998, Rouse made arrangements for Brett
to be buried on Chaplains Hill.
After learning of the relationship between Brett and Chin, Rouse
hired a private investigator who located Chins family. They
were amenable to Chins remains being moved to Arlington. Rouse
obtained special permission for Chin to be buried on Chaplains
Hill, and in 1999, the chaplains friend was buried beside
him united in death as they had been in life.
This Memorial Day, let us pause in honor of the millions of men
and women who have given their lives in service to this great country
as we remember that freedom is not free.