All of the major nations relied on the services of chaplains. Great Britain and the Commonwealth nations commissioned chaplains from all denominations and gave them wide latitude in their responsibilities to ensure that the spiritual and emotional needs of their soldiers were met. The Church of England and Roman Catholic dioceses provided the largest number of chaplains to the British military. The Soviet government put aside its opposition to the Russian Orthodox Church in the great "patriotic war": it reopened churches and released priests and bishops from long prison sentences to bolster the morale of the Soviet people. Russian Orthodox priests also accompanied the Red Army throughout the war. Military chaplains in Germany and Italy were unique because of their close connection with the state. For example, German chaplains were required to pray for the fatherland and the Führer at their religious services. The Italian army enjoyed the spiritual support of a wide range of Catholic chaplains from a number of dioceses and religious orders as well as the assistance of local clergy, since a vast majority of the Italian army served in Italy.
In the United States during World War II, chaplains from all of the major religious groups—Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Latter Day Saints—served the 12 million men and women of the armed services without regard to the religious affiliation of the supplicant. A total of 8,100 chaplains served in the U.S. military during the war in all theaters of operation as well as on the home front. The requirements for the chaplaincy were straightforward: a certificate of ordination, two years of successful ministerial experience, and endorsement from the individual's denomination.
Chaplain candidates temporarily vacated their obedience to their religious bodies and were subject to the discipline and orders of their military superiors. In place of boot camp, the candidates were enrolled in Chaplain School (two weeks for the navy and four weeks for the army), where they were indoctrinated in armed forces law, drills, customs, and, most important, interdenominational cooperation. Those chaplains assigned to specialized units (such as paratroopers) were required to undergo the same training as the men they were serving, and many volunteered for these rigorous assignments. The Geneva Convention defined chaplains as noncombatants, and close attention was paid to ensuring that their roles were not compromised in combat situations.
Although the official functions of military chaplains included conducting religious services, preaching, encouraging those who were experiencing difficulties, and writing families of those lost in battle, many received medals and distinctions for valor. Two chaplains (a Protestant and a Catholic) on the battleship Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor were the first to die in battle, on 7 December 1941. A total of 77 U.S. chaplains died during World War II, and chaplains received 2,453 medals for valor. The most highly decorated military chaplain was Catholic Chaplain Albert Hoffman, who lost a leg while serving with the army in Italy, and perhaps the most famous act of courage occurred on the deck of the U.S. Army transport Dorchester on 3 February 1943, when four chaplains (two Protestants, one Catholic, and one Jew) gave their life vests to others and went down with the ship.
In carrying out their duties, military chaplains of the belligerent nations demonstrated both compassion and personal bravery. Their services were much appreciated by the men to whom they ministered, frequently in difficult circumstances. The chaplains themselves often referred to their years in the military during World War II as the most rewarding of their ministries.
James T. Carroll
Crosby, Donald. Battlefield Chaplains: Catholic Priests in World War Two. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994.; Kurzman, Dan. No Greater Glory: The Four Immortal Chaplains and the Sinking of the "Dorchester" in World War II. New York: Random House, 2004.; Stroup, Russell Cartright. Letters from the Pacific: A Combat Chaplain in World War II. Ed. Richard C. Austin. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000.