“Traveling by ‘Holy Helo'”

Paging through the July 4, 1966 issue of the Standard, I came across a small article that caught my attention. It’s rather vividly written by a Baptist General Conference navy chaplain, Kenneth Carlson, and describes how Carlson ‘choppered’ between vessels to hold worship services for U.S. Navy sailors.

Kenneth W. Carlson in his 1948 Bethel Seminary yearbook photo

Kenneth W. Carlson in his 1948 Bethel Seminary yearbook photo – Bethel University Digital Library

First though, I was curious whether Carlson ever attended Bethel. After a bit of digging, I was able to assemble a brief biographical sketch of the choppering chaplain.

Carlson first shows up in the 1948 Bethel College and Seminary yearbook – then known as the Spire – where he is listed as a “middleman” seminarian from Chicago. I’m not quite sure what the term “middleman” refers to; the yearbook lists both Senior and Junior seminary students. The middlemen appear between the two classes. Perhaps a reader could enlighten me.

Nineteen forty-nine saw Carlson move to senior standing at Bethel Seminary. New also that year was Carlson’s service as a pastor at Highland Park Baptist Church in St. Paul. Seminarians from this period often served as interim or intern pastors at nearby congregations, but it’s unclear what role Carlson had at Highland. At any rate, Carlson earned a Th.B degree from Bethel Seminary at the close of the 1949-1950 academic year.

A mid-1950s USS Wren, much as she appeared when Carlson served aboard

A mid-1950s USS Wren, much as she appeared when Carlson served aboard – U.S. Navy photo

By 1952, Carlson was serving as the pastor of Woodlawn Avenue Baptist Church of Burlington, Iowa – a now defunct conference church. The next year, Carlson entered the navy chaplaincy, where he would serve for the next fifteen years. Carlson’s navy service saw him based largely in Chicago with frequent tours of service on ships or other naval bases. His first tour was aboard the USS Wren, a WWII-era Fletcher class destroyer. Carlson was stationed on the Wren in 1954, likely during the ship’s service in Asia where, among other things, the destroyer patrolled the Korean coast as part of a cease-fire supervisory mission.

During 1955 and ’56, Carlson was stationed at the U.S. Naval Air Station at North Island, San Diego. By 1957, he had been transferred back to Chicago and promoted to Lieutenant Commander. The next few years saw Carlson serving brief stints in administrative roles at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and in Olathe, Kansas at the Naval Air Station.

The USS Kearsarge as she appeared exactly forty-eight years ago - U.S. Navy photo

The USS Kearsarge as she appeared exactly forty-eight years ago – U.S. Navy photo

In 1964, Carlson, now a full commander, was deployed to Vietnam aboard the USS Kearsarge in what would be his last overseas appointment. The Kearsarge, a WWII-era Essex class aircraft carrier which had been recently retrofitted as part of a fleet modernization program, would provide anti-submarine protection for the U.S. 7th fleet – an essential function as the rest of the fleet’s aircraft would soon be flying around-the-clock bombing sorties into Vietnam as part of the newly-launched Operation Rolling Thunder.

Although Carlson’s article appears in 1966, it’s likely in reference to his experiences during his 1964 deployment, and could have been composed then. The article, in full:

Just prior to launch time the chaplain boards the scheduled Sunday morning helicopter – “Holy Helo” [pronounced HE-low – a nickname for helicopters] – to take the Word of God to men on other ships who have no chaplain. His flights are sandwiched between two services he will have on his own ship.

1954 Sikorsky Aircraft advertisement illustrating a chaplain transferring ships
1954 Sikorsky Aircraft advertisement illustrating a chaplain transferring ships

Attired in a flight suit, a pilot’s hard hat, lightweight gloves, a Mae West and carrying a canvas bag containing his Bible and whatever else he needs, the chaplain awaits arrival over the first ship. A tap on his shoulder is a signal to unfasten himself from his shoulder harness and go to the aft section of the helo. A nylon safety line prevents the crew chief from falling out the open hatch as he motions the chaplain to sit on the deck and slide forward until his legs are dangling outside the helo. A horse collar sling, attached to a steel cable, is placed around the chaplain as the pilot hovers over the destroyer escort. In the critical moments following, the signal is given and the chaplain is pushed out of the plane suspended in the air by the cable. A blast of hot air from the starboard jet engine strikes his face as he is lowered to the pitching deck of the ship some 30 to 90 feet below.

On the ship several men grab the chaplain’s legs to prevent him from banging into the steel structures. The men invariably get an electric shock as static is discharged from the chopper to the ship. Once on deck the chaplain quickly steps out of the sling and dashes from under the helo. He slips out of his flight suit and is escorted to an area set aside for the worship service. Announcement of the service is given and within 45 minutes it has been conducted and the chaplain heads back to the fantail where he dons his flight gear, puts the sling around his back and is hoisted back inside the chopper. The pilot heads for the next ship as the chaplain regathers his thoughts in the few minutes before being dropped for the next service.

– Kenneth Carlson

A Sea King hovers, Vietnam mid-1960s

A Sea King hovers, Vietnam mid-1960s – Wikimedia Commons

From his description, and from Navy records and photographic evidence of the Kearsarge’s aircraft fleet at the time, it’s likely that Carlson was shuttled between ships on a Sikorsky SH-3 “Sea King” helicopter – a multi-role workhorse which still serves in reserve units today. While I was unable to find any corroboration to Carlson’s story, I did find a 1954 Sikorsky corporation advertisement depicting the exact same operation, albeit with an earlier model of helicopter.

In 1969, Carlson retired from the navy chaplaincy, having served fifteen years. However, the Bethel Seminary graduate was not ready to retire into inactivity. That year, Carlson assumed the pastorate of Baldwin Hills Baptist Church in Los Angeles, where he served until 1974. Beyond that, I wasn’t able to find any further mention of Kenneth Carlson, either in BGC and Bethel records, or in online obituaries.

Baldwin Hills Baptist Church today

Baldwin Hills Baptist Church today – Google Maps Streetview

Beyond its intrinsic charm, Carlson’s story does serve to highlight the role that conference chaplains played in the Vietnam War. The peak year of American troop deployments – 1968 – saw thirteen BGC chaplains in Vietnam. A further fifteen served that year at non-combat military posts. I’m not sure how many of these chaplains were educated at Bethel, but I suspect that Kenneth Carlson was not alone.

In the next few days I’ll be blogging about the role that conference chaplains played in the BGC itself – a role I’ll argue positioned chaplains as the primary mediators between a distant and confusing war and the domestic conference audience. But for now (as always) I’d love to hear your stories and memories about how the war affected Bethel or engaged Bethel alumni. Leave a comment below or email us at bethelatwar@gmail.com.


  1. […] chronological series, I’ve written on the BGC from a thematic view as well. Back in July, I profiled the activities of a Conference Navy chaplain. And in conjunction with the forty-fifth anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, I looked at what […]

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