“Spiritual Pillars”: Celebration and Criticism of WWII Chaplains

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On September 20, 1944, American paratroopers in the 82nd Airborne Division had the unenviable task of seizing the bridge that crossed the Waal River at the Dutch town of Nijmegen. “If we’ve ever seen a suicide mission, this is it,” one GI told his friends.1 Not even half the makeshift boats survived a crossing nicknamed “Little Omaha,” in homage to the D-Day landing completed three months before. What one British general called the “most gallant attack ever carried out during” the war succeeded in taking the bridge, but the larger operation (Market Garden) failed.2 The Allies withdrew to the other side of river; the final defeat of Nazi Germany would have to wait until the following spring.

1943 image of Lt. Del Kuehl (JC '39)

A “jumping chaplain”: Kuehl as he appeared in the July 1943 issue of the Bethel Bulletin

Among the thousands of soldiers wounded during Market Garden was a young pastor from Alexandria, Minnesota: Lt. Del Kuehl (JC ’39, S ’48). Despite suffering a serious shrapnel wound himself, Kuehl helped to rescue thirty-five other men. “I had a first-aid pack,” Kuehl told the Minneapolis Star Tribune years later, “so I tried to do what I could for the wounded.” For his exploits, he earned the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.3 Kuehl had already collected two Bronze Stars, one after he led a mission to rescue wounded soldiers trapped on the German side of the line south of Rome — “carrying the wounded through mountainous passes where even a mule could not go,” reported The Clarion.4 He ended the war as one of his country’s most highly decorated chaplains — just six years after he had graduated from Bethel Junior College.5

Kuehl’s baptism by fire had been a disastrous jump during the July 1943 invasion of Sicily, a fiasco that saw hundreds of other paratroopers killed by friendly fire. None of that was mentioned that month in the Bethel Bulletin, where a profile of Kuehl ended with him reflecting on the importance of faith in combat:

One cannot jump out of a plane unhesitatingly into the clear, blue air without confidence in God. I know because I have done it. When a man loses that confidence he loses the physical power to go out that door.

To stand in a plane and prepare to jump is a deeply spiritual experience. When the jumpmaster says stand up and hook up, the plane takes on an almost religious atmosphere. You can sense it as you stand there.6

Chaplains like Kuehl were regularly mentioned in the publications of Bethel and its sponsoring denomination. Bethel president Henry Wingblade organized banquets honoring chaplains and invited one of them, Maj. Carl Bergstrom (A ‘16, S ‘19), to give a pro-war talk at the 1943 Homecoming banquet.7 “We follow with interest the work of our Chaplains,” College dean Emery Johnson wrote Del Kuehl a month before V-E Day, “and we appreciate greatly the spiritual pillars who are holding up our Servicees in the many battlefields across the globe.”8

When Adolf and Virgil Olson wrote the 75th anniversary history of Bethel Seminary in 1946, they said nothing of the recent war save to pay tribute to the three dozen former Bethel seminarians who had served as military chaplains, a number that worked out to

about one to every 1,175 of our whole membership as Conference Baptists. This is a high percentage. And the message of God’s redeeming grace which these chaplains have brought to the young people in the armed forces of our country—who can fully evaluate that?9

But as unhesitatingly as Kuehl and his Bethel peers were celebrated, the actual history of chaplains in World War II — and of how they were viewed by other men and women from Bethel and the BGC — is considerably more complicated.

Worship service on the U.S.S. South Dakota, June 1944

Chaplain leading worship on the deck of the battleship South Dakota, around the time of the Battle of the Philippine Sea (June 1944) – U.S. National Archives

The thirty-six graduates of Bethel Seminary — and those, like Del Kuehl, who had finished Bethel Academy or Junior College and pursued theological education elsewhere — made up a tiny percentage of the approximately 12,000 pastors, priests, and rabbis who served as Army and Navy chaplains in World War II. Even considering that they theoretically served a massive flock of 16 million Americans recruited into the armed forces, that’s a remarkable number. When the U.S. entered the war, there were only 137 Army and 102 Navy chaplains on active duty; fewer than 900 were in the reserves.10

That so many more were added to those paltry numbers is somewhat astonishing. The Army and Navy could not recruit chaplains directly. The military needed to rely on denominations, and we’ve already noted that the interwar turn towards pacifism cut across theological boundaries. And while the Selective Service Act of 1940 created the country’s first peacetime draft, ministers — and those studying for that profession — were exempt, as they had been in the First World War.

(Not everyone at Bethel celebrated that ministry offered an alternative to military service. “We have among us very many Christian softies,” Emery Johnson complained to an alumnus serving in the Army Air Force, “…individuals who have received a call from God before they receive a call from the draft board.” Johnson lamented that he’d had to preach “across my desk on a number of occasions to young men who have come into see me, that their duty is just as much duty towards their country as to their God, and I have questioned the sincerity of their calls into the ministry.”11)

For many at Bethel and in its denomination, the military’s dire need for chaplains presented a golden opportunity — one seized by something like 10% of ordained ministers in the Swedish Baptist General Conference.12 In August 1942 Bethel professor A. J. Wingblade reported to BGC readers that “the failure of some denominations to fill their quota offers the Baptists increased opportunities. There are great possibilities for good in reaching the boys in the service with the gospel.”13 The following week, The Standard devoted an editorial to extolling the virtues of those from the BGC who had already entered the chaplaincy, calling them “our best. They are young, strong, intellectually keen, and men who are likely to make their impression on the men with whom they come in contact.” While it was a difficult calling, acknowledged the editors,

Marine chaplain on Peleliu, 1944

Marine chaplain holding services on Peleliu, September 1944 – U.S. National Archives

the chaplain will have his compensation. He will have abundant opportunities to help his fellow-soldiers at times when they are most susceptible to spiritual guidance; he will know the joy of easing the pain of death, and the satisfaction of carrying messages of consolation to the loved ones of those who will never return….

The present war is complicated and so are the duties of the chaplain. But the right kind of men—such as we have sent out into the service—will perform services of greater significance than any they have ever known before. When the men have been torn from their former environment and look for a spiritual basis for their life they will look up their ‘padre’ for a heart-to-heart talk, and after all there is nothing comparable to being the spiritual guide and helper of men who are ever in danger of death and who seek to attain peace with God and men.14

Such opportunities were exactly what Del Kuehl had been looking for when he joined the Army, immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. While he had a “deep love for my country,” Kuehl later told historian Thomas Saylor that his primary motivation had been evangelistic:

I had such a tremendous change in my own life from being a Godless person, no time for God, that when I as a senior in high school came to know the Lord Jesus as my Savior, it transformed my whole life. So I had a burden to give that same marvelous message to military men. I knew many of them would lose their lives, so that was also one of the reasons that I wanted to become a chaplain. To be able to share with them the good news of what happened in my life, from being an unconcerned Godless person to knowing the Lord Jesus as my Savior.15

On the eve of their ill-fated jump into Sicily, for example, Kuehl offered this reassurance to the other men in his unit:

Now, I think we all have a certain amount of fear of facing the enemy. That’s natural. But some of you probably have a greater fear. If you don’t make it tonight you’ll stand before God, and maybe you’re not ready to do that… You don’t have to have that fear. God loves you and sent Christ down to die for you, for forgiveness of sin. You can accept him and have eternal life. You leave here and go on up there and be with him in heaven.16

The danger was as real for chaplains as for the men in their spiritual care. Kuehl survived that jump and his later wounds at Nijmegen, but three other Bethel chaplains in the Army did not see the end of the war. David Youngdahl (S ‘30) was the first to perish, in 1943, when his troop transport sank before it could reach Europe.17 The following year Floyd Richert (JC ‘36, S ‘38) was killed in action in Italy. Earl Widen (S ‘34) died of a heart attack while stationed at an airfield in England, prompting this moving tribute in The Standard:

From plane to plane the chaplain hurries to bid God-speed to his boys; to greet a young man here; to give a word of encouragement to another there; to hear a request from still another; to pause in prayer at each plane to ask of the Lord of the heavens to guide and protect His own after His will. The chaplain is there to be with his boys. He is tired for he has spent many hours to give what he can to the living, to the dying and to the dead. And as he hurries in the early morning from plane to plane, he stumbles and falls and rises again, for he is tired. The motors of the planes have speeded up, and one by one the planes have winged their way across the white cliffs of Dover; but the chaplain who has given his life to the living now joins in death with his boys who have died. And as the last words are spoken of a chaplain who lived and died for his boys, there is no more to say than this: “He gave his life for his country.”18

Even those who seemed physically unscathed risked other kinds of damage from this kind of ministry: “The emotional strain on chaplains, corpsmen, and medics—all of whom were relentlessly attending the wounded, dying, and dead—caused mental and psychological pain of singular gravity.”19

More mundane problems also wore on chaplains. Del Kuehl recalled eagerly planning a chapel service during airborne training for the 1800 men of his regiment. His face fell as “Only two men came out, and one of those was drunk.”20 Ernest G. A. Nelson (A ‘25, S ‘27) tried not to complain about food rations, but did appeal to readers of The Standard for paper: “…I cannot print any church bulletins.”21 Being far from home and removed from the rhythms of peacetime was as challenging for chaplains as everyone else in uniform. Willard “Red” Samuelson (S ‘27) believed that his work provided “a needed service for God and men” but could not deny that the work was “often lonely, frustrating, isolated… I missed the children, Sunday School, youth work, social activities, family contacts.”22

Still, most chaplains found their work highly meaningful. Ralph Gebhard (A ‘28) called his time as a hospital chaplain on Guam “one of the most important jobs to be found… it is a great privilege to be able to give spiritual aid to the sick and wounded….”23 Another BGC naval chaplain wrote of tending to wounded men during amphibious landings at Lingayen Gulf: “…I had the glorious experience of placing the quivering hands of dying men in the strong hand of God. In the most dangerous and horrifying circumstances the Lord compensated the direst of human needs by an unusual reality of his presence.”24 Kuehl, who went on to serve as a missionary to Japan, cherished his wartime experience and claimed that it had significantly deepened his religious commitment: “…I saw the reality of God watching over me through the whole war…. I think I grew to understand humanity and people better, and I grew in my faith considerably.”25

Mass on Saipan in June 1944

A Marine chaplain holds mass on Saipan in June 1944 – U.S. National Archives

Why, then, did former Bethel students and other Swedish Baptists serving in the WWII military complain so often about chaplains? On the whole, such correspondence in the Bethel archives paints a remarkably rosy — or at least unobjectionable — picture of military life. More than anything else — military discipline, food, disease, combat — it’s the chaplaincy that inspires grievances.

First, the quantity: 12,000 turned out to be insufficient. In 1944 one G.I. reported to Standard readers that his unit saw chaplains so rarely that they carried out their own services.26 This was not unusual. Based on extensive interviews with veterans, Lyle Dorsett concluded that “the presence of a chaplain in combat areas—unless it was on board a ship—served as a surprise rather than a presence to be assumed.”27

But quality, too. Kuehl admitted as much in his interview with Saylor: “…we had a whole panorama, from very dedicated Christian people to some who just went in I don’t know for what reason.”28 Complaints were common enough to prompt one Bethel chaplain, Allen Fredine (A ‘27, S ‘36), to write a rather testy letter home in June 1944: “Frequently criticism is made of the chaplaincy. Criticism can justly be made of individual chaplains, but not of the group as a whole.”29

That chaplains so often fell short in the eyes of Bethel/BGC soldiers, sailors, and nurses underscores the importance of that vocation. These service men and women had extraordinarily high expectations of their chaplains, demanding of them more than just care and comfort. If the war was itself a “missions field,” then chaplains were in the vanguard as missionaries. So pharmacist’s mate Perry Hedberg (C ’50) simultaneously praised his chaplain in the New Hebrides and found the larger pool wanting:

He is absolutely and thoroughly a man of God who presents the Word of God with great evangelistic zeal. (To say that such a Chaplain in the U.S. Navy is ‘one in a hundred’ is a fact that we Americans must shamefacedly admit, yet, it is the truth.)30

Again and again, Bethel students and alumni complained of “modern” chaplains who lacked “evangelistic zeal.” An Army nurse in Italy: “I regret to say that I fear so many of our chaplains are not born again Christians and act more as diplomats than being on fire for God.”31 A sailor in Virginia: “…nothing is ever said about salvation or acceptance of Christ as Saviour instead he always refers to everyone as being a Christian – it’s rather disheartening to listen to anything like that when a person is looking for spiritual food.”32 A recent Junior College graduate studying languages at an Army base in Maryland: “…our chaplain thinks of Christ only as the originator or compiler of a new moral code and that he thinks anyone who lives a clean, moral life is a Christian in the fullest sense of that term….”33

By contrast, Adolf and Virgil Olson went out of their way to emphasize the evangelical bona fides of the three dozen chaplains representing Bethel Seminary:

Without boasting it may be said, for truly God must be praised, that practically all Bethel trained men and women have been true to the Word of God as it is commonly understood and interpreted by evangelical and conservative Baptists. They have preached Christ crucified and have gone out to win lost sinners for Him. Bethel has always been a strongly conservative school with a balanced message and a deep Christian spirit.34

Perry Hedberg in 1950

Hedberg returned to Bethel to finish his degree, and later worked at the school as its director of publications

Army chaplain Lloyd Dahlquist (S ’28) was unabashedly Christocentric in describing his work for BGC readers: “If the chaplain knows Christ, has lived for Him in barrack, field and office, it is his privilege to speak for the Savior at any time he feels led of the Holy Spirit, and in a sense he relives what Paul declared, ‘I am made all things unto all men, that I may by all means save some’ [1 Cor. 9:22].”35 When asked what he said to comfort soldiers who were dying, Del Kuehl replied that it depended “on what they believe. I can never tell a man, ‘You’re going to heaven just because you’re dying,’ because that isn’t the truth. As I said before we went to Sicily, they don’t have to fear if they know Jesus Christ as their personal Savior because he died for them to forgive their sins…. But to somebody who doesn’t believe, who is agnostic, I could never…I could comfort them in their physical need, but I could not lie to them spiritually.”36

Hedberg, then, seemed surprised to find that Protestant chaplains would “preach and carry on a ministry in the name of Christianity that is much separated from The Truth.” He failed to recognize — or appreciate — that the chief suppliers of military chaplains during the war were mainline denominations more theologically diverse than his own. Can it be that during the one Bethel semester Hedberg completed before joining the Navy, his required Bible course didn’t prepare him to encounter Protestants on the other side of the modernist-fundamentalist split?

Moreover, Bethel soldiers, sailors, marines, and nurses who complained that chaplains “act more as diplomats than being on fire for God” failed to understand how difficult it was to pastor an interdenominational, indeed interreligious flock. As Lyle Dorsett explains, the military had trained its chaplains for ecumenism:

The armed forces knew that in many wartime circumstances all chaplains were going to have to minister to men and women outside their traditions. Consequently, they housed chaplain candidates so as to deliberately cause interaction…. True friendships were forged among disparate faith groups at Harvard, Norfolk, and Williamsburg [locations of chaplain schools] as men roomed, ate, marched, and shared weekend passes together. Most chaplains not only gained comrades and an education, they were prepared to minister to men of all faiths and to look forward to a postwar era of more unity….37

Kuehl's Bethel Seminary Alumnus of the Year Award

Kuehl returned to Bethel after leaving the military and was valedictorian of the Seminary in 1948. He was named Bethel Seminary Alumnus of the Year in 1995

Ernest Nelson, for example, wrote from his post at a military hospital in England in September 1944 of preparing “for the New Year celebration—the Jewish [one].”

Some Christians complained that the military’s religious pragmatism was stifling the witness of their chaplains. One Southern Baptist pastor, for example, was discharged from the chaplains’ corps for being “extremely zealous” in his evangelism.38 But Bethel’s most famous chaplain seems to have found a way to reconcile his evangelical ambitions with the army’s ecumenism.

In his 1943 Bethel Bulletin profile, Del Kuehl alluded subtly to serving side-by-side with paratroopers whose Christian commitments were negligible or — perhaps more scandalous still — not Protestant:

This is a serious business. It is a moment for prayer. And whether or not the man has been to church on Sunday morning makes little difference, for he is praying now. His lips sometimes forming the words, his hands sometimes making the sign of the cross—a prayer that is surely acceptable to almighty God.39

Keep in mind that, like other Baptist groups, Bethel’s denomination had opposed Franklin Roosevelt’s diplomatic outreach to the Vatican, denouncing his appointment of a special envoy to Pope Pius XII as “inimical to the sacred doctrine and God-honored principle[s]” of church-state separation and religious liberty.40 Swedish Baptist missionaries in Assam complained that “The presence of Romanists in our midst” made their work far more difficult, tempting local Christians who risked being “led astray by these and other false beliefs.”41

But if Kuehl shared such concerns, they didn’t last long in combat. Crossing the Waal in 1944, he heard his unit commander repeat the Hail Mary over and over. “Thy will be done,” added the Bethel chaplain.42

— Chris Gehrz


1 Rev. Delbert Kuehl, interview by Thomas Saylor, Apr. 5, 2003, Minnesota’s Greatest Generation Oral History Project, Minnesota Historical Society, p. 29.

2 Quoted in Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (New York: Picador, 2013) , p. 281.

3 Quoted in Kuehl’s obituary, [Minneapolis] StarTribune, Oct. 6, 2010. Kuehl also shared his account of Nijmegen with the readers of the Baptist General Conference’s illustrated annual, Advance, 1946, pp. 50-53.

4 The Bethel Clarion, Jan. 19, 1944.

5 Lyle W. Dorsett, Serving God and Country: U.S. Military Chaplains in World War II (New York: Berkley Caliber, 2012), pp. 147-48.

6 Bethel Bulletin, July/August 1943, p. 3.

7 G. William Carlson and Diana L. Magnuson, Persevere, Läsare, and Clarion: Celebrating Bethel’s 125th Anniversary (St. Paul: Bethel College and Seminary, 1997), p. 37.

8 Letter, Emery Johnson to Del Kuehl, Apr. 4, 1945, G. Arvid Hagstrom Papers, “Correspondence 3: Correspondence with Military Personnel, WWII” box, Folder 24, The History Center: Archives of the Baptist General Conference and Bethel University (hereafter HC).

9 Adolf Olson and Virgil Olson, Seventy-Five Years: A History of Bethel Theological Seminary (Chicago: Conference Press, 1946), p. 64.

10 Dorsett, Serving God and Country, pp. 22-23, 31.

11 Letter, Emery Johnson to Gerald Ahlquist, Apr. 25, 1944, Hagstrom Papers, “Correspondence 3: Correspondence with Military Personnel, WWII” box, Folder 1, HC. In the same letter Johnson implied that such draft-dodging was padding the numbers of the Seminary while the College struggled to maintain enrollment. In reality, the seminary was down a little over 10% from 1941-42 to 1944-45, while the Junior College was already starting to turn things around by the end of the war; Norris A. Magnuson, Missionsskolan: The History of an Immigrant Theological School (St. Paul, MN: Bethel Theological Seminary, 1982), p. 160.

12 Ronald Wiley and Robert McNeil, “A History of the Baptist General Conference Chaplaincy Program” (Master’s thesis, Bethel Theological Seminary, 1968), p. 32.

13 The [Baptist General Conference] Standard, Aug. 22, 1942, p. 5.

14 The Standard, Aug. 29, 1942, p. 4.

15 Kuehl, interview by Saylor, pp. 10-11.

16 Ibid., pp. 21-22.

17 Martin Erikson, Centenary Glimpses: Baptist General Conference of America, 1852-1952 (Chicago: Baptist Conference Press, [1952]), p. 100.

18 The Standard, Aug. 11, 1944.

19 Dorsett, Serving God and Country, p. 100.

20 Kuehl, interview by Saylor, p. 16.

21 The Standard, June 23, 1944. Four weeks later the magazine was happy to report that churches not only sent Nelson paper, but books; The Standard, July 21, 1944.

22 Quoted in Wiley and McNeil, “A History of the Baptist General Conference Chaplaincy Program,” p. 10.

23 Letter, Ralph Gebhard to Emery Johnson, June 26, 1945, Hagstrom Papers, “Correspondence 3: Correspondence with Military Personnel, WWII” box, Folder 15, HC.

24 Letter, Arthur A. Anderson to Emery Johnson, Mar. 24, 1945, same file, Folder 1.

25 Kuehl, interview by Saylor, pp. 44-45.

26 The Standard, Mar. 10, 1944.

27 Dorsett, Serving God and Country, p. 212.

28 A Baptist teetotaler, Kuehl was particularly offended that others in the chaplain training program had gone to the neighboring town to drink; Kuehl, interview by Saylor, p. 12.

29 The Standard, June 23, 1944.

30 Letter, Perry Hedberg to Emery Johnson, Mar. 26, 1945, Hagstrom Papers, “Correspondence 3: Correspondence with Military Personnel, WWII” box, Folder 19, HC.

31 Letter from Esther Emanuelson, Apr. 4, 1944, same file, Folder 12.

32 Letter, Conwell Anderson to Emery Johnson, Nov. 29, 1944, same file, Folder 1.

33 Letter, David Moberg to Emery Johnson, Mar. 21, 1944, same file, Folder 31.

34 Olson and Olson, Seventy-Five Years, p. 64.

35 Lloyd Dahlquist, “With the Armed Forces Overseas,” Ebenezer, 1945, p. 22.

36 Kuehl, interview by Saylor, p. 26.

37 Dorsett, Serving God and Country, pp. 34-35.

38 Gerald L. Sittser, A Cautious Patriotism: The American Churches and the Second World War (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), p. 165.

39 Bethel Bulletin, July/August 1943, p. 3.

40 Resolution, “The Vatican Appointment,” 1941 Annual Report of the Swedish Baptist Churches of America, Part I, p. 127.

41 Report of the Gologhat (Assam) Mission Field, 1943 Annual Report of the Swedish Baptist Churches of America, Part I, p. 50.

42 Quoted in Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light, p. 279.

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