A Chaplain's Duties

Father John McGovern gives mass in France during World War II. Image from the U.S. Army.

Brynn Hoffman has a summer of surprises in store for her. She is learning the inspiring story of Rev. Elmer P. Gibson, an African American chaplain during World War II and the Korean War, through the study of his papers and war documents. Hoffman is a graduate student in the Public History program at North Carolina State University and is interning with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources in the Office of Archives and History in Raleigh. She will be blogging about what she learns about him, and what it’s like to be an archivist working with the Military Archives.

What exactly is an Army Chaplain? I had to ask myself that question when I first began looking at Elmer P. Gibson’s papers a few weeks ago, and have recently gone back to investigate further.  

A worksheet for chaplains depicting the different kinds of grave markersA military chaplain ministers to members of all branches of the United States Armed Forces and often times must serve all spiritual needs, regardless of religious affiliation. Chaplains also minister on topics other than religion, such as ethics, morals and team morale. Additionally, chaplains perform weddings, funerals, baptisms and other religious ceremonies to the Armed Forces personnel and their families. 

Most other countries provide chaplains to minister to the needs of their armed forces as well. According to the United States Army Chaplain Corps, the Army Chaplain Schoolwas created in 1918 to accommodate the need to train chaplains to serve the large number of soldiers being prepared to enter World War I.

The first U.S. chaplain school began operating at Fort Monroe, Virginia in March 1918. Since its start in Fort Monroe, the United States Army Chaplain School has relocated multiple times until it reached Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where it remains today.  

In the United States, chaplains have a military officer’s rank that is based on their years of service and promotion selection amongst their peers. Chaplains wear the uniform associated with their respective branch of the armed forces but do not wear the ceremonial officer’s sword or firearms during the normal course of duty or in combat. Serving as a chaplain may seem like a fairly easy task to most people, but based on some of the papers I found in the Elmer Gibson collection, I would have to disagree.  

A worksheet instructing chaplains on how to mark military gravesGibson had worksheets from his time in Chaplain School that clearly illustrated tasks such as wrapping a body to be buried, digging and placing a grave within a cemetery, and marking a grave appropriately according to the fallen soldier’s rank and religious affiliation. In addition, chaplains are often times responsible for alerting family members of the death or injury of their loved ones serving in the Armed Forces. 

Although my common sense should have told me otherwise, I had never really considered that duties such as these would be expected of a military chaplain. This job must be incredibly emotionally taxing on a person, especially if they were stationed over seas in an area that was seeing a lot of combat.

The more I learn about Elmer Gibson, the more thankful I become that people like him are willing to serve the United States Armed Forces in this way, especially since I am certain that I would never have the strength to do so.

Thanks to Rusty Edmister whose genorosity is making this project possible.

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