Marching as to War
(From the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers")
Braniff Airline Charter Flight W243B departed Travis Air Force Base, California, at 2:38 p.m. September 14, destination South Vietnam with stops on the way in Alaska and Japan. As the airplane plunged forward toward whatever awaited, my pained thoughts hung tightly to the wife and five children I left behind. I could hardly believe I was here, an Army chaplain headed into war.
The final leg of this journey really began a year and a half earlier on a Sunday evening in February 1965. Helga was already in bed when I decided to visit Alan Smith, a fellow seminary teacher and neighbor. During the visit I informed Smith that I had tendered my resignation from my teaching position, effective at the end of the current school year.
"Why don't you return to the Army as a chaplain?" Smith asked.
"No thanks," I snapped, "I've had enough of the Army." Between 1952 and 1958 I had been an enlisted soldier and was currently a medic on a Special Forces A-team in the National Guard.
Not to be put off by my reflexive response, Smith referred me to an article in the latest edition of the Deseret News. The piece announced that for the first time since the Korean War, the military services were accepting chaplaincy applications from Latter-day Saints. By an agreement worked out between the military services and the LDS Church, acceptable applicants could enter the chaplaincy under an educational waiver of the requirement that all chaplains have 90 hours of graduate credit and a divinity-school degree. This requirement had been an almost impossible barrier for LDS candidates because their church had neither divinity schools nor professional clergy. For Mormons, a bachelor's degree would henceforth be sufficient. So read the announcement-I had one of those!
Though I'd reflexively rejected Alan's suggestion about the chaplaincy, I had second thoughts as I walked home from his house. For one thing, being in the National Guard, I knew American involvement was heating up in Vietnam, and experienced soldiers would soon be in demand. With my Army background, I reasoned, I'd have an edge in understanding soldiers' lives and challenges and in serving those of all faiths. And I'd earn at least $500 per month as a lieutenant, before taxes.
At home, my mind swirling, I crawled into bed next to Helga and nudged her until she acknowledged my intrusion into her dreams. "What is it?"
"How would you like to go back in the Army and earn five hundred dollars a month?" I asked.
In response, Helga mumbled something that I chose to interpret as agreement and fell back to sleep. She doesn't remember this conversation.
Moments later, in the living room, I penned a letter to apply to become a chaplain. The letter highlighted those aspects of my background that I believed would make my application stand out. I expressed preference for the Army and infantry and added that I had received the Good Conduct Medal as an enlisted man.
I seriously doubted I'd be accepted for the chaplaincy. After all, my seminary-teaching career was less than spectacular. An ecclesiastical leader, upon learning of my intentions, advised me to not get my hopes up because he had failed to be selected to be a chaplain, despite his having much better credentials than I had. But I tried and dared hope, with nothing to lose. Meanwhile, to be on the safe side, I continued to seek employment elsewhere for the coming summer and school year.
Excitement reigned in our home the day we were called to come for an interview at church headquarters in Salt Lake City. I was the first of a hundred applicants to be interviewed because we had planned to be in Tennessee come June, the scheduled time for the interviews.
Elder Boyd K. Packer, a general or church headquarters-level leader, interviewed me alone, and then Helga and me together. During the private interview, Elder Packer asked, in effect, "Have you ever done anything that would cause you to be unworthy to represent the church as a chaplain," a pause while my life flashed before my eyes, "since you joined the church?"
"No," I answered honestly.
We left Elder Packer's office quietly convinced we'd better keep looking elsewhere for employment, which conviction we shared with each other a few nights later during a drive-in movie date.
In May 1965, I accepted the junior position in a two-teacher school in Kiana, Alaska. Kiana is situated on the banks of the Kobuk River, 40 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 80 miles inland from the frigid Bering Sea. The boys and I looked eagerly toward Alaska. Helga and Jeannie looked forward with dread and trepidation. But wonderful companion that she was, is, Helga prepared resolutely for two years in the cold north wilderness. The reprieve, when it came, was very welcome.
Upon returning home from our June trip to Tennessee, we solidified plans for the move to Alaska and readied ourselves to receive the packers. That's when the telephone rang. We received the call on a wall telephone in our small kitchen. Helga came close when she heard me say, "Elder Packer." Standing face to face with her, I heard him say:
"I regret to inform you (pause for effect), you've been selected to be a chaplain in the Army. Do you accept?"
With barely controlled emotions and feigned dignity, I accepted. The Army, my first choice!
The main business attended to, Elder Packer instructed me to attend an orientation meeting at church headquarters where I would receive further instructions.
Helga's beautiful eyes sparkled with joy as she interpreted my side of the conversation. Cool dignity dissolved as I hung up the telephone; Helga did a little dance of glee as we melted joyfully into each other's embrace. We were in, we thought. Little did we suspect the obstacles between the telephone call and being in.
War clouds loomed heavy when, on July 25, 1965, we eleven endorsed candidates gathered at church headquarters. Infantry divisions were going to Vietnam, screamed the headlines that day-the next step in Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's policy of limited war and gradual escalation, a policy obviously doomed in the opinion of many professional soldiers.
As part of a daylong orientation, Elder Packer said, looking straight at me, "You were not selected for the chaplaincy because you are necessarily the best qualified applicants. You were selected because you are who the Lord wants." These words would motivate me for more than a quarter of a century.
Upon completion of the orientation, H. Richard Thomas gave to each candidate a set of military application forms and a formal military letter. My letter, dated 29 July 1965, authorized me to obtain an Army physical examination at the nearest military induction center. I was further instructed to send my application and physical exam results to the Office of the Army Chief of Chaplains. Once I had active-duty orders in hand, I was to return to church headquarters and be set apart (an LDS ordinance similar to ordination in many churches). The process of "getting in" seemed simple enough.
I reported to Fort Douglas, Utah, for a physical examination on August 2, 1965, and flunked it because of high-frequency deafness in both ears. How could that be? I'd passed hearing tests to enter and exit the Army, to become a correctional officer at Alcatraz, to be a police officer, and within the past year to enlist in the National Guard. But the previous hearing tests each consisted of a doctor clicking coins together and asking me if I heard it, which I always had. This time, the Army had tested my hearing with me inside an electronic box and declared me unfit for military service.
Reluctantly, sorrowfully, I returned and shared the sad news with Helga. She was wonderful. First, she assured me the Lord was aware of us, that He was bound to bless us because we faithfully paid an honest tithe, and we tried to keep His commandments. "And," she reflected, "do you really have to have perfect ears to be a chaplain?" Perhaps not.
A letter dated 11 August 1965 informed me that my request for a waiver of my hearing disability had been forwarded to the Office of the Surgeon General of the Army with a recommendation that it be approved. The chaplain who signed the letter promised to cooperate with me in every possible way, and said, "I trust whatever the news may be, it will be God's will for you."
The waiver was approved in late August. "Commissioning and active duty awaits only completion of a security check on you. You should be on active duty by early September ," read an official letter.
Meanwhile, times were getting very tight, financially. We'd canceled the move to Alaska, and almost three months had passed since our last paycheck. Even the monthly National Guard drill pay had ended in May due to my impending move to Alaska, and that, alas, just before I was to have attended paratrooper training at Fort Benning, Georgia. To make matters worse, I couldn't find decent employment without being dishonest. For example, Sears declined to hire me because I "might" enter the Army soon. Other potential employers turned me away because I was "overqualified."
September came and went without any further word from Washington. We were desperate. With little money for house payments, utilities, food, we were falling deeper and deeper in debt. Between June and October we racked up more than $3,000 in medical bills alone, a fortune even had paychecks been regular. Fortunately, with the new school year came the opportunity to earn a little-about $500 over four months-as a substitute teacher.
Our financial condition became so bad that by late fall I was forced to seek help from our bishop. He gave us food orders to be filled at the Bishop's Storehouse. Thus, I continued to feed my family, though the mortgage payments and other bills were very difficult to meet. In exchange for help from the church-between substitute teaching and job hunting-I helped out at a church welfare warehouse, cannery and dairy and delivered coal to churches. Doing her part and more, Helga did ironing and sewing jobs assigned to her by the bishop. Thus, we kept our dignity by earning the assistance we received.
About mid-October, having heard nothing from Washington, I called on H. Richard Thomas, the Servicemen Committee secretary at church headquarters. He greeted me with, "Hello, Brother Newby. I'm glad you are here, but I have bad news for you."
The chaplaincy had rejected my application, along with another one, Thomas said. I, like the other candidate, would not be allowed to enter the chaplaincy on an education waiver because I lacked a master's degree and hadn't completed a full-time, two-year LDS mission. The mission requirement was in lieu of 60 of the required 90 hours of graduate study-though it had not been listed as a prerequisite in the Deseret News item I'd read back in February.
The Army, Thomas said, had to deny me an appointment in order to maintain the quality of chaplains and to keep the chaplaincies from being swamped with unqualified clergy. Thomas added that the Servicemen Committee had received notification of my rejection by telephone and had been assured my application was in the mail, marked "disapproved."
Never in my life had I felt so low, so dejected. Words can't describe how I dreaded to face Helga with this news-our dream was dashed for sure this time. Still, I approached home with this faint glimmer of hope that she, with her unshakable faith, would again restore my spirits.
I gave Helga the disappointing news while we stood by the wall telephone in the kitchen, in the same spot where months before we had heard that we had been selected as candidates for the Army chaplaincy. This time, for the first time, Helga cried, but only for a moment. Then, leaning her head and shoulders away from my embrace, she said, "Claude, I don't know what will happen. But we've done our best, and now it is God's problem. He will cause things to work out for us, somehow."
Then, in an instant, Helga's grieved, anxious demeanor changed. She went silent and seemed to stare through me for a moment, dry-eyed and deep. "Besides," she said, "I still believe we will be chaplains." I believed her, though reason shouted that the dream was over, that the chaplaincy was out of the question for us. Her faith and confidence rang louder though, stronger and infectious. The dreaded rejection letter from the Army never came.
November arrived. I was substitute teaching in a science class-trying to explain the big bang theory of creation-at the Brigham City Indian School. The principal or his assistant stuck his head in the classroom. "You must call your wife during the next break. It is very important."
Helga's excitement radiated from the telephone as she informed me I was to return a call to Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) Will Hyatt through Operator Two in Washington, D.C.
I called Washington. Chaplain Hyatt opened with, "First of all, Reverend Newby, don't get excited. Everything is all right." He explained I was approved for the chaplaincy and asked if I accepted the appointment. I accepted.
"A letter is on the way," Chaplain Hyatt said, "instructing you to report immediately to Fort Ord, California. Please ignore those instructions and wait for orders directing you to report to Fort Hamilton, New York, for the Chaplain Officer Basic Course . . . on or about 3 January 1966, en route to your assignment at Fort Ord, California." Helga was ecstatic, but not very surprised!
A few days later, resplendent in my new Army uniform with silver first lieutenant bars on each shoulder, I reported with my family, unannounced, to the Servicemen Committee. Surprise was all over H. Robert Thomas' face, like what is Newby, the reject, doing in uniform? Thomas' surprise turned to consternation when I produced official orders. "I'm here to be set apart, according to instructions," I said.
Shocked now, Thomas studied my orders. "This cannot be. You were rejected. The Army told me so, personally. Something is wrong here."
He stared at the orders in silence, trying, I presumed, to make sense of the incongruence between what he knew and what he saw. Finally, with, "I don't know what to do," he called Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, his superior on the committee.
Thomas' side of the telephone conversation went pretty much this way. "Newby is here with Army orders to active duty, to be set apart. . . . Yes, I have the orders in my hands. . . . Yes, they appear to be in order. . . . Yes . . . Yes sir." He hung up and said, "Elder Hinckley knows this can't be. We are to come to his office."
Helga and the children waited with Elder Hinckley's secretary while I entered his office with Thomas, confidently at first because I knew my orders were all right. Soon, though, my confidence wavered because, apparently, one whom I believed to be one of the Lord's anointed thought something about me wasn't kosher.
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Excerpted from It Took Heroes by Claude D. Newby. Copyright © 2003 by Claude D. Newby. Excerpted by permission of Presidio Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.