Korean War Chaplains
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Remembering our Army at war in Korea 

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The United States Army Chaplaincy

Text Source
Footnotes may be read in the original volume.

Photos courtesy
U.S. Army Chaplain  Museum

Graphic: Photograph of Chaplain Sharp assisted by his son and chaplain assistant, PFC John Sharp.
Chaplain (Lt.Col.) William B. Sharp, Protestant Episcopal chaplain with the 40th Infantry Division, is assisted by his son and chaplain assistant, PFC John E. Sharp, in conducting Sunday service for the division during the Korean War. 


In the morning hours of 5 July 1950, the antagonism of the world-adversaries came to a head near Osan, South Korea. Soviet-supported North Korean troops met face to face with U.S. soldiers the first contingent of a United Nations force. Shortly after 0800, as the surrounding hills trembled with the roar of battle, the first American fell dead. Before it would end, 33,628 more would die.1 "It was a war between two differing ideologies," said one author. "All ethical standards of western civilization were scorned by the Communists.2

For most Army chaplains it would mean an all-too-soon end to the relative comfort of garrison duty and the parish-like ministries in occupation zones or the United States. Again the altar would be the hood of a jeep, a jagged stump, or an ammunition crate; the pews would be sand bags or the simple bare ground. The faces in the congregations would be dirty, weary, fear-filled many of the chaplains young charges would die in their arms before they could even learn their names. The well-planned services and intricate counselings would give way to whatever hope and comfort could be gleaned from Holy Writ at the spur of the moment. All this because the philosophy chaplains had warned about in citizenship lectures had suddenly become a living enemy on a battlefield, testing the strength of their spiritual muscles.

Regrettably, there is no way in which the ministry of the hundreds of chaplains who served in Korea could be adequately recounted in this limited space. Hopefully, however, the few examples cited will give some composite picture of how religious convictions, permeating their commonness, led many of them to uncommon deeds and sacrifices.

Annexed to Japan in 1910, Korea had made various attempts toward independence, generally ignored by the rest of the world. Later independence leaders attempted to establish a government-in-exile with Syngman Rhee as President. Unable to unite the various factions of the group, Rhee moved to the U.S., hoping to gain Korean freedom through diplomacy.

World War II had restored hope to those who sought Korean sovereignty; the Cairo Conference of 1943 and the Potsdam Proclamation of 1945 promised them independence. The promise was complicated, however, by the Russian declaration of war against Japan a mere 25 days before their formal surrender. A hasty Allied agreement set the 38th degree of latitude across Korea as a dividing line between American and Russian areas of responsibility: Japanese forces north of the line surrendered to Soviet units; south of the line, to U.S. units. This seemingly innocent arrangement spelled the beginning of future problems since the Russians considered the 38th Parallel a permanent delineation between occupation zones. The United Nations called for free elections, but because the Soviets would not allow them to be held above the Parallel they were held only in the south. On 15 August 1948 the Republic of Korea was formed with Syngman Rhee as President. The Soviets responded by establishing the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea in the north less than a month later.

This strange turn of events made the small land a dangerous contact point between the world powers touching like bare wires in a global circuitry. By the time the Soviet troops left North Korea in the fall of 1948, that country had a formidable army, heavily armed and Russian-equipped. U.S. units, with the exception of 500 advisors, left South Korea in June 1949, but their military influence was far less impressive.3

In May 1950 Senator Tom Connally of Texas, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned of a possible Communist invasion of South Korea.4 Many agreed, but few expected the attempt so soon. One month later, on 25 June, a massive drive by North Korean Army (NKA) units, supported by tanks, rumbled across the 38th Parallel and headed straight for Seoul, the southern capital.

The U.N. Security Council promptly condemned the attack and called on member nations to assist the South. President Truman quickly ordered General MacArthur to use U.S. air and sea power in the Far East in support of the Republic of Korea (ROK) Army.

Despite this response, Seoul fell on 28 June and MacArthur informed the President that the ROK Army could not repel the invasion with air and sea support alone. As a consequence, on 30 June 1950, President Truman authorized the use of U.S. Far East ground forces.

Unfortunately, those forces four divisions in the thinly-populated Eighth Army were understrength and poorly equipped. Nevertheless, the first organization rapped was Major General William F. Deans 24th Infantry Division. Dean ordered his units to Korea via available air and sea transportation. Lieutenant Colonel Charles B. Smith and his 1st Battalion of the 21st Regiment were to lead the way. Smiths "battalion" consisted of two understrength h infantry companies augmented by a recoil-less rifle platoon and a mortar platoon just over 400 men. This meager group, destined to be the first U.S. ground unit to face battle in Korea. was named after the commander "Task Force Smith."5


Chaplain Carl R. Hudson, Southern Baptist, had been assigned to the 21st Regiment only a few weeks earlier. He was looking forward to a relaxed tour of garrison duty in Kyushu, Japan, hardly expecting combat duty. When alerted, even the men of Smiths unit anticipated only a brief skirmish and a quick return to Japan. The chaplain, a doctor, and a few aid men were ordered to accompany them.

In the early morning hours of 1 July, they drove through a monsoon rain storm to Itazuke Air Base. Although their first flight to South Korea was aborted because of ground fog, their second attempt landed them safely at Pusan, on the southern end of the peninsula. Later that evening they boarded trains for an uncomfortable ride north made less enjoyable by the limited rations they had brought with them. Their morale was high, however, as they pulled into Taejon the next morning. There Colonel Smith was briefed by Brigadier General John H. Church, who headed MacArthurs survey party. And representatives of the Korean Military Advisory Group (KMAG). Smith also had a chance to go forward and survey the area near Osan.

Moving on to Pyongtaek, the unit was joined by a battery of the 52nd Field Artillery Battalion. They commandeered old U.S. Army trucks from some retreating ROK soldiers and finally reached a pre-chosen hill north of Osan in the morning darkness of 5 July. Shell holes and a few burning huts indicated the enemy was near. The men dug in and set up their artillery.

It was raining at daybreak, so Chaplain Hudson wandered with a few men to the foot of the hill, found an abandoned hut, and went in to prepare some breakfast. Shortly after they entered, Hudson heard the noise of an approaching vehicle. He innocently glanced out the door and was momentarily stunnedstaring directly at him was a North Korean tank. Dashing through the hut and out the back door, he and the others hurled themselves into a ditch as the tanks machine gun riddled the shack. The tank, followed by others, rumbled on south and the chaplain and his companions scrambled for their unit on top of the hill. Even before they reached the top, the U.S. howitzer and mortar crews opened up on the tank column. Their firepower had little effect, however, and most of the tanks continued right past their position. Following the tanks came an incredible convoy of NKA trucks, estimated at nearly 6 miles long. Hordes of enemy soldiers dismounted and began attacking the tiny U.S. group in an attempt to encircle the hill.

As the battle raged, U.S. casualties began to fall by the scores. Chaplain Hudson dashed through the rain and mud consoling the dying, praying with the wounded, and assisting the aid men. With the passing of each hour, however, the situation began to appear hopeless.

By noon, Hudson had worked his way to Colonel Smith. The commander told him he had sent a messenger south for help but that unless aid came quickly they would have to retreat. Meanwhile, the foul weather prevented any hope of air support.

By mid-afternoon, after 7 tortuous and valiant hours of combat, with no relief in sight, communications knocked out, and ammunition nearly gone, Smith decided to lead his remaining men out. The few undamaged vehicles were used to transport some of the wounded. Chaplain Hudson and others walked and ran assisting other wounded, but many of the severely injured and all of the dead had to be abandoned.

Hudsons group rushed south through the night and most of the next clay attempting to make contact with the forward clement of the 34th Regiment, scheduled to augment them. They waded streams and rice paddies, climbed hills, sloshed through rain and mud, resting only 5 or 10 minutes each hour. Hudson and the doctor circulated among the bedraggled men trying to instill some courage and hope. "Many prayers, both audible and silent, we uttered that night." Sections of the retreating unit met at various points and it became clear that only about 250 of them had escaped. When they finally met the 34th, more vehicles were secured. "We were never so glad to see those men and have rides as on that day," said Hudson.6 Among the early arrivals in the 34th Regiment was Chaplain Elwood L. Temple, Presbyterian USA. Arriving with the rest of the 21st Regiment were Chaplains John L. Gilman, Roman Catholic, and Gerhardt W. Hyatt, Missouri Synod Lutheran. Hyatt, a native of Saskatchewan, Canada, who served as a transport chaplain at the end of World War II, became the Armys Chief of Chaplains more than 20 years later. 7

These first few men, leading the long line of Army chaplains who were to serve in Korea, encountered the enemy and faced death many more times in the months that followed. After a brief rest and first aid for his blistered and swollen feet, Hudson was returned to 13 months of combat. "I think some of the best times were under extreme disadvantages like these," he said. "I didnt have to hold services then but I wanted to. The men and officers knew this. They appreciated it and came in large numbers."8

Beginning with Hudson, many chaplains felt compelled to instruct their men regarding the ideological conflict. "I was always glad of the opportunity to explain the workings and effects of Communism as compared to the life and blessings of being an American," he later wrote. "We saw all the horrors of war and misery caused by Communism. I am still glad God called me to serve our men in Korea. I would do it again."9

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General Dean did his best to slow the Communist advance while other U.S. and U.N. forces were being readied for shipment to Korea. He sent one unit after another to meet the enemy in their persistent drive south. Meanwhile, responding to a U.N. request, President Truman appointed General MacArthur Commander in Chief of the United Nations Command."10

"Deans Delay," as it was called, was nearly suicidal. Every effort was met by seemingly endless streams of the NKA. One of the first heavy battles raged for 5 days (16-20 July 1950) near Taejon and the Kum River. Among the men involved were those of the 19th Infantry Regiment. Herman G. Felhoelter, Roman Catholic, was one of their chaplains. He had written his mother 4 days earlier:

Dont worry Mother. Gods will be done. I feel so good to know the power of your prayers accompanying me. I am not comfortable in Korea (that is impossible here) but I am happy in the thought that I can help some souls who need help. Keep your prayers going upward .11

Graphic: Photograph of Chaplain Herman Felhoelter.

Felhoelter was just north of Taejon on 16 July, making his way up a hill across the Kum River with roughly 100 other men. They were carrying nearly 30 wounded while attempting to escape the enemy force that overpowered them. Felhoelter, who had been in the Army from 1944 to 1946 and returned in 1948, was now in the unenviable home of a military congregation the battlefield.

The Korean conflict already contained those physical and psychological elements of every war deafening noise, rampant confusion, overwhelming fear and fatigue, and indescribable carnage. Intermingled with it also were those inexplicable acts of self-sacrifice by common men who sought no special recognition or personal honor.

Chaplain Herman G. Felhoelter, Roman Catholic, lost his life along with the wounded with whom he stayed as their unit was overrun.

By the time Felhoelters group reached the top of the hill, it was obvious they could not continue carrying the injured and still escape the advancing North Koreans.

The chaplain convinced a medical officer to leave with the others while he remained behind with the wounded. Several minutes later from a distance, a sergeant turned and stared through binoculars at the pitiful group they had left behind. He watched in unbelief as enemy soldiers overcame the suffering men and murdered them all including the chaplain praying over them. Only 11 days after American soldiers had entered the fight, the first Army chaplain lay dead on the battlefield. The next day would have been Herman Felhoelters 37th Birthday. Posthumously he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.12

The bloody battle for Taejon ended on 20 July with North Korean forces attacking the 24th Division on three sidles and invading the city. Even General Dean, injured and separated from his men, was eventually captured and subsequently spent nearly 3 years in a North Korean prison camp. His division was eventually relieved by the arriving 25th Infantry and 1st Cavalry Divisions. A few days later, the 24th, supplemented with raw recruits and commanded by General Church, moved to the southwest to meet a sweeping move along the coast by an NKA division.13

During the fighting south of Taejon and along the southwest perimeter, Chaplains Carrol G. Chaphe, Methodist, and Edward S. Dorsey, Roman Catholic, were cut off from their units a harrowing experience endured by many chaplains during the course of the War. It took Chaphe 3 days and Dorsey 4 days to get back to friendly ground. Chaplain Chaphe, a veteran of World War II, was wounded in the course of one battle. "We were slapped by one wing of the Red drive on Chinju," he said from his hospital bed in Tokyo. "Our casualties were heavier than the medics could handle, but they kept working and I gave them a hand. A light mortar dropped in ten feet from me, and theyre still picking out the metal. When the medics repair this leg Im going right back to those boys.14

Also wounded was Chaplain Arthur E. Mills, Advent Christian, with the 8th Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division. He had overheard the remark of an officer that a group of wounded might have to be abandoned on the field as the unit withdrew from a heavy assault. Mills, who had served in World War II, quickly responded: "This is the way we did it in the last war!" He jumped into a jeep and sped off under enemy fire. Despite the fact that he too was hit, Chaplain Mills returned with a jeep-load of men. Besides the Purple Heart, he was awarded the Silver Star his second for combat bravery.15

An occasional lighter moment broke some of the tension in those early days of fighting. With portions of the 25th Division on a train heading toward the front was the Division Chaplain, Mitchell W. Phillips, Disciples of Christ. Phillips was no stranger to Korea since he had served there during the occupation. When his train stopped for fuel, he heard the anguished cries of a refugee whose wife was about to give birth to a child. Phillips jumped from the train and assisted in delivering the baby as the mother lay alongside a road. Even though the father wanted to name the child after the chaplain, Phillips convinced him otherwise and dashed back to the train just as it was leaving.16

Among the chaplains of the 35th Regiment of the same division, which was attempting to stop a Communist drive near Sangju, was Byron D. Lee, Nazarene. The 33-year-old minister became a chaplain in 1944, a year after graduating from his denominations Northwest College and Seminary in Nampa, Idaho. He had served in the European Theater in World War II and, prior to that time, had enlisted service in the Minnesota National Guard. As his regiment pulled back from an assault on Hamchang, enemy planes spotted the convoy in which Lee was moving, swooped down, and strafed the scattering soldiers. Lee was mortally wounded. It was only the 25th of July and already the second Army chaplain had been killed in action.17

Every contact with the enemy seemed to result in catastrophe. What remained of U.S. and ROK units, now designated as the Eighth Army, struggled to hold a daily-decreasing piece of South Korea. Their commander, Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker, designated leader of all U.N. ground forces, announced his intention to hold the line at whatever the cost. Four days after Chaplain Lees death, General Walker gave his famous "defend or die" speech at the 25th Divisions command post.18 Unfortunately, there were more withdrawals. Ultimately the entire U.N. force, now augmented by units from the United Kingdom, occupied only a small area behind what was called the "Pusan Perimeter." The fragile line stretched a mere 60 miles from Taegu to the eastern coast and 90 miles south, partially along the Naktong River, to the Tsushima Strait. Squeezed into that tiny, southeastern edge of Korea, U.N. troops struggled to hold the North Korean advance. TEXT SOURCE:  Extract, Chapter 3, Warring Ideologies The Battle for Korea from Confidence in Battle, Inspiration in Peace, The United States Army Chaplaincy 1945-1975 by Rodger R. Venzke, published by the Office of the Chief of the Chaplains, Washington, 1977. Page 1Page 2Page 3Page 4