Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Artifact of the Month: Divine Military Gear

In 1951, Lieutenant James E. Norton, CHC, is hoisted onto an awaiting H-03C after holding Sunday morning Catholic services aboard the cruiser USS Newport News (CA-148), a ship designed before rotary-wing aircraft came into common use.  From the very beginning, U.S. Navy Chaplains have had to find a way to serve Sailors and Marines wherever they serve. (National Archives photo via Naval History and Heritage Command/ Flickr)   
The second article of Navy regulations as adopted by the Continental Congress on November 28, 1775, specifies that:

"The Commanders of the ships of the thirteen United Colonies, are to take care that divine service be performed twice a day on board, and a sermon preached on Sundays, unless bad weather or other extraordinary accidents prevent."

The regulation did not specify just who would conduct the services, and during those years ordained clergy would simply accompany ships at sea whenever possible.  A professionalized chaplaincy would not come into being until after "An Act to Provide a Naval Armament" was passed by Congress on March 27, 1794, which specified that "there should be employed on board each of the said ships of 44 guns... one chaplain."

Although uniform regulations and other details about the roles of chaplains would not come about for another generation, no amount of regulations could encompass what logistical constraints members of the Navy Chaplain Corps have had to overcome in the almost 240 years since their founding. As in every other category of military mission, however, American industry has met the challenge of providing gear that is tough enough to withstand the arduous duties its users perform in times of war and peace, and that includes the duties of Chaplains.  For your enlightenment this month we proudly display two Korean War-era field kits for performing divine services wherever the need arises.  

The "Protestant/Catholic Chaplain Kit" includes the case, Ciborium, bottle for wine, communion stand with cups, bread plate, Bible/missive holder, a set of two bottles/cruets for water/oil, a cross/crucifix, candles with holders, followers and stands, a paten, an intinction cup/chalice paten, a chalice, three corporals and three altar cloths.
Newly-commissioned Chaplains of the early-1950s would be issued kits such as these, specific to their religious affiliations, as much as was practicable at the time.  For example, the Protestant kit shown was designed also to be usable for Catholic services.
In the "Jewish Chaplain Kit," the case acts as the Ark, with two covers and a detachable bottom; a Torah with cover; two prayer shawls, Yarmulkes; a Yad; a Bimah (velvet cover); several sets of candles with holders and stands; and a Kiddush cup with cap.
On May 7, 1952, Lieutenant August F. Mendonsa, CHC, USNR, assisted by Corporal Alvin J. McGee, USMC, sets up an altar on sand bags in preparation for mass at the front lines in Korea. (U.S. Navy Photo by Aviation Photographer's Mate 3rd Class H.W.H. Aring/ NHHC Photo via Flickr)
Lieutenant August F. Mendonsa, CHC, USNR, conducts a Communion Service for a company of Marines posted on the front lines in Korea.  It is likely that Mendonsa's field altar case is at the lower left of the frame. (U.S. Navy Photo by Aviation Photographer's Mate 3rd Class H.W.H. Aring/ NHHC Photo via Flickr)
Known alternately as portable altars, field altars, or field kits, by the end of the Second World War, these indispensable implements of the chaplaincy were designed and built with such a high degree of combat readiness that many were designed to float and also be attached to a pistol belt or rucksack so that chaplains could even carry them during parachute jumps and amphibious landings.

Our current Artifact of the Month display at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum (Photo by HRNM Public Information Officer Susanne Greene)
During the over 60 years since these two kits were made, our military has become much more diverse.  Today's chaplains might carry kits not only made to provide Catholic, Jewish and Protestant services, but also to serve Muslim and Orthodox Christian service members as well, enabling them to provide worship opportunities regardless of faith or denomination.

Wherever called upon, regardless of the difficulties or dangers, U.S. Navy Chaplains have been right with the Sailors and Marines they serve, from the calm of peacetime patrols to the thick of combat, right from the beginning.  These artifacts are a testament to their ability to serve a higher calling anywhere, any time, with the tools they are given.

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