Over 700 Navy Chaplains served with Marine Corps units in Vietnam between 1962 and 1972. With an average age of 37, these chaplains were often twice the age of the young men with whom they served. More than half were veterans of World War II and/or the Korean Conflict. All were volunteers. The pathways these clergymen took to Vietnam varied dramatically not only with the Marines they served, but with one another. Once in Vietnam their experiences depended largely upon when, where, and with whom they served. When the last among them returned home in 1972 the Corps they represented and the American religious landscape of which they were a part had changed.
This study examines the experiences of Navy chaplains in three phases of the American conflict in Vietnam: the assisting and defending phase, 1962-1965; the intense combat phase, 1966-1968; and the post-Tet drawdown phase, 1969-1972. Through glimpses of the experiences of multiple chaplains and in-depth biographical sketches of six in particular the study elucidates their experiences, their understandings of chaplaincy, and the impact of their service in Vietnam on the rest of their lives.
This work argues that the motto the Chaplains School adopted in 1943, “Cooperation without Compromise,” proved relevant for clergy in a time when Protestant-Catholic-Jew were the defining categories of American religious experience. By the early 1970s, however, many Navy chaplains could no longer cooperate with one another without compromising their theological perspective. This reality reflected America’s shifting religious landscape and changes within the Chaplains Corps. Thus, many chaplains who served in Vietnam may well have viewed that time as bringing to a close a golden age of service within the Navy’s Chaplains Corps.