Delbert Kuehl: Chaplain Under Fire
As an ordained minister, Delbert Kuehl could have avoided military service during World War II. Instead, he volunteered for duty as a U.S. Army chaplain in 1942, the same year he was ordained to the ministry. He was provided with one month of "chaplain school" training. When the opportunity came to volunteer for service as a Protestant chaplain for the new 82nd Airborne Division, he didn't hesitate. Realizing that he was serving a tough congregation, Chaplain Kuehl insisted on doing everything the men in his regiment were required to do to win their respect. When in combat, he served side by side with his flock, and received several battle stars for bravery in action. He told his story to Thomas Saylor in a 2003 interview.
TS: I notice from your own record here that you were awarded the Bronze Star and Silver Star [military awards for valor—Silver Star the second highest, after the Congressional Medal of Honor].
DK: I got two Bronze Stars for the time in Italy. The Silver Star was for crossing the Rhine River, where I got hit with shrapnel in Holland. That’s the Waal they call it there in Holland. That’s where I also got the Purple Heart.
TS: Can you talk about what it was that led to the earning of the Silver Star?
DK: The Silver Star was the fact that a small contingent of our division, two companies out of the whole regiment, were chosen to make the seemingly impossible task of taking the bridges from the rear across the Waal, the Rhine River, in Holland. I’ll give you a little bit of background. After we took the bridges we were taking south of Nijmegen, we moved up to Nijmegen. The British [paratroopers] had jumped farther north at [the Dutch town of] Arnhem, and they were being hit very hard by tanks from the German Army, just about wiping them out. So we had to get to them with armor[ed vehicles]. But you had to take the bridges across the river, the big bridges across the river there at Nijmegen. The largest single span bridge in Europe crosses there, that highway bridge across the river.
The 508th, our sister regiment, could not break through to take that bridge. I was in the woods that evening and heard the officers talking about, "We’ve got to do something. We’re going to have to go downstream and cross the river and try to take the bridges from the rear." I thought,"A fast flowing river, I wonder what kind of armored boats we'll have, and we’ll certainly do it at night." The Germans were dug in. There were all kinds of machine guns and mortars and tanks and artillery on the other side of the river. But they knew we'd have to do it in daylight because the British are losing their troops so rapidly up there.
I thought, "Boy, if they ever need me, they’re going to need me now." So I decided I’d cross with the assault wave. We waited behind the riverbanks and finally the British engineers brought the boats. We almost fainted. They were flat-bottom plywood boats with pegs to hold the sides up. No armor. How were they powered? With canoe paddles. To cross a fast flowing river in an unruly type of boat with canoe paddles and the opposition we faced on the other…we all looked at each other and said, "If we’ve ever seen a suicide mission, this is it."
TS: Now you volunteered for that mission. You could have easily not gone, too.
DK: I was regiment [regimental chaplain]. It wasn't even a battalion; it was just two companies. I was ready. I stepped back like the others did and just . . . One officer took his cigarettes away and threw his lighter away and said, "I won't need these any more." He was ready to get killed in midstream. So out of the twenty-six boats, I think eleven or twelve made it across and there were wounded and dead in all of those boats. So it was a very tragic. But we took those two bridges from the rear. The most amazing operation. A British officer was high up in a power plant on the friendly side of the river. He said, "I went through all of the German attacks across the Lowlands and in France. I went to North Africa. I went to all…I have never seen such a display of bravery as I've seen today." That was true. Unbelievable. They captured both bridges and they killed over two hundred Germans, captured about two hundred and fifty. If the officer got killed, the sergeant would take over. That small band, they just wouldn't quit.
TS: Does that moment, does that incident for you, count among your most, your more difficult military situations while you were over in Europe?
DK: That was one of the most. I guess one other was when I got the Bronze Star in Italy. We were up in the mountains and the Germans were on one side of this mountain and we were on the other. We went across to the German side and attacked them all night and pulled back before dawn. I was over there and I heard somebody say, "Chaplain, we've got some wounded men over on the German side." And I said, "We can't let them die. We can't let our troopers die." So I talked to some of the medics and we got a couple folding litters and found an old tattered Red Cross flag. You couldn't hardly tell what it was. I put it on a stick and said, "We’re going after them." We all knew that if they were the more fanatical type Germans we wouldn’t come back.
TS: You didn’t know who was over there.
DK: No, we didn't know who was over there. If it was the older regular troops they might show respect. We started down the ridge. It was all open at the top and the Germans down in the cover below. They opened up the machine gun. They hit right alongside of me and I got showered with little bits of stone and I thought, "Well, this is it." And they stopped. They stopped. We gathered our wounded. I put one right over my shoulder and we climbed back over the ridge. We got over the ridge and they opened up again with everything. So that’s one of the most dangerous things I think that we did, and I got from General Clark the Bronze Star for that.
TS: At that moment, what was it that kept you going? In a sense, when they started to shoot it would have been easy I think to say, "nuts to this," and go back.
DK: The paratroopers wouldn't do that. [Laughs] They were an unusual bunch. They knew we had wounded men there and they were ready to lay down their lives to try to get them out. That's the kind of men I was with. I tell you, I just could never say enough of what I saw of the bravery of those paratroopers.
Kuehl, Rev. Delbert; Thomas Saylor, Interviewer, Minnesota's Greatest Generation Oral History Project, Minnesota Historical Society Oral History Collection, 2003.