Delbert Kuehl: Ministering to the Dead & Dying
Military chaplains brought comfort to millions of troops serving overseas during World War II. They provided spiritual guidance in the heat of battle, ministered to the dead and dying, and offered comfort to survivors. Delbert Kuehl of Alexandria, Minnesota, seved as chaplain for the 504th Parachute regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division from 1942 through the end of the war. In a 2003 interview with Thomas Saylor, Rev. Kuehl recalled the moral dilemma of war and religion.
TS: A difficult part is that as a military chaplain, the people that you're ministering to, essentially their job is to kill the enemy or to dislodge and to win military situations.
TS: Killing is part of their job. How do you as a chaplain, as a Christian, grapple with that? In a sense, the job is killing.
DK: That is a tremendous question, and it’s not an easy one to answer. We know that it’s wrong to kill if you have hatred against an individual, someone that you know individually. But when you have the situation we faced in World War II and other wars, where you have a man like Hitler killing millions of innocent Jews and others - and we saw a concentration camp, we took a small concentration camp in Germany - I could see why that we had to take action against that kind of a dictator.
Now the Bible says, "He who takes up the sword will perish with the sword." What does that mean? Hitler and others have taken up the sword and killed millions of people. Who is going to stop him? God says the man who takes up the sword will perish with the sword. That means somebody has to take up the sword against him. Now we did have some who came to me as chaplain. "I killed this person. It's really bothering me." "I can understand that." But I said, "You didn’t know him, did you?" "No." "He's your enemy?" "Yes." Try to comfort him a bit. Because if you didn't kill, they killed you. It's a very difficult question to answer. Other than the fact that, where there's these atrocities, we're expected to try to take a stand against it.
TS: To carry that one step further, many of these Germans or Italians may have been Protestants or Catholics. That is, people in the same religious tradition. They may have been hearing, I suspect, the same thing or a variant of that message at their own services. Did that ever occur to you?
DK: Yes. No doubt. There were some in other armies that also had faith in God. They had no choice, but had to be where they are. I talked to some of the Germans. I talked to even Russians who said, "We don't believe in God." Told me. Had nothing to do with it. The Germans had a big brass belt [buckle] on their uniform that said "Deutschland Über Alles, Gott Mit Uns" (Germany over all and God with us). So they, even on their uniform, had that big belt showing some relation to God. The tragedy of war is there are innocent ones even, on both sides. I don't know how to totally answer that. Humanity is godless overall in many ways, and that’s what causes wars.
TS: As part of your duties, Reverend Kuehl, did you minister to dying men?
DK: I spent a lot of time ministering to dying men. My heart went out to them. When we crossed the Waal River, that's a branch of the Rhine, in [central] Holland, we lost fifty percent of our men in that crossing. We started with twenty-six boats and I think eleven or twelve made it across.
TS: You were crossing with front line people.
DK: I crossed with the initial assault wave. Somebody said, "You're crazy," because I was regimental chaplain and I didn’t have to. In fact, at a later time when the colonel came over and we had already taken the area, he came over and saw me and said, "What in the hell are you doing here, Chaplain?" I said, "Sir, the men are here." I leaned over a man that had three bullet holes in his stomach, and it's just heartbreaking to see these men, brave men. I was trying to help him and then a mortar shell evidently hit behind me. What hit me was a piece of shrapnel. I fell right on top of him. He said, "Oh, Chaplain, they get you, too?" I thought, here's a man with three bullet holes in him and he's concerned about me. But I was able there on that bank of the river and in the boats to help save the lives of a number of men because I carried a big aid kit. So I worked in that capacity also.
TS: What kind of words of comfort can you offer to someone who you know and perhaps they know are dying?
DK: I guess it depends on what they believe. I can never tell a man, "You're going to heaven just because you’re dying," because that isn't the truth. As I said before we went to Sicily, they don’t have to have fear if they know Jesus Christ as their personal Savior because he died for them to forgive their sins. And I would try to help them spiritually if I could. Quite a few of them had become Christians. In fact, several asked to be baptized after crossing the Waal River in Holland. They came to know the Lord. Heard messages and believed. But to somebody who doesn’t believe, who is agnostic, I could never…I could comfort them in their physical need, but I could not lie to them spiritually.
TS: Did you have conversations with people oftentimes or was there just, in a sense, offering spiritual comfort by your mere presence?
DK: I gave out a lot of New Testaments, hundreds of them, that the Gideons gave. Many of them read them, even in their foxhole. I would crawl foxhole to foxhole as a chaplain. There would be four or five reading them. So I gave them a lot of material that they could read when they had a chance, and I spent time with them. Like I said, on the front lines they appreciated and I could help them there that way in their spiritual need. But some, and we know today too in our country, they're atheists. They don't want anything to do with God. But I didn’t see much of that in the military, with the paratroopers.
TS: Following up on this ministering to the dying, how difficult was that for you?
DK: Oh, boy. It's very difficult. When you see your buddies that you trained with and worked with and was with and all this, to see them die is heartbreaking. To see them give the ultimate. I tried to comfort as many as I could. That's why I was on the front line, to help them. Help them physically as much as I could and comfort them as much as I could. It's very, very difficult. Now, as I say, if they were Christians and knew the Lord, had accepted Christ as Savior, it was altogether different. They knew that they were just moving on.
TS: Were you also responsible for writing letters back to families or next of kin?
DK: Yes. A chaplain would expect to do that if they could. I wrote some, but I had no possibility on the front line to write letters. No way I could do it, because we were day and night on the go. I would write as many as I could, but many of them I was not able to because we had lost so many then. By just going into Sicily, twenty-three planeloads of men. A couple hundred men or more, gone in just one operation.
TS: When you did have the opportunity or responsibility to write those letter, how do you decide what to say?
DK: Well, if I knew the trooper personally, and many of them I did not, because I could not, no way know all of them personally. We had so many replacements coming in too because of men we lost. I would tell them about the unit he was with and how brave that group was and what they accomplished and you can be proud of your son that he was willing to be a part of such brave men and serve his country to the place he’d even lay down his life for his country. And I tried to give them comfort. That's very difficult to write those letters.
TS: Did you ever hear back from family members or next of kin either during or after the war asking questions or wanting more information about someone who was killed in action?
DK: Very seldom. I did have a few. In fact, some years ago I got a letter asking if I knew their son. If I knew, whatever I could, I would share with them, and sometimes I'd go to their platoon leader or their sergeant and get further information and share that. I think that was a real help and comfort to these people. But they, too, realized that in combat situations there's no way we could do all we wanted to do.
Kuehl, Rev. Delbert; Thomas Saylor, Interviewer, Minnesota's Greatest Generation Oral History Project, Minnesota Historical Society Oral History Collection, 2003.