CHAPLAIN: THE WORLD WAR II LETTERS OF ARMY AIR CORPS CHAPLAIN PASCHAL DUPUY FOWLKES
Edited by Rives Fowlkes Carroll
Opus/Politics and Prose Bookstore, $16.95, 327 pages
In a few days we will observe Memorial Day, mourning the loss — and celebrating the lives — of Americans in uniform from the Minute Men of Lexington and Concord to the present day. For some this means planting flags in local veterans cemeteries, for others recollection of departed friends, comrades or loved ones. For all, it is a time to reflect on how blessed our land has been by generation after generation of young patriots who gave what Abraham Lincoln called the “last full measure” of their devotion.
I was reminded of this recently when several friends recommended a modest volume of annotated letters from a little-known chaplain in World War II. “Chaplain” is the story, most of it told in his own words, of Army Chaplain Paschal Dupuy Fowlkes, a young Episcopal minister in Northern Virginia.
It didn’t take long to get caught up in his story, lovingly reconstructed in his letters and a linking narrative written by his daughter, Rives Fowlkes Carroll, a teacher and professional editor. She was only 3 months old when her father went to war, but he was always a powerful presence in the lives of his two children, Rives and her older brother, Frank. As adults, both filled in blanks and pieced together details of his war-time years.
The picture that emerges is not one of a naive, gung-ho zealot, but rather of an intelligent, devoted family man, not unaware of imperfections in his own country, a man, however, who had no doubts about what to do once the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and America went to war against the original — and truest — “Axis of Evil.”
Two weeks after the attack, Rev. Fowlkes delivered a sermon to his Virginia parishioners reminding them that, “We have no right to ask of God a changeless, static existence. We have every right to ask Him the gift of power to stand with Him against the turbulent upheavals that may come.”
These were not empty words. Within months, he earned an appointment as a first lieutenant in the Army Chaplain Corps. There were only 137 pre-war chaplains. By war’s end, 9,000 would have served, 117 of them losing their lives in combat conditions. Rev. Fowlkes was one and knowing this from the outset casts a melancholy shadow over the many light-hearted, hope-filled letters he sends his wife, mother, sister and other relatives.
“My darling love,” he writes his wife in June of 1943, describing grim field conditions. “Through it all our morale stays right at the top and you can say so to anyone who might be interested. As for me, despite four thousand miles between us, I am immeasurably helped by you. Somehow the thought of being able to tell you about these things (and not feeling that you think I’m bragging or feeling unduly sorry for myself) makes them bearable. I feel somehow that you are going through all this with me. It is a pleasant augury of the day when, God willing, we will go through life together, overcoming everything in our love of life and love for each other.”
God, and German machine guns, willed otherwise. On March 24, 1945, having volunteered for and completed paratrooper training — and after front-line service during the Battle of the Bulge — Rev. Fowlkes made his first combat jump with the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment as part of Operation Varsity. Given the unexpectedly rapid Allied advance across the Rhine, the operation may have been unnecessary. But Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, a small man with almost as much ego as military talent, insisted that it be carried out as he had originally planned.
Some members of the 507th who dropped into Zone W of Operation Varsity were machine-gunned within moments of landing. Including Rev. Fowlkes. The evening before, he had delivered what would be his last sermon. It ended with these simple, heartfelt words: “We do not know all that the future holds for us. What we think and hope is that it holds high adventure. What we fear is only fear itself. What we know is that if God be with us, as we pray He is, no one can stand against us, and none can keep from us the Peace which comes with knowing that we do His will.”
In assembling the story of her father’s service through his letters and her research, his daughter, Rives, has given us a vivid portrait of an admirable husband, father, clergyman and patriot that also illustrates some of the finest qualities in what we now call “the greatest generation.” You couldn’t pick a better book to read between now and Memorial Day.
• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.