History Through the Eyes of an Army Chaplain

Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Suzanne Fernandes / News Editor

Marc Bernier, Special Assistant to President Johnson for Government and Community Relations, and moderator of the President Speaker Series presented journalist Tim Townsend and his book ‘Mission at Nuremberg’ to a much-awaited audience on Nov. 5 at the Gale Lemerand Auditorium.  Tim is a former religion reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The Nuremberg trials were held to serve Nazi war criminals with the deserving punishment for their crimes against humanity during World War II. The first question asked by Bernier was how Townsend found himself involved in writing a book about an Army Chaplain’ mission to provide spiritual guidance to Nurmeberg trail criminals. It so happened that in 2007, Tim and other reporters were asked to provide evergreen content for the newspaper. It is then that Tim got wind about a Lutheran church program to reintegrate chaplains from Iraq and Afghanistan which sparked his interest in military chaplaincy history. His book follows the story of Henry Gerecke, a Lutheran minister who was raised on a farm and became a minister against the wishes of his father. He spend 10 years preaching to a congregation only to eventually grow bored of it. In the middle of the depression era and having two sons fighting the war, Gerecke decided to become a St. Louis Mission Chaplain before the ripe age of 50.

Bernier mentioned about Henry and his wife Alma’s irregular marriage. Henry was described to be a flirtatious man and Alma was scared of infidelity. But, the Gerecke’ s made for an odd yet extremely close couple despite their completely different personalities. Alma went on to live a few more years after Henry’s  death at the age of 60. After gaining insight on Gerecke’s  personal life, the discussion was shifted in the direction of the war trials. The Nuremberg trials went on for years. The city of Nuremberg itself was completely destroyed by the allies. Townsend mentioned that about 90% of Nuremberg was leveled with only the courthouse and prison left. These trials were an experiment in the sense that lawyers had to come up with a structure that included one judge and one prosecution team from each of the 4 allied countries. The goal was to put each of the individual Nazi and the entire German system on trial. When you think that there could possibly be no defense on the German side, the Nazi attorneys frequently used Russian inhumanity as one of their strong talking points. For this reason, there is much debate on whether Russia should have been involved in the trials but nonetheless, they were. Millions of dollars were spent to expand the courtroom to half the size of the IC auditorium. Cameras, lights, security devices, and galleries for press were all included in the renovations. The captured Nazi’s were unhappy with the trial process as they believed that it was undignifying to be hanged. Their wives begged for mercy and attorneys petitioned for a much faster death through a bullet, but all requests were denied.

Gerecke was accompanied by another Christian chaplain, Father O’Connor who previously served with an infantry unit. O’Connor received a Bronze star for supporting people with PTSD. Gerecke served in an army hospital in London. He helped and supported doctors, nurses and soldiers alike. Both of the chaplains were fluent in German. O’Connor had fewer people to manage during the trial but those fewer people were monsters according to Townsend. The trials were not suicide free as hoped. Herman Goering, considered second in line to Hitler, committed suicide with the use of cyanide. It is believed that Goering brought the cyanide in his luggage and had help from one of the guards who sneaked the poison to him. Goering was described as a funny and witty conversationalist but he was not very responsive to either chaplain’ initiative to getting him back to God. As the event unfolded, Townsend spoke of the secretive nature of the executions. Gallows were built semi-secretly. Both chaplains would collect the prisoner and walk them to the gymnasium where the gallows were. Watched by guards, press and witnesses, the prisoner would say his last name and with a prayer, he was hanged. This grim scene was repeated for the 11 Nazi’s who were executed. The bodies were cremated in Munich and ashes dispersed into the sea. Celebrations of victory ran high in Nuremberg with the allies drinking and dancing after the trials while the country slept in poverty. But that describes the dynamics of people in Nuremberg after the war; either they were starving or part of the mechanics of the trial.

When Gerecke returned to the United States, he was given a warm welcome by the then Mayor of St. Louis. He was considered a hero for partaking in a task that so many of us would not have the courage or heart to do. Like Townsend explained, how do you sit in a room and converse with someone who has committed painful atrocious crimes against humanity? Probably, worse than this, is the realization that some of the Nazi’s had no remorse for what they did. In their defense, they were merely following orders like soldiers of any other country would do for their leader-supreme. Gerecke never comprehended the fact that he would be mistaken as a Nazi sympathizer until he received hate mail. He believed he was a Chaplain to all. He worked hard to connect people to faith. He helped find a Rabbi for Jews while working with them. His motto was ‘This too shall pass’. As a pastor, he felt that the goal was to bring the criminals back to faith. Some of them took communion and became Catholics, while some resented it till the very end. At the end of the trials, both chaplains thought their mission was successful.

As a journalist, Tim mentioned that he was just telling a story. It was difficult for him to understand what the two chaplains did and the fact that the allies provided spiritual support to the Nazi’s.  In the Q&A round, many interesting questions were asked. One of them was about Albert Speer who never got executed. The allies gained extensive knowledge on Hitler’ inner circle through Speer who served 25 years in prison. Gerecke felt that Speer had come back to God like his fellow prisoner Kietel. But unlike Speer, Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces, was the second to be executed. The next question was if the movie ‘Judgement at Nuremberg’ depicts the trial precisely. In Tim’ opinion, the movie is not about this trial of major war criminals. Among the last questions asked was if the Associated Press in the United States covered the trials on a daily basis. Surprisingly, they did not. While the story was not covered, occasionally small posts during their execution and Christmas in Nuremberg were run. This event was a different look into one of the main occurrences of World War II history.  In one of the closing remarks, Tim remembered being nervous presenting his book to Gerecke but the later could not be more satisfied with it. To watch this event online, go to