Interview with retired Chaplain Thomas Groome.
afternoon. My name is Paul Zarbock, a staff person of the University
of North Carolina, Wilmington. Today we’re interviewing Pastor Thomas Groome in Laurinburg,
North Carolina. Today is the 11th of March in the year
sir and how are you?
I’m fine, thank you
Tell me about
entering the military service. Where were you and how old were you?
When I was 20 years
old, I was drafted in September 1942. I was taken into the Army at that time
at Governor’s Island, New York and immediately transferred out to Long Island
to Camp Upton a place made famous by Irving Berlin during World War I. From
there after three days of shots and KP, with a lot of laughs to be had along
the way in the KP Department, I was sent all the way down to Atlantic City, New
Jersey for Basic Training.
The Air Corps at that time had taken over some of the old hotels there. I stayed in the Shelburne Hotel which was right behind the Steel Pier and we were there for something like three weeks of testing and drilling on the beach with sand up to our knees. I don’t think we produced very many splendid drillers, but that wasn’t my concern.
And you were
an old man of what, about 20?
20, yeah, almost
And the year
1942. I had wanted
to get into the Army as soon as the war started. I was a Sophomore in college
at that point and I didn't have any other interests other than getting into the
Army, but I was nearsighted. I wanted to fly, couldn’t do that and I couldn’t
get in any kind of branch of service that would offer Officer Training which I
was determined to obtain. So I was drafted.
From Atlantic City, I was sent on a troop train to Louisville I recall and then to Bellville, Illinois to Scott Field, now Scott Air Force Base. There I was enrolled in a Radio Operator Mechanics Course for 18 weeks.
Now this is
just outside of St. Louis, isn’t it?
That’s right. It
was a good place at that time and we went to school for six days a week and had
the seventh day off and I did well with Morse code. Obviously the Army testing
system paid off at that point, but my mechanical aptitude was something less
than zilch. Nevertheless I had to go through that. I remember one thing about
mechanics in those days.
I had an instructor in the Receiver Phase, one who I admired, and he said that more radios are fixed by a sharp rap on the cabinet than by any other way. Armed with that knowledge then, I was beginning to get ready to go to someplace else. I applied for Infantry OCS not knowing then as I learned later that a 2nd Lieutenant’s life expectancy in combat is something like 30 seconds. I wouldn’t have considered that anyhow probably.
While I was waiting to go to Fort Benning, hoping I’d go to Fort Benning, then I was asked if I wanted to be a Communications Cadet?. This was because I had done so well in code, certainly not because I’d done well in mechanics. I agreed and 72 hours later, I was on my way to Valley Forge Military Academy for the Basic part of the 13 week training. Had a good time there and then went to Yale to the Tech School there for the Ground Non-Flying Cadet Program.
One of the benefits there was that the Glenn Miller Orchestra played for us every day at lunchtime. I thoroughly enjoyed that and then I was commissioned the 3rd of June 1943. Went to Savannah, Georgia for a few weeks, to Sarasota, Florida for a few weeks and then to Louisiana for six or eight months for maneuvers. From there to Bowman Field, Kentucky and then Fort Wayne, Indiana and then to California for a troop ship for a 32 day trip to Bombay, India.
I served in the China Burma India Theater in all three countries and an equal amount of time in each, four to five months in each one. Survived the war nicely, then came home on a troop ship for another 31 days.
Let me take
you back to India, the CBI, the China-Burma-India Theater. Could you spend
just a little bit of time and tell me what did you see? What were life
conditions, non-military? What were the life conditions at that time?
Well what I saw was
indescribable. The poverty, deprivation, suffering and a total lack of concern
for human life. I remember on the troop train crossing from Bombay to Calcutta
preparing to go up to Northeastern India, Assam province, each time we stopped
for water for the locomotive, huge crowds would gather and selling little
girls, people with all kinds of eye problems, people begging, always begging,
all kinds of deformities.
Well we passed on and that touched me, but not all that much at that time. In Burma, we were pretty much isolated from people. There were not a lot of people around, we were in the jungle. China was more of the same as India, but I had a different feeling about it for what reason, I don’t know. All the while I was a Communications Officer and in China, I was a Forward Air Controller assigned to a Chinese Division to coordinate close air support.
Back to the trip home, we went down to Calcutta when the war ended. Then another troop ship for 31 days into New York harbor. I always will remember the band that greeted us on a tugboat. Much was made of the fact it was a WAC band, women in the Army. We couldn’t hear them anyway so it didn't make much difference. The day after Navy day 1945 and New York harbor was just filled with all kinds of ships, even destroyers as far up as the Washington Bridge. It was really a stirring sight and experience.
I got out of the Service then in March 1946 and went back to school. I hadn’t finished college as I indicated and I decided I would go to Columbia University School of Business. My uncle who was a furniture distributor in Atlanta had encouraged me to join him in business. So I was training for that. Did okay in school, not great, okay with a B average.
In the meantime my wife and I conceived a child and this made us a little serious about things. I was having the usual problems of reorienting my thinking from being a military officer to a college boy. We started going to church again. We had never gone much since college where it was mandatory. We became serious about faith. One afternoon we decided we just had to put a stop to this and either do something with our lives.
I remember we knelt in our living room and prayed and felt that the Lord was calling us to be Missionaries in India. Well later on, we went with that and I went back to Houghton College where I’d gone the first two years and which I didn't care for…
what was the name of the college?
New York, South of
Buffalo and Rochester in the woods. We went back there and then our first son
was born, that fall of 1946, and I got a degree after going to school there for
one more year. I got credit for the time I spent in Columbia. Went to the
Seminary in New York for a year and then Holland, Michigan for two years and
was ordained in 1950, in June, at just about the same time the Korean War
group were you in?
I was a Reformed Church minister until 20 years ago. The two are virtually
identical. The one church has an ethnic background the Dutch. And Presbyterian
of course Scotch, Irish and English. Same beliefs, same standards, same
organization, very comfortable being in the Presbyterian Church.
Anyway I was ordained there. I remained in the Reserve which determined my destiny. I was recalled to Active Duty within a year. Then I was assigned, after Chaplain School on Long Island, I was assigned to Francis Warren Air Force base in Wyoming and then I did general chaplain work there.
Let me pick up
on Chaplain School. What was the curriculum like?
Oh, it wasn’t like
very practical. In those days chaplains were responsible for Casualty
Assistance for example. That is, we were supposed to be able to administer to
people not only from a spiritual standpoint in time of a casualty, but also to
make all the arrangements, the burial arrangements, to know how to fold flags
for crying out loud, insurance, etc.
We were relieved of those responsibilities after a few years, but we had courses on Military Law, counseling and Carl Rogers was all the rage then so all of us learned to sit mute and just listen which probably sent more people to hell than any other technique I picked up along the way.
Let me pause.
Carl Rogers was a very important person in the warp and woof of counseling.
Could you pause just a minute and for the purpose of this tape tell me a little
about Carl Rogers?
Well he was a
pioneer as you indicated, but he believed in Nondirective Counseling, that is
the counselor would sit and listen and say tell me more or nod affirmatively
and allow the person to work himself into forming his own conclusions. Many of
us feel and today that technique has been pretty well discredited, many of us
feel that people need to be brought up short occasionally and told what is what
instead of just listening and let them make their own decisions and do a lot of
navel gazing. He’s long dead. I can’t tell you much more about him except
he’s affected my life.
The Chaplain School was a good experience. It was operated by the Army at that time in Fort Slocum, New York. The most interesting thing to me was that we had to take a ferry to work. If we missed a ferry, we were in deep trouble. The second most interesting thing was the Information School was there and Edward R. Murrow came to address that class and I heard him, saw him. He was splendid in a white suit with a marvelous voice, but the School didn't impress me all that much. The Army ran it the way the Army was running things in those days.
We had some token Air Force officers there, but it was mostly Army oriented. Well when it was all over, I crossed the country, virtually crossed it to Francis Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Stayed there a year doing the general things as indicated. Chaplains preaching got stuck with the Sunday School and that was the term they would usually use about Sunday schools in those days.
From there after exactly a year, I was sent to Alaska to ride the Radar Site Range and my family joined me after three or four months.
What was your
rank at that time?
I was Captain. I
was recalled as a Captain because of my rank in the Reserves. Incidentally I
should have mentioned this, half the guys in my class at Chaplain School when
recalled were Majors and the other half were 1st Lieutenants, the
basic grade for entering. I was the only Captain in the class which had an
advantage later on, but it didn't have any advantage at this point.
In Alaska we lived in a variety of places and I was gone most of the time out visiting sites which was my basic job. Sites out on the Aleutian chain and the Bering Sea and in the interior.
How would you
Well that was up to
me for a long time. The first year I did that, it was hitchhiking really. I’d
get a transportation request and I would go on a commercial airline for a short
distance and then have to go shopping for a bush pilot to take me the rest of
the way. Had some great experiences doing that. In fact one time I was riding
with a bush pilot. It was during the winter. Of course much of the time it
was winter. We would stop at different places to pick up and unload passengers
So I was sitting dozing one day. We were down and suddenly I heard these big thumps, some big items sounding like logs hitting the aluminum floor of the plane. I look closely and they were frozen salmon. These Eskimos are paying their toll, their fee in frozen salmon. So we went on from there. Lots of interesting experiences like landing in the Bering Sea in float planes.
I remember one time we did this at a place named Cape Romanzof, and we sat down and I was looking up at water over our heads. We’re just in a trough. I was so relieved to hear the pilot say, “Well, I think we better go back. We’ll try again later”. There were some fun experiences.
But these are
These are part
of the cold war defense system, right?
Yes, it was. At
that time, there was a lot of cold warring going on up there too and this was
1952-54. Soviet planes would buzz some of our radar stations and then our
planes, our fighter planes would de-scramble and the others would leave and it
was a game of cat and mouse that went on all the time.
What was the
complement at a radar station, how many people?
A full one would be
about 150 if it was active, but under construction it would be about 50 while
it was being built.
And when you
got there, what would you do and how long would you stay?
Well when I got
there, I always planned to stay about three days and I would have worship
services, Bible study and counseling. We’d have a worship service every day
and then Bible study every day and then I would counsel whoever wanted to be counseled.
One time I went to a place, Cape Newingham, Alaska and the Station was way up
in the air looking down on the Cape. We could see whales below periodically.
I went for three days and stayed three weeks. It was unpredictable. My
schedule was quite flexible.
In those days,
that was strictly male military. Is that correct?
That’s right. The
Air Force went out of the female business for a while in the Chaplain Field,
not the Chaplains of course, but the Assistants, for a period of several years
and then came back into it. There were no women stationed at any of these
What was the
nature of problems that would require your counseling skills?
Isolation and also
letters from home and drinking. Basically those were the problems. Typical
problems in that kind of environment.
completely subjective on this, how well were you received and whatever the
degree of reception, why was it at that level?
Well I was always
received well if for no other reason because there was somebody from outside
coming in. I never was naïve about that, but I would be the only chaplain most
of the time. Periodically there was a Catholic Chaplain who was able to make
some of the trips. I was there every month or so and so Catholics as well as
people from other faiths would come to our Worship Services.
At some of the places, there were fish camps nearby. At Naknek, for example, which is where the big salmon fishing is done, a number of civilians who were stationed there would come to the Worship Service. There was a wide variety. So from there after two fun-filled years, and first year was great, but the second year was pretty old because it was wearing on me and my wife and we had a baby by that time. I did everything I could after that to have that established as a 12 month tour unaccompanied with no families and succeeded in that after a few years. It can be done much more effectively without the stress on everybody. From there we were assigned to Eglin Air Force base in Florida.
This was a
Well I don’t know,
it’s hard to say.
Florida beats to me the Artic.
Well we liked it.
I’ll never forget when we went through the States, shipped our auto to Takoma
and we drove from there. My wife was pregnant. We covered the whole country
just about as you can see getting to Fort Walton Beach, Florida. This was in
June and I thought when we got down to Southern Alabama, we’ll never be able to
make this. This climate is just too much for us.
We had a tough time getting settled. There was no housing. There was no housing in those days in the military. The word was still” leave your family at home!” Where’s family? I mean home is where we had our family. So we had to stay in slums. We lived in slums, the government supplied slums for three years. But we had a great time there. I really learned my trade.
I followed a Baptist Chaplain who had organized a Baptist Church in an old USO Center, big old ramshackle building. This guy had a morning worship service with a Bible class with ninety people in it. He didn't teach it and I didn't have to do that either. Worship Service at 11:00, Youth Group in the afternoon and the evening Worship Service. Then he had a mid week Bible Study, which was okay, but with pot luck.
That got mighty old in those three years. No air conditioning of course. I had the biggest Sunday School in the Air Force with enrollment of 1500 screaming kids and my job primarily was trying to keep teachers not necessarily to teach, but to maintain some degree of law and order. In that time in our history, it was permissible for us to use Air Force buses to go out in the countryside and bring in kids. Our troops lived all over the place because there was hardly any place on the Base.
Of course the ACLU would protest that today so it’s not done. But it was a great experience. In doing this, I had two 18 year old kids in the Air Force, troopers who helped me and that was it. There were several chaplains on the base who would come down occasionally to see – well” how do you do this?” “ I don’t have time to tell you how I do it (laughter). No time to stop.”
Well we also had a Vacation Bible School. Unlike the way it’s done today for maybe three days or in the evening, we did it for two weeks solid. We would have 1000 kids a day for that and this of course, since the schedule was this way, that was in July. Gosh it was terrible and getting the teachers was something again. But I hope it did more good than bad. Anyway it was a great experience and I never had any doubts after that about what I had to do and how I could do it.
From there, we really got a break. Originally I had stopped by the Chief of Chaplains Office. We had wanted to go to Germany. Didn't everybody in the early 1950’s? Everybody wanted to go to Germany so I didn't have a chance. I volunteered to go to Saudi Arabia to spend a year so that then we could get two years in Germany. Sounds pretty stupid, but my wife was in complete agreement with that.
Something happened and we didn't have to go to Saudi Arabia. We went to _____, Germany which was the best assignment I’ve ever had in the world. Just a marvelous place. It had been a Depot which had phased out with a move back to the other side of the Rhine into France in the early 50’s. It was a Fighter Squadron and the Depot was still phasing out and it was still phasing out many years later. Things worked that way in the military.
We were 20 miles outside of Munich was has just got to be one of the greatest cities in the world. Beautiful countryside and I was the only chaplain. I was the only one so I was the Pastor of everybody on the base. There were only about 1500 people all together including dependents. I was on the Boy Scout counsel, I ran the Little League Program and I was on the School Board. Just a wonderful fulfilling experience. It never got better after that.
We cried when we left and if we’d known what we were getting into, we’d have really bawled.
What is your
rank at this time?
I made Major while
I was there. I’d been a Captain for something like eight or nine years. In
those days, there was no regular promotion system. It was sort of hit and
miss. I went to Lincoln Air Force base in my first job as Senior Chaplain with
more than one chaplain. That was the biggest Base in the Strategic Air Command
during the Cold War. There were two Wings of B-47 bombers, two Tanker
Squadrons and the first intercontinental ballistic missile squadron was located
That was a tough, tough business. SAC was always at war, always on a 15 minute footing. The crews had to be able to launch in 15 minutes. Our Headquarters were in Barksdale, Louisiana, Shreveport. So the guys could be playing golf down there in the sunshine when the snow was up to our backsides in Lincoln and we had to have everything cleared including the sidewalks and the driveways of our houses by 9:00 in the morning or we were in deep trouble. We did move on the base there finally.
My most bitter memory of military service, I shouldn’t say bitter, the most frightening memory was that of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I remember that vividly because it was such a terrifying time. My parents were visiting us from Michigan where my dad had retired. He said “if he had to die somewhere, it wasn’t going to be there, he was going home.”
JDO stands for
Jet Assisted Take-Off.
We also had the
Atlas Missile Squadron on alert with nuclear weapons and for a month, that
whole month, the chaplains and I spent all of our time on the flight line
ministering to the crews. Of course the old pros were World War II veterans,
Korean veterans, were pretty cool about the whole thing. While they were
scared, they didn't show it, but the young crew members were really frightened
because it looked like this was the way things were going to end.
The most macabre aspect to me was about every 200 to 300 yards down the runway on either side there was a bulldozer and the idea was if a plane faltered on takeoff, it would be bulldozed off immediately so that the next one could go. The idea was that the whole crew had to be off in a matter of minutes. Well that ended in a rather anti-climactic note, but I have chills when I just remember the sight of all those planes and knowing what damage they could do.
pressure cooker must have been without peer.
Well it was and of course
so many of the wives, we didn't have much time for them because we were busy
with the crew members, but some of the wives would take off and go home to
momma. There were a few tough ones that toughed it out. My wife handled it so
well and my children did too.
But dad went
back to Michigan.
Yeah. I’m sure
nobody ever talks about this. You won’t hear many people talking about this no
matter how many you interview, you probably won’t hear anybody else giving a
story like this because I was there. Anyway that was one of the high points of
my career. I really felt so needed then.
What were the
points of discussion? Along the line of “am I going to die or is this
Yes, that was underlying
all the questions anyhow. Part of the attitude of some of the youngsters was
“well we didn't sign up for this!” They wouldn’t say that of course. They
were frightened with good reason. This could have been the end of civilization
for crying out loud and they were astute enough to know that.
The training was marvelous though. They had been trained again and again and again. Each ship had a Russian target, each airplane had a Russian target and so the crew members had been trained to go through this routine and go to their target and simulate dropping a bomb. I don’t mean literally go to their target. It was simulated in the United States. The tankers, of course, were disbursed. They were in different places along the way. I think there were 50 tankers. They weren’t jets at that time, they were KC-97 reciprocal engine tankers. They were along the way in different places, Greenland, Iceland, etc.
A story that hasn’t ever really been told I don’t think. But there have been so many of those incidents during my lifetime. A lot of these stories are not of much interest. This one happens to be.
From there as I said, it ended but for me, rather unhappily. I had a chaplain who allegedly worked for me who tried to screw me all the way through and he tried to run his own show. He was of a different faith group. He had a buddy in the Chief of Chaplain’s office so he fingered me, a buddy of the same faith and I wound up then going out of cycle to an isolated assignment and I was sent to Thule, Greenland.
Thule is the northernmost Air Base in the United States and also at that time the Soviet Union which was only 500-600 miles South of the Pole on a polar ice cap. Well I handled it okay, I’ll say more about that in a minute. My family had to move off Base where the kids had lived for almost three years into town, into a new environment. The boys were out of Little League and the Scouts. Their mom couldn’t take care of all that for them. They had to go to a different church, different schools at a terrible cost and left scars on our children.
So off I went to Greenland for a year’s tour. I got there in the night, but then it’s night a large part of the year there. I got there the 2nd of December for a year’s tour. The guy who replaced me a year later stalled around and he was two days late so I was there a year and two days. I resented that extra two days. But it was a good tour. There were 5,000 men and 5 women nurses. We had a Fighter Squadron, a half of Fighter Squadron for Interceptors. The Army had a Nike Battalion there, antiaircraft, missile.
The first of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning Systems was there. One was there and one was in Alaska and in England someplace. The aircraft were there to scramble if the Russians were stupid enough to fly directly over the Air Base and they could be intercepted.
would this be?
’62. I had a good time in ministry there, a really good time. I was concerned
about my family, but I couldn’t do anything about it. In those days, we were
able to make one phone call a month, commercial phone call. The family did
okay other than what I mentioned.
Nebraska. Shortly after that, policies were changed and families could stay on
the Base when the sponsor was on a tour. I never missed the point that I could
have gone the other way to Vietnam then because I met guys in Lincoln when I
was at McGuire Air Force Base moving to Thule and these guys were going to go
to Saigon. That was heating up even then.
Anyway had a good time in the ministry. I have two dear friends, the dearest one died about a month ago, and there’s only one guy from those days. The problems there were booze being most of the problem. Also the interesting thing, it was novel to me at first, but then I caught on that the marriage problems developed around the 10th or 11th month when the guys were getting ready to go home. Then their wives very often had figured out they didn't need them. They could handle things on their own.
A lot of counseling with a variety in the military. Then I left, ultimately got home and I had been assigned to the Air War College courtesy of Chaplain Taylor who I mentioned. That’s something that I always wanted to do. That’s in Montgomery, Alabama, Maxwell Air Force base. Someone ill-advisedly decided I needed to go to Waco, Texas, to the Air Base there on my way and spend five months there. It didn't make any sense at all, but I had to do it.
When I got there I found out there was a Senior Chaplain and Second to the Senior. They were vying to see who was in charge and I was sent there to correct that. Which I did. I left Lincoln the 15th of December 1963 in a snowstorm. It was around 0. Two days later, we were in Waco where the temperature was 70 degrees and the sun was shining and that made it easy to take. That was the happiest Christmas I think we’d ever had as a family.
Enjoyed that. It was a really fine Base, a great Commander who regarded the whole Base as his and everybody on the Base as his young children. It was a Base for Navigator Training and we had not only Cadets, but also officer Navigators. Navigators, I don’t know if you know, at that time, I think it’s still true, are the highest IQ people. These people were sharp.
The officers were freshly married and in that wonderful day, these sweet little things didn't have anything to do. I mean they didn't have careers off Base so they were singing in the choir and they were teaching Sunday school and they were doing all kinds of wonderful things. We hated to leave there.
From there we went to Montgomery, Alabama to the War College. I was there 11 months and enjoyed it. I enrolled also in the George Washington University Master’s Degree Program which meant night study. If I had that to do over again, I wouldn’t because I was busy all the time.
Let me back
you up into the War College. What was the curriculum like? What was an
average day? You got up at 9:00, had breakfast served in bed and that type of
Not quite. Our
classes I think would begin at 8:00. They began with lectures. We’d have one
or two lectures and we had some great lecturers from the Air Staff, State
Department, Ambassadors and then we would have seminars. We were assigned to a
12 man seminar where the leader who was a Colonel…we were all Lieutenant
You had now
been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel?
Yes, that happened
at Thule. In fact, a guy, Jim something, a faithful Methodist who planned the
Watergate burglary was in our class and a nice guy.
No, he was not part
of that one. A CIA guy, I can’t remember his name. Anyway we had an RAF Officer,
Royal Canadian Air Force Officer and Army people, Navy people, Coast Guard and
State Department students. We had a mixture in each one of our 12 man
strictly for chaplains?
No, I was the only
chaplain in the class. There were 283, I think it was and I was the only
supposed to be the end product of the War College?
people, the mission is to train outstanding officers with a bright future to be
prepared for further advancement and to work in the Pentagon and on combined
staffs of other branches.
So you were
identified as a comer.
Yes, you are when
you go there. Luck of the draw so often. We would spend then a half day battling
over the various issues that had been discussed on the lectures.
What should we do
in Vietnam? And I’m here to tell you in February 1965, we had a guy from the
Joint Staff, the Defense staff, the secretary tell us a year from July, that in
July 1966, we’ll have 500,000 men in Vietnam and meanwhile McNamara and the
other clowns were arguing, “oh no, we’re never going to do that!” So the
decision had already been made. That made me a little cynical about theAdministration
to see how these things worked.
So we’d argue over these things. There was one guy in our seminar who always wanted to solve every problem by “drop the bomb”. He was right out of the guy Slim Pickens, in Dr. Strangelove.
being a movie?
Have you ever seen
Oh yes, many
Well Slim Pickens
was the guy that rode the bomb down.
But 30 years
from now when this tape is being played, they may not remember Dr. Strangelove.
Well they ought to
see it. It’s not shown very often for crying out loud. It’s hard to find.
Well anyway some were peaceful types. There was a Royal Canadian Air Force guy
who looked a lot like the great singer whose name alludes me at the moment who
suggested an uprising, a revolution. It had nothing to do with the Cold War.
Well we didn't think highly of that. We leaped on him at that point.
That group was a shark tank. I mean it was a real shark tank. You were always having to defend yourself. We’d go at each other. I’m still close to the den mother, our moderator, the faculty member. One of the guys that made Lieutenant General, I’m no longer close to him, we studied together, most of them were dead. A couple of my good buddies I know are dead. But it was a great experience; however it was really tiring and wearing me down especially going to school at night.
Then I did get a Master’s degree in International Relations from George Washington University. Well I went out of there beaten and took a while to recover physically and emotionally from that. I was really sorry that I had gotten the Master’s Degree. I had wanted to go on and teach, that had been my only serious ambition in my life was to be a History Professor. I wanted to teach at the college level and to get a Ph.D. which was why I got the Master’s degree.
I was close to the guy, the archivist there, he was one of my teachers. We became friends and he had opportunities to get me Fellowships at places. A Jesuit buddy later on offered the same thing so I had options. But then the Air Force later on made an offer I didn't feel I could refuse so I hung around and regret not getting a Ph.D. That’s that.
What was the
I’ll get to that
later. From there, I went to Stewart Air Force base up in New York over the
mountains from West Point. It was built during World War II as a landing field
for training cadets. That was probably my least pleasant assignment. I worked
for an old guy, old at that time, who had been my Senior Chaplain removed in
Germany. He didn't even know me, but he had knocked down my effectiveness
Fortunately his superior who knew me raised it again. You know, these things are serious along the line. The guy had never known me. When I was at Waco, he was Command Chaplain at the Training Command and he never got to see us there either. Well he was from New England and this is the 1st Air Force, mainly Air Defense Command. Air Defense Command didn't have any of the bright people. It had the leftovers from Strategic Air Command and Tactical Air Command at that time.
Anyway interceptors and radars, this guy was from New England and he begged the Chief for this job and he got it. He was gone most of the time and expected me to cover for him, but I think fortunately the Chief of Staff of the Air Force knew he wasn’t there and didn't want to put me on the spot. He’d leave Thursday evening or maybe Friday morning and come back Monday night. He never would read anything. I would have to brief him on every stupid document we got. He expected me to be his aide really.
Oh yeah, he was a
Colonel, I was a Lieutenant Colonel. He moved on and I made Colonel that
year. I only saw him once or twice after that. He tried to be condescending,
but it didn't work. Anyway that was not a very happy time. I was there 19
months. After I was promoted to Colonel, I was told by the Deputy Chief of
Chaplains, that they were going to send me to Sioux Falls.
They had a Division out there and they needed a strong person he said. I checked and there was the same number of chaplains there that I had been responsible for when I was a brand new Major in Lincoln. I said please tell me that this is not a setback or whatever term I used. He said, “Well you know, we didn't have to promote you” (laughter). I said “I’ll take it!”
However about three months later, there was some trouble in the Chief of Chaplain’s Office and the guy that was promoted with me and a good friend, was unceremoniously dismissed from his job as Executive of the Chief of Chaplain’s Office. He had been slated to be moved over to Programming. When he was fired, then I was asked to come over and take his place.
You mean he
was out of the Service?
No, no. He made
the mistake of accepting an assignment to the Air Force Academy which was a big
mistake because I happened to know that the guy who had just left there thought
he invented the job. The poor guy went out there and he lasted about a year
and a half out there. He’s dead now. I felt so sorry for him.
Anyway I moved into the Chief of Chaplain’s Office and I was responsible for Program Development, all the films that we bought, a quarter million dollars a year which was a lot in those days, in 1967, all the religious education. I was Chairman of the Committee for Religious Education Material for the Armed Forces. I planned all the conferences.
For the Armed
Forces, all of it?
Let me explain
that. There was an Armed Forces Religious Education Advisory Group. The
Department of Defense has committees that are Inter-Service Committees. When I
moved there, it was the Air Force’s turn to Chair this Committee. Now we dealt
with, this had been arranged years ago, we dealt with the Protestant Church
owned Publisher’s Association. We had a consultant that we worked with. We
had an annual convention, an annual meeting of the committee and the
representatives from these different denominational publishing houses like
Westminster, Abington and so on.
Then we’d select the material that was authorized to purchase throughout the Armed Forces, all the Armed Forces. It didn't mean that people had to buy this. It meant that if they were authorized to buy, they could get Government funds and if they wanted to buy it out of their chaplain funds, they could do that. Anyway that was a rotten job, but that was my job at that point.
We started out with a Spiritual Life Conference annually. These were conferences that were held at conference centers and then as costs escalated, we had them at colleges. During the summer time, schools were happy to pick them up because they wanted to pay their overhead.
Who were the
Military people and
No, these were
conferences not for chaplains. These were military people and their families.
We had them all over the country and we had them in Europe too and the Far
East. My job as Chief of the Professional Division was a really interesting
job and satisfying. It was really a demanding job. I had a Catholic and a
Protestant chaplain, and two women who worked for me in this.
It was really demanding. The Chief of Chaplains was my boss. He was of the opinion that if we couldn’t get our work done during the duty day, then we had no business being there. So I couldn’t work on Saturdays there unless I was sure he was playing golf which he usually was. I had to check first. I’d leave with everybody and then come back and do the work I had to do. There was just no other way. That was frustrating.
I got to the point where I thought I had just had enough of that. I decided I would retire. This was the offer I couldn’t refuse time. I planned to retire, got my papers in and just before the time I was going to have to retire, the guy that was going to replace me had been playing hard to get so the Chief and the new Deputy, the Assistant to the Chief, was a one star, called his bluff. They pleaded with me to stay. They said if you stay, you can stay as long as you want. My daughter was a junior in high school . I wanted her to finish at the same school.
They said I could do it the Pacific way or go to Germany. It was my choice, whatever I wanted to do. I thought “hey, this sounded pretty good” (laughter). So I decided to stay. Later on of course I did go to Germany. I could have gone to the Pacific. And also at one point I was offered the Air Force Academy. I was a little calculating about that too. I thought they would chew you up and spit you out there. It was a no win situation.
During that time, I had a lot of interesting jobs and really enjoyed it. For the most part, I had people working with me who were helpful. One of the things we had to do in that job was to travel with the Chief of Chaplains to Europe in the spring and Vietnam in the fall. So I made three trips to Vietnam and got to go to Europe three times. I had a good time in Europe because we always went in conjunction with the NATO Chaplain Conference, the North Atlantic Treaty Chaplain Conference.
It was a joke really. The Senior Chaplains of the Western European Air Forces plus Canada and the United States met in different countries each year. We always had a lecture by someone to give it …
Yes, just somewhat
legitimate, but the rest of the time was eating and drinking and sightseeing.
Wonderful times. That’s how we got to the Vatican for an audience and shook
the pope’s hand. Italy was hosting this. On that same trip, we went to Assisi
for Ascension Day. Just great experiences, all over England and the Lapland
and flew up and down the fjords in float planes, Brussels and all over Belgium
which isn’t hard to do and the Netherlands. That was the fun part of it.
But when we got back literally my desk was stacked that high. Meanwhile, my boss and the Catholics in the office would go to play golf. One thing more, the Catholics were always understaffed in the military and they still are. During that time in the 50’s and 60’s, it was because the Catholic growth was just so great and the schools were booming, the parochial schools. Some Bishops were very reluctant to allow their priests to go which was understandable.
But the whole thing was predicated on the fact that Protestants would then do the bulk of the chaplain work. The Catholics would do parochial work and do parish work the same as if they were in civilian life. Protestants manned some of the Catholic spots because of this. The fact of the matter was the guy on the base could do what he wanted. Here this guy who helped do me in and sent me to Thule ran his own little parish and would have nothing to do with the rest of us.
He would not cooperate in doing anything of general nature like patriotic speeches and prayers for this and that and counseling with people other than Catholics. That was a problem. I think it’s probably better today than it ever has been, but I don’t know that for sure.
during your military career, were you ever ordered or strongly suggested that
you do something or arrange something that you thought was in violation of your
own spiritual and religious beliefs?
No, not really. I
did volunteer, take voluntary stands. For instance early in the game in
Germany in the 50’s, I went to the Commander and said I had to object because
he was putting me in a difficult position and I had to object to this.
Otherwise if it went on, I said I would have to notify my Higher Headquarters.
Fortunately I had a good relationship with that Commander and he understood.
But no one ever ordered me to do anything that I felt violated my conscience.
I mentioned to you today at lunch we had our 60th anniversary celebration here three weeks ago, my wife and I. A chaplain who I was fairly close to, never stationed with, a chaplain who followed me to Erding, which closed and I was the last chaplain. They did a realignment …
Near Munich. The
chaplain came in and he was a good guy and it closed again a year later, but I
visited him a couple of times. I always had thought well of him. He and I
exchanged Christmas cards. He lives in Jacksonville, Florida, and he drove up
here on the day of our Anniversary and drove back the same day, about 800
miles. I called him the next day after this and checked with his wife. He was
sleeping, but got back all right.
He told everybody that would listen to him how I saved his backside one time, that he was trying something innovative in the chaplain program and his Vice Commander came to me and complained. He was Second in Command, evidently a straight laced guy and there was nothing wrong with what the chaplain was doing. My friend, Chaplain John Mann, said, he told Jean, my wife that I replied to this Colonel that” we need more like John Mann. He’s the best damn chaplain we have!.” I don’t usually use that kind of language and I don’t remember it, but I could have said it.
I’m segueing into something else here. You notice that’s one of the things about rank which I’ve always been uncomfortable with in the military, is the temptation to do the wrong thing. The chaplain is always torn between being a military officer or a clergyman. There has to be a narrow line there in which he’s both. Anyway that’s a good example of how that is and I came to appreciate the importance of rank when senior people would try to throw their weight around.
Later on when I was in the Chief’s Office, some guy would call, a Colonel or Brigadier General and say, “I want this so and so off the base by sundown”. “ Well I think maybe we better think about that. Think it over and I’ll get in touch with you.” I could do that up to Major Generals, but not beyond. My boss was a Major General. That’s one of my strong arguments for having rank because you’re able to defend the institution of the Chaplaincy and individuals which you can’t if you’re a civilian.
Reflect for me
and the for the purpose of this interview. In the various bases that you
served, on the bases that you served, all bases had a Base Commander. Would
you tell me generally some vignettes about Base Commanders? Some must have
been very approving. Were some distant? How did that work?
Well this changed
of course during the years because early in the 50’s, the Base Commander were
people who went to church in those days and were supportive. Even later on,
those who were professionals and had been in for a long time, especially West
Pointers, would be supportive of the Chaplain Program. There were non-West
Pointers who would tend to be otherwise. Occasionally there would be a
hard-driving Fundamentalist who would try to arrange things or Catholic
Officers would try to arrange things.
When you say
arrange things, what do you mean?
They would try to have
things done their way, the way they wanted things done. They wanted to put
pressure on to change what they thought was right. Like in the case of John
Mann, banning the type of innovative type of program. I didn't ever have many
problems. I did have a good friend when I was in the Air Force in Europe in
the early 70’s, I was a Senior Chaplain which was maybe the greatest job I ever
had – this friend was an intelligent guy who was a serious Episcopalian.
He complained one time about the hymns that we had in a chapel service. I had to give him a lecture “that’s the chaplain’s choice”, it wasn’t his choice. We try to mix these things up. He was perfectly within the bounds of his obligation and responsibilities of selecting those hymns. This kind of thing.
I had another guy at that time who wanted to tell me, a three start who wanted to tell me about hymns. I was a Colonel then, but I was the man and so I told him same thing essentially. Very seldom did I have any serious problem.
I want to take
you up until you became Brigadier General and then I’ve got a couple of
floundering around in the Chief’s Office and working my backside off and
enjoying it, but feeling I had enough and then having this offer…
Now where were
you stationed at this time?
In Washington. Our
office was at Bolling Air Force Base, it was never at the Pentagon. That’s
where I was stationed. There developed some kind of a semi-emergency in
Europe. The Senior Chaplain there who was an old-timer felt that he had to
come home. So I was given about six weeks and asked if I wanted to go and if I
would like to replace him.
Well that was the dream job. I told you before I had had the opportunity to go to Hawaii, but at that time the Vietnam War was winding down and there were no chaplains to visit except a few on Oahu. The chaplains are all the way out there in the Western Pacific, Japan, Taiwan and Philippines and Guam. I didn't see much future in doing that then. I just hated the idea of having to do all that traveling, but also I knew that career wise, that wasn’t where the action was going to be.
Loved Europe. I spent my time as I told you earlier in the Pacific in World War II and I figured I wanted to spend more time in Europe so I opted for that. My third son was about to graduate from high school. I was really hot for things that needed to be done. There were racial problems and also drug and alcohol problems. I had some ideas that I wanted to check out when I got over there.
The very next day after my arrival, the guy who was a Lieutenant General who was to be, I didn't know that, the Commander in Chief of Europe came and he later became the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and then twice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Well we hit it off. One thing too that indicates just how things worked, I had attended a Presbyterian church in Virginia when we lived there in 1967-71. I taught a class and there was a balding guy with heavy glasses, bright guy in the class.
Had some spirited exchanges with him. He always wanted to argue so I’d argue back. So who was this guy? Well, his name was John L. McLucas. He was the Under-Secretary of the Air Force. Well I saw him at some function after that and that’s who it was. Well sir, (laughter) when I first met General Jones, he said I understand you’re a friend of Secretary McLucas. He’s coming over here next week and he wants to see you (laughter). That was not a bad way to be introduced.
Anyway we hit it off well and I had a great time in Europe. We were there three years and three months and I was promoted to Brigadier General over there. My work there involved traveling much of the time. We had a chaplain in Oslo and all the way down to Incirlik, which is the big base in Southern Turkey near the Syrian border and all in between. Much of my time, I was visiting chaplains to see what they were doing and how things were going.
family billeted with you in Germany?
Well I had two
children when I went over there, my daughter and our youngest son and the
younger son came back to the States to go to school. Our daughter was there
during most of the time. Life being the way it is, we were asked…the Chief
asked me if I would take one of the General Quarters, it’s a little humorous,
because a Major General had lived there and gone back to the States and Mrs.
Senior Colonels thought that they ought to get the house, two of them. So the
General asked me if I would take the house and I did. We didn't have anybody
to live there except for us, Jean and me at that time.
It was a great house. It overlooked the Rhine. The Germans had built it. We moved into a walk-up apartment when we moved to Ramstein Air Base. It was a rewarding experience. One of the good things about that job was I had a great deal of autonomy and I was buddies with the people at Chief’s Office so when we needed help, I could get the help I needed.
In those days too, we had programs for overseas. I did that when I was in the Chief’s Office. We’d send distinguished clergymen to Chaplain Continuing Education events which we had in the States and I got to meet a lot of interesting people through that. In fact I invited Robert Schuller from Garden Grove Crystal Cathedral to go to the Far East one time when I was still in Washington. We were classmates, Schuller and I were classmates.
Well anyway, I got the invitation, to be the Deputy Chief of Chaplains for two years, that was the term. Sadly, there were two friends, frontrunners, who didn't make General that year because of their wives. They had a drinking problem. I had always felt badly about that. Their promotion wouldn’t have interfered in my selection, but the fact that they didn't get it bothered me, but I can understand why.
scratch that apart a little bit. If a promotion was denied, it was denied on
the basis of the person’s efficaciousness or capability, not denied, but just
wasn’t promoted on the basis of his wife’s behavior?
I have no proof of
But in the
abstract, in the military, how important…
especially with General Jones who was straight-laced. He believed in work and
he believed in people keeping their noses clean. He wouldn’t have tolerated
that. I’m sure the way the system worked then, well I know for chaplains, the
fix is in before, or was in those days, before the Board meets. The Chief of
Chaplains has the option and in my case, the chief of chaplains and General
Jones had the vote. Yeah, I have no doubt that that was the case. It would be
that way in the corporate world too. Example was important then and I’m sure
it still is.
That’s about all I know. I had a great job when I became the Deputy. I really enjoyed that. The greatest adventure then was when I was on the Armed Forces Chaplain Board. That is a some time thing that is comprised of the Chiefs of the three Services and the Deputies of the three Services. The Navy Deputy at that time was, John ______? Arch Bishop of New York, with whom I got along fine. My boss didn't, he’s Catholic and they would tangle, but I found him very…well he was hard-headed, but he was smart. I wasn’t sure he was as smart as he thought he was.
Anyway we were having trouble with the Mormons. The Mormons had been looking for something to do in the Chaplaincy for a long, long time. There were Mormons in World War II and then that disappeared. About the early mid-60’s maybe, Lyndon Johnson, President Lyndon Johnson issued an Executive Order decreeing that Mormons could be chaplains, those who were eligible, those who were designated by the LDS Church.
You have to remember that Mr. J. Willard Marriott pretty well ran things in that town. He was the Chairman of their Chaplaincy Commission. Mr. Marriott and Johnson were buddies as he was with every president. We had a lot of trouble with different Bases because these guys were Majors one day and the next day they were chaplains so what do you do with them? They were very parochial too. One guy whom I knew well got three Master’s Degrees during his three year tour in Germany
He would preach on special anniversary days, patriotic days or such things and the rest of the time he was doing Mormon work which teed the other chaplains off. The issue was really serious. Just because I’m lucky I guess the Armed Forces Chaplain Board designated me to go to Salt Lake City and make peace. So I went up there. I met with a guy, I can’t remember his name now, David something or other, he was my host for three days. Three days of good fellowship and bitter battling.
We’d be talking pleasantly and suddenly he’d say, “Well why did you do this?” and we’d be off and running again for a while. I was wined and dined even in the bee hive which was the home of Brigham Young and next door to where his wives lived. One of the three Latter Day Saints Presidents was there for a luncheon, the guy who’s now the Senior President and a number of heavy hitters. Then they all gave their testimonies about what they were doing when the Church called and two weeks later they were in Salt Lake City in the job.
They had had big jobs in industry wherever. David had been the Vice-President of Montgomery Ward, Senior Vice-President. I don’t remember about the others. I felt positive about it and I think I was the only guy on the Armed Forces Chaplain Board who ever understand that these guys are indeed different because it’s not a regular vocation for a Mormon. They’re aren’t Mormon clergy! There are Mormons who are LDS’ers who have achieved a certain standing and who were doing the work of the Church.
I tried to spread that word around with indifferent success. I was invited by these people to go to their Semi-Annual Conference. The Chaplain Conference was going to be there at the same time, the LDS Chaplain Conference. Well I was about ready to go and my secretary from my office rushed in and said, “Chaplain Groome, Mr. Marriott is on the phone. He wants to speak with you”.
So I picked up the phone, “Tom, this is Bill. Just want you to know we’ve got things set out there. I can’t go, but they’re waiting for you”. The guy who had been the Secretary of the Treasury under Eisenhower was to meet me and did and conducted me to the Conference in the Tabernacle and I was seated in about the third or fourth row down in front and enjoyed that.
The next day I met with the chaplains and their wives at the Chaplain Conference. Most of the young wives were pregnant which is not a criticism. They believed in having children and the girls would testify too. They always say first, “I believe in the church”. The church was the priority and it was impressive. And we did work out something.
I was going to
say, how did you calm the waters?
We agreed when I
was out there the first time, I went to Brigham Young, we agreed that we would
accept in lieu of a seminary degree, that was the issue, a two years Master’s
Program which we approved at Brigham Young plus a year of their missionary
work. The Armed Forces Chaplain Board bought it. I imagine today they buy all
kinds of weird things, but that seemed reasonable and equitable to me and it
was I think.
And those are
the criteria to this day to your knowledge?
Yeah, I guess, I
don’t know. I did get an LDS chaplain in the Chief of Chaplains office after
that trying to be fair, but I don’t think that went too well. I was gone
then. But that was the most interesting thing I think I got involved in. Of
course we had lots of interesting things. We were dealing at that level with
fighting with Congress, not with Congress, but with the Air Staff people and
that’s when the old War College tigers, shark tank experience came in handy,
because it was a battle.
I’d be up against Brigadiers and sometimes Major Generals. We were greeted fondly when we came in, but then it would start. That was interesting work. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
What were some
of the issues over which fights would…
Well for money,
budgets. It’s always that. We’d get knocked around if we didn't represent our
case adequately or if our advocacy wasn’t successful. I was also on a
committee Chaired by Jeanne Holm, the first Air Force female General and whom I
used to sit next to at Air Force Staff Meetings. I thought to help protect her
from the wolves that were lurking around salivating, a very attractive woman.
She made Major General, a very capable woman, a very capable officer.
I remember attending one of her Disciplinary Hearings for review officers who were about to be tossed out of the service for whatever reason and one, in this case, was a chaplain who I knew well. She really impressed me with her skill, her ability. In that job, much of our work, of course the policy, representing the troops in the field. We do a lot of traveling and speaking and meeting Commanders and lunches for speeches and so on.
We also were working with Bishops of the Roman Church, but heads of other denominations, Endorsing Agents, the people who were responsible for ministers or Priests becoming chaplains. That of course involved patience and political skill and force sometimes. Often the people from denominations hadn’t paid attention to their chaplains and the chaplains were getting into all kinds of trouble.
Back to the
budgetary saber fights, was one of the issues who needs the Chaplain Service?
Was that ever spoken or alluded to?
No, it’s a public
law. One of the big battles we had, but I was never involved with this, was
over before I came n the scene. McNamara started this and it comes up
periodically, consolidating Chaplain Schools which only a ignoramus could come
up with. I meant to mention this in thinking about my remarks today, the
military Chaplaincy is essentially different in every case.
The Army Chaplaincy bears little resemblance to the Air Force Chaplaincy because the Army chaplains are assigned to Units and ours is more like a civilian church arrangement. Our chaplains generally are assigned in peacetime in this country to a Base and they function together, not in a Battalion. We are subject to less pressure then than the Army guys and we’re also much less likely to be militarists than the Army. The Navy people have their own and of course there are Marines too, as you well know. The Navy people are different also.
Both Army and Navy Chaplains have a lot more secondary education or Graduate education offered to them because they can’t be at sea all the time or be in the field all the time. The Army has a program of troops school and so on and up the line. They’re on the same career ladder as Regular Officers. So it’s a different type of ministry. We can cooperate obviously and do through the Armed Forces Chaplain Board, but purple suits won’t work here. It seemed like a great money saving idea.
One size fits
all type philosophy. Well McNamara was given to that type of …
Oh, in every case.
We’ll just put
them on the end of a conveyor belt and by the time they get out , they’re all
pretty much the same. Looking back on your career, best assignment, why,
worst assignment, why.
Early Germany was
the best assignment because I was everybody’s pastor and could do everything on
the base. Of course the setting had something to do with it too, marvelous
area. The worst one again was with this guy at Stewart Air Force base. I
didn't consider this wasn’t the cream of the Air Force I was dealing with
either. The cream of the Air Force people ran their Tactical Units. They were
fighting a war that never happened at that time. Jean wasn’t well and so on.
It wasn’t bad either. I had a lot of great assignments. In fact, they were
nearly all great assignments.
rubric of strange and wonderful people whom I met, the heroes, the villains and
the fools, any genuine flamboyant characters, the idiosyncratic people that
make our lives interesting. Can you recall any of those and your involvement
Well the hero
certainly was this chaplain I mentioned, Robert Preston Taylor who was the
Chief of Chaplains and what he did and endured in World War II. He was a fine
Christian minister who ever walked the face of the earth, a Christian
prisoner of the Japanese. Bataan death march?
Yes, yes. There is
a biography of him, I can’t remember the name of it, but I read it. There’s
some flamboyant guy I remember, a chaplain who looked like Jackie Gleason.
He’s dead now, so I don’t want to be unkind to him. I’m reluctant to label
anybody as a fool. I knew some foolish people.
Well let’s say
eccentric people. You mentioned, off camera, an individual without mentioning
name or place, who was afraid of dying.
Yes, this was my
Commander at Thule and he assigned me a job to determine how many people had
died there in aircraft accidents. There were no records. I finally got an
approximate record. So he wanted a plaque in the chapel so we got the plaque
and showed it to him. He didn't like it then because he said “we can’t fill it
all up, then people will be waiting, they’ll think they’re going to die next!”
(laughter). He was a nice enough guy.
Then we had one there who was paranoid and he would want me to report to him once a week and I would tell him all the good news. He’d say he didn't want to hear that, he wanted to hear the bad things. Then in the Officer’s Club or dining hall he would come up behind me. The GI expression “what goes around comes around”, sometimes does!
One time during the Equal Opportunity craze in the nation’s capital, which was legitimate as far as racial things are concerned, I was assigned by my boss to go to the Secretary of Defense for Manpower Reserve Affairs on a tour of the country. So we went to Colorado Springs where this clown was assigned. I was with Mr. Secretary and this clown came up and said “Figures!”.
Well that’s all I have to say. It was a great experience. I’d gladly do it over and over and over again. Tough on the family, but what a blessing it was. I was glad to be able to serve my country. I met a gentleman who was the Commander of the 7th Army when we were in Europe, a big, handsome guy about my age. I was talking to him trying to make conversation about the troubled time because the Army was having all kinds of trouble then, mutinies, drug problems as a result of Vietnam basically and that era.
I said something that prompted this. He said, “Chaplain, thank God for giving me this opportunity to serve my country”.