Charles Blakeney
112th Regiment
28th Infantry Division
November 24, 2007 - The pastor goes to war
Charles Blakeney, Army chaplain killed by a sniper
Ken Williams / Monitor staff
A framed portrait of Ruth White's father and a letter she wrote him.

For her master's thesis at Dartmouth College in 1983, Ruth White researched and wrote about chaplains during World War II. The thesis included the following account of her father, Charles Blakeney, a chaplain with the 112th Infantry who had been pastor of the Baptist church in Greenland, N.H., when he entered the service. The letters quoted are from those he wrote home to his wife and daughter between June 28, 1943, and Aug. 31, 1944, and those his wife wrote to him. A German sniper mortally wounded Blakeney on Sept. 1. This account has been condensed from the original.

"Wave the flag again, boys. Salute. Chaplain Blakeney reporting for duty." My mother can still remember the exact words used by my father 40 years ago as he returned from the post office with official notification that he had been accepted in the U.S. Army. She had a home kindergarten in 1942-43, and the children were at recess, parading behind the leader who was vigorously waving the American flag. The red, white and blue emblem was a cherished symbol in those early days of the war.

We were living in Woodstock, N.H., when England declared war on Germany in 1939. Because my father was still a Canadian citizen, he attempted to join their army but was turned down. After Pearl Harbor we moved to Greenland in southern New Hampshire, and he tried again.

Although casualties were high and the need for chaplains was great, there were many obstacles for my father to overcome: his age, weight, few teeth, lack of citizenship. But he did not give up easily when he set his mind to something. For months he was examined and told no. But he persisted.

He was 37, and the cut-off age was 35. That was waived. He was a Canadian citizen - then the American government passed a law "taking in" friendly aliens. He was below the minimum weight, but that too was waived. Every hurdle passed increased his determination to enlist. The last hurdle was the dental problem: not enough teeth. But partial plates solved that. Finally, he was accepted into the Chaplains Corps.

My mother remembers feeling as if her heart had stopped beating when she heard the news, yet she said nothing at the time. Several months later, writing to my father, she said, "I suppose it is too late now to wish you had never gotten into this mess."

Ken Williams / Monitor staff
Ruth White holds a picture of her father's grave in France.

In his reply my father began by joking, asking, "What kind of talk is that from the wife of an Army officer?" He continued: "You know my sentiments about such things. Either we and all the world are to be reasonably free, or we will all be slaves. Just what good is it going to be to 'have' me stay home er the Japs come over here? Er the Japs came to Greenland, just what good would my being there do you? Er some Jap saw you and decided he was foolish enough to want you, how long would you have me? How long before I had a bayonet in my guts?

"How else are the Japs to be prevented from coming over here unless I and millions of others go in the army?

"Why should 12 million other women have their husbands go in the army and yours stay at home? . . .

"There is no halfway measure. . . . The French tried that."

He was adamant in his belief that a free world was worth sacrificing for. It was not a question of what "we want" or what "should be." He made his patriotism sound matter-of-fact. He had to go. Period. America needed to be defended from people willing to enslave us. He was easily able to put temporary inconveniences aside and look ahead to a better tomorrow.

So, my mother and I stayed in Greenland for the "duration." I continued school (I was 9 at the time), and my mother took care of the parish work. Although we had only been there a short time, the church gave my father a leave of absence. This was a simple procedure, accomplished by writing a request to the board of deacons. They agreed to release my father if an interim minister could be located. They soon secured a retired minister to preach and officiate at funerals.

In return for staying in the parsonage, my mother would assume responsibilities for parish calling, Sunday School leadership and heading up the Young People's Christian Endeavor work. She also acted as liaison between my father and his congregation. "You take care of the Parish until I come back," he told her when he left for chaplains' school. He was getting older, and when the war was over, many ministers would suddenly be "available." My mother was conscious of the desirability of having a position to which he could return.

The church had a special service when my father left. A chaplain came from Harvard, and we hung a blue "Service Star" flag on the pulpit. The Harvard chaplain came to lunch with us after the service and gave me a dollar when he left Greenland.


According to the 1940 census, Greenland was a community of 696 people in a farming area. We had a church, school, garage and post office, but people depended on Portsmouth to provide other necessities.

After Pearl Harbor some of the 18-20-year-olds enlisted and two families in town each had four sons fighting on the various fronts, most citizens remained in Greenland. To avoid service some farmers expanded their planting to conform to the government definition of a farm. A local deacon plowed an additional two acres to plant potatoes, and two other farmers increased their herds in order to produce more milk.

In some ways, Greenland was not a typical rural New Hampshire community. Almost 80 percent of the working men and women were employed at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, one of the largest shipbuilding establishments on the Atlantic coast. Submarines were built and repaired there, and as a consequence, it was considered a prime military target. German subs were known to patrol off the New Hampshire coast.

The community revolved around the Navy Yard. It was open 24 hours a day, with three eight-hour shifts. The workers rotated shifts, and we children never knew when someone's father would be sleeping. Consequently, the Yard determined at whose house we played.

The war was constantly evident in more mundane ways as well. Gas was rationed, as were sugar, meat, canned goods, clothes; coupons were necessary for fuel oil; blackouts were imposed; children collected paper and tin for recycling; adults rolled bandages and worked as airplane spotters.

One morning early in the war, we fourth graders had to be fingerprinted and show the teacher our birthmarks for identification records. I had one high on my left thigh which had to be shown. I was mortified!

The school also conducted air-raid drills, using the bells as the signal. Short blasts meant we went down into the cellar instead of outside, as in a fire drill. While we waited in the basement, we learned songs like "Jolly Molly Pitcher" and played games. Tuesday afternoons we bought saving stamps: blue ones for 25 cents, red for 10 cents. When we had $18.75 worth of stamps, we took the book to the bank for a bond certificate.

We also wrote to our servicemen. It was considered important to keep up the soldiers' morale by keeping them in touch with home. The GIs all wrote back. They seemed to appreciate the value of continued communication. Boxes of scarves and wooden carvings came from the Pacific, and we sent off boxes of hard candy, cigarettes, playing cards and homemade treasures.

The Boy Scouts collected paper on Saturday mornings and pots and pans were collected several times a year during scrap iron drives. Bacon grease was taken to the local meat store to be used in making ammunition. Everyone had gardens, and the 4-H taught girls how to can home produce. A neighbor plowed some land for my mother, and we canned 100 quarts of green beans one summer on a little oil stove.

Mixing the food coloring into the white margarine was the most hated of the daily jobs. It was impossible to stir it in without using your hands. But somehow it tasted better when it looked like butter. My favorite dessert was a "boiled cake," with raisins and spices taking the place of hard-to-get items.

Some of the high school-age students dropped out to join the service, work on the farms or at the Yard or stay home to take care of smaller children.

If one had a family member fighting overseas, mail delivery was never a casual event. I lost three V-mail letters walking home from the post office during a snowstorm. It was dark by the time I arrived home. On realizing I had lost the letters, my mother quickly got a flashlight, and we retraced my steps for the half mile I had walked. She did not say much, but it was obvious she was distraught.

One of my clearest memories of the war is where she found those letters lying in the snow. Forty years later, I can locate the exact spot.

The Grange, a local farm organization, was the primary source of entertainment in Greenland, and at this special time it catered to the youth of the community. Square dances were popular and husking bees were reinstated.

The Red Cross organized weekly meetings for the older women, who rolled bandages, knitted clothing and conducted the occasional blood drive. The wives and mothers of servicemen met twice a month, giving reports of their service folk, sharing letters and giving encouragement to each other.

There were two other chaplains' wives in the seacoast area. One had a husband in India; the other chaplain was in the Pacific Theater. My mother found much comfort in their occasional phone calls. Veterans of World War I were especially helpful with service-connected problems.

Although Greenland was different in some ways because of its proximity to the Navy Yard, it resembled other American communities in its dedication to the war effort and to the support of its "boys," who in turn kept in touch with their hometown. From the time he left, my father continued to be involved with his ministry in Greenland, even when he was in chaplain school.

Live chaplains, not dead heroes

In 1943 the chaplain school was located at Harvard University, and in a few short weeks, to quote my mother, "the Men of God were transferred into a military machine."

Based on their church credentials, the Army accepted ministers of all faiths into the corps. Little of their training was on religion. The only sermon they were required to write was on "social diseases," and the emphasis was on health rather than morality.

Military discipline was stressed. Ministers who "ran the show" at the parish level had to learn the meaning of the Army song, "You're in the Army, Mr. Jones." Most of basic training consisted of marching and following orders. Because chaplains were noncombatant, the "arms" section of the manual was eliminated. Otherwise they had to "follow the book," especially in taking orders from supervisors.

My father wrote: "I arise at five, shave, clean the room (it is my duty this week), get ready for roll call at 5.55. Then we walk half a mile to breakfast. Then we do what we want to until 7.30. From then to 12.15 we are in classes - marching from one to the other as fast as they can throw them as us. There is no smoking from 7.30 till 12.15. Then we go to classes or drill till 4 or 5 or after.

"No hands in pockets! No buttons unbuttoned. Everything's shined and polished. There is just no such thing as being late. As little as one second late and away to the commandant's office you go! A button unbuttoned and in you go. Hands in your pockets and in you go. Hat off on street and in you go. In fact, you may as well go in the first place and be done with it.

"The usual penalty for these small things is confinement to barracks over the weekend - or erase the free evening on Wednesday, whichever comes first."

A few months before my father's arrival at Harvard, the transport carrier Dorchester was sunk in the mid-Atlantic. The now famous "four chaplains" went down with the ship and drowned after giving their lifebelts to enlisted men. While the rest of the country praised this act of unselfish heroism, at school new chaplains were instructed that, "contrary to the moral obligations you chaplains might feel, we'll have no more of this. We need live chaplains, not dead heroes."

During training, the chaplains were told how to make out reports, Army style, how to counsel the men, how to help them solve problems, when and what to write home to the families of the enlisted men. These last were to be of the greatest importance as the chaplains got to their future posts.

Being in charge of recreational programs was included in the chaplain's duty, as was visiting the soldiers in the stockade and hospital. During battles, they learned, they would work with the medical team.

My father wrote me about night drills:

"We get a piece of paper telling us to go to some place. Then we have to figure out on the way just where that is and find it with a compass. I don't think you ever saw one, but maybe you have. Anyways the sergeants are the Japs and the Germans. We have to crawl along on our stomachs behind bushes and rocks and in ditches to try to get there without them seeing us. They have a lot of small pebbles which they throw at us, if they see us. If we get hit by a pebble we are 'dead.' Isn't that lovely in the middle of the night?"

Three hours of afternoon drill were routine and took place in Harvard Stadium with the men marching over and back. All were required to learn first aid, and exams were given for all classes.

It is not surprising that my father requested that my mother make no social engagements for the weekends. He was tired.

In spite of the regimentation, my father thought chaplain school was a good idea. "It was good for me and also for the rest of the lads," he wrote. "I question the necessity or the wisdom of bringing the men back who have been in service for years. But for all the new men I think it was wise to send us there."

Taking father's place

While my father was attending Harvard, my mother began to assume her duties as surrogate pastor. She was also president of the Women's Alliance and superintendent of the church school. Her favorite activity was making home calls on the elderly of the community; her least enjoyable job was heading the Christian Endeavor, our local youth program.

She mimeographed letters written by my father and kept him in touch with church happenings. He, in turn, supported her. His second letter from Harvard said, "Be ready to fill in any Sunday in case my leave is canceled."

He gave her ideas for an emergency sermon in case he could not come home some weekend:

"I have started work on your 'talk' for the 22nd. I am not sure yet that I know just what it will finally end up to be about, but I am at least trying! . . . I will send two probably - one a bona fide sermon, and the other a talk about the chaplains and their work - you will be able to use one or the other."

Another letter requested that she keep more accurate attendance records for Sunday services and not just an approximate tally. He chided her for her report of "about 42."

Because my father came home weekends, I learned during this period to dread goodbyes. It was such an obvious wrench for my parents that I didn't want to go to the railroad station in Portsmouth. I remember these understated weekly departures while he was in chaplain school - and then the final goodbye from which he never returned.

In just four weeks, ministers who entered the Army as second lieutenants became chaplains with the rank of first lieutenant and were assigned to Army bases stateside. We said goodbye to my father as he left for Camp Butner, a huge base in North Carolina.

He described it as a city: "It is like the east side in New York. Skyscrapers (two stories high), etc. Paved streets - MPs as traffic cops. Stop signs on the corners. Fire stations with more apparatus than most small towns in each one of them.

"A hospital bigger than all the hospitals in Boston put together. The chapels are the ones you see pictures of with washrooms, privies, hot water, etc., in them for the chaplains. Carpets on the floor. Cut flowers on the altars, etc."

But he lived on the outskirts of the main camp area.

"Paved streets stop at the limits of the city. The mud is reddish and sticky and clayish like in N.B. [New Brunswick] and P.E.I. [Prince Edward Island]. . . . The funny thing about it is the way it sticks to your shoes and especially the way you slip and slide when trying to walk in it. . . .

"We have no carpet in the chapel because there is too much mud. The chapel and all the other places are wooden buildings covered over with building papers."

Rugged war maneuvers were practiced at Camp Butner. And the chaplains, although noncombatants, were expected to learn procedures under fire. My father wrote me that he was learning how to crawl under barbed-wire with real bullets flying overhead. I wrote back telling him not to do that because it was dangerous, and he might be killed. In his reply he said, "That's the idea. I have to learn what to do so I won't."

He visited soldiers in the stockade and went to the hospital. He was available for the boys to come to him 24 hours a day. He had to care for the GIs' families. The GIs were young for the most part, and just married, and their wives and small children came from great distances to live near the camp. Children got sick, and the wives became homesick and unhappy. Soldiers were on maneuvers, away from their families, for weeks at a time. The chaplains visited the families.

My mother wanted us to go down during my summer vacation, but my father wrote, "No, I won't have you and Ruth in such squalor. If you could see how the conditions are, you wouldn't ask. And I wouldn't be able to be with you very often. My days aren't long enough to take care of the mountains of work. And, I go on maneuvers, too."

So we stayed in Greenland.

It was at this time that my father told my mother not to take on the job of plane spotting. She had decided to continue the kindergarten even though the earlier class had "graduated" because some of the local mothers wished to work at the Navy Yard, and regular child care was not available. With a house, a child, a school and a church to run, it seemed a sensible decision.

Because my father was in North Carolina during this summer my mother had to assume the role of head of the household. She wanted an oil stove for summer use to save having to heat the large kitchen range. After much persuasion with the Fuel Rationing Board, she convinced them she would really be saving fuel, so she was allowed the coupons to purchase it.

My mother was also given extra gas for the parish work. "I took folks to the doctor and filled the car with neighbors to go food shopping. I made sick calls to the house-bound."

My mother doesn't remember thinking she was setting a new role for women that would change the socioeconomic culture of America. Her one word to describe this period is alone. You did what you had to do and thought nothing of it, really, because all else paled beside the realization that you were alone.

Shipping out

My father's next orders took him to Camp Pickett, Va., where he joined the 112th, the "Blood Bucket" regiment. He much preferred this assignment. In contrast to the men at Camp Butner who, as my mother recalls his description, were mostly local hillbillies from the mountains of North Carolina, here "the men are aware of the fact they are alive."

My father was there less than three weeks before the 112th left Virginia for New England to rendezvous with their convoy. My father called several times during this period. He used coded sentences to let my mother know what was happening. In the last one, in late October 1943, he said, "I'll call again tomorrow night if we are still here."

We sat up until 11 o'clock. Then my mother said, "Let's go to bed. Daddy's left for overseas, but don't tell a soul."

Only Great Britain was able to receive American soldiers headed for the European Theater at that time, so my mother assumed he was in England. However, when the first letter arrived, my father wrote, "I can't tell you where I am which is just as well, as I couldn't spell it, let alone pronounce it." My mother tried to think where in England there were jaw-breaking town names. Then she remembered that Wales had plenty of them - odd names with few or no vowels. She figured he must be in Wales.

On the strength of that thought, in her next letter she wrote: "The kindergarten kids are learning some Mother Goose rhymes. Today they learned 'Paddy was a Welshman, Paddy was a thief.' " At the end of the letter she asked if he had met any of Paddy's relatives.

"Strange you should mention Paddy," he responded. "Yes, I have met his relatives and lots of friends."

Now we knew for sure he was in Wales.

A few days before Christmas, as we were leaving for my Aunt Bernice's for the holidays, we stopped at the post office. Among other Christmas cards was a large envelope with English writing and postage, not the usual V-mail from my father. We opened the letter on the train and discovered a small pictured pamphlet about a Welsh town, Carmathen. A small note inside said: "Christmas cards are hard to come by this year. We thought for old time's sake you might enjoy this booklet."

It was a wonderful Christmas present. Now we knew exactly where my father was which was somehow more reassuring than even just "Wales." But my mother cautioned me not to tell anyone - not a soul. "I know," I answered, "Loose lips, sink ships."

Carmathen was a small Welsh village. My father made lasting friendships there with Arthur and Florence Jackson. Arthur was deputy town clerk. One of the chaplain's duties overseas was to act as liaison between the military and the local community, and my father went with the medical people to the town hall to arrange for sewage, water and garbage disposal. Arthur invited him to supper.

The Jacksons, whom we later came to know, said that almost every night in the six months the company was in Wales my father came to their house. He didn't close his office until 9 p.m., and since the British eat four meals a day, their supper was generally around that time. My father brought them eggs, canned food and a "bit of sweets" to help augment their larder, but many letters to my mother warn her never to have Brussels sprouts in our house after the war was over.

When my father requested that we send a package to the Jacksons, my mother included a canned ham. Mrs. Jackson scraped off the jelly that most Americans throw away and wrote that she spread it on bread, as they were so starved for fat.

Crossing the channel

On June 6, 1944, D-Day, President Roosevelt ordered all churches open for "prayer and meditation." My mother opened the Greenland church and took down our small record player and a few appropriate records for "mood music." She sat there for two or three hours, although not too many people came.

The 112th crossed the English Channel on July 25 after the beachhead had been secured at Normandy. They were to liberate small French villages en route to Paris, and they stopped one night at Pullay.

There my father met an old Cure who invited him to stay with him. He had a religious museum there, and my father slept in it. The Cure had created "the Stars and Stripes" "against the day of Liberation." It was at the foot of the bed and had 18 stars. He gave my father a small crucifix.

Letters in August indicate how close the unit was to the Germans. On most occasions this outfit was the first group of Allies seen by the French people, and the GIs clashed with German snipers and their rear-guard.

My father wrote: "The words 'foxhole' and 'slit trench' really mean different types of holes. However, they are often used as general terms to denote any hole which you dig for protection. Actually, a slit trench is an oblong trench long enough for you to lie straight out in. It is deep enough to cover you, i.e., so you are completely beneath the surface of the ground. That varies from six inches or a foot to several feet. What you build or dig depends partly on how long you expect to be there - how cautioned you are by nature - how hard the ground is to dig in. For real protection they ought to be at least 18 inches or two feet deep. However, when the shells start coming in you dive for any hole even if it is not that deep. . . .

"If you plan to stay long enough to justify it, you dig them from two to three feet deep. I assure you they feel safer when they are that deep!

"A foxhole on the other hand . . . may be only a couple of feet or thereabouts in diameter, but it is deep enough to stand up in. In my case, it would have to be deep!

"I would say that in my unit at least, the boys invariably call them fox holes but always dig a slit trench."

The 112th Regiment arrived in Paris just as it was liberated and were part of the thousands that paraded down the Champs Elysees. Then the outfit pushed on northeast to cross into Belgium and onto Germany.

In the forest of Compiegne my father's regiment ran into some rear-action German snipers. Some of the men were hit and the call came for the chaplain. As he went to attend the wounded, my father was hit in the abdomen by a sniper's bullet. The first medics who came to his aid were all killed by the same snipers.

It was some time before Jim Sullivan, my father's aide, was able to drive him to the aid station. He said my father was conscious but realized he was badly wounded. Jim didn't see him again, but he knew my father was taken to the field hospital. A letter from the hospital later told of what happened there. But that was much, much later, when information was uncensored.

In the meantime, back home, we waited for news.

The long wait

One evening in September, my mother sat typing her nightly letter to my father. She had received four letters from him that morning and there was a lot on which to comment. Gabriel Heater was on the radio with the war news, which meant it was between 9 and 9:30. His guttural voice always started the program with "Good news, tonight," and somehow he also managed to find a happy tidbit of the war with which to end his program. It made a nice thought to go to bed on, and my mother always listened to the program.

My mother remembers the evening well:

"You were in bed when a knock came on the door. I went to the door, and a man stood there. All I can recall is that he had a baseball cap, and his breath smelled of beer. He was a taxi driver from Portsmouth. 'I have a War Department telegram for Mrs. Charles Blakeney,' he said. When I looked startled, he added, 'Don't worry, he is only wounded.'

"You called down, 'Who is it, Mom?' and when I said a telegram saying Daddy was wounded, you came bounding down the stairs, saying, 'Call Aunt Bernice.' "

From then on it was wait, wait, wait for further news. September slipped away. October came - no news.

Between Aunt Bernice and my mother, they wrote to everyone who might shed light on my father's condition. Everyone in town kept saying, "No news is good news," but my mother said later that after three or four weeks she had a feeling my father had not survived. "He was clever and crafty, and I knew if he were living, he would have gotten out some coded message," she said.

We went down to Aunt Bernice's that Thanksgiving. The next morning a neighbor called and told Aunt Bernice she had a War Department telegram and should she open it and read it to her. Aunt Bernice said, "Yes," and Mrs. Beals read:

"Captain Charles Blakeney died of his wounded, 2 September, 1944"

Two and a half months had passed between telegrams, between notification of his wounds and notification of his death.

It was much later before the circumstances of his death were explained, from various chaplains, Jim Sullivan and the doctors my mother met when the 28th Division and 112th Regiment returned home after the war.

Compelled by a need to know, she was at Camp Miles Standish to greet the unit when it returned. In the midst of that chaotic and joyous celebration she spoke with his friends, companions and doctors who attended him. Later she journeyed to Cleveland to spend a week with Jim Sullivan. Later she made many trips to Wales to visit the Jacksons. Like her husband, she has become good friends with Florence and Arthur.

Captain Minch, a dental officer and one of my father's close friends, told my mother:

"The Germans were hiding in the woods protecting the ammunition dump. Charles's outfit went in to flush them out. The aid station was up forward. Charlie and two other medics went forward to aid the wounded. Someone yelled, 'Get down!" but it was too late. He was shot through the belly, and men went to rescue him. Charlie and one other were wounded; the rest were killed. Charlie was recommended for the Silver Star."

Chaplain Madden, who was at the Field Hospital, related:

"Chaplain Blakeney was admitted to our hospital about 4:30 p.m., September 1. When I saw him, he was drowsy from the opiate that had been given him for the pain. I spoke to him of the confidence I had in the surgical team, and he was confident they were doing their best, but he realized it was possible he would not live. He had been wounded by small arms fire. The bullet that struck him went through the abdominal area. He never regained consciousness after the operation, and it was about 2 o'clock on the afternoon of Sept. 2 that he died. I spoke to him a number of times during the night and the next morning. He was quiet most of the time . . . but when he did speak, it was about his family and his wish to go home.

"He was buried Sept. 3. I did not go to the cemetery with him because it was Sunday, and I had to go to the other units of the hospital. The men who carried him told me that the cemetery had a beautiful setting, and that the bodies were laid below a bank of flowers before internment. As you know, Protestant chaplains conduct the funeral services for Protestant men at the cemeteries."

The cemetery was 15 miles from Paris; one of the many temporary cemeteries needed for American casualties in France. After the war, he was buried in the permanent war cemetery in Epinal, in the Vosges Mountains. My mother went there many years after the war and found the grave high on a hill, surrounded by hundreds of white crosses and Stars of David. And over all flew the red, white and blue - the same colors waved by the kindergarten class the day we found out the Army had accepted him.

Page last revised 11/24/2007