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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"The usual penalty for these small
things is confinement to barracks over the weekend - or
erase the free evening on Wednesday, whichever comes
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
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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.
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
"Strange you should mention Paddy," he
responded. "Yes, I have met his relatives and lots of
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
From then on it was wait, wait, wait
for further news. September slipped away. October came -
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
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
Chaplain Madden, who was at the Field
"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.