A man behind a myth

That previous post included a Malcolmian aside on Frank Loesser’s 1942 song, Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition. Let’s reprise:

That’s the 1942 original recording by the Merry Macs (three McMichael brothers and the Group’s third female lead singer, Mary Lou Cook — though the creator of those YouTube images has used photos with Mrs Cook’s successor, the blonde Marjory Garland).

The song was generally believed to celebrate a real episode. The “sky pilot” was supposed to the the naval chaplain on the cruiser USS New Orleans at Pearl Harbor, manning a gun turret during the attack

UnknownIt actually seems to be a conflation of different events

Antony Beevor has one in The Second World War (page 251):

Part of Fuchida’s force of dive-bombers had peeled off to attack the US Army Air Corps bases at Wheeler Field and Hickam Field and the Naval Air Station on Ford Island. Ground crews and pilots were at breakfast when the strike came in. The first man to fight back at Hickam Field was an army chaplain, who had been outside preparing his altar for an open-air mass. He seized a nearby machine gun and, resting it on his altar, began firing at the wooing enemy planes.

That is “borrowed”, almost verbatim, from Samuel Eliot Morison, no less.

However, refer to HyperWar’s account, and we find a someone different version:

Russell Tener of the 18th Bomb Wing jumped into a pair of trousers and scurried down the stairs from his second-floor squadron bay with many others, heading toward the grassy parade ground. The whistling of falling bombs was clearly audible, as were the frightening sounds of machine-gun fire and exploding bombs. Tener recalled thinking at the time that he had joined the Army and chosen an assignment in Hawaii as a vacation at government expense, but he would be lucky to get through this alive. As he made his way across the parade ground, pandemonium erupted when low-flying aircraft with machine guns blazing began streaking toward the mob of men while dive bombers were unleashing their bombs. He ran toward the base chapel, only to find that it was no longer standing. It had been leveled by a direct hit, leaving only the concrete entry steps. He thought immediately of his friend, Joe Nelles, who was the Catholic chaplain’s assistant and went there early every Sunday to prepare the altar for mass. Later, what he feared was confirmed — Joe had been killed in the chapel.

Pending evidence to the contrary (and we shall pursue just that), we may regard Beevor’s anecdote as “unproven”.

Meanwhile, aboard USS New Orleans …

USS New Orleans II-1

… which was:

moored at Berth 16, Navy Yard Pearl Harbor undergoing engine repairs. The ship was taking power and light from the dock. There was no ship’s power available.

8n5203Here we find clean-cut, even handsome, Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Howell Maurice Forgy, a Presbyterian in the Navy’s Chaplain Corps. During the air attack he was fulfilling his parallel, non-sky-piloting function of morale-booster.

So let us refer to the Charleston News and Courier for 2nd November 1942. This we find reprinting an Associated Press feed, which had doubtless been buffed up by wartime censorship. Let us not be too cynical, but bear in mind we are already a year on from Pearl Harbor. And Loesser’s song is already making radio-waves):


The late Rev Forgy, with or without the help of Navy PR,  duly gets credit for the quotation.


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Filed under Antony Beevor, History, Music, Quotations, World War 2

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