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Interview with William Calbert, December 11, 2002 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with William Calbert, December 11, 2002
December 11, 2002
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Calbert, William Interviewer:  Zarbock, Paul Date of Interview:  12/11/2002 Series:  Military Chaplains Length  104 minutes


Zarbock: Good morning. My name is Paul Zarbock, staff member with the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Randall Library. We’re interviewing today in Fort Myer, Virginia, Colonel William Calbert.

Zarbock: Good morning Colonel and how are you?

Calbert: Doing pretty well.

Zarbock: Colonel, could you tell me how did you get into the ministry, where did you get into the ministry, why did you get into the ministry and then take me into the Chaplaincy. How did you get into the Chaplains Corps.

Calbert: I might say that I came into the ministry incidentally and accidentally. In light of our faith though that is not exactly the case. It’s the guidance and mercy of the good Lord. My father was a lay minister, but that did not necessarily determine my own personal decision. When I finally got to college going on the GI Bill after World War II, I started in with the aim of being a teacher.

Zarbock: Where did you go to college, sir?

Calbert: San Francisco State College, which is now San Francisco State University, but it was a college as of that time. I don’t know if it was because of the fact that I almost did not pass the pre-college penmanship examinations, or the art course, that I was discouraged from becoming a teacher. During that same time, I was becoming more and more involved in church programs, of one type or another, in my local church and in a group of churches of the San Francisco Bay area.

I had also the encouragement of my local pastor. I finally decided to go to the seminary. I finished at San Francisco State and enrolled in the then Berkley Baptist Divinity School in Berkeley, California.

Zarbock: And the year was what?

Calbert: 1949

Zarbock: And you were an elderly man of what 21? 22?

Calbert: I was 31years old then. I was not an outstanding student by any stretch of the imagination, but somehow I became involved in the student government and ended up in my senior year being elected the President of the student body.

Zarbock: At the seminary?

Calbert: At the seminary! Probably the first black to have been so elected there. More importantly,, having graduated, I tried out, as it were, at two small churches in Northern California, neither of which expressed any interest whatsoever in my services to encourage me in that direction. Through my seminary years, and previously, I had done some singing, you know, very amateurish.

I was invited to participate in a youth rally held at the Oakland, California, auditorium.. They put it in their newsletter, “Edward Calbert,”( I usually go my middle name to family and close friends),” bass soloist will sing.” Anyhow, at the conclusion of that youth rally, a staff sergeant came up to me and said, “Would you mind, would you be free to come out to Camp Stoneman because I’m in charge of an evening vesper service and would you give a little testimony, sing a song of your selection?” I did.

Zarbock: Excuse me. Was the military segregated in those days?

Calbert: The military was segregated. It was just about the time that President Truman was getting ready to sign his desegregation order. This sergeant was white and the evening group probably was majority white I would say. I don’t know what I sang. I don’t remember specifically what I said. But something hit me as it were. I find it hard to describe.

On the way home from that service, I felt that I must see about becoming a chaplain. So I went to the Presidio of San Francisco which was the major installation in the West, and went to the Chaplains’ Office and told them I desired to become a chaplain. They gave me the papers to fill out, 15 copies each ,it looked like; and a military-type physical exam was required; then return!

In World War II, I ended up being a Warrant Officer. I had had the habit of arguing with my superiors (laughter), sometimes for good cause, sometimes for a cause that maybe wasn’t. My efficiency ratings were not the best at all. More than that I was then three months over the legal age for coming into the Chaplaincy. I think the maximum age was 34 at that time and I had had my 34th birthday several months before.

It so happened though that at that time there was a severe shortage of black chaplains who were graduates from an accredited college and from an accredited seminary and so, by the grace of the Lord, I finally was called, “How soon will you be ready to go to the Chaplaincy School?” I was asked. I said, “Yesterday.” (laughter).

I took my very first airplane ride in my life from San Francisco to New York and went to the Basic Course of the US Army Chaplaincy School.

Zarbock: How long was that course?

Calbert: About six weeks I think.

Zarbock: And essentially what sort of material took place in the course?

Calbert: Map reading, Army organization, Methods of Instruction. At that time the Army also had what they call the Counselor Guidance Program – a series of lectures on moral subjects, which it is commanded for the chaplain to speak to the troops. I finished the Chaplains School , and went to my first assignment, which was Camp Roberts, California, where integration was only about to begin.

However the black troops were across the track and they were near Chapel #25, a black chapel. The unit there was an all black Engineer Battalion. All the white troops were on the other side of the Post. There, incidentally, accidentally or maybe not so,it happened within that Battalion there was a talented choir director who had been the assistant director of the noted (some years ago) noted -- Wings over Jordan Choir which broadcast nationally every Sunday for years and years.

He had his choir. He became my Chaplain Assistant. He was very skilled and the choir many times sang for the services. They didn't come to hear me, they came to hear the choir!! But my greatest opportunity of service there, and really satisfying service, came through my additional assignment to be the Stockade Chaplain there. I would get phone calls day and night, day in and day out, from mothers, wives, girlfriends of some family member who was there in the Stockade , which WAS integrated!

I had several interesting experiences with them. I had a call from one fellow who was in the stockade. He had gone AWOL to try to be of assistance to his girl friend who was then looking for work She came out to California and was rooming somewhere in the local community and they were engaged to be married. He asked me if I would perform the ceremony. So, after I had several serious conversations with him and her, of a counseling type, and decided upon it.

I asked his Commanding Officer for his concurrence and asked the Stockade Commander for permission for me to pick him up from the stockade, together with a guard, to go together go down to San Luis Obispo to the county courthouse to get the license, which we did. He sat in the backseat with the young lad, and I sat in the front with the driver. We went to and from and back to Chapel #25, conducted the wedding ceremony with the Sergeant Military Policeman as a witness (laughter) and from there immediately escorted back to the stockade.

He was released a couple of weeks later. I helped to get them some furniture and some groceries for the little apartment they had, and kept in contact with them for a few months after and then lost track. I have his name still. He was a resident of Brooklyn. I saw the family name in a Brooklyn phone directory years later and thought of maybe trying to contact him, but never did.

As a follow-up on Camp Roberts, Camp Roberts now has a very fine historical museum. But when I visited that museum I saw not one Afro-American face, not one black face, in any of the exhibits. I mentioned to the Master Sergeant who was the Curator there that I had some pictures of this black choir which frequently had been was brought over to the main post and sang for Division wide recreational programs, who sang with a Hollywood starlet who came up to sing to the troops.

I asked the sergeant in charge if I sent him this material, would he put it in and he said, “ yes.” I sent him the material sometime later. A couple of years after that visited the museum, it still wasn’t there. A couple of years after this sergeant said, “We have it in the bottom drawer with the file.” There, indeed, it was!

It so happened that in the Oakland area, I subsequently met a friend of my brother’s. A retired Army veteran, retired high school principal, who was in Korea with the 24th, all black infantry 24th Regiment, who was wounded several times, highly decorated, was written up in different publications from there he went to Camp Roberts, California. So he was still a real military presence there.

I asked him for materials on his Korean War experiences. He sent them to me a couple of weeks ago. About that same time I further remembered , I noticed in one publication that the current head of the National Guard is a minority individual Camp Roberts is now a National Guard installation. I said, “ I’m going to send your material to the museum and make a copy of that letter and send it to the National Guard and asked that Commander if he would have some staff member out there check up on it and make sure that it is included in the exhibit as rightfully it should be.”

In ’52 when I went into the U.S. Army at the Chaplain School, they said, “ within six months you will be in Korea.” They kept their word. So in six months from the time I received my commission, I was in Korea.

Zarbock: What year was this?

Calbert: In ’53, about three months before the end of hostilities. The unit was the 45th Infantry Division, the Thunderbirds.

Zarbock: Oklahoma?

Calbert: Oklahoma National Guard. I was assigned to a tank battalion, which rotated its companies to the MLR.

Zarbock: Excuse me. I know what you meant, but 20 years from now that language may have disappeared. What is an MLR?

Calbert: You almost stumped me, the Main Line of Resistance.

Zarbock: They used to call it” the front line” in the old days.

Calbert: So the tanks were on the top of this ridge and they had a place dug out where they could put the tanks at the place on the top of the ridge and fire some rounds at the enemy and back down the hill a bit. The Battalion Commander, very fine man, was a strong for the chaplain in the religious program. In fact on Memorial Day, he had the Battalion, with all the Companies that were in reserve, standing at attention while I gave a Memorial Day address.

By the 4th of July, he decided it wasn’t fair to have them all standing at attention for it. It also so happened he was a reserve high school physical education instructor. Every morning he would get all the officers together(laughter), he would lead them, in this fast trot up the hill and back down again to the Headquarters. Fortunately I was in good enough condition to make it and feel the younger ones, they may have been smokers or something, I did not smoke, they had a rough time.

He told them that if within one month’s time they weren’t able to make it, he would send them home (laughter). They shaped up fine. Among the Company Commanders were a couple of graduates of the Citadel in South Carolina. South Carolina being what it was, when I heard that they were, I wondered what their cooperation would be. They were some of the finest officers I’ve ever met. So we had a fine experience.

Zarbock: So they met the mold of an officer and a gentleman?

Calbert: Yes, they truly were. Right after the conflict was over, I was transferred from the Tank Battalion to the Infantry Regiment, the 32nd. About the 14th of July, K Company I believe it was, had been overrun our soldiers and I went up the next morning and the bodies of the South Korean military all along the road, and I was told that the evening before, one of the tank crews had been overrun.

They feared those men were lost, as well as the others. The next day when I came up, who should I see? But those missing men on a truck heading back to the Battalion Headquarters. But the 32nd Regiment , K Company lost a number of men. The Company Commander, a very conscientious captain, was under fire for not having reported fully and promptly, the number of men killed, the number of men missing and wounded.

I cooperated with him in writing the letters of condolence to the families who died. So one of the casualties was the son of one of my elementary classmates in central California who I remembered very well and who was then a neighbor of my father’s sister. I was requested to find out if he suffered long.

Zarbock: After a battle when there are casualties, are there any funerals that take place in the field?

Calbert: None.

Zarbock: The body is prepared and sent to the rear?

Calbert: Right, to the mortuary, but then transferred. Some men in the Regiment who sang, came to me – “We have a quartet, we’d like to make it into a choir, would you help us out?” That choir was formed, and the Division Commander, General P.D. Ginder, who was after the model of George Patton with two pistols and so forth. After having heard them singing, invited them up to sing for the visiting Generals from the Pentagon. Then, when the then Chief of Chaplains visited the area, they sang for him.

Then when the Denominational Representative of the American Baptist Churches was responsible for visiting any American Baptist chaplains came. I was invited to Division Headquarters, stayed up there for a day and sang for him. He liked it. I visited the Division area with him.

Zarbock: Were you a member of the choir?

Calbert: No, no.

Zarbock: But you helped organize it.

Calbert: Yes, I helped organize it, free them from their units for rehearsal and so forth.

Zarbock: What was your rank in those days?

Calbert: First Lieutenant. Now it’s Captain when a chaplain first goes on active duty, but 1st Lieutenant then. After hearing that choir just once, the General said he was going to promote every man in that choir. “You send me their names and their unit!” I sent the names with a note that two members of the choir didn't deserve to be promoted. They would goof off. One of them had gotten VD, you know, and so forth. I forgot what eventually happened, but I was told never to dispute the General (laughter), in fact, any General!

The 45th Division went home. I didn't have enough points to go with them.. I was transferred to the 7th Infantry Division and was able to transfer my choir as a unit to the same company, the 7th Division. The 7th Division had a Colonel Murray who was the Regimental Commander. His Battalion Commander, the Battalion I was with, was not as much of a supporter of the chaplain and chaplain program.

Zarbock: Didn't do anything to harm, but didn't do anything to help?

Calbert: That’s right. I got off on the wrong foot with him. I came to Headquarters in the evening. His office probably was a tent, and he was behind the desk, not in uniform. So somehow or another, he reacted as if he were in uniform. We never had good relation. Now he said, “Chaplain, what can I do for you?” So one thing I said was that, “ we needed a place for services.” He said, “Okay, we’re going to build a chapel and will open it and dedicate it on Easter Sunday.”

Easter Sunday morning I went there early. It was filled with beer cans and trash and so forth. So we had it cleaned up and used it.

Zarbock: But you were in the 7th Division, what Regiment?

Calbert: I’m not sure if it was the 17th, I’ve more or less dismissed (laughter).

Zarbock: Do you remember geographically where were you located?

Calbert: Right near Marilyn Monroe Peak and there was a more famous one. I’m trying to remember which one it was. Perhaps Pork Chop Hill.

Zarbock: The reason I mention that is everything will be indexed and we take out nouns like places, names and that type of thing and see if we can coordinate names that you have listed with other people. Sometimes we put people together that say, “For heaven’s sake, I haven’t seen you for 40 years” and that type of thing. So I will ask you from time to time about dates and places. So back we are, you got off on the wrong foot.

Calbert: That’s right. Got away from there and was assigned to Fort Knox, Kentucky. They had Training Regiments there. I was assigned to a Regiment whose Commander, when I met him, told me, “I’ll tell you what chaplain. I’m not a religious man, however I will support you.”

Later on down the line after we became acquainted, he said, “I want to tell you something Chaplain, when you reported to this Post, chaplains were being assigned in rotation to the unit which most needed them at that time.” He said, “The head chaplain came to me and said you know, ‘This chaplain coming in, Calbert, he’s black and he’s senior to the chaplain that you have right now which means he will be the Senior Chaplain for your Regiment. Do you want me to send him to you?” He said, “I told that chaplain, ‘You send him to me.’”

In that Regiment, among other things, he had me visit every man in that Regiment who went to the stockade and give him a written report after my interview with information on that soldier. He wanted to know f I felt the prisoner had realized what his mistake was, and was going to get back and be a real soldier. He said that, “ whatever you recommended, he would do.” The majority of them I did. Those that I didn't, they stayed and filled out their sentence.

As to chapel services, one Sunday the Regimental Commander did come. He didn't open the Bible, he didn't open a hymn book, but what he did, I could see him, look from soldier to soldier, private to NCO and there were officers and their families, the officers to the officers’ wives to see what their response was. Again I don’t think they came to hear me. They came to hear the choir (laughter).

I was fortunate to have a Chaplain’s Assistant who was an outstanding musician, very fine young man, Nolan Huizenga, who after he got out, got a doctorate in music. He became a music professor. The wife of one of the Company’s Commanders, who was a musician and choir director, volunteered one Sunday to form a choir. We had a nice choir so they came to hear the choir.

Zarbock: This is a small issue, but I never thought of it. It a military choir, would rank make any difference, if you were an officer versus a Private 1st Class?

Calbert: No.

Zarbock: And did you wear choir robes?

Calbert: Oh no, no, just uniforms.

Zarbock: But if you wanted to join the choir, you could join the choir?

Calbert: Then, still over at Fort Knox, while on leave, I’d gone to a church convention in Atlantic City. On the way, I stopped first in Washington at the Pentagon, went to see my records there. Sometimes you would see your efficiency reports by the local commander. He would show them to you, sometimes not. But they all went to the Chief of Chaplain’s Office at the Pentagon.

I went into the Chief of Personnel to see my record. They said, “ it was a pretty good report, you were lucky!” They asked if I would consider joining the 3rd Division, TOE right there at Fort Knox. I said, “ if they thought it was the right position, okay.” So I did. I happened to be the first assigned chaplain to the Division Artillery. The Commander, a new Brigadier General, Alva R. Fitch.

Zarbock: What year was this, sir?

Calbert: This was in ’54 I think.

Zarbock: And you are Captain by now?

Calbert: No, I was on the list for promotion, still 1st Lieutenant. I didn't know it at the time. I found out only later, he was a veteran of the Bataan Death March. On the wall of his quarters was an autographed picture to Alva Fitch, a great gunner, signed by one of the senior generals who was there with him in Corrigador.

Anyway he, at the stroke of 11:00, would come down the aisle with his wife and his two teenage children every Sunday service. Every Sunday service! About his second week there he said to me through his Chief of Staff, “The general wants to know why you haven’t submitted your program to him for the Command.” I told him that I was junior and shortly in. The Senior Chaplain to be will come in and he’ll be the one to establish his program.

Well he said, “When the General wants something, he wants it now” (laughter). So two days later, I came up with one and he adopted everything on there in terms of morning service, in terms of some evening, Sunday evening vesper service, in terms of a midweek service. He adopted that and then I put Sunday school on. He said, “ No, that Sunday school belonged to the Main Post Chaplain.” When the senior chaplain arrived, he left it exactly as I had suggested.

There were one or two training accidents when a soldier lost his life. For one of them I was scheduled to conduct a little informal memorial service out in the bivouac area. Somehow or other the transportation officer messed up on transportation and I never got out there. Te general when he next saw me, told me that he had conducted the soldiers memorial himself.

Zarbock: Clear up a point for me. The efficiency reports that are made on you. Who filled those out? Another chaplain?

Calbert: No. At higher command levels like Chaplain David White here, would fill out one, at least a draft, but there’s a Commanding Officer. Sometimes in a Regiment, the Adjutant might, and the sign-off would be by the Commander. More often it would be by the Executive Officer with the endorsement by the Commander.

Zarbock: With due respect, there must have been situations in which as a chaplain you said, “ let’s go left “, and the military establishment said, “ they’re going to go right!.” It could show up on your efficiency report as not being cooperative.

Calbert: That’s absolutely right.

Zarbock: That’s a wretched situation to find yourself in. Did you ever find yourself in that? If so, or have heard about them, how do you not wiggle out of it? How was the matter addressed?

Calbert: In the Fort Knox context or otherwise?

Zarbock: Take your pick.

Calbert: I remember an assignment with the 3rd Armored Division in Germany, I had a Commander of a Battalion who in his initial interview, asked me what my reading matter was. I mentioned a couple of the weekly news magazines and one that I mentioned that I read most frequently was one with which he was at odds, which was more liberal than the one he told me, “ well I like such and such one. They tell the truth (laughter)!” So his support of the religious program was more or less lukewarm, for a beginning.

Zarbock: So there’s always the aroma of personality in any situation irrespective of where you are.

Calbert: That is right. But one thing I’ve seen a couple of times. Persons who rely on personality, principally Commanders, they themselves are rated accordingly. With that Commander, the Division Commander, the one who became the Division Commander of Fort Knox, who was the Commander in Germany of the 3rd Armored Division, I had a birthday. I don’t know how in the world anybody realized I had a birthday, but I got a card from the Division Chief of Staff through channels through this Commander saying, “ the general wishes you a happy birthday and encourages you to keep up your good work” which was an unusual thing. I think it quite possibly was to try to give some encouragement or inspiration (laughter). I had just gotten promoted to Captain.

Actually I’d been in the first increment that went over to Germany in Frankfurt and Division artillery had logistical support and the Division Chaplain was back in the States. The senior Officer Chaplain, who was Episcopal, was busy conducting Episcopal services down for the senior people and I had the responsibility, by default, for organizing the chaplain program for the Division Chapel which I did. It went well.

The General’s wife volunteered for Sunday school, teaching a Sunday school class and the other teacher sort of resented her somewhat. She was a wonderful lady.

Zarbock: Why did they resent her?

Calbert: They felt that whatever she suggested might be different from the way they had been doing it, you know.

Zarbock: Does the word envy fit any?

Calbert: That’s possible.

Zarbock: Now that’s my word, not yours.

Calbert: The Division Commander said, “Chaplain, I want to volunteer to teach a Bible class.” All the rooms were filled up but there was just one possible place. It was a former stable of the German Army which was better than some of our chapels, you know. So we asked the G-4 if he would make the appropriate remodeling. The general later asked when his class was going to start? I said, “ we had submitted the work order.” He said, “ he would see to that” and it was done shortly thereafter.

At the same time, I had another excellent Chaplain Assistant, the last really good Chaplain Assistant I had. The Division Chaplain, on a Sunday afternoon transferred me over to this other Battalion. He invited my talented Chaplains Assistant, who had a Master’s Degree in Music and an Associate Degree in English, he invited him to have dinner, with him and his wife. He said, “Now wouldn’t you prefer to stay here with me at the Division Chapel instead of going with Chaplain Calbert at this little chapel across town?” What could he say but “ Yes sir?” So he did, yeah.

Zarbock: Were you ever asked to perform a mission with which you felt spiritually uncomfortable?

Calbert: I am not absolutely sure that I can recall at this moment in time. Maybe I blocked it out.

Zarbock: Let me turn that on its head then. Characteristically how were you and how were chaplains known to you treated in the military firmament? Were you seen as important, adjunctive, unimportant, significant, not significant or what did it depend upon?

Calbert: In some ways it depended upon personalities. Now the little chapel that I was assigned to there in Frankfurt, I replaced a chaplain who was Christian Scientist. He seemed to be a little rigid in some ways, a very fine individual and the same Commander who became a fairly good supporter of me was less supportive of that chaplain. That was one situation.

The chapel attendance there was 40 individuals per Sunday when I arrived. And when I was transferred again, about five months later, we were having 110 people for Sunday. So when you go to some place where it’s rock bottom, anything you do, whether it’s any good or not, looks like it was an accomplishment. There again I credit the music. We started with one choir and we ended up with four choirs I think it was including a teenager’s group whom we got to use with ire brushes on the stucco siding outside of the chapel. They did a marvelous job there.

Zarbock: What was the relationship between you and your Catholic colleagues?

Calbert: I had had no, practically no, contacts with the Catholic priesthood before entering the military chaplaincy. In college one day, one Christmas season, I worked as a temporary. My route included the largest Catholic Church in town. It so happened that the priest who came to the door was drunk (laughter). I formed sort of a negative opinion. But then in the Chaplaincy, some of the finest people I have ever known were the Catholic chaplains.

I remember one student at the Chaplain School, a football player, who wrote one or two very fine papers for me as assignments, because I was on staff faculty there, and his papers had a true nobility about them. He lost his life in Vietnam, sacrificing it to the ministry, to some casualty on the front line, refusing to go back to safety.

Zarbock: What about Jewish rabbis?

Calbert: My first contact was with a Rabbi Henry Tavel who was the Senior Chaplain for the 7th Training Division at Camp Roberts, California. I just met him once or twice during my time at Camp Roberts. My next significant contact was at the Army Chaplain School where one member, one of the senior members of the faculty was a brilliant Jewish rabbi who used to run off multi-syllable words on us (laughter). We had a good time with him. Later when I was on staff, there was one rabbi…

Zarbock: And Muslims? Did you met any clerics?

Calbert: No, Muslims entered into the Chaplaincy only in very recent years. I met one, I remember a few years ago at a meeting at the Chaplain Association (The DC Metropolitan Area Chapter, Military Chaplains Association) and was speaking with a chaplain who had just come from Fort Knox. Someone said, “ They were giving it over to Muslims, I hate that.” I said, “Well they worship too!” He was a very conservative denomination and had not yet been educated as it were to a broader view of life. I remember in recent years being at a local chapter of the Military Chaplain Association where a couple of Chiefs of Chaplains were there and one introduced the new Muslim Chaplain. Chaplain Dave White, I think, was there. They were in the process of having one or two more Muslim chaplains and a Buddhist chaplain I believe.

Zarbock: Colonel, I interrupted you while you were in Germany with the 3rd Armored Division with Division Artillery. How long were you there and what did you do?

Calbert: I was there only a month at Division Artillery Headquarters in Frankfurt before the Division Chaplain arrived and took over his formal duties and took my expert Chaplain Assistant and sent me to the smaller chapel also there in Frankfurt where I had a very poor Chaplain Assistant. At any rate, we got a number of different programs going.

One problem came first, which was the Sunday School Superintendent. She had a husband who was a senior officer in Corps Headquarters. And she you might say carried his rank. The Sunday school teachers were in rebellion. She would offer to resign and then take back her resignation a week later.

Zarbock: But again, this is a sticky situation for you. It would certainly find a parallel…

Calbert: I complained and reported the situation to the Head Chaplain down at V Corps Headquarters in Frankfurt. He said, “I know chaplain, I’m sorry, I can’t help you out” (laughter). So finally one day when we accepted her resignation and had a nice farewell and went on. There actually I was trying, it was my very first experience with having a congregation all of my own. So I made every choir rehearsal, you know, every meeting with the men of the chapel, every meeting with the women of the chapel and all of that. It was too much.

I wasn’t ready to slow down, but the Division Chaplain made a number of changes because a couple of chaplains in one chapel weren’t getting along too well, and assigned me to that chapel. In that chapel, it was a break in terms of chapel services because the Commander there said he wanted me to be out in the field with the men, and that I did. I enjoyed that experience. It was good for me.

Zarbock: What would you do in the field with the men?

Calbert: Talk with the men. Be with the men. We would take a ride over the training pond in a Duck…

Zarbock: Again, I’m sorry, for future sake, what is a Duck?

Calbert: It’s an amphibious vehicle.

Zarbock: Big ugly looking critter.

Calbert: Right. And then I came back to the States from there with an assignment to an Air Defense Unit at Travis Air Force Base, California, where different missile batteries are located in their radius around the air base to quote/unquote protect the air base. I was fortunate there in that the men on their own said, “Chaplain, we’ll build you a chapel.” So there was one freestanding chapel, a beautiful chapel and two others built into existing buildings. They did a very nice job on them.

It so happened that the National Air Defense Command received a quota of seven electronic organs and they sent out a memo saying every chapel that meets certain specifications in terms of area and so forth is eligible to request. Of those seven nationally, I got three of them. I don’t think the others had had a chance to get their chapel built or what.

I had a very fine Commander there in support, a West Point graduate, a native of Mississippi which, in those days and years, was like some of the Mississippi comments we heard recently. You know, and where in World War II as a draftee, had the experience of witnessing a riot on a base where one of the soldiers had been downtown on leave. On pass! Just minding his own business, and someone came up and said, “What are you doing here boy?”

He didn't answer quickly enough and the policeman or constable shot him on the spot! There was a riot at the post. This Commander who was a very fair man told them, “Please, put your rifles away and I promise to see what can be done about it.” He tried, but nothing, of course, could be done in those days.

Zarbock: Where was that sir, do you remember?

Calbert: The Camp was Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi and the little town was Centerville. A little railroad stop outside of the town.

Zarbock: And you were in training there?

Calbert: Yes, basic training, World War II with the Quartermaster Trucking Regiment. But this Commander, from Mississippi, was very fine. The Air Defense Unit were very public relations conscious because the people had a natural hesitancy about having a missile outfit where one of those shells might go off. If they have nuclear capability, you know, what will happen to us? So the missile commander would invite the local mayor, chief of police, and other local people out for a meal, a tour and all of that because missiles were relatively new.

They wanted to form a good relationship. Among the people invited out was the Editor of the local newspaper religion department who was my guest and so forth. She later asked me to write a monthly column for the local paper. I worked with the local Ministerial Association so we had the Church of God, Presbyterian, Methodist, Southern Baptist and a couple more ministers in the Fairfield community and local towns.

One Easter, somebody came up with the idea of an Easter sunrise service because one of our Batteries had the tallest hill around. So it was decided upon that hill and since it was my unit and so forth that I should be the speaker. I said, “ I would prefer one of them” but they said, “ No, no!” We did that. We surveyed the place and got a PA system crew, public address crew to come out and look it over.

And they set this mike here and a speaker here and so forth. That Easter morning came and he didn't show. He overslept I think he said later. But it so happened, it was a miracle, the place we had chosen was a perfect amphitheater. Five hundred people came to that first Easter sunrise service and everybody heard every single word because of the acoustics there. So after I left, it was continued the same way.

Speaking of Mississippi, a next higher level (Brigade) Commander arrived, by the name of Theodore Bilbo, Jr., the son of the Mississippi Senator who was one of the chief racists of the south. A new General came in, region commander, two-star general I guess. He had the obligatory reception. I took my mother with me to that reception. My own Regimental Commander and his wonderful wife were there. They engaged my mother in conversation and so forth.

When it came time for people to be introduced to Colonel Bilbo, he shook everybody’s hand but my mother’s. He refused to shake my mother’s hand! She had been greeted so warmly by everybody else.

Zarbock: What was his rank sir?

Calbert: Full Colonel, Theodore Bilbo, Jr. Full Colonel and I heard unofficially that he probably would never be promoted further because of his family name. But he carried on some of the same characteristics as his father. The new General’s wife was speaking to just me, courteously and he came and grabbed her by the hand and yanked her away to dance with him. She was just being courteous. Things like that happened.

The community of fellowship there was a marvelous experience, the base community. One summer I was ordered to go to the Chaplain’s School for the next level chaplains course and I got 14 different ministers and Air Force chaplains as volunteers to conduct the services in my chapels during that summer. My Chaplain Assistant kept the roster and if anybody couldn't make it, he would get a substitute and so forth. It was a marvelous experience.

Zarbock: What was the sense of fellowship that you had with other denominations, with other chaplains, Lutheran, Presbyterian?

Calbert: Fine. Next to the Head Chaplain at the Base was a Southern Baptist who was a very, very fine individual who had us out to his home for dinner and who asked me to conduct services for one of the Air Force chapels during a staff shortage. The Head Chaplain likewise who was another veteran of the Death March. I met two chaplains, all together , who were veterans of the Bataan Death March. This chaplain who was a Congregationalist, as I recall, and the former Chief of Air Force Chaplains,( Chaplain Robert Taylor) I can’t think of their names, were veterans of the Bataan Death March. The Sergeant Major of this Air Defense Unit, Cecil Valenzuela, a Filipino, had been in the Filipino Constabulary and was in the U.S. Army and was a veteran of the Bataan Death March.

Zarbock: Do you know, were they ministers before the Death March or as a result of or following the Death March?

Calbert: They were chaplains already.

Zarbock: Well we’ve gotten you out of Germany and you’re back in the States. You were at the West Coast with the Air Defense Command.

Calbert: At the Air Defense Command, they decided the Chaplain Bill Calbert needed some education and sent me for a year to the Teacher’s College at Columbia University after which I was assigned n the staff faculty of the Army Chaplain School at Fort Hamilton, New York.

Zarbock: And what did you teach there?

Calbert: Okay, I taught Methods of Instruction, the Army Character Guidance Program and the Chaplain Funds.

Zarbock: Did you live on base?

Calbert: On base, yes. I was half the time, two years instructor, and two years Assistant Director of the Non-Resident Program for which I wrote some of the courses. During that time a command came down from the Headquarters to develop or write a special training program for the Character Guidance document for the Program. In that Program, they had films, they had slides and charts and all of that. They had not been collected together.

So I received the assignment of doing this document. I did it, submitted it to the Commandant of the Chaplain School who sent it through Continental Army Command in Fort Monroe, Virginia, who sent it to the Pentagon and the only change that was made, they changed two commas in the whole thing. Subject Schedule 21-42 published by the Department of the Army. It was not because I had done such an excellent job because there was nothing else to compare it with, number one. Number two, the interest in the Character Guidance Program was waning. So nobody cared much.

Zarbock: Why?

Calbert: Finally there was a suit by a couple of lawyers and so forth saying you’re forcing religion, you know, on the troops and so forth. Some few cases, somebody would try to impose a Catholic doctrine or a Baptist doctrine and someone would complain. But in the Air Force, they had a comparable program, but both of them were knocked out. Now the military has a command program in a slightly different form with some of the same subjects, integrity, honor, etc. They felt they couldn't do without it.

The chaplains themselves had lost their enthusiasm about it and so forth. When the non-resident Department of the Chaplain School was given the assignment of redoing the Chaplain’s Manual, I think FM-16-5 or something like that, since I was the only person there who had experience with the Air Defense Command where you’re satellited logistically on the major installation like Army, or an Air Force Base for housing, base housing, for this supply, that supply, the other supply, I did the draft on the ministry of the Air Defense Command for that Army Field Manual. Just by accident of being there, I was the only one close around who had that association.

Zarbock: What was your assignment after that, Colonel?

Calbert: After the Chaplain School, I went to Vietnam. I was chaplain for the Logistical Command, the Port Command at Saigon and had a chapel at the port. Then I visited the installations, the Battalion installations of this Command in that area and up the Delta and so forth. I would go on a boat from Saigon down to the South China Sea and up the river to a couple of installations. I would conduct services on that boat. Then a chopper back to Saigon.

Zarbock: What was the morale like with the troops? What year is this?

Calbert: This would be 1967. The fall. That was the first half of the tour. The second half of the tour, I was assigned to the First Logistical Command Headquarters at Long Binh compound which is a dozen miles or so from Saigon where among other things, I interviewed all chaplains coming into the command. There were about 70 chaplains and recommended their assignment to the Senior Chaplain.

Then beside that, I had the responsibility for monitoring chaplain items of supply for Vietnam which included Communion wine which ended up in the officers’ hooches of our own nation and allied nations, communion wafers and supplies, organs. A couple of organs ended up in an Officers’ Club someplace, and needed to be retrieved.

There were about three Depots in Vietnam and a chaplain was assigned to each. Each at his own particular Depot would inventory those critical items of supply and submit that report to the Headquarters and I would compare their figures with the figures of the Headquarters and see that they were resolved and so forth, consolidate requisitions which went to Okinawa which were, in turn , requisitioned from the States.

Zarbock: What was the morale like with the troops on the ground?

Calbert: There were Logistical Units like the ones that I was associated with and then there were combat units. Combat units, I did not have…I made a couple of visits with the combat units, but did not have that much contact with the personnel. With the logistical units, it was overall not bad.

Zarbock: What were the major presenting problems at that time at that place?

Calbert: Okay, in Vietnam, of course drugs were a problem. Strangely enough I never saw a drug in my life, nor talked to a man who said, “ I’m using drugs.”

Zarbock: What about alcohol?

Calbert: There were some problems with alcohol.

Zarbock: Now of course am I correct, none of the military people had their families with them?

Calbert: No.

Zarbock: Well how long were you in Vietnam?

Calbert: One year.

Zarbock: And you rotated back to the States?

Calbert: Rotated back to the States and was assigned to 1st Army Headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland as the Operations and Training Officer for the 1st Army Chaplains Office. So I processed request for chaplains who wanted, or needed, to fill a quota for an assignment, a seminar at Catholic University, a small short course at some other school. Then I visited and inspected the training records of some reserve units, one in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

At that time Character Guidance was supposed to be at least an hour of instruction at the different service schools. I visited one or two service schools. I visited my old place at Fort Knox, Kentucky, to see what they were doing and so forth.

Zarbock: Was Maryland your last post?

Calbert: That was the last. I had one special experience there. I received permission to go to The National Convocation on the Church of Violence in the Nation in Atlanta, Georgia, and had outstanding speakers from academia, from seminaries, from civil rights and so forth. Martin Luther King, Sr., was one of the persons. I wrote a report on it and submitted it to 1st Army Headquarters Staff with quotations from the various persons about civil rights problems dealing with violence, non-violent programs and so forth.

We related them to the Kerner Commission Report, (The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders) and we related them again to several non-classified military documents on dealing with civil unrest. We got no positive response from Headquarters staff. The only response I got, besides initials that they had seen it, was from the Assistant Division Chaplain who said he’d like a copy. Six months later, the 1st Army troops were participants at Kent State massacre of unarmed students, truly non-threatening, were shot down.

I, in recent years, wondered if the 1st Army Commander had taken this report seriously? If he could not have, and would not have, instituted training in their units in the required training! If that element of understanding and caution and restraint in areas of civil unrest would have been different. I sent my report with my wondering to a former Chief of Chaplains of the Army, Retired, who wrote back saying “ maybe so and maybe not.” Then he described the general atmosphere at that time as one of unconcern or an avoidance of some of those issues.

Zarbock: I’m probably not going to quote this with the precision the quote deserves, but as you were speaking I was thinking of the saddest words that are stated are those that say, “It might have been.”

Colonel, I want to squeeze in some time with some specific questions. I thank you for everything you’ve done so far and made the time. Just a bunch of punchy questions. Would you comment on women in the chaplaincy, military chaplains?

Calbert: One responsibility I had in retirement was to be an Interim Director of Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling Services for the American Baptist Churches, Valley Forge, PA., which involved receiving reports and correspondence from American Baptist Chaplains all over the world including their required annual reports and responding to some problem situation that occurred one place or another.

One was with a female chaplain who happened to be Afro-American, but that was more or less immaterial, whose Supervisory Chaplain was a Catholic priest of the old school who seemed to have had reservations about a female clergy or chaplain. He who had the smallest congregation, obtained all kinds of assistance to help him with his congregation, ministry. She who had the largest one obtained no help at all, no outside help. She wanted a day off to say hear some speaker, “ No, no, we can’t help you out.”

At any rate, there was a death on the staff and the Hospital Commander requested a memorial service in the chapel. She very unwisely said “The chapel can’t be used for that!” Her Supervisory Chaplain reported to VA Chaplain Headquarters in Washington and I was acquainted with him through the Military Chaplain Association. He gave me a phone call and asked me if I’d go up and check on it. I gave her a phone call, asking her to make an appointment. I wanted to talk with her and her Supervisory Chaplain and I wanted to talk to the Hospital Superintendent.

I got up there and she had the Equal Opportunity Officer in with her and so forth. She told her story. I had met the Supervisory Chaplain, but he had to be someplace else so the Commander told me that this young lady was completely wrong. He said, “ the chapel was not hers, but belonged to the Command and was to be used appropriately and that that memorial service was appropriate, and if she wasn’t able to do it herself, she should find somebody.”

The situation was resolved. About two years later, she was a Senior Chaplain someplace else having learned. Another case, this young lady was an Anglo if you would. She had had personality differences with the Senior Chaplain. This Senior Chaplain had ordered her court-martialed and found a senior enlisted person to testify against her. She complained. She brought it to the Denominational Headquarters among others, and this was before I came on board. The then Director of Chaplaincy Services went out, got a new hearing for her…

Zarbock: What was the charge, sir?

Calbert: I understand that the charge was that she had misappropriated chaplain funds. So anyhow she got a new trial and was found totally innocent the enlisted lady who testified against her was disciplined, and I’m not sure what happened to the Senior Chaplain. They were unhappy with him. In my time in that office I had a follow-up visit with her. I talked with her Senior Chaplain, a chaplain whom I had known here in Washington previously, with the Military Chaplains Association.

I talked with another American Baptist Chaplain who worked with her. Her Senior Chaplain said she was doing good work. He wasn’t enthusiastic, but said she was doing a good job. Her coworker mentioned she was doing a good job, but he had a little problem with her attitude. She was a superior performer, but she (laughter) sort of lorded it over her superiority and so forth. It was just her way. So we had a long, long talk, an hour long talk. I suggested frankly that that attitude, unintentional of her, was standing in her way. Afterwards I talked with him again and he said things were coming along fairly well.

During that time at Denominational Headquarters, among the people applying for endorsement approval is a chaplain of this denomination was coming from southern areas, very restrictive environments, theological positions and he wanted to go to a more open denomination. To hm, I said, “ If you were required to serve with a female chaplain, do you have any problems?” He said, “He guessed not” “How about if a female chaplain was assigned as your supervisor?” He said, “ Frankly, I would have a problem with that.”

So I said, “ Well you go back, and come back here six months after you have prayed and thought about it and if you have made up your mind that under the supervision of a female chaplain, you would cooperate, respond and wouldn’t have a problem, your experience speaks well for you. You have good qualifications, there should be no further difficulty with your acceptance here.”

Zarbock: Colonel, you were a civilian, then you were in the military and now you’re a civilian again. Is God better revealed to civilian population or to the military population or is there a difference?

Calbert: That is a very difficult situation. To those chaplains who lost their lives ministering on the front line, I say God was revealed to them. For less dramatic ways, those chaplains, particularly to whom men have said how within an assignment that involves possibly killing, you know, how do I reconcile that with my faith. I think too that the extent that some say in the scripture there are different words in the original languages for killing, taking a life, might correspond now as what is considered as murder, one might correspond more closely with manslaughter, say to that soldier, that service person, if a person has taken another life without malice and with the idea of defending a freedom of what was right, that there was some justification perhaps in the eyes of Almighty God.

Zarbock: Colonel, would you do it again?

Calbert: Yes I would. I said to a Sunday school class once, “You know, that if a person came to me and said I’d like to go into the military that I wouldn’t discourage them.” If a person said, “ I am a conscientious objector”, I would not discourage them.

Zarbock: I’d like to thank Admiral White for bringing us together. Colonel, I’m delighted to have met you. I’m going to be cheeky enough to end this interview by saying may the Lord be with you.

Calbert: It’s been a privilege. I had missed a significant part of my experience that my post-retirement has been with the Military Chaplain Association under the leadership of several of the different Executive Directors, now principally Dave White. He’s done a magnificent job, it’s a marvelous experience being associated with leaders of Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, a multitude of denominations.

Zarbock: That sounds like a true Chaplain Corps.

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