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Interview with George E. Dobes, December 18, 2003 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with George E. Dobes, December 18, 2003
December 18, 2003
Native of Chicago, Illinois, Msgr. Dobes was born on 12/11/42. First Catholic student in the Navy seminarian program. Ordained and served as a pastor and a Naval Reserve Chaplain.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Dobes, George E. Interviewer:  Zarbock, Paul Date of Interview:  12/18/2003 Series:  Military Length  88 minutes


Zarbock: Good morning. My name is Paul Zarbock. A staff member with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington’s Randall Library. Our interview today is being conducted in McLean, Virginia and today’s date is the 18th of December in the year 2003.

Zarbock: Good morning Father, how are you?

Dobes: Good morning, I’m very well thank you.

Zarbock: Would you introduce yourself and tell me what is your current duty status?

Dobes: My name is Monsignor George Dobes, a priest of the Arch Diocese of Chicago here in this area thanks to the U. S. Navy and I’ve remained here working in various capacities. Right now I am assigned as a judge and economical consultant to the Tribunal of the Arch Diocese of Washington, D.C. In addition I do help in two parishes, one in Alexandria, Virginia, and the other one in ______, Virginia.

Zarbock: Chaplain, I’m going to start off with the question I have asked all of the interviewees. What individuals or series of individuals or series of events led you into deciding the priesthood as your profession and vocation?

Dobes: Back in Chicago I attended a Catholic school. That school of course had the good sisters in all grades except for fourth grade and three fine priests in the parish. I think being an altar boy attending Catholic school, the seed of the vocation was probably nurtured along the way and I was encouraged to attend our Arch Diocese in preparatory seminary which was a day school, basically a boys’ high school specifically that had classes that would train a person and give the formation for further studies and also the spiritual life leading up to the priesthood.

So I would say that my Catholic education and the priests and the nuns and the encouragement of my parents led me to the priesthood.

Zarbock: How would you describe and define your parents’ religious and spiritual life?

Dobes: I would say quite normal. My dad worked the 4-12 shift. He was not home all the time including weekends. He was a printer and since they printed Time Life publications, the Time magazine went to press usually on Saturday night. My dad may have had to work on Saturday and Sunday and so it was kind of a normal family life. My mother although baptized a Catholic, really did not practice Catholicism until she met my dad and took further instructions in the church. So I would say it was sort of a normal family background. There was no pressure whatsoever from my folks on me becoming a priest.

Zarbock: And what is the derivation of your name?

Dobes: The name is Czech. It’s a very short name. It should be Dobesh with a little ____ above the s, so my grandparents, three of the four, came from what is now the Czech Republic. One was born in Chicago but of course his folks were born in Moravia, an area of the Czech Republic.

Zarbock: So your decision to enter the priesthood, was this proceeded by trumpet blasts or some vision that appeared?

Dobes: No, no, nothing like that. No St. Paul conversions. I think it was a growth I would have to say, just a growth. I mean I didn't say in fourth grade I’m going to be a priest and that’s it. I think my dad has told people that I did say that in fourth grade, but of course you’re never sure until the bishop puts his hands on your head and calls you prior to that to the priesthood.

Zarbock: Where did you go to seminary?

Dobes: The seminary is St. Mary Seminary now known as Mundelein Seminary of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois. It’s the Arch Diocese of seminary for the Arch Diocese of Chicago.

Zarbock: What was that experience like?

Dobes: Well I think it was when we finally got there after four years of high school and two years of college going to the major seminary, it was called the big house. The big house, well we finally got here after all these years. It was in a secluded area and still is in the northern suburbs of Chicago so not only did you have a chance for study but also a chance for a lot of reflection and really enjoying the kind of nature because most of us were from the city.

Zarbock: That education process was three years, four years?

Dobes: In our system at the time, we had four years of high school and one year of college in the Nearmorth Loop area of Chicago. In fact it was the night club area of Chicago. The seminary was there before the night clubs. When the system was changing at the time and so we went to another location for the second year of college and that was in Niles, Illinois and then we went to Mundelein, the major seminary for six years to complete our college education and then the four years of postgraduate work.

Zarbock: And what year were you ordained?

Dobes: I was ordained in 1968.

Zarbock: In Chicago?

Dobes: At the seminary in Mundelein. The custom at the time was that all the priests of the Arch Diocese of Chicago were ordained in the seminary chapel. The seminary chapel was as large as ______Church, smaller than the cathedral but that was the custom.

So on that day there were 41 of us ordained for the Arch Diocese of Chicago. Two were previously ordained in Rome for Chicago, two of our classmates.

Zarbock: And there you are a new priest. What happened sir?

Dobes: Well I was assigned to a parish on the north side of Chicago, I would say a working class parish which was once ethicnically German, but that sort of changed over the years. So we had Belgians, Germans, Irish, Filipinos, Cubans and yes we did have one black family.

Zarbock: And what were your duties?

Dobes: I was the associate pastor. The pastor was 65 years old when I got there. I was 25 years old. There was another associate who was as old as my folks were at the time (laughter), so I was the young guy in the crowd.

Zarbock: And your duties were general parish requirements? Preaching? Teaching?

Dobes: Yes that’s right, celebrating mass, teaching the grammar school, take care of funerals, weddings, giving instructions in the faith also at that point we had a parish counsel. We also had a school board. It was an active little parish right off the Kennedy Expressway in the city of Chicago.

Zarbock: What was the size of the congregation?

Dobes: Oh at point we had about 1200 families and a school.

Zarbock: Now what year was that when you were ordained?

Dobes: Okay, I was ordained in 1968 and went to the parish immediately in June. I was ordained in May. They gave us a couple of weeks off out of the bottom of their hearts and we were supposed to be assigned and did report in June of ’68. I stayed at the parish until June of 1971 when I entered military service on active duty.

Zarbock: Chaplain, I’m going to ask you a question that years and years and years from now will certainly turn the ear of historians. Here’s the question. In 1968, tell us a little bit about what were the events of the social order that was squirreling around here? What was life like in ’68, the problems, the headlines in the newspapers, what got into the stern conversations?

Dobes: Well of course Vietnam was going on heavy at the time so the discussion of the war, peace initiatives all of these things were stirring around. Also you saw social unrest. We remember especially in Chicago in August the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and of course the riots that took place. I used to love to go downtown and we weren’t far from downtown, the parish wasn’t, but that was one thing you just didn't do at that time because you didn't know if you’d walk into some dumb demonstration before some civil unrest. It was a dangerous time.

I had friends at the time who worked for CBS in Chicago and they were telling me about the film that they would see unedited, also audiotaped interviews unedited and it was something like I just didn't want to go down there. I certainly supported law enforcement and the Chicago Police Department which of course was accused of police brutality and whatnot but when you have human excrement being thrown at you and being called various names, there’s just a certain level where any of us whether we’re police officers or even clergy, you just have a limit and you have to react.

Zarbock: What was going on as a result…is riot too strong a word?

Dobes: No, I would say there were riots certainly had the effects of riots in Grand Park at the time right across from the convention headquarters hotel, the Hilton Hotel, the Conrad Hilton Hotel, now I think it’s the Hilton Towers.

Zarbock: Well I’ll retreat here into academic language and say the result of this volcanic social change, did that affect your parish? Was the parish divided into I’m for it, I’m against it, was there any of that activity in your parish?

Dobes: In the parish that I was in, I would say that most of the people, in fact I can’t think of anyone right now that didn't support the Armed Forces and the President in our efforts in Vietnam.

Zarbock: But emotions were running very, very high.

Dobes: They were especially with young folks, college students because the Democratic National Convention brought all these people in from around the United States, they also brought in the peace demonstrators and that caused a lot of problems in the city.

Zarbock: There was a tremendous amount of heat and not much light.

Dobes: That’s true.

Zarbock: I’m now going to ask the second question, how and why did you go into the military? Why did you choose the military chaplaincy?

Dobes: Well we have to go back to the seminary years. In about 1965-66, our seminary received a request from a Navy chaplain who was stationed at the time at the Great Lakes Naval Hospital. Great Lakes was only about a 10 minute ride directly east of where our seminary was located. The request was for two people, a choir director and an organist to lead a small little choir of folks that were attending the Hospital Corpsmen school. These were the medics for the Navy and the Marine Corps who were being trained and put in place.

So anyway the question went out, I volunteered. I was the organist. I also had some expertise with choirs; however, being in the seminary always let your buddy know is almost like being in the military. A good friend of mine who is now deceased who was ordained a priest, he put in for the choir director job. I was the organist and we had a wonderful way of getting out of the seminary on Monday nights, Tuesday nights and on Sunday mornings.

So during this time of course we got to meet with these young people who were being trained as Navy medics and hospital corpsmen. The hospital itself was just chuck full of patients. I believe the patient load at the time was 800 per day and most of those were Vietnam casualties. The hospital was one of the few in the Midwest and basically I guess the only military hospital that I can recall in the Midwest other than VA Hospitals that would take these active duty folks. These were people from Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa.

So we would be asked, of course we were just civilians at the time, "hey would you mind coming up and talking to some of the guys on our ward. They don’t get to have their families come every week and I know one guy hasn’t had his family come in six weeks". So we would go up there and kind of spread some cheer and sometimes even be grossed out. I remember one Marine who said, “Hey, you want to see something. Look through the hole in my arm” and of course I wasn’t used to that not being trained in medicine and stuff like that, but there was a hole through his arm that was also a hole through his leg.

And of course he would be there for weeks, months with plastic surgery just trying to repair those wounds. After meeting all of these folks and meeting chaplains of various faiths, I was kind of interested in the military. I’d see that most of the people in the military are young folks. I think even today the average age of somebody in the military is 18 or 19. So I said well, I didn't know what to do. I kind of mentioned it to one of the priests there.

He said, “Well you know there’s this program there called the Ensign Probationary Program. I don’t know anything about it, but why don’t you talk to the District Chaplain”. The District Chaplain at the time was a senior chaplain who was in charge of all the active duty and reserve chaplains in a particular area since the Great Lakes was the headquarters for the 9th Naval District.

So I went to see the District Chaplain who told me about the program, got some further information and that started the adventure. Since I was the first Catholic that I know of and I think even our historians have confirmed, the Navy knew what to do, but our church didn't know what to do.

Zarbock: I’m sorry, the first Catholic priest what?

Dobes: The first Catholic seminarian to even request entrance in the commission in the Ensign Probationary Program.

Zarbock: Now this is a pivotal point of history and I asked off camera, why were you the first? The year is now what?

Dobes: The year is now about 1966.

Zarbock: And you’re the first seminarian?

Dobes: Correct and this program had basically been in place for approximately 20 or 21 years at the time. It came into being as I understand it after World War II. Why I was the first, well why wasn’t there someone before me is probably the better question, well at the time in the Catholic church prior to 1966, seminarians were basically captives of the seminary throughout the academic year and then were still also controlled shall we say during summer vacation.

Zarbock: So the seminary year was about 13 months (laughter)?

Dobes: Well that was about it. It certainly was 12 months even though there were a couple of weeks off here and a couple of weeks off there.

Zarbock: During the summers for example, you couldn’t participate in other activities including pastoral activities because the seminary controlled you. You worked for let’s say Angel Guardian Orphanage or Marigill Academy or you worked for the CYO and if you were in the major seminary besides doing that, then you’d have six weeks in northern Wisconsin at a villa. It was six weeks of fun and games on the Arch Diocese of Chicago, but you weren’t kind of allowed or didn't have the time to get into other things especially pastoral things.

This started to change in 1966 as a result of the second Vatican counsel and people looking at seminary education and saying, gee, you don’t have to keep these guys locked up for 12 months of the year. Let’s get them out CPE for example.

Zarbock: CPE being?

Dobes: Clinical Pastoral Education and it started to come up in our seminaries at the time and all of a sudden here was a program that the military offered that no one in my particular denomination at least in the Navy had ever applied for.

Zarbock: This is really exciting. You were the first individual to implement a policy change, a significant policy change.

Dobes: Correct.

Zarbock: You’re a historical figure.

Dobes: Maybe a footnote in Chaplain Corps history. It was interesting because this was my first experience with government bureaucracy. I think it was also my first experience with church bureaucracy. Of course I had to get permission from not only the seminary rector who was quite supportive of this. He saw this as a very viable ministry and education eventually abound in this ministry.

But of course he then had to go to the new Arch Bishop at the time who was John Cody. Luckily Arch Bishop Cody, later Cardinal Cody, loved military chaplains. In fact he mentioned to me personally and had mentioned even on the air interviews that the priest who probably had the most influence in his life was a former military chaplain. So he had this soft spot in his heart for military chaplains.

But because this was a program that was new, it took some time to do some investigation and stuff like that. Also at the time Arch Bishop Cody was named a Cardinal and took a few weeks off to go to Rome to get a red hat and this all delayed the processing of the documents. It just was a long time. I know I started these procedures etc. in late ’66, certainly by February ’67 all the papers were in. I didn't get my commission until November of 1967.

So I was commissioned an ensign in the ensign probationary program which was the theological school program or what it’s called today is the Chaplain Candidate Program. I was able to do some work so to speak even though it was not legitimized as CPE, Clinical Pastoral Education; I was able to do some visitation. I supervised at the naval hospital at Great Lakes. I was able to get some recruits because that was and still is a large recruit training place. So I was able to get this experience plus do some …

Zarbock: What was the nature of the experience? You were required again to preach? Teach? Counsel?

Dobes: Actually I wasn’t required to do anything (laughter). I was offered basically to have the experience of dealing with military people. Most of it was again since I was not ordained a priest at the time, most of it was counseling. I was ordained a deacon so at the hospital I could bring communion around to patients, but as far as hearing confessions or anointing the sick, I couldn’t do that.

So a lot of it was visitation, distributing communion to hospital patients and then other than that kind of doing some counseling at the office or over at the recruit training command just basically doing counseling and just trying to get the experience of dealing with these young folks who are having a traumatic time because it was the first time they were away from home. A lot of them were homesick, dealing with the military. A lot of them I would say were undisciplined and all of a sudden now it’s more than mom or dad. It’s the petty officers screaming at you, the chief petty officers screaming at you.

Then they were dealing in this new environment where you don’t decide what clothes you’re going to wear in the morning. You were told what clothes you were going to wear in the morning, and what time you were going to get up and what you’re going to do that particular day. So it was kind of interesting to pick all of this up and try to get this experience which I thoroughly enjoyed and later on it became very handy when I did go on active duty full time.

Zarbock: Were you authorized to wear a Navy uniform?

Dobes: Yes I was. The Ensign Probationary Program at the time you were supposed to wear if you were on duty whatever the uniform of the day was which includes all of the uniforms that are relevant and currently used today except we had a service day khaki. You know the great John Wayne, single breasted, khaki, with shoulder boards. I remember having my picture taken in one of those.

We were ensigns so you wore an ensign one stripe either on your shoulder or your sleeve with a cross. If you were a Jewish ensign probationary, you wore the tablets and the Star of David.

Zarbock: And you would leave the seminary in your uniform?

Dobes: Correct.

Zarbock: Go back to the seminary, take off your uniform and put on priestly garb, is that basically it?

Dobes: That’s it or recreational clothes.

Zarbock: What did your classmates think about this?

Dobes: I would say that most of my classmates, in fact, I am just trying to remember right now, I didn't know anyone who was against me doing what I was doing. I think, I would say that they were very supportive and very curious about what was going on. Not that they were not peace makers, I think many of them were, but I think they were able to sort out the difference between peace and helping the peace makers and being pastors to those who were in the military.

After I was ordained, I did run into some priests that were older than myself who thought, in fact one priest just thought it was terrible that I would even consider being a military chaplain. How could I do such a thing with the church’s teaching regarding peace. Well he never read what the Holy Father and the church taught about military and military chaplains. So I would say as far as my classmates were concerned and the seminary at the time, they were very supportive of what I was doing and like I say very curious because it was the topic of conversation what was I doing today, how about this, how about that.

After I was ordained a priest to continue on with the story, after I was ordained a priest, I should backtrack a few months. Before I was ordained a priest, we were all called in individually by the Cardinal. I remember being called in about 8:00 at night. The Cardinal was at the seminary at the time. He was very gracious and of course he had my final there. He was pretty well briefed on everyone.

So even though we didn't know him personally he mentioned, he said that he called you to the priesthood and he noted that I was in the chaplain candidate program and the Ensign Probationary Program and he would be happy to endorse me for the Naval Reserve as a chaplain. Then if I spent three years in the parish, he would allow me to go on active duty. I sat there kind of stunned. One thing I had learned even at that young age was don’t look too surprised, don’t play all your cards because it used to be five years in the parish and he said three years and he was a man of his word.

The three years were up. I had learned by that time thanks to some Navy experience in dealing with the church before and the bureaucracy, put it in writing. So I wrote to the Cardinal with a copy to the Priest Personnel Board which was quite active and still is in Chicago. I got a response from the Personnel Board and the response was “No”. The reasons they gave were basically that I hadn’t spent five years in the parish. They didn't know the Cardinal said three and also they didn't know at the time where they could find someone to replace me.

Well at that point we had a lot more priests than we do today. Anyway I was rather dejected. I called the Cardinal’s secretary who was a layman. His name was Dan Ryan and he had been the secretary for at least three Cardinals and this was his fourth. I said I wrote the Cardinal a letter and I hadn’t received any word. I did receive a reply from the Priest Personnel Board and I wasn’t very happy with it.

He said that “your letter is on the Cardinal’s desk and I’ll be seeing His Eminence in about 45 minutes” and he would try to move it along. I thanked him. This was now about 9:30 to 10:00 in the morning. I went down for a cup of coffee and I was doing some work in my room at my desk and the phone rang. The secretary said, “Father it’s for you”. I said “Thank you very much. Father Dobes speaking”.

Without identifying himself, it was the Cardinal. Well he had this St. Louis accent that was kind of easy to recognize so I didn't know whether to stand up and salute or get down on my knees but he said by all means “plan on going on active duty, I’m a man of my word” and I shouldn’t worry. We were getting down to where we started worrying about numbers, but he said he knew that we needed to have priests in the service, that they had people in his Arch Diocese in the service and he said just as they volunteer, we need priests to volunteer also.

He mentioned that there would be three of us going within the period of about three or four months, two other priests and myself.

Zarbock: Into the military?

Dobes: Into the Navy as a matter of fact. There were three of us that had asked at the time, Father Rocco Connor who is now deceased and another priest who left the priesthood I think even while he was a Navy chaplain on active duty. So the Cardinal I remember, I asked him or told him that the Personnel Board had said no. He said what they have to realize was that “I’m was the Arch Bishop, they’re not” (laughter).

Zarbock: Shut up he explained (laughter).

Dobes: Yes, Your Eminence. He said he wanted to see me before I left so he wanted me to make an appointment to see him which I did. At that point I was very excited. I had to tell the pastor of course. I knew he was going to get a little bit upset. Although during the years that I was at the parish, basically I drilled almost every Tuesday night and this was not a problem with him. In fact he was very supportive also of anything I did for the Navy Reserve.

His grandfather built ships in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Those were the days of iron men and wooden ships as they say. So he liked to tell me those stories. I think he was very proud to have somebody, one of his priests there wearing the military uniform. So he was quite supportive, but I did have to tell him that I would probably be leaving in June. He wasn’t too happy, but he said, “Well you know it’s time for me to retire” etc. etc.

To make a long story short, I left the parish in June and then started the quest of going on active duty. I needed some time off, I hadn’t had any time off in about a year so the Cardinal gave me permission just to live with my folks for a few weeks. I had orders at the time to the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune.

The day that my household goods which at that point consisted of a few boxes of books, I didn't even have a television, of course I had my clothes and some uniforms at the time from when I was in the Naval Reserve, when the day came that those things were going to be picked up, I got a call at 8:45 in the morning from Washington from Chaplain Bob Radcliff who was infamous as the Chaplain Corps detailer. Bob had a very deep voice and he said, “Well Father we really need a priest at a location that is going to cause a change in your orders so we’re going to send you to Guam”.

I said, “Guam?” he said yes, did I know where it was. I said yes because I used to watch Victory at Sea as a kid. So I said the movers were coming and they were going to be picking up these boxes. He said I “call Great Lakes and they’ll take care of it.” Well I got on the phone and cancelled that and I waited orders and received orders for Guam and eventually shipped my stuff there. I drove my car to San Francisco, shipped the car over to Guam. It took a couple of weeks to get there.

Zarbock: Now Chaplain what year is this and how old are you and what was your rank?

Dobes: Ok sure, it was now August of 1971 so I was in the parish three years. At that time I was 27 years old, I was going to be 28 in December of that year. My rank, I was just promoted to Lieutenant in the Navy Reserve. In those days promotions were fast and furious because Vietnam was going on. So anyway I reported to Navy Air Station in Guam in August 1971 and that began my active duty.

Zarbock: Who taught you how to be a sailor, but you picked that up in your Reserve training, how to wear a uniform, how to salute, to whom to salute.

Dobes: Well those things, I did pick up a lot in the Reserve. In fact, I picked up some before even going to Chaplain School. After I was ordained in May of 1968, I did get orders and I had permission from the Cardinal to go to Chaplain School. So even though I reported to the parish in June of ’68, I left at the end of June of ’68 to go to Chaplain School for eight weeks in Newport, Rhode Island and then returned to the parish.

Zarbock: And they were going to make a Navy officer out of you in eight weeks.

Dobes: Well yes and no (laughter).

Zarbock: They’re going to try.

Dobes: They attempt to do that. I think they were successful in my case, but I know there were others in my class that they weren’t too successful with. Having been on the Chaplain School staff at one time, there were some people we didn't teach anything to.

Zarbock: Well you are now on Guam. This is your first overseas experience.

Dobes: Correct.

Zarbock: And what were your duties and obligations?

Dobes: Well I was stationed at the Naval Air Station in Agama, Guam. I was the Catholic chaplain. There were only two of us, the Protestant chaplain and myself. The Protestant chaplain was Chaplain Joe Frazier. All of a sudden you know there I am. I’m running the Catholic program. I’m the pastor. I basically learned more in six months on active duty in the Navy than I did in three years in a parish in Chicago.

The Navy once had a recruiting phrase, “Naval officers get responsibility fast”. That’s very true and in my case all of a sudden you’re it and you’re running the parish. I found being at a Naval Air Station some fun too because Naval fliers are a breed unto themselves. Then among the Naval fliers there are the different communities. There are the fighter pilots who tell great fighter pilot stories. Then there’s everybody from the helicopter guys who seem to be the ordinary Joe down the block.

So I used to go flying with the guys on my day off, take a few hours. The Captain, the Commanding Officer at the Base thought it was great that we had a flying padre. I remember even flying with one of the squadrons, one of their jobs, they were reconnaissance, but they also tracked typhoons. I remember in my crazy days penetrating this typhoon at 500 feet above the water flying in a C-121. That’s the old super constellation, four engines and the wings were flapping. But I have my certificate. I have some proof that I did that.

Zarbock: I think people in the future would be interested how prayerful were you at the time?

Dobes: Quite (laughter).

Zarbock: I wanted to get that plug in.

Dobes: Yeah, quite! The crews were these reconnaissance. I mean a lot of them did reconnaissance in Vietnam also so they could have been shot at. In fact that particular squadron did lose a plane that was shot down with loss of life. So this was not you know just fun and games to go up and do reconnaissance. Nor was it fun and games to go up and do typhoon reconnaissance. They took it very seriously.

They were I would say believers. I remember being briefed on ditching procedures in case the plane went down, putting on a Mae West etc. etc. Basically they went to general quarters in the aircraft, there were about 13 or 14 people aboard. A lot of them were operators of weather tracking and weather gathering. I’m not even going to use the word computers because they were very primitive computers. A lot of things were by eyesight. A lot of things were done by radar. We live in a different age now.

But anyway when it was time to penetrate, to go to general quarters being very obedient, I put on my Mae West. I remember the chief petty officer looking at me and said, “Hey Padre, God love you, you got your Mae West on but you notice the rest of us aren’t wearing them”. I said yeah, I had noticed that. He said "well the only thing that was going to help was they would find your body floating (laughter)". "Okay, do you mind if I take it off"?

Also every now and then I’d hop on the helicopter and go out and check the Russian trawler that was off our coast. It was kind of listening to all of our military chatter communications and stuff like that. So these were kind of little divergences from doing the pastoral ministry there at the Naval Air Station.

At the same time there was a bonding. You got to know people and word got around that the padre was not afraid to fly in a typhoon or not afraid to fly in a helicopter etc. and so forth. So there was sort of this identification then with the pilots and the air crew people that flew the airplanes.

Zarbock: So you were really involved part of your life in the life of, it sounds a little romantic but I’ll use the word anyway, you were involved in the life of the warriors.

Dobes: Oh very much so.

Zarbock: In addition to your priestly role.

Dobes: Very much so and it’s hard to describe to people who haven’t experienced it, but you know we military chaplains, you’re priests, ministers, rabbis, but you’re also the staff officer. You’re commissioned to do something by the United States government. One of the things that is different from civilian clergy ministry is that we live and work with the people we minister to.

For example when I was back at the parish I lived at the rectory at Nelson and Francisco Streets in Chicago. Yes, I knew a lot of the people, but I didn't go down to Western Electric and visit my people that worked at Western Electric in their workplace. I didn't go and visit my parishioners that worked for Bell Telephone. Yes, I could go down to the local fire station which I did and visit the firemen there, but …

Zarbock: You’re not immersed in their work life.

Dobes: Exactly. Basically we lived with the people that we served, we’d eat with them.

Zarbock: You dress alike.

Dobes: We dress alike, we use the same language. If you don’t and I’m speaking about not the four letter words, I’m speaking about the language of the military, the overhead, the deck, the things that you pick up.

Zarbock: The technical language, the culture.

Dobes: Exactly so that’s very much different and something that the chaplain schools really have to convey to those that want to be chaplains.

Zarbock: How long were you in Guam?

Dobes: I was on Guam for two years, then went to Japan for two years.

Zarbock: Where in Japan?

Dobes: Yukuska.

Zarbock: That’s a large Naval base, isn’t it?

Dobes: Yes, it was the largest at the time and I think it still is. We had a small base down in Sasebo, but Yukuska was the large base and it was being built up. In fact it almost happened simultaneously. I arrived and so did the USS Midway and its battle group. So we had a destroyer squadron plus the Midway and that brought in more sailors and their families.

Zarbock: Now the Midway was an aircraft carrier.

Dobes: Correct.

Zarbock: And what would be the service population on an aircraft carrier again for the purpose…

Dobes: At that time the Midway class carrier had about I would say 4400 people on board. Now of course the new nuclear powered aircraft carriers are up to about 6000.

Zarbock: That’s a town.

Dobes: Very much so.

Zarbock: What were your duty assignments in Japan?

Dobes: Well again it was all pastoral centered on the parish. We had a rather large parish again. There were two of us Catholic priests there and we had one rabbi and two Protestant chaplains.

Zarbock: What kind of humanitarian activities were you involved in?

Dobes: In Yukuska?

Zarbock: Yes.

Dobes: Not too many there. Are you talking about humanitarian activities with the local populace?

Zarbock: Yes.

Dobes: Not too many there. We did support a few of the local charities including Leprosorum near Mt. Fuji where I visited one time. Yukuska didn't lend itself to that. When I was on Guam we supported the Jesuit missions down in the Caroline Islands and I had the opportunity to go down there on various occasions. We also had on Guam Santa Claus and a small contingency of the Marianas Band go down and play Santa Claus on these island centers.

That was a lot of fun except for Santa Claus who had to put on the red suit and sweat. Basically the temperatures down in those islands were about 95 degrees and the humidity was about the same 95%. So there we had a little bit more of the community involvement. In Operation Helping Hand was something else where we would collect things and be able to distribute them to the islands around Guam or I should say south of Guam in the Carolines. Guam itself was in the Marianas.

Japan didn't have that. Where we were at the time, we didn't have that much community involvement. That didn't mean that we didn't know people off base. I certainly did and found myself getting involved in the Japanese culture and trying to appreciate living in a foreign country which I think helped me later on.

Zarbock: How long were you there?

Dobes: Two years and then went to Key West. The Navy had these islands, Guam and of course Japan, there’s a series of islands and then Key West which was about one mile north to south and about three miles east to west.

I’d just like to run through some of my assignments. There’s all kinds of great stories I guess we could tell, but I really want to get into the last one, the one right before I retired. So following being stationed at Key West at the Navy air station there, the Navy still had a thing about islands so they sent me to a floating island, the USS Independence, an aircraft carrier. I was there for three years.

I then was assigned to Washington to the Chief of Chaplains office to recruit chaplains especially priests. I was the second priest to have that position in the Chief’s office. Since I recruited many chaplains, the Chief of Chaplains said now that I’d recruited all these people, they wanted me to go to chaplain school and train them. So I was then transferred to the Chaplain School in Newport, Rhode Island. For the last two years there I was the basic course officer who trained all the new chaplains and chaplain candidates.

From there I went to the 1st Marine Division out in Camp Pendleton, California, served with them for about 14 months. The Chaplain Corps found out I liked the Marines and the Marines liked me and I was having too much fun so they selected me for captain and sent me to Great Lakes so I was short toured in southern California. The only reason I really wanted to go to Great Lakes was that was where it all started. I thought well maybe I could even finish there, but I was wrong.

So I went to Great Lakes. I was the Senior Chaplain there, I was a commander. I was selected for captain, but I hadn’t put it on yet. I had about 20 chaplains working for me and 10 enlisted people. Great Lakes is or was at that time one of the largest training places that the Navy had. In fact right now it’s the only real recruit training for men and women in the Navy for enlisted people.

Again I was having a good time at Great Lakes and after 22 months they short toured me and sent me back to Washington to be the Executive Assistant to the Chief of Chaplains which I was for Chaplain Kanamen and then for Chaplain White. After serving with Chaplain White for a while, I was offered a new position that was coming on line. That position was chaplain on the Joint Staff. The Joint Staff meaning the 1300 people who support the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the joint chiefs themselves.

So I was offered that position as the first chaplain to be on the Joint Staff and I accepted that. So I was moving from the Navy annex on the top of the hill down to the Pentagon, that magical building down there, the mysterious building that I had only been in a few times and now I was going to work there for the next three years.

Zarbock: What events had created a policy whereby for the first time a chaplain was included? There had been chaplains in the military for years.

Dobes: The event was called Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. Because the operations were joint, that means Navy, Marine Corps, Army, Air Force, all the services combined in one operation, the chaplains of all the services, the Chief of Chaplains and those who do the planning saw that the chaplains were really on the outside of many of the areas because this was a joint operation.

Yet we were used to working as Navy chaplains with the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and the Air Force was used to working with the Air Force and the Army was used to working with the Army, but we weren’t used to working together. So in a few words, Operation Desert Shield, Desert Storm and the Gulf War were the precipitating events that said we’ve got to do something about this. We need to have a chaplain on the Joint Staff. So I took that position…

Zarbock: But why you?

Dobes: I guess I was available. I think the Chiefs of Chaplains threw the dice and said that the Navy would start it off because I think thanks to Chaplain Kanamen, Chaplain White who then took over as Chief of Chaplains and our staff of the Navy Chief of Chaplains office that we did all the spade work on all of this. I mean how to do it, trying to get a billet on the Joint Staff.

That means that the Joint Staff had to give up one military billet for another staff officer, someone who may be a bean counter, someone who is a person counter, someone who is an intelligence officer. They had to give that up in order to have a chaplain on the staff. So I think it was a gentleman’s agreement between the Chiefs of Chaplains at the time that it would be me.

I happened to be there in Washington, had some staff experience not only in the Chief’s office at the time, but prior staff experience in the Chief’s office in the early 80’s, being a senior chaplain.

Zarbock: But again you were the first kid on the block after a significant and historical change in policy.

Dobes: Correct, that is correct.

Zarbock: You either live a charmed life or the reverse of that.

Dobes: I don’t know, I was in the right place at the right time. I never became Chief of Chaplains because I was not in the right place at the right time. But the Joint Staff was a very interesting experience. I was not the chaplain to the staff which of course a lot of people would say well you have all those people to take care of. No, that was not my job. I was the chaplain on the staff to make recommendations to the Joint Staff about religious matters, pastoral care of the soldiers, sailors and Marines, airmen and other things that we’ll get into in a little while.

So again I was not the chaplain to the staff, I was not doing pastoral ministry to the staff. I was the advisor to the staff on pastoral ministry. So one of the first things that we had to do and when I say we, another chaplain was involved in this, even though I was the only chaplain on the Joint Staff, we did have some chaplains in joint billets. For example, in the US/European command which we’ll speak more about later, we had two chaplains, one Air Force, one Navy.

The Navy chaplain, Chaplain Skip Blancett, don’t ask me what his first name is, he had one of those names he didn’t even want, so he was know as Skip. So Skip had written the draft on what we call doctrine. This is not religious doctrine, this is military doctrine. Doctrine on the Joint Staff means policy directive instruction. The doctrine was how to do religious ministry in the joint arena when all the services are operating together. So this was one of my first tasks, to try to get this thing moving.

We took the rough draft and then started to work on it with some line officers on the Joint Staff. Skip Blancett is over in Germany at Stuttgart and I’m at the Pentagon. This was days before e-mail, fax machines worked and telephones did certainly. So we were able to come up with a product that was about a half an inch thick. I can’t remember how many pages. I do have one of the original copies at home.

We were able to come up with a product of religious ministry of the joint operations and we were able then to get this floated which was the term that was used not only in the Navy but also on the Joint Staff. This document had to go out to all the joint commands, for example the US/European command, the Central Command Cent Com as hear a lot about today, South Com, the Pacific Command, the Atlantic Command.

All of these joint commands which I think at the time were about 11 had to receive copies of this and then they had to comment on it. To make a long story short after a year and a half of making corrections of incorporating various things and this was not that people were dragging their feet. It was just that we were following the time lines, but it took a year and a half to get the rough draft into the final draft and have the documents signed off as the doctrine for religious ministry in joint operations. So that was one of the big accomplishments at the time.

Zarbock: And again the year was?

Dobes: This started in 1992 and I moved on to the Joint Staff from the Chief of Chaplains office in March of ’92. In the meantime we were doing some other things. I think some of the interesting things, the most interesting thing was General Colin Powell was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. General Powell had a policy and also a directive that he wanted people who were in the joint world; for example people at the US/European command, myself, colleagues, line officers, to get together with our equivalents in central and eastern Europe, those emerging countries at the time.

Remember now this is 1992. Communism basically fell two or three years prior to this. So we sort of took this as an action thing. The two chaplains that work with the US/European command at the time were doing other things even though they had some contact with the central eastern European countries. They couldn’t do this full time. In fact they had made a request that came down to the Joint Staff for a chaplain to do such work.

Zarbock: But General Powell’s view of the world was that the military and the eastern bloc, the staff of the military from the United States and the staff of the military in the eastern bloc countries were to get together or simply the chaplains or all of the above?

Dobes: All of the above.

Zarbock: He wanted contact across the board.

Dobes: Right and all of this as we see played out in those countries and still are joining NATO and coming up to speed on not only weapon systems but as we’ll talk about a little bit later, on human values. So we were able to get a chaplain on the staff, an extra chaplain on the staff of the US/European command.

It was interesting. I was just sitting fat and happy in my cubicle one afternoon, by the way I never had a private office, I always had a cubicle and there were always about 13 other people around in that space doing other things. They weren’t chaplains. I did not have an assistant. Basically all staff officers of the Joint Staff did all of their own clerical work. We were very highly paid secretaries sometimes.

So I was sitting, fat, dumb and happy in my cubicle about 3:00 in the afternoon and one of the officers, an Air Force officer said, “Hey Padre, we’re having a meeting here in about 15 minutes and I think you should be there because I was reading over the things and they’re requesting a chaplain”. I said, “They are?” He said “Yeah, so why don’t you come to this meeting”.

So I kind of put my neck out on the line at the meeting and said you know I thought we would be able to supply a chaplain here. I went to my favorite Navy Chief of Chaplains Dave White, called him that afternoon and saw him the next day and he was willing to give a body, a chaplain, without having an authorization, a billet for that chaplain on the US/European command.

The chaplain turned out to be Gary Pollett and Gary basically was not assigned to the Chaplain’s Office of the US/European Command but was assigned to the Joint Contact Team which were the group of people who operated contacts in all of these countries so there were these little teams let’s say in Prague and Warsaw, in Brataslava, all of these places had these people who would work in liaison with the military of the Czech Republic or Hungary or whatever the country may be.

So we also had another chaplain at the time who was stationed in Prague which was kind of interesting. He was an Air Force chaplain. His name was Joe Supa. Joe was working as a US Air Force chaplain, was working with the Czech Republic at the time, actually then it was Czechoslovakia, was working with their military. Joe was chosen at the time, again the Air Force allowed him to do this, gave a body without an authorization going kind of out on a limb.

Joe was born in the Czech Republic and spoke Czech, Polish, Slovak, German, some Russian and Italian quite fluently. So Joe was working with the Czechs and basically then joined Gary Pollett at the Joint Contact Team in Stuttgart. So what they started to do which was kind of being watched on the Joint Staff where I was, they were able to get around to various countries at the country’s invitation…we never forced ourselves on anyone.

The countries would invite us and that included me to come in to talk with their leaders or with people that were sort of assigned to look into this chaplaincy business. See many of these countries in central and eastern Europe had chaplaincies before World War II, but because of Nazism followed by ______ Communism, all of that stuff went away. So for many of these countries, they hadn’t seen a chaplain, a priest, a minister, a rabbi wearing a military officer’s uniform in over 50 years.

So we would go and many times it was just meeting with officials. Other times we were giving presentations to officer/staff college students, talking about chaplaincy, talking about human values, how to treat soldiers. I’ll never forget in the Czech Republic at the time there were 100 men living in a barracks space that had one toilet, one shower and one sink. The water was only on for two hours a day.

Now do you think those people would want to continue to serve in their military? No, they were conscripts, they were glad to get out and probably hated not only the military but their country for one year of spoiling their lives. So we started to talk to these countries about some of these human values, about ways people should be treated, the way people should live.

We brought a lot of their representatives here to the Washington area. Yes, I know this is kind of like Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz, but you know we do have military bases and they were astounded what even an enlisted house would look like. I mean it looked like the Ritz compared to what they were used to over there.

Zarbock: How did they get used to such impoverished conditions?

Dobes: It was just there.

Zarbock: It was the nature of life.

Dobes: It was the nature of life for an “enlisted” person over in those countries, conscripts, they had to serve. So they had no choice. You had to do some either military or government service. For the most part, it was military service. They just put up with us. Their system was different from ours. That is now changing. They basically had an officer corps and conscript. There was no middle management.

This was another thing that they were trying to get the concept of. I mean our military is basically run by middle management and by those volunteers who are 18 and 19 years old. So we were doing many things, running seminars, just to call to the consciousness of these people what chaplains can do that facilitate religious ministry in now their country which was going to be free to express religious faith, but also working with human values of these folks to help them to understand to have a happy soldier, a happy airman or Marine or sailor, you’ve got to treat them well.

Zarbock: Chaplain, wearing the Navy uniform and being in a series of land-locked countries, what was the attitude of the host countries to a Navy uniform? They could understand a chaplain, but here, this guy’s supposed to be on a ship.

Dobes: Well that’s true. This brings up a good subject. Remember I was on the Joint Staff. Gary Pollett and Joe Supa were assigned to a joint command unit over in Europe. In joint things, all of a sudden the uniform kind of disappears. In fact we would call, they still do, we were purple. Purple is supposed to be the color if you took the Navy uniform, the Air Force uniform, the Marines, put them all in a blender and it comes out purple so we were purple. We had a purple idea.

I would say that the Navy was pretty good about this especially Navy chaplains. The Air Force was very good, wanted to be a player in this joint world. The Army Chief of Chaplains and his staff were also suspicious about what we were doing because only the Army could do it better. So but to answer your question when we went to these countries, it didn't matter the uniforms. We tried, you know, we would have not only a Navy representative, but Air Force like Joe Supa, but we also got the chaplains of the National Guard involved. Of course they wore the Army greens.

These folks were wonderful because the National Guard, the Army Reserve in the United States adopted some of these countries and so the chaplains that were involved here in the States in the National Guard all of a sudden had an adopted country over there and we were able to use those people again with seminars and consultations and whatever or team up either by themselves or team up with Joe Supa or Gary Pollett or even myself.

Zarbock: So translating what you were doing, the conceptual thrust of your activity was really area development, am I correct?

Dobes: Yes, very much so.

Zarbock: Which would include the social order in area development.

Dobes: That was one of the needs that we saw that were very important, that we as chaplains, we as clergy could talk about. Not that the line couldn’t, the line did. In fact I dragged the admiral over there one time, a female admiral to Prague and to Warsaw. Of course that was a shock to see a woman wearing a star. So we were plowing new ground.

Zarbock: Master of understatement.

Dobes: It’s very interesting to see that the countries that were involved in this, not that I personally went to all of them and certainly I didn't go to any like Lithuania, Latvia, I went to Gastonia later after they started the chaplaincy. Poland already had chaplains, but they were all Catholics.

So what we talked about was the idea of pluralism. So now there are non-Catholic chaplains in the Polish military. Worked with Czechoslovakia and then after the split with the Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, with Hungary, I remember even making a trip myself with Gary Pollett to Albania, a very poor country.

Probably the worst country that I ever visited. They were absolutely devastated. It was the only country that I ever personally witnessed just driving down the street, people in bread lines. All of a sudden there’d be a loaf of bread and people would fight for it. The van we were driving in, it was raining outside and it was raining in the van. I literally had an umbrella over my head in the van.

I could say that today there are chaplains, chaplaincies in Hungary, Slovakia, Gastonia, Romania, that we, the U.S. military chaplains had a lot of influence and it took some responsibility. Besides those countries there are others that were developing that we had helped, but I think very directly the countries that I mentioned were the ones that were quite thankful to us for their development.

The chaplains in some of those places even a little country like Gastonia and I happened to be there, again this was my third trip this past summer and they invited Gary Pollett and I to come down and do some training for them. Here’s a small country that now has a small chaplaincy, but a very viable chaplaincy. They have what we would call reserve chaplains and they also have chaplain candidates who are theological students. I also have to say that their first Chief of Chaplains was a retired U.S. Air Force chaplain, a U.S. citizen, Michael _____.

Their current Chief of Chaplains is a retired Canadian forces chaplain, Tonus Nomek. I think that they learned a lot from Canada, they learned a lot from us in the United States and still continue to. They’re like sponges. They want to absorb as much as they can. They’re also very, very good, most of these countries are, in training their chaplains.

So this was probably besides writing the doctrine for joint operations which has already been revised. The doctrine for religious ministry in joint operations is probably on its third revision by now.

I don’t think the third revision looks like anything of the original that we had signed off, but I’m very proud to say on behalf of the people like Mike who was an Air Force retired colonel, Gary Pollett, a retired Navy chaplain captain, Joe Supa, retired Air Force chaplain colonel, due to our efforts we see the seeds that we planted that are now growing and continue to grow.

Zarbock: Chaplain it is a privilege to have interviewed you. Thank you for having the time, well no one ever has the time, thank you for making the time to be here.

Dobes: Well thank you for asking because it was a pleasure to tell the story and I think the story especially the last three years of my military career from ’92 to ’95 when I retired needs to be told. We continue, Joe Supa, Mike, we still continue to have our contacts over in central and eastern Europe thanks to the Military Chaplain Association and other organizations that would sponsor us, we were able to go back there and continue our friendships and sharing ideas and ideals with chaplaincies in central and eastern Europe.

Zarbock: A phrase comes to mind, I don’t mean it flippantly, I mean it out of my heart, “Well done oh good and faithful servant, well done”. May the Lord be with you.

Dobes: Thank you very much.

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