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Interview with James E. Sanner, May 2, 2008 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with James E. Sanner, May 2, 2008
May 2, 2008
Interview with Retired Chaplain, James E. Sanner.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Sanner, James E. Interviewer:  Zarbock, Paul Date of Interview:  5/2/08 Series:  Military Chaplains Length  60 minutes


Zarbock: Good evening. My name is Paul Zarbock. I'm a staff member with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington's Randall Library. Today is the 2nd of May, in the year 2008. We're working in Kansas City, Missouri, and this is part of the military chaplain's oral history project. Tonight's interviewee is Father James E. Sanner. Good evening, Father, how are you?

Sanner: Fine, thank you, yes.

Zarbock: Father, what individual or series of individuals, or event or series of events led you into becoming a pastor?

Sanner: Becoming a chaplain?

Zarbock: Yes.

Sanner: Well, I think, ever since I was in grade school and I was an altar server, and I belonged to the Cathedral Parish in Erie, Pennsylvania, I used to serve a lot of masses and used to serve the bishop of Erie a lot, and so I think I got a vocation by being around the Cathedral Parish a lot, and so, when I went off to high school, I took the classical course of Latin and Greek, and then, from there, I was going to think of going in the Army when I graduated, but I had a counselor who also had served in the military for three years, and he advised me, he said, "If you think you have a vocation, now would be the time to try it." And he said, "If you were thinking of going in the Army," because a lot of my class were going in the Army because of the Korean War in 1951 when I graduated from high school, so he said, "Why don't you see, if you go through the seminary, then later, you could possibly-- if you become a priest, you could become a chaplain." So I went to the minor seminary at St. Mark's in Erie, Pennsylvania, from where I am, and attended Gannon University. And then, from there, I went to St. Bonaventure University about 60 miles south of Buffalo, New York, and I got my degree in Philosophy there, and then I stayed on at St. Bonaventure, Christ the King Seminary, for four years of theology. Then I was ordained for the Diocese of Erie, Pennsylvania, on the 7th of May, in 1959. And then I had an assignment, my first assignment was at St. Stephen's in Oil City, Pennsylvania, and I was there for four years.

Zarbock: How old were you at your first assignment?

Sanner: I was 25, and then, two months later, I would have been 26. So I was 25 when I was ordained.

Zarbock: And you spent until you were 29 years of age...

Sanner: I had eight years in the diocese of Erie on five assignments, and then, after that, then, when the Bishop let me come into the service, I was 34 years old. I was thinking on coming-- I wanted to come in, and when I requested it, because the Vietnam War was going on, I asked the Bishop if I could go into the military chaplaincy, and I wanted to go and he said "No, because we've just made the assignments." "So," he said, "if you're still interested, then write back next year during the springtime, write earlier." And so I did, the next year and I tried to get in the Air Force, because some priests from my diocese were in the Air Force, but somebody told them that the Air Force had enough chaplains, and if he let anyone go in, they should go in the Army. And so that's how I received a letter then, from the chancery office, from the bishop, and I had to go have an interview with him personally that June and then I had one more summer assignment on the Allegheny River, Tidioute, Pennsylvania, in Tionesta Dam and then I was free to go to the chaplain school for the basic course and I got there in Fort Hamilton, New York, on the 30th of September, 1967.

Zarbock: Father, had you had any military experience before this?

Sanner: No, I had no military experience. My brother-in-law was in the Army in the Second World War but I myself, didn't. But, in the parish in Oil City, I used to see the guard used to come to Sunday mass from the armory, and if I would have known then what I know now, I probably would have asked them if I could get in, you know, in the reserves, but I didn't. And so I only looked at the idea of going, because I saw, in the paper, that there was a shortage of priests because of the Vietnam War going on-- and also I remembered what that counselor had told me: If you did get ordained, then maybe someday, you could become a chaplain in the service, and so that kind of triggered in my mind what to do.

Zarbock: By the way, how long did you spend in the military?

Sanner: I spent 34 years and 10 months on active duty. I had to retire when I was 62, but then, because of the shortage of priests, I was recalled four times, and so then I retired in 2002, August 1st, at age 69, and now, for the last six years, I have been working as a contract priest at Fort Sam Houston because there's only one active duty priest there, and so I have a contract to be able to help him. And then I also work across the street, at Pius the X, the local church.

Zarbock: What do you in your spare time? [laughter]

Sanner: My sister said I'm probably busier now, than I was when I was on active duty.

Zarbock: What rank were you when you resigned? Colonel, you said?

Sanner: Yes, I retired as a full colonel in '06.

Zarbock: So you finished the seminary.

Sanner: Yes.

Zarbock: You built up experience as a parish priest.

Sanner: Yes.

Zarbock: You finally got permission to go into the Army.

Sanner: Yes.

Zarbock: Who taught you to be a soldier? I mean, put on a uniform and put on all the paraphernalia?

Sanner: That was very interesting. I didn't know anything about it. In fact, when I got the orders, I couldn't read them too well, but this priest that I drove down to Niagara Falls, New York-- there's an Army Depot there, and I bought my uniforms and they told me everything that I needed. I packed everything up and went to Fort Hamilton. All the other chaplains that were studying in that course were all captains and, when I got my uniforms, I got lieutenant bars, first lieutenant, because I thought that's what it said. And so they read my orders, they said, "Oh, you're a captain, too," because we came in as captains, then. So then, at that basic course, they taught you how to march, and it was hilarious, in some ways, because out in the parking lot, we used to march and they'd give the orders, you know, and so everybody was going every way, bumping into each other, because we didn't know. And all the secretaries and the other ones are up in the windows laughing at us, and so it was-- but I did pretty good in the tactical part and in the lessons and in the studies, except for map reading. I needed extra help with that.

Zarbock: So they're going to make a soldier out of you, no matter what?

Sanner: Yes. Yes, they were.

Zarbock: How long did that take?

Sanner: That was from the 30th of September, is when I got there, and then the course started-- that was on a Saturday, and I got there and it started on a Monday, and then it went to December 1st. We had graduation from the basic course, and then I went over to New York and stayed that night because my former pastor came, and two other priests; they came to the graduation, so we stayed in New York, and the other priests got up early in the morning to see me off, because I was going to drive, that Saturday, to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, was my first assignment.

Zarbock: Well, you got to Fort Bragg.

Sanner: Yes, I got to Fort Bragg, and I knew where I was going to stay, but they had given me an address and there was. Near the main post chapel, there was a house that the priests lived in, and so they had a room there for me. And so I stayed there for a couple days, and then I went to live with this other chaplain, Father Ed Keeta, who was also with the 82nd Airborne, and so I was at Fort Bragg for a month, and then I went to Fort Benning, Georgia, to jump school and, when I was there for four days, my father died. So I went back to Erie and had the funeral for my father, stayed with my mother a couple days, and then came back to Fort Benning and finished jump school.

Zarbock: You went through jump school?

Sanner: Yes.

Zarbock: Did you want to go?

Sanner: Well, I didn't know. When I was in this little village in Tidioute, Pennsylvania, I was painting the rectory, and so the housekeeper came out one day and said, "Father, Washington's calling you. It's the Chief of Chaplains' office, the personnel man." So I went in and he said, "What do you like to do?" And I was taking flying lessons at that time; I have about 50 hours in a Cessna, and so I said, "Well, I like airplanes," and I let it go at that, you know? So I thought, maybe I'd get into aviation or something. And so, the next week, he called, and the housekeeper comes out, "Father, they're calling again from Washington." So it was the Kaffel Brothers, and one of the Kaffels was in personnel, and he said, "Jim, you're going to Fort Bragg with the 82nd Airborne." I didn't know what it meant. [laughs] And so, then we had, at the basic course, we had more films on different things that are happening, and some guys would poke me and say, "That's what you're going to be doing," you know; it showed them jumping out of an airplane. So I said, "Oh, okay." So I started to get in shape while I was at Fort Bragg, running and things like that, and so, when I finished Fort Benning, I went back to Fort Bragg and I was only back there six days, and I was with Father McColloch; we were having supper at the 82nd Officer's Club, and he got a phone call. It was either for him or for me, and he said, "I'll take it, Jim." So he came back and he didn't say anything. We finished eating. Then he said, "Well, I'm going to go over to your house with you." He said, "You're on alert." And so he said, "Pack up your stuff." And I said, "Okay."

So, I packed up my stuff and I put it all in the back of my car, everything that I had at that time, there, and so then we loaded the jeep and, the next day, we still didn't know where we were going. The rumor was that we were going to jump in to rescue the Pueblo because it had been captured, and so a lot of the guys were wondering if this was truly going to happen. And so then, two days later, they started passing out mosquito netting, and so we heard that we were going to go to Vietnam. And so, that that time...

Zarbock: What year is this now?

Sanner: This is February, 1968.

Zarbock: And what was the military situation in Vietnam at that time?

Sanner: At that time, the Tet Offensive had just taken place in January, and so it came down, President Johnson, to Fort Bragg, and he was there when the first planes left with-- they took 10,500 soldiers over to Vietnam, and one of the units was the 3rd brigade of the 82nd Airborne, and so we all went as a brigade. And so Father McColloch told me he had to call the chief's office to find out if it was okay to send me because I just graduated from the basic course the 2nd of December, and I had just come back from jump school, was just new to the Army, and they said it was okay. So we waited a couple days, but I had my jeep and a trailer on, and all the stuff that we needed, and I went in a C-141 with a deuce and a half, and a water tank, and my jeep, and the trailer, and about 17 soldiers. We took off, we were supposed to go to [inaudible]; it was fogged-in, so we went to Eielson Air Force Base, stayed there that night, and then drove on to Vietnam, the next day. Then we landed in True Lie and did our in-country training there for two weeks, and then we were the first ones, after the Tet offensive, to go up the Hai Von Pass.

Zarbock: Now, this is, again, as long as the Planet Earth is capable of making electricity, your videotape will be involved at UNCW and, years and years and years from now, somebody's going to unearth it and pay attention to it, but you and I are using words that we understand. 30, 40 years from now, they may not. What is the Tet Offensive?

Sanner: The Tet Offensive was when the VC, the Vietcong, and the hardcore north Vietnamese Army, attacked all the different posts, and the concerns and the bases that the Army had, the Marines had and the Air Force had, at that time. It was a concerted effort where they all...

Zarbock: Nationwide.

Sanner: together in south Vietnam, and it was very serious.

Zarbock: Why was it called Tet?

Sanner: I'm not sure, except it might have been a certain season that they had at that time of the year, almost like their new year was coming, and so this was going to be a surprise because they felt that maybe we would let our guard down, I think.

Zarbock: So, it was a holiday season in...

Sanner: Yeah.

Zarbock: So, then you leave North Carolina, and, several hours, I don't know, many hours later, you end up in an entirely different culture.

Sanner: Right.

Zarbock: What was your first impression?

Sanner: Well, I was a little nervous, I'll tell you that, because I didn't know. This was my first field trip, really, and it lasted a year. So we landed and, when we went up the Hai Von Pass, then we got up to Way Fu By, but down in True Lie, we had in-country training and we kind of lived in tents there, or some kind of warehouses.

Zarbock: Now, you haven't been in the Army very long, have you?

Sanner: No. And I got a cot and my stuff with me in a suitcase, and a duffle bag and used to go out in that area and even say mass, and went over to different places-- like, Fat City was one of them, I remember, and Americal Division was there, and I got to meet the Americal Division Chaplain, Don Sather. And so, Don got mass kits for us from the 82nd. And so now, I had a mass kit. Before that, I had just put a chalice, and a paten, and some hosts, and some wine and some different things in a little bag because I didn't have a mass kit. And so he got those for us.

Zarbock: Did you have an...

Sanner: An assistant?

Zarbock: Assistant.

Sanner: Yeah, we did. I had an assistant, and David Meyer was his name, the first one. So then we stayed around there. One night, this sergeant was killed and I know I went over to the morgue, there, in True Lie and anointed him conditionally because he was already dead. His name was Rodriguez. And so, when we went up the Hai Von Pass and got to Way Fu By, we were stationed between two brigades of the 101st Airborne. The 82nd was in between them. So we called our camp Camp Rodriguez, in honor of the first soldier from the 82nd Airborne brigade who was killed. And so then, we stayed there for probably about six months. Since we had no leave, we left and flew right out of Pope Air Force Base from Fort Bragg. After we were there about maybe four or five months, they said that they would make it possible for us to fly from Benoit back to Fort Bragg. Then, if we wanted to go home, we could take leave. We could take ten days, and we could go home, but we had to be back at Bragg to fly back to Benoit Air Force Base, there. And so you could also take 30 days' leave if you wanted to and space available or whatever. But if you took the 10, they made sure you got to Bragg and back, so that's what I did because my father had just died, and my mother, you know, when I went home at jump school that first week in January. So I took the 10 days and I was glad I did, because my mother had kind of been scared because my father died and I was gone, and so I had a opportunity to see her, and to be with her, and let her know that everything was okay and all that, you know?

Zarbock: Do you have brothers and sisters?

Sanner: I had two sisters. One is two years older than me, and my half-sister was older, because my mother had been married before and had a daughter, my sister, Winnie. Winnie died on April 15th, 1990, on Easter Sunday, and so I went up-- she was Lutheran and I went up to Erie, then, when she died and participated with the Lutheran minister for the service for her. She had cancer. I was, at that time, at Fort Dixon, New Jersey, when that happened.

Zarbock: Were you apprehensive about returning to Vietnam after the 10 days?

Sanner: No, I wasn't, because, when I left, there was some priest in another unit that was at the 101st Airborne with those two brigades that were on either side of us, and so I asked them if they could kind of give me some kind of coverage. I would only be gone the 10 days, but I assured them I would be back. And so I felt all right about going back, and I really wanted to go back. So I did. So I worked, then, for those-- and I used to have, on a Sunday, normally, I would have seven masses every Sunday. The colonel would give me a helicopter to be able to go to the mountaintops, because you couldn't drive there in the jeeps, so I would normally have-- one Sunday, I had nine masses, but I had, every Sunday, almost seven, and then, during the week, I would go in the jeep with the assistant, and then I would go to the companies of the three fighting battalions that we had, and I would stay overnight with them, each one, and then cover the three battalions and cover the companies and then come back and then start over the next Sunday.

Zarbock: Father, what sort of problems did the soldiers bring to you, personal problems?

Sanner: Well, some of them-- the one problem that I always will remember, is when they were out, one of the battalions was out on a mission and they came back, a lieutenant came to me and said that the captain had shot a Vietnamese who had held up his card, and so the lieutenant told me that so I went and told the brigade chaplain and so the brigade chaplain and I went to see the commander, the colonel.

Zarbock: What do you mean, he held up his card?

Sanner: They had cards in those days and they would kneel down to show that they were friendly. But the lieutenant said that he said he saw him shoot him, and so we told-- the brigade chaplain and I went to see the commander, and told him what the lieutenant had told me, and so then he had a court martial there and a trial, this captain did, but they found him innocent. But I'll always remember that. Then, another case, was a soldier had come back, and he was firing into the wood line, and he says, "I know I've killed someone, but," he said, "I didn't see the person, but I know I did." And he was concerned about that. And so had to kind of explain the ethics of war to him a little bit, you know, that was what we were there for, was to fight the enemy. And so there no sin involved, and it was not murder, and it was nothing like that, but that it was ethically his job. He was doing what he was trained to do and was supposed to do at that time.

Zarbock: What was the situation with drugs or alcohol?

Sanner: I think, at that time, that was my first tour, I had two tours in Vietnam and, with the 82nd, I think it was really, it was very serious, and I didn't see any problems with drugs in '68. My second tour, when I went back in '70 to '71, then I saw the difference, because then they were setting up different places to-- before they would release the soldiers to go back to the States, they had to pass a drug test, a urine test, and then they also set up different facilities in different areas to make sure that they got clean before they went back. And so that became something that was very important.

Zarbock: On your first tour, was taking drugs a court martial offense?

Sanner: I'm not sure. I don't know if it was a court martial offense. There might have been...

Zarbock: But your second tour, the Army was in there trying to provide treatment.

Sanner: Provide treatment.

Zarbock: Diagnosis and treatment.

Sanner: Treatment for it, yes. Yes. They were concerned about soldiers returning to the States with drug problems and so forth.

Zarbock: What was your sense of the nature of the problem? Was it widespread? Was it...

Sanner: I think that the war, at that time, was, I think, starting to die down a little in '71, you know? And I think that they weren't as active as they were when I was with the 82nd and up north and up there. And I don't think there was more involvement with what the mission was. I think the missions kind of slacked off when I was down in [inaudible] in the central highland with the 4th Infantry Division. And they redeployed, after about, from-- I got there in July, and they redeployed in November and, from there, I went to Cam Ranh Bay to finish out my tour, my second tour. And so that was-- those are some of the things that I can remember, as far as how the conditions were.

Zarbock: Did you like the country?

Sanner: Yes, the country, to me, was beautiful, and I had a lot of time in helicopters to fly to these mountaintops and things like that, and you could look out over the side and you could see the rice patties, and the water, and the glare, and reflection, and the clouds, and you would think, "Oh, what a beautiful country, and it's being torn apart with bombshells and artillery shells." Then you could see the beauty of it; you'd think, "Some day there'll be large hotels here, and it'll be a resort area, and everything will change." You couldn't help but imagine that, and believe it.

Zarbock: Father, when you got in a helicopter and went from Point A to Point B, I assume you went to maybe a fire...

Sanner: Fire base.

Zarbock: Fire base. Well, if you went, that meant that certain ammunition, food and water couldn't go, because...

Sanner: Oh, it still went. The mermaid cans and the food would be in there, and I'd sit on the mermaid cans, and the dog handlers were there with the dogs, and, one time, the dog was there, and the tail was whacking me in the face, and I said to the handler, "Could you turn him around?" and so then he did, and all the saliva from the dog's mouth was coming in my face. [laughs] But, yeah, they carried other soldiers and carried the mermaid cans, carried whatever they had to carry, and you were lucky just to be able to get a ride to that base.

Zarbock: But apparently you were-- you, as the chaplain, were seen as an important commodity, or you wouldn't have gotten on that...

Sanner: Right. The colonel knew how important religious services were, and so he provided, and made sure that we had that capability to get there.

Zarbock: One of the questions I've asked all of the chaplains. Father, at any time, were you ever ordered, were you ever hinted at, or a situation in which there was a sly wink and a nudge for you to do something that was in violation of your personal ethic or religious beliefs or, in fact, military orders?

Sanner: No. I can honestly say that everything that I did was what I was supposed to do, and no one ever told me to do anything that would be against what I believed to be, what I shouldn't do. And so, I can honestly say that I never had an order like that, to do something that would contradict my conscience or my beliefs.

Zarbock: Basically and essentially, what was the attitude towards you as a chaplain by the higher command?

Sanner: Well, I think they knew and understood how important a chaplain is to the mission, and to the soldiers and in the field. And so, when we'd have a stand down or something like that, they would always invite us to come and to be there with the soldiers, and to mingle with them, to eat with them, and to do everything with them. That's what's different than being in a parish. You know, the people come to you, but here you go to the people, and you become one of them, and what else-- you can't go to Ford Motor and walk through the motor pool when they're fixing your car, but in the Army, you could do that, and you could be right where they are working, and you could become a part of them, because you dress like them and you were one of them, and I think that's more true in the Army than it is in maybe some of the other services.

Zarbock: Yeah. Maybe the Navy chaplains or the Marines. They're...

Sanner: The Marines, yeah.

Zarbock: They're pretty close.

Sanner: The Marine chaplain, always with his troops, too.

Zarbock: What was the attitude towards you, one of respect, or joviality, or was...

Sanner: Respect, because I'd be walking up the trail and I'd hear these guys having a cigarette, and they're cursing a little bit. "Shh, here comes the chaplain." [laughter] They were always-- and they called you "Father," and, when you'd go out to have mass, "Is today Sunday?" "No," I said, "it's Wednesday." [laughs] It doesn't make any difference. We're going to have Sunday mass. So I'd get a sermon ready for the week, and I'd use it every place I went, because it was a different congregation. One time, the chaplain's assistant said to me, after we would have seven masses on a Sunday, he said, "Father, I can give the sermon if you want me to. I know it by heart, now." [laughter]

Zarbock: How long would services last?

Sanner: For most of the places, you'd get in there and you'd get the word out that the priest was going to have mass, and then they'd come from out of the woods and come to where you were, and then I would give general absolution, confession for those that were there before I gave holy communion, because you were allowed to do that if you didn't have time. And so I told them that, the next time, if I have more time, then you should come to confession to me, but I said, "Now I'm going to give you absolution." Then I would give them communion, and then I would consecrate enough hosts that I knew that, if I was going to another place by jeep, I could stop at the bridges, because I couldn't have mass all along at all the bridge-- the guards of the bridges, and so I would give them holy communion. And so it was usually quick, because the helicopter was going to come and pick me up to take me to the next mountaintop, and so I had to kind of rush it a little bit, especially when I was using a helicopter on Sundays.

Zarbock: Would Protestant boys approach you, too?

Sanner: Oh, yeah. Yes. Sometimes, maybe the Protestant chaplain didn't come and, in Vietnam, we had permission to be able to give Episcopalians, because they are so close to us, and while we believe that-- we had permission from the archdiocese, the military services, to be able to give them holy communion, and that they could worship with us, because of the closeness of how we believe.

Zarbock: There are tellers of great stories, and great storytellers. I may have mentioned this before. I'm looking for both. So can you remember and repeat a situation of warmth or joviality or humor?

Sanner: Yeah. One time, we were-- the rock crushers-- were over in this one area, because they paved all the roads in Vietnam, and so they asked us, they were in the area of operation of the 82nd Airborne, and so they asked for the priest to come over to have mass, and so I would do that. And I would have mass outside and then the commander there-- these were Navy, like, seabees, almost-- and so he said, "Father, why don't you come in the club? Because we have an air conditioner in there, and so the men that are going to mass can sit in the chairs, and you can have mass in there; it'll be more comfortable." So I did that, and I would hear confessions before mass if I had the opportunity. So the assistant would always take the mass kit and lay out the cloth for the altar, and the bar was the altar, and I got behind the bar so I could face them. And so one day, after I finished confessions, I noticed that the assistant didn't spread out the cloth, and it was just rolled up in a square, the corporal that we spread out. And so, by the time I got up there and came around the bar, and I looked down and I was going to do this, he did that, because they had six pictures of the centerfold of "Playboy" under glass on the bar. [laughter] And he wanted me to see that before I had mass. [laughter] And so I thought that was very funny, very cute. I'll always remember that. He had a good sense of humor, too.

Zarbock: How about a bookend; that's a warm-hearted story. What about a situation that was painful? Sad?

Sanner: One day we were out and I was flying back in the helicopter, in a Huey, and the sergeant major was in the plane and I forget who else, and we saw this smoke coming out of this ridgeline, and so we drove over, we flew over and we saw that it was a helicopter that was down. So he landed the plane, and the grass was very sharp and everything, and so we got to the helicopter, and the pilot had a broken back, I think it was, and so the other helicopter came, and they had the lift on it, and so they set him on there and lifted him up, because you couldn't land too well, there. And then the colonel that was on the helicopter was killed, and I can remember, we took his body and put it on the helicopter that I was on, flying back to the place where we landed the helicopters. So, flying back, because I had just not only but a week before, gone to one of his stand-downs-- he was the battalion commander-- and remembered talking to him and being with him, and then to see him, you know, now quite burned and things like that. So that was pretty hard. And then, at one of the aide stations, to see a soldier asking-- his leg was just hanging there from the knee down-- and he says, "What's going to happen to me?" I said, "You'll be all right; they'll be able to do something and they'll fix you up so you'll be able to walk again," not knowing how they would do this. But I knew that they would be able to get a prosthetic leg, but I didn't know how that all worked.

And so that kind of bothered me. So, when I finished my second tour to Vietnam, I went to Walter Reed after that to take the pastoral clinical course, the CPE course, Clinical Pastoral Education. So I was at Walter Reed for a year, and my first six weeks were working on an officer's ward with orthopedics where many of them had lost a leg or an arm. So that was-- so I could better answer that soldier's question when he saw what was happening to his leg. One other time, I was in the aid station, and the doctor was working on a soldier, and he was going to do a tracheotomy, and he said, "Here, Chaplain," he said, "You take this," and it was the thing that sucked out the blood while he cut the-- inserted the trachea, and so I was helping him. You saw a lot of that kind of things were going on, you know, but how the doctors and the nurses tried always the best they could to save life, and they were dedicated. They'd be up, hours at a time.

Zarbock: What was the nature, on a scale that I'll let you develop, the morale between the first time you were in the country, and the second time? Was there a difference in the morale?

Sanner: The first time, I think, like I said before, the mission was very important, and there seemed always to be a mission, and they were always doing something, and they were always useful and they felt fulfilled, I think. The second tour, I didn't feel that, and that's when some of those fraggings started happening.

Zarbock: I'm sorry. What is a fragging?

Sanner: When maybe one of the soldiers would throw a grenade or something into the hooch of an officer or something like that.

Zarbock: It's called murder, isn't it?

Sanner: Yeah. Yeah. It is. That's a better way to say it, rather than "murder," was the fragging, and I notice, today, in our talk, some of that came up a little bit as far as, you know, when they were talking about different things when...

Zarbock: But the morale began to slope down?

Sanner: I felt that the morale sloped down. Yes, I did. But still, some of those soldiers, even when the morale was down for some of them, some of them still knew and understood what the mission was, and one thing about a soldier, they take care of the soldier, you know, that's with them, and the companionship, that buddy-ship, that unity, especially when they're out on a search-and-destroy or whatever the mission might have been.

Zarbock: Did you have any R-and-R with...

Sanner: Yes, the first tour, I went to Australia, the brigade chaplain and I went to Australia and we went to Bondi Beach, and it was very nice and very restful and very peaceful. And then we did that in December, so we were there-- although it was Christmas, getting ready, it was their summer and so it was nice. And then the second tour, I went back to Australia, I liked it, we went back on R-and-R for...

Zarbock: Did you dread going back up-country when...

Sanner: No, I never dreaded going back. The one thought that I had one time was, when I left with the 82nd, we were at this replacement area, and I can remember where the tent was, and it was down in Benoit, because you flew out of there, so that was in my mind and I left Vietnam. I came back and I went to Fort Hood for a year and a half and, when I went back to Vietnam from Fort Hood, a year and a half later, it was-- I ended up, when I got there, the same tent, almost, that I had left from before. And I could remember the movie that they showed and everything, and it seemed like everything compressed, and that I just did this a week ago instead of a year and a half ago, you know? But then some chaplain came and picked me up and said, "We're going to [inaudible] in the central highlands," and so he picked me up, and then, when I was in the central highlands, I went out-- there were five priests, and we got a helicopter and we dropped off at different units and I can remember this one day having the mass for this group that were around a tank. I could remember this lieutenant and there were about nine or ten that came to mass, and about a half hour after I got back in the helicopter, the place where we left from, the word got back that they got hit by a mortar round, and that lieutenant, it went into his neck and he died. And so, at that point, I said to myself, I'm glad I went back and I felt, you know, better about being there, because there was a reason.

Zarbock: There's a trilogy of questions, request for information. Tell me a happy story, tell me a sad story-- and the third is: a huge an organization as the United States Army, goof-ups and snafus take place. Brassieres get sent to Nome, Alaska, and lollipops get sent to the diabetic ward; it's unintentional, but things happen like that. Can you recall a situation of military absurdity?

Sanner: I think one time at Cam Ranh Bay, I'm not sure what it was, but they sent a huge amount of something for the chaplains that they really didn't need, and they were trying to get rid of it, you know? And so they'd call all these units, to see if you needed this or you needed that, and you could see that, you know, all of the containers and all the things that were there, that it was just too much.

Zarbock: Where did-- what about the rest of your military career? What happened to you?

Sanner: Well, like I say, I went to Vietnam after the basic course and jump school, and then, when I finished with the 82nd in February of '69, I went to Fort Hood for a year and a half, and then I was sent back to Vietnam, and I went to the 4th Infantry Division. And then, from there, when they redeployed, I went down to Cam Ranh Bay with the 54th General Support Group. I traveled with them because they were a supply unit. Then, when I left there, I came back and I went to Walter Reed and took Clinical Pastoral Education. After Walter Reed, I was assigned to Fort Knox in Kentucky. They show you that the war and things of the war still went on. When I was there at Fort Knox, President Ford had a clemency program, and they set it up at Camp Atterbury, which was a guard reserve place in Indiana, and it was close to Fort Knox, and so they wanted a priest, and they wanted a rabbi, and they wanted a protestant chaplain, so I was the priest out of Fort Knox to be able to go to that clemency program. So I was over there, and they had a chapel there for us and we were there-- it was raining and it was leaking, so I called up somebody, and I said that the chapel's leaking, and so they came and fixed it right away. So I don't think they got as many as they thought, but they'd had a bank of lawyers would come, and they would come and all the people that, say, went to Canada, or all the people that went AWOL, or all the people that kind of deserted, or all those soldiers, were invited to come there, and then they would be-- the lawyers would look at their records and then they would give them some kind of community service to do.

I used to-- they would line up in the mess hall to go up, and I used to go to talk to all of them and so, when the-- some of them said, "Well, I have to do six months of community service, but," he said, "I'm not going to do it." You know? And so I was interviewing, and somebody from "People" magazine came to interview me on television, and one day, the next-- a couple days later, the commander from Ben Harrison, that's where it really worked out of, because-- he sent his colonel chaplain over, because I was a captain, and he sent his colonel over to tell me, the general told the chaplain to tell me that, "No more interviews"; I was ruining his career. [laughter]

So I didn't say anything any more, but we used to play, the guy that was in charge of the colonel, the lieutenant colonel that was in charge of that operation, he would say, "Now, Chaplain," he said, "we work all night and all day and," he says, "we're going to have a dance." And so they had, for all the soldiers that were there, and then the people from around that area came, you know, and so the dance was going well, and he said, "How long has...?" I said, "Well," I said, "the closest because we only paid them for so much." He said, "Take a collection up, tell them to stay another hour," so I took my hat off when I went around, and I got enough money to give the guy that was making the music, to stay one more hour.The girls there had a softball team, and so the Army played this girl's team and I tell you, we were lucky we beat them, because they were tough. But that lasted for a time.

And then, after it started dwindling down, then they moved that operation to Ben Harrison, and then they closed-- and sent us all back from Camp Atterberry, but the next year, then they had the Vietnamese Refugee Program at Indian Town Cap, Pennsylvania. So, again, they wanted a priest, they wanted this, they wanted that. So I was, again, still at Fort Knox, and so Colonel Reid sent me over to Ben Harrison, and I can remember, we had to go, the night before, one from Fort Knox drove our jeeps and trailers and went to Louisville, to the airport there.

So they were going to send a C-5A in. The C-5A landed, but they couldn't get the nose cone up to load everything on. So they took it off of the apron, they called Delaware and said, "Send another one," so they sent another one, and something was wrong with the seats. I guess they have about 90 seats in the back that you can sit on, but something was wrong with that, so they sent that. So then they said, "Okay, go back." So we had to turn around and go back to Fort Knox, and then they said, "Go back," the next day, so, the next day we went back, and they had all these C-141s, and so they loaded us on there. I can remember, when we landed at Harrisburg, at the airport, and they unloaded the jeeps that we were supposed to go, because you can only put so much fuel in the jeep, because that's all balanced and I just got to the pump; I was about a jeep away and I didn't have any more gas. So I had to push the jeep up to the gas pump.

Zarbock: You didn't have a trailer on the jeep, too, did you?

Sanner: No, not at that time. And so then they had five-- 50,000 Vietnamese and 900 Cambodians, there...

Zarbock: 50,000?

Sanner: Yeah. There was a huge amount and, if you remember, then they asked-- invited families to come, and to adopt these Vietnamese, and to take them into their homes, and it was amazing. It didn't take that long to do that. And so one of my first jobs, was to go around to all the Catholic parishes in the area to get chalices, and to get vestments, and to get cruets, and to get crucifixes, and to get different things for the Catholic services-- and so there was another one or two other priests there. And then the Buddhists would have the big field house, and that's where they had their one service where we had them at different places.

Zarbock: Were many of the-- how many of the Vietnamese were Catholic?

Sanner: Quite a few, because a lot of Catholics came from the north and they came down to the south, and so there were a lot of Catholics in those that were in those refugees that came. In fact, there were some Catholic priests in with those refugees. So that went along pretty well. In the meantime, I got orders that I was supposed to go to the advanced course, and so, when Colonel Reid would come up to see how things were going, I'd say, "Colonel, I've got to get out of here, because I've got another..." "Don't worry, I'll get you out." And so then, he didn't do it that time, but then, when he came the next time, he let me know that I could fly back with him, and so I went back to Fort Knox. I left there and I went home for some leave, and then I went back to Fort Hamilton, and that was in '75. We lived in Fort Hamilton, but went over the Verrazano Bridge to Fort Wadsworth, and that's where we had the advanced course, and we were called the bicentennial class, because it was 75, 1975, 1976. Tall ships came through there at that time for the celebration, the 4th of July and everything. And I got there a month early and stayed a month late, because we had the opportunity, then, to go to Long Island University and I took a course. Some of the core courses that we had at the chaplain school they accepted at Long Island University, so I got a degree in Guidance and Counseling, a Master's in education.

And so then I left there, Fort Hamilton, from the basic course, and then I went from there to-- that was from '75 to '76, and I went from there, from the school, to Launch Stool Germany to the hospital there, because I had the CPE, but I never had a utilization tour. So I told one of the chaplains there, that I said I needed utilization tour for my CPE, and so I went to Launch Stool, and I was there for four years. I liked Launch Stool my first year there, and I said, "I'd like to extend," and they said, "You can't. You have to be there two years." So, when I was there two years, I wrote and so, instead of staying three, I stayed for four.

And then, from Long Stool-- I left there in '80-- and I went to Fort Louis in the state of Washington, and I was there for one year as the Brigade Chaplin; it was a triple threat brigade. They had a battalion of tanks, and they had a battalion of riflemen, and then another battalion, and so we used to go up into the Knuckles over in Yakama, that was the training site. It was about a three-hour trip away. That's where we would go train. So I'd go up there and come back, and then the colonel that was in the brigade understood that I was the only priest in his brigade but, when the tank battalion went up there, the battalion commander said, "Get that priest up here," and I said, "Well," I said, "more of you are back here." I said, "I can go up there, you know, once and then come back." But he wanted me all the time. They said I had to go where I was supposed to be. I said, "When the other two battalions go up, and the whole brigade's there, then I'd belong up there."

And so sometimes, you did have to explain that to them a little bit so that they could understand. I think eventually they did, because this one commander retired, and I stopped to see him on my way home and he said, "You know, you were right." [laughter] So, he didn't tell me that when I was going through this operation. But, after those three years at Fort Louis-- that was from '80 to '83-- then I went to Germany again, and I went to VII Corps in Stuttgart at Kelly Barracks.

I was there for two years and I was the Catholic chaplain for Kelly Barracks, and also the personnel officer for the VII Corps Chaplains. There were maybe 100, and some chaplains that were covering the VII Corps at that time. The Corps chaplain was a colonel and, at that time, I think I was a lieutenant colonel. So then I left there, after two years, and then I went to Amsbach near Nuremberg, and the 1st Armored Division was there, so I became the division chaplain as a lieutenant colonel for the 1st Armored Division. I had that from '85 to '86, for one year.

So we had one reforger while I was there, and other units came over and that was an interesting exercise, because you got to see how the people functioned, and how they trained and got ready, because, at that time, the Cold War was still going on, and we played in this box. If the Russians ever came through wherever they would come through, and so that's how we trained.

And I'll always remember General Palmer, who was the commandant of West Point for a year; he was our commander of the 1st Armored Division, and I could see him, you know, with lieutenants explaining things. Talk about hands-on, and getting it right from the horse's mouth, you know? And it was very interesting to see him teaching right out in the field, you know? That was a good experience.

So after Amsbach and that year there, from '85 to '86, then I became the installation chaplain and went to Fort Dix, New Jersey, as the installation chaplain there, and I was there from '86 to '90. And then, while I was there, I remember, every year, because the President was over at Princeton was buried there, Grover Cleveland, and so, if there's a president near where there's a unit, you have to go do something on their birthday and have some kind of a service, and so the people from around Princeton would come, and the General would go up, and I would go up and say some prayers and things like that, and we'd have a little...

Zarbock: I didn't know that.

Sanner: And so I did that every year while I was there. And then I left there in 1990, and I went to Japan to Kamsama from Fort Dix as the USRJ Chaplain, U.S. Army Japan, and so they also expanded insofar as they had the 9th division from Washington, was up onto them, and that made up that kind of unit that would take care of that area. And so, every other month, from Kamsama, I would go down by train to Hiroshima and then I would meet-- they would meet me there in a car, and they would take me to Kuriakasuki, and in Kuriakasuki, there was an Army unit there that guarded the ammo dump and everything, and so then I would have mass for them. I'd go on a Wednesday and come back on Friday, stay two nights there and then have mass and do counseling or whatever. And then, when I finished up-- I did that for the three years that I was there, and then I left Japan in '93, and that's when I got assigned to Fort Sam Houston, and I came to Fort Sam in San Antonio in '93, and I was the installation chaplain there for five years. Then, after that was the time that they said, "Would you mind just being the priest, and let this other guy be the installation chaplain?" I said, "No, I have no problem with that." And so then, he became the installation chaplain, and then he decided to retire, so I was the installation chaplain again. So then another one came and, in the meantime, another priest came, and so I still stayed on, because that priest then retired, and so then, I decided I probably, at this time, was 62, and I had to retire when I was 62. At that time, they were still sort of priests and I said I would, if you would recall me and I could stay here at Fort Sam, I would do that. And so I got permission from my local bishop in Erie, Pennsylvania, Bishop Trottman, to stay on. I said, "I'll still be working with soldiers." So I went and I had four recalls, and the four recalls took me to August 1st, 2002. And so then I retired, at 69. Then, starting August 10th, I had a government contract, and I still have that contract and I help out at Fort Sam Houston because there's only one active duty priest there.

Zarbock: Father, combining all of your experiences and observations, what credo have you put together for you?

Sanner: Oh, I truly believe that we live in a great country and that we should do everything possible to preserve our freedom and our liberties. And sometimes some people won't believe that we have to go far away to do this, whether it be Vietnam or Iraq or wherever it might be, Bosnia or whatever it is, to help other people know what freedom is. I think that's the thing that's important of what you, yourself, can do and be for your country, you know? And I think, to be able to do that was very important for me, and to do that. I still like the Army, you know, and that's why I continue that contract. So, when the other priest was away to school or something like he did for the lieutenant colonel's course, I had, like, five masses on a weekend, and I'd go out to Camp Willis because there'd be a company of trainees out there, because they have the 32nd Medical Brigade where they train combat medics, and so I go out there and have mass for them, and so it's kind of a continuing thing.

Zarbock: Father, you are an inspiration, and I thank you for the time.

Sanner: Thank you.

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