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Interview with Neil Stevenson, July 23, 2007 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Neil Stevenson, July 23, 2007
July 23, 2007
Chaplain Neil M. Stevenson discusses his background, education, and highlights from his Naval career.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Stevenson, Neil M. Interviewer:  Zarbock, Paul Date of Interview:  7/23/2007 Series:  Military Chaplains Length  60 minutes


Zarbock: Good afternoon, my name is Paul Zarbock. I'm a staff member with the University of North Carolina, at Wilmington's Randall Library. Today is the 23rd of July in the year 2007. We are in a motel doing this interview in Williamsburg, Virginia. Our interviewee is Chaplain Neil M. Stevenson. Good afternoon, Sir. How are you?

Stevenson: Fine.

Zarbock: Chaplain, tell me what event or series of events or individual or series of individuals led you into deciding to be a Minister?

Stevenson: Well, it's a good question that I don't have an answer to because nothing startling happened. I went to church when I was a youngster and..

Zarbock: And where was that?

Stevenson: In Brooklyn, New York, in the so called "Scots Presbyterian Church," in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn which was a church founded by and attended by largely people from Scotland and North Ireland that had come to the United States in the 1920s. So I grew up in the church, I did well in Youth Group and so forth and; I received a small scholarship to a little Presbyterian college in Tarkio, Missouri.

Zarbock: How do you spell that, Sir?

Stevenson: T-A-R-K-I-O. And..

Zarbock: And why there?

Stevenson: There because I happened to be a Presbyterian who got a scholarship for a few dollars plus the opportunity for a job while on campus. Most of the student body had a job on campus to help pay their expenses. The rich people in those days, 1949 and '52 were those on the campus who had the GI Bill.

Zarbock: So this was a Presbyterian supported..

Stevenson: College.

Zarbock: How would you describe your educational experience?

Stevenson: It was an outstanding experience. We had absolutely fabulous professors. As I had, had in the school system in Brooklyn, New York; one of my favorite stories from my youth is that a gentlemen who owned several apartment houses in our neighborhood, Patrick Flannigan mentioned to my father. My father being from Belfast, Ireland and Patrick being from somewhere in the south of Ireland and, Mr. Flannigan mentioned to my father that it was too bad that I couldn't go to the parochial school because the nuns were such good teachers. And I was pleased at that time to hear my father say, "Well, Neil is getting a very good education because the teachers are all Jewish." So I had a good education from the Brooklyn school system, I passed as one had to do in New York, all my examinations. I understand in New York State they still have these Regency Examinations which preceded SATs or anything like that. Anyway, I ended up being a freshmen out in the Midwest and being looked upon as a "foreign" student because I was from Brooklyn. And I had a great three years with really dedicated professors.

Zarbock: Was that a lonesome experience for you?

Stevenson: No, no, no, no. I was more than ready to get out of Brooklyn (laughs). I wanted to get out into America. In Brooklyn, not everybody-- everybody in Brooklyn is ethnicized in my day, you know; there were the Scots and the Irish and the Norwegians and the Italians and the Polacks and so forth and so on. But we all went to school together and we all enjoyed each others company but they had all these ethnic and religious divisions where I grew up it was looked upon as a disaster when an Italian Catholic married an Irish Catholic and all that sort of nonsense. But anyway, in 1949 I went out to Tarkio, Missouri and I had a wonderful three years.

Zarbock: What kind of job did they monger for you?

Stevenson: Oh, we-- whatever they needed done. We mowed grass. We moved furniture. We painted rooms. We wallpapered rooms. Anything that the college engineer required of anybody-- I stoked the furnace which I was capable of doing because I had stoked a furnace in the apartment house where I grew up in Brooklyn.

Zarbock: What do you mean by "stoking a furnace?"

Stevenson: Well, when you had coal furnaces they had to be fed coal all day long and then you had to grate the ashes from under the fire and put the ashes in their proper metal bins to be rolled out. And you had to bank the fires at night with heavy layers of coal so that the fires would stay lit but cool off, as it were, during the night so that they could be stoked up early in the morning, things like that.

Zarbock: You realize that-- I'm sorry, fifty years from now when someone reads the transcription or sees the tape. The tape or what have you, you're either going to be talking about what is happening to them right then, fifty years from now or it's going to be like discussing with the first mate of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, how the trip was. It's going to be that out dated.

Stevenson: Well, that's why my grandchildren don't know what I mean when I tell them that they're "the carbon copy of somebody." They have no idea of what that means, that's the wonderful thing about language. It's-- that's one of the things that's the most interesting about the Scriptures, by the way, is the difference between what we have in English as Scriptures and what one gets a sense of by studying Hebrew and Greek. So that was one of the fun things in life was to be introduced to the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures in Seminary.

Zarbock: But you graduated.

Stevenson: Well, I graduated from college.

Zarbock: Age what?

Stevenson: When I was twenty-one.

Zarbock: And the year is '49 did you say?

Stevenson: Fifty-two when I graduated.

Zarbock: Fifty-two.

Stevenson: And I had fallen in love with a classmate who was the Homecoming Queen and all that sort of thing and it was decided that Diane would teach school in Farragut, Iowa for a year and I would go try out the seminary in Pittsburgh. And at the end of my first year in seminary with $300 in the bank, Diane and I eloped and came back to Pittsburg where I finished my seminary years.

Zarbock: This is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, of course?

Stevenson: Pittsburg Theological Seminary, which in those days was called, "Pittsburgh Zenya Theological Seminary." So I graduated in 1955 and joined the United States Navy.

Zarbock: Did you have difficulty getting into the Navy?

Stevenson: Yeah, I didn't have difficulty. I went down to take the physical and was told by a Chief Petty Officer that I did not pass the test. I was too skinny and luckily for me, the physician on duty that day said, "It's as easy to kill the skinny ones as the fat ones." So he gave me a waiver and I became a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the United States Naval Reserve.

Zarbock: Your wife was very supportive of this?

Stevenson: Yes, yes, she was. We didn't know what we were doing but, yes. I grew up in a British family. My father had been in the British Army in the First World War, serving in Mesopotamia and I was raised with the notion that one should do one's "national service," as they called it. And I was raised by my father to join the Navy because if you joined the Army they send you to places like Iraq. And he had, had four years in Mesopotamia and he recommended the Navy with the recruiting theme that, "If you're in the Navy, the day you get killed, you'll probably have a warm bed and a warm meal," so it's better to be in the Navy.

Zarbock: So there you are-- you're Lieutenant Junior Grade.

Stevenson: Yes, in the Reserves-- inactive Reserves. I was not called on active duty after I graduated. In the Chaplain Corps you have to join the Reserves and then when they need you they..

Zarbock: Will let you know.

Stevenson: ..will let you know. So I went to Nebraska and served a rural dual parish in Nebraska for about a year and a half before I got orders from the Navy to report to Chaplain School and begin my naval service.

Zarbock: Was that somewhat of a cultural shock to be raised in Brooklyn and find out that employment is available in Nebraska?

Stevenson: No, because I had-- in fact, the congregation in Nebraska called me in part because I had done my summer field work the year I got married in 1953 at that church in Nebraska. And oh, at least a dozen of the families that were members of that church had sons and daughters that had been in college with my wife and I so; we ended up having a year and a half in Mission Creek, Nebraska. Don't look for it on the map. You will not find it.

Zarbock: Did you say there were two congregations that you pastored?

Stevenson: Yes, Barnston and Mission Creek.

Zarbock: Again, just for historical purposes, do you happen to remember what your salary was in those days?

Stevenson: Yes, $2,400 a year.

Zarbock: With a contribution made equally for both.

Stevenson: Nineteen-fifty-five.

Zarbock: Was your wife working?

Stevenson: No. No, we had, had Heather-- our oldest daughter was born in August of 1954 when I was still in seminary so my wife had been working for a company in Pittsburg called, "The Pittsburg Produce Inspection Service." And the gentlemen who was in charge of that service, Herschel Fullner, knowing that Diane was pregnant and knowing that we were broke, was kind enough to offer me a job working for the produce service at night while I went to seminary in the day time.

Zarbock: What were your assigned tasks?

Stevenson: Well, I'm an expert in inspecting and taking the temperatures of cantaloupes. We inspected all manner of produce and the real professionals took this amateur and taught me how to do it. We climbed in and out of freight cars and you checked the percentage of ice in the bunkers. And you checked the damage that is done to the product in the railroad car and you know; take the temperatures of all these fruits and vegetables as to when they arrive. And how much spoilage there is etc. etc.

Zarbock: Well, except for the paycheck that kept body and soul together, it seems to have had only the most obscure relevancy for your ministerial activities.

Stevenson: No, not really (laughs), the people who work in the railroad yards are very much like sailors. So, actually..

Zarbock: In temperament? In behavior?

Stevenson: Yes, in language and a few other things. So, yeah-- it was, you know, I came from a "blue-collar" family. I had no problem working in a blue-collar environment and it paid me enough to pay my bills and so, yes, we enjoyed it. It was a little much to work from 8:00 o'clock in the evening until 4:00 in the morning and then go to seminary. And of course, I had to keep it a secret from the seminary because; otherwise they would cut my hours and I would end up in seminary forever (laughs). So I was able to maintain my hours, they did find out eventually because I didn't show up for graduation. I had a week's vacation from the railroad yards at the time of graduation and so they did find out that I had been working at night in the railroad yards. And the Dean, of the seminary felt that I should be reprimanded so I was not allowed to graduate until November. The rest of my class graduated in May and I graduated in November of 1955.

Zarbock: As an act of punishment?

Stevenson: I guess so, whatever, it was okay. We-- I was still making money working in the railroad yards during the summer and we had our little apartment and so forth and so it worked out okay. Then I went out to Missouri in December and they called from Mission Creek Church at the beginning of January and asked me if I would be willing to be their Pastor and I said, "Well, on the basis that when the Navy calls. I have to go." And they said, "We understand," and so for a year and a half we went out to the churches in Nebraska and then the Navy finally sent me a set of orders.

Zarbock: And you ended up where? Your first orders ordered you to do what?

Stevenson: Well, the first orders were to Chaplain School in Newport, Rhode Island.

Zarbock: Who taught you how to do things like, wear a uniform, salute?

Stevenson: Let me tell you a story before I get to that, that you might be interested in. The Deputy Chief of Chaplains in those days was a New Yorker named George Rasso [ph?]. I did not know Chaplain Rasso but when my orders came out in Nebraska. My mother-in-law had unexpectedly died a month before the orders showed up. A young woman in just about, I guess she was-- Juanita was just about forty-four years of age or so, anyway. And so I got my orders and so the church knew that when I got my orders; I was going to leave. In the meantime of course, Diane was pregnant with our second child and since I was going to Chaplain School; we thought it would be best for her to move in with her father in Missouri who was farming and she could help him out until I finished Chaplain School and got my continuing orders. So I went up to Omaha for my physical before reporting for active duty and Fort Omaha, with this physical examination and having already moved my wife and daughter to the farm over in Missouri. The Chief Petty Officer stamped my orders that I was disqualified because once again, I was underweight. I only weighed 150 pounds and I looked upon this as pretty discouraging since I had given up my job and since my wife and child were at my father-in-law's farm. And since I was anticipating going to Chaplain School in Newport, Rhode Island so I was pretty distraught. Driving from Omaha to-- down to Missouri I stopped at a gas station and I got into a pay-phone and I had enough change to be able to call the Chief of Chaplain's office, in Washington, DC. Because I thought I ought to get some guidance from somebody as to what I was supposed to do now that I was disqualified and fortunately for me, I got the Deputy Chief of Chaplains who was Chaplain Rasso and in a very curt New York fashion, he called me down. Since I was pretty excited and..

Zarbock: The world is collapsing around you. I could see that.

Stevenson: And he said, "Do you have your orders?" And I said, "Yes, I have them in the car." And he said, "Well, why don't you go get your orders?" So, I went out to the car and I got the orders and I got back in this phone booth hoping I had enough change to continue paying for this conversation. And in a very curt fashion, this New York voice said, "You got your orders?" I said, "Yes, Sir." And he said, "Read them to me." So I said, "Well, it says here-- I'm just going to.." He said, "Chaplain, why don't you just do what I tell you to do. Read your orders to me." So I began to read, "On or about on April 1957 report to Chaplain School, Newport, Rhode Island." All of a sudden this New York voice said, "Do you understand what you just read?" And I said, "Yes, Sir." And he said, "Then, why don't you do it?" And that was the end of the conversation so I went down to the farm and told Diane and my father-in-law about it and a couple of days later. I got in the car and I drove to Newport, Rhode Island. And I reported in and Chaplain Merl Young, the Officer in charge of Chaplain School looked at me and he said, "We've been waiting to see just how skinny you are." He said, "But we-- the Navy will fatten you up, don't worry about it," and that was the end of that. Chaplain school was enjoyable and interesting.

Zarbock: Again, who taught you left foot from right foot? How to wear a uniform; the practicalities of entering the military?

Stevenson: Okay, well (laughs), there was a gentlemen named Max Overheart. Max Overheart was the son-in-law of a man who owned a uniform shop in downtown, Newport, Rhode Island. And those-- so most of the Chaplains who reported to the school already had uniforms but there were about half a dozen of us that didn't have uniforms; didn't know anything. And we were told that if we wanted to get our uniforms, we could go down to this uniform shop and that Max Overheart would drive us down and drive us back. And that's what we did and, Max Overheart told us in that car what to expect and when our uniforms would be ready and how things would go. So our first orientation, as far as I'm concerned came from a wonderful Jewish tailor in downtown, Newport, Rhode Island. And then it was just a matter of following the curriculum and getting things done. And nine weeks later we graduated from Chaplain School, one of my classmates, a Catholic priest, Frank Orbano also a New York state guy. We laughed though the years about how naïve we were, totally naïve. Frank had to admit that he did not know when he came to Newport, Rhode Island whether he would be paid by the Archdiocese of Baltimore or-- I'm sorry, of Albany, from which he came so he was (laughs). He was pretty naïve. It was the month of April, my wife's birthday is on the 19th so sometime in those early days, I was saying how I wish I could get off the base and buy a gift for my wife. And somebody said, "Well, why don't you go to the exchange?" And I said, "What's that?" So I was in the Navy about a week or so and found out they had a thing called an "exchange," and I was able to go to the exchange and buy something. I don't know what I bought and mail it to my wife who was helping her father out on the farm. So we were pretty naïve but in some ways, those of us who were naïve did better than the veterans because they came to Chaplain School thinking they knew it all. We came to Chaplain School as dumb as dumb could be so we did pretty well. We did pretty well. And Chaplain School ended up with a little graduation ceremony and a set of orders and, I was fortunate enough to get a set of orders to Naval Training Center, Great Lakes, Illinois which put me close to being able to bring my pregnant wife and my young daughter up to Waukegan, Illinois and then started learning a lot more about the Chaplain Corps from my Senior Chaplain and the other Chaplains I served with at Great Lakes. In those days, they gave you one year to learn everything you could on chore duty before they shipped you off to sea which was a very comfortable situation.

Zarbock: Was it good duty at Great Lakes?

Stevenson: Yes, it was. Well, I mean-- I didn't know any different so (laughs) yes. It was. Once you learned how to stand the duty; you learned how to fill out the duty log. You learned how to try to counsel homesick and exasperated recruits and so forth. You learned how different you were from other Chaplains as far as various social and ecumenical things were concerned. We had a chaplain there who was a young chaplain who was extremely religious-- extremely orthodox and he put the Medical Section on report. Because he discovered when he was getting a shot one day, that while they were giving you a shot in your right arm; they had a Playboy pin-up picture beside your left arm on the wall and so when you went in to get a shot. Your eyes would immediately move towards this pin-up picture of Marilyn Monroe or whoever it was and they would give you the shot in your other arm. And this particular Baptist Chaplain had that experience and so he put the medical folks on report for their pornography or whatever he thought it was (laughs). Anyway, you discovered quickly that chaplains come in a variety of persuasions.

Zarbock: By the way, trace that up. Where did that report go? He must have filled one out.

Stevenson: He filled one out but I think they took the picture down for maybe a period of time and then they probably put it back up again, or something like that. I just remember it because it was the first situation in my career where it seemed humorous to me that one of my peers was making such a fuss. And having grown up in Brooklyn, and worked in the railroad yards and so forth; it seemed like a pretty innocent thing to me. It was, you know, again, chaplains come in all shapes and sizes and a variety of thinking.

Zarbock: So you spent a year at Great Lakes. Your wife is with you?

Stevenson: Oh, yes.

Zarbock: The baby was born there?

Stevenson: The baby was born there at the Naval Hospital at Great Lakes. Our middle daughter, who by the way grew up to marry a Naval Officer, which was interesting; and got orders to destroyer's Squadron Ten [ph?]. Lightning Ten out of Newport, Rhode Island and my experience reported-- you know, went through all the hassle of trying to find a place to live. Finally found a place to live, we were..

Zarbock: If you please, bear down on that a little bit again for the record.

Stevenson: Well.

Zarbock: You get over to Newport, so you get over to Newport. How do you go about finding a place to put a roof over your head?

Stevenson: You go to the Housing Office and they inform you that the Navy has no housing available to you and that; you need to find something on the open market and here's a list of things that might be available. And in those days, 1958, housing in Newport, Rhode Island was not something easy to find and so it was-- what we did find. In the civilian world was not very accommodating but that's where Naval personnel all found places to live so we found a house in a project next to a potato-field in Middletown, Rhode Island. And like most other people who were Junior Officers and so forth; it was fine. It was okay.

Zarbock: But nobody's holding your hand?

Stevenson: No, no, no. No, you're out on your own and you're panicking because you only have-- they didn't supply any extra money really for motel expenses and; you're wanting to get your family into the house as soon as you can.

Zarbock: And the kids are crying?

Stevenson: And you know, you're having-- the youngsters are getting used to a new environment and which they always seemed to do pretty well. We kind of took all those things for granted and the year at Great Lakes gave you the opportunity to learn from other chaplains as well as other naval personnel. You know, this is the way-- this is what Navy life is all about and shortly after; we found a place and got moved into it. My squadron left for the Mediterranean which ended up being a round-the-world cruise so..

Zarbock: And you with them?

Stevenson: Oh, yes, sure. So-- and I again, I was the most fortunate of all young men. I reported to the Commodore of the Squadron, who became Rear Admiral Robert Weeks. One of the great communicators of the United States Navy and he-- I admired him so much that I really thought the Navy would be a great career; a very admirable Admiral.

Zarbock: I will excuse the pun.

Stevenson: Yes, but also it fits him. He had been-- he was of such a stature that he had been Admiral Ernestine's [ph?] communicator during World War II. He had been selected by Franklin Delano Roosevelt along with another Lieutenant Commander prior to World War II to take the Purple Code to the British government so really, really an outstanding Naval Officer and a highly, highly educated individual.

Zarbock: Did you call it a "Destroyer Squadron?"

Stevenson: Eight ships-- eight destroyers.

Zarbock: Were there ancillary ships that went?

Stevenson: No, except the squadron joined into a variety of task groups and formations and so forth and so on.

Zarbock: So, "Adios," your wife and kids?

Stevenson: We went to the Mediterranean and I was very homesick and a little seasick. And we-- the ship I was riding; you rode a ship from somewhere between four and six weeks and then traded off to another ship and of course, most of the Junior Officers weren't too thrilled to see the Chaplain come aboard because that meant the Chaplain was going to squeeze into their overcrowded stateroom. And you would show up with orders to ride the following ship for the next month or six weeks and some poor, Junior Officer would say, "My God, I'm stuck with the Chaplain," and the Chaplain would get the upper bunk and one drawer. In the-- one drawer in the stateroom and drag in your tape recorder and all that sort of stuff, you know, but it was-- it's what all the Chaplains who were assigned to destroyers were doing, so it wasn't unusual. You-- at sea you moved from ship to ship either by highline which was a exercise that required both ships to turn out fifty to sixty sailors to get the highline chair back and forth from ship to ship so by the time we got to the Mediterranean; they had started experimenting with moving the chaplains and things by helicopters. I quickly learned that you get out on the fantail and a helicopter comes and drops the "horse-collar" as it was called. You get into the horse-collar and you get lifted up into the helicopter and they haul you over to another ship and you get in a horse-collar and they put you down on the fantail of a..

Zarbock: What about your luggage and equipment?

Stevenson: Well, you don't take-- if you're lucky, you don't take that. You go as lightly as could be and in those days as I said; we were trying to learn how to do these things and so, again. We were naïve enough and dumb enough that we didn't even take the safety precautions to have a proper helmet on while we were doing these things and you get your head cracked on the door of the helicopter and things like that. But it was all a learning experience and then, the ship I happened to be riding at time, the USS Hale. Our Commodore got orders. We had been off-- you might remember the 1958, the crisis in Lebanon. So we were in the eastern Mediterranean and the Commodore got orders to choose four of his Destroyers to escort the USS Essex around to ___________ in the China Sea. And I was riding the Hale which was one of the ships he wanted to take with him so he sent me a message and said, "You want to come with me or do you want to stay in the Mediterranean with the other four ships? And I said, "I would just as soon stay with the Commodore," so we went down through Suez and around to ________ and so forth and so on. So we ended up going around the world before we got back to Newport, Rhode Island. It was a good way. That's a-- it was a good way to begin.

Zarbock: Now this particular voyage, deployment predated email and other things.

Stevenson: Oh, yes.

Zarbock: And other things, am I correct?

Stevenson: Yes.

Zarbock: How were you in touch with your wife and kids?

Stevenson: Well, you (laughs) you-- in my case being a Chaplain riding just one little destroyer at a time; I had lots of time to write so I would write to my wife every day and mail the letter. And it would eventually get back to Newport, Rhode Island. I think in those days it took somewhere like a week or ten days which is pretty good. And then every once in a while like every fourth or fifth day I would get a bundle of letters from Diane. In fact, one of the learning experiences in the Navy was that-- I guess I was still riding the Hale, then I get a letter from Diane and the letter enclosed a copy of the column in the newspaper from Newport, Rhode Island. And it gave the schedule for our ships and we didn't know (laughs)- we didn't know what the schedule was and I open this letter from Diane. And I said to the Executive Officer of the ship at the wardroom table at lunch or dinner or some time and I said, "Well, here's the-- here's that newspaper article from the Newport." And he said a few words, "Well, nobody's supposed to know about this one." I said, "Well, everybody at home knows about it so.." Anyway, it was our schedule; that we followed to-- went to Japan. You know, went in the Philippines then into Japan and Hawaii and then San Diego, Panama, Guantanamo and then back to Newport, Rhode Island.

Zarbock: Did your brother officers, there were no women on the ships?

Stevenson: Oh, no. No women in those days.

Zarbock: Did your brother officers expect you to say grace before a meal?

Stevenson: No. No. There were lots of jokes about chaplains and my predecessor-- again, I was naïve and I just was this guy from Brooklyn who had gone to college in Missouri and worked in the railroad yards and so forth. I did some humorous things that they enjoyed that I wasn't particularly aware of being humorous. Just before we deployed the Commodore and his staff inspect each of the ships on a regular basis to see that all the ships are up to snuff and don't have any problems called; they call them "casualties." Meaning a piece of machinery that's not working properly or so forth so on, and then they have a meeting in the wardroom in which the Commodore staff informs the Commanding Officer of the ship and the Officers of the ship what's good and what's bad and what they ought to improve and so forth. And I went to the first gathering and didn't know that the Commodore would call on me and that I supposedly was observing something. And we were sitting there and the Commodore said, "Well, Chaplain do you have anything to offer?" And I said, "No, Sir." He was kind of taken aback. He said, "Well, your predecessor normally at this time gives us an indication of the pinup pictures that exists in various ships." And I said, "Well, I," I said, "You know, I'd have to see them (laughs) before I- before I can give judgment." Which you know, brought down the house and so forth but we did have a-- we had one Commanding Officer on one of our ships who was a very devout Roman Catholic and he carried in his pocket, pictures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. And when he inspected his own ship if he found a pinup picture-- and by the way, pinup pictures in those days hadn't started to be the nude types. They still had bikinis and things. Anyway, he would put a-- he thought it was fun to put a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus next to the pinup picture and inform everybody that the next time inspected; he anticipated only seeing one picture there; you know, to each his own.

Zarbock: Yes, the innocence of the pinup picture in those days.

Stevenson: And I think that the other thing is that-- I think people should know, or might be interested to know that the habitability in a Naval vessel in those days was atrocious, absolutely atrocious (laughs).

Zarbock: You mean in destroyers, or across the board?

Stevenson: In all ships but in destroyers in particular.

Zarbock: What was the?

Stevenson: Well, the ships were built-- they were Fletcher-class destroyers and Gearing-class destroyers. They had been built for World War II and the idea of a warship was that the ship should be ninety percent dedicated to engineering and gunnery and habitability was of no concern. So none of those ships were air-conditioned, the guys all slept-- the enlisted personnel slept in tiers of three, four and five bunks from the deck to the overhead. The "heads," the bathrooms-- the heads for the enlisted personnel had no partitions; they were all wide open. The chow was great. The food was fabulous but the rest of the conditions were really, really minimal to say the..

Zarbock: What about recreation and entertainment?

Stevenson: Well, a nightly movie (laughs) a 16 millimeter projector; one movie in the wardroom for Officers; one movie on the mess deck for enlisted personnel.

Zarbock: Every night?

Stevenson: Yes, every night, no matter what the-- normally the projector had to be fastened with line to the table so that it wouldn't fall off and so forth and so on. We got a- rocky movies but the-- you know, this sounds like a made up story but it's a true story. One of the destroyers I was riding one night-- the _______ made each night would announce what the movies were going to be in the wardroom and in the mess-decks and of course, it's only when you were highlighting or refueling or getting helicopters. Like when the Chaplain is helicoptering from ship to ship, you would also-- they would also be trading movies and anyway, the ______ made on this one night, actually announced that the movie in the wardroom will be "Henry, the Vee" (laughs) and nobody corrected him. It was fine. A great thing, you know, I don't think anybody unless they've been there knows how precarious destroyer duty was. I mean, these eighteen and nineteen year old kids were out there in peace time risking their necks on those decks and dealing with replenishment and all these things. We had a Secretary of the Navy, some years later. I can't think of his name now. He was a President of a railroad and became Secretary of the Navy. And he had been a Naval Officer in World War II and in a very correct fashion, he constantly reminded people that the Navy is "the only service in which the difference between wartime and peacetime is minimal because of the conditions of the sea and the requirements of the sea" and it's very true.

Zarbock: One of the question and this might be the time to drop it in that I ask all Chaplain Interviewees; it goes along this line. Were you at any time ever ordered or suggested or with a nudge and a wink or any other form of communication asked to do something that you thought was in violation of your Chaplain's responsibility?

Stevenson: No. No.

Zarbock: Did you ever have to reprimand? How strong could your recommendation be to a Line Officer if you saw X and really felt that Y was the more appropriate activity?

Stevenson: I don't recall having any problems communicating anything that I thought about to higher authority. Many times it was explained to me why the situation existed.

Zarbock: And that's good leadership.

Stevenson: Well, I'm trying to think of examples. Another thing that they won't understand too well today that was a primary situation in my day-- there was no thought of anybody getting leave to go home when their wife was having a baby. And the expression that covered that in the Navy in my day was that, "You had to be there for the laying of the keal but you didn't have to be there for the launching." So now I understand with today's transportation and communication systems and so forth, most dad's are fortunate enough to be able to be home when their child is born but in my day; there was no thought about it. So, my third child was born in Newport, Rhode Island and I was on duty in the Mediterranean when Heidi was born. So I personally experienced what the real Navy was all about-- not a very comfortable situation but a very standard procedure naval persons.

Zarbock: When were you? What was your first promotion?

Stevenson: Well, I went JG to Lieutenant shortly after I got the destroyers, I think.

Zarbock: You were next promoted?

Stevenson: Well, the next big thing was-- I became regular Navy. I went from being a Reservist to being regular Navy.

Zarbock: What did you have to do to achieve this change of role?

Stevenson: Well, in my case again I was naïve. I-- my ships were in Newport and I got the word that Chaplain McQuaid our force Chaplain; Roman Catholic priest and World War II Chaplain, the Chaplain Arthur McQuaid, who made believe he was hard as nails. I got ordered to report to his office one morning and I reported in. And he handed me some papers and he said, "This is an application for the regular Navy." And I said, "Well, Diane and I haven't really talked too much about that." Because I was really thinking I would do three years and go back to our parish. Then he said, "Well, I want you to fill them out and I want them back in here by 14:00:00 and if you need any help filling them out, Chaplain Jim Synes has already filled his out so he knows all about it. So if you need to see Chaplain Synes, see Chaplain Synes." So I filled them out and I looked up Jim and I said, "Are these okay?" And he said, "Yes, that's fine." I took them back to what-- Chaplain McQuaid's office. And about six weeks after that we were out at sea and I got called up to the Commodore stateroom and the Commodore said, "Congratulations, you were selected for regular Navy and I'm going to swear you in on the 01 Level, later this afternoon." And he did so, I never got a chance to ask Chaplain McQuaid but I thought years later when I began to understand the system and things; I wondered if he was not on that Board and if he had not taken the paperwork down to Washington and run it through the gun himself. I don't know. He-- his mother lived with him and when our third child was born, Diane wrote to me and told me how good Father McQuaid, Chaplain McQuaid and Mrs. McQuaid, his mother, had been to see her in the hospital and so forth and so on but that's the way the Navy was. We were very fortunate.

(tape change)

Zarbock: Tape number 2. Chaplain Neil Stevenson, 23 July 2007. Well Chaplain, one of the things I'd be interested in, I'm tumbling ahead I recognize that, but in order to save your time and refocus, tell me about your experience with Marines.

Stevenson: Well my experience with the Marines I think is somewhat unique, because I think I did not have a normal Chaplain's billing with Marines, and I had only one tour with Marines, and so it turned out to be a rather different tour. The navy decided to send me to postgraduate school in 1967, and I had applied for postgraduate school to study marriage counseling. And the people in Washington with their true wisdom knew that I was a terrible marriage counselor. And so I received a notification from Washington when I was on duty at Naval Air Station Glenview, Illinois, that I had been selected for postgraduate studies and that I would study something between what was called sociology of religion and social theory, under the mentorship of Doctor Samuel Blizzard at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey.

Zarbock: The year is what?

Stevenson: 1967.

Zarbock: And your rank at that time?

Stevenson: I was a Commander. Been a Commander for probably a year maybe. I remember saying to the Chaplain who called and told me about this, I said "Well I thought I had signed up for marriage counseling," and he said "Well, are you telling me you don't want to go?" And I said "Oh, no, no, no. I want to. I'll try to find out what social theory is." So any way, I was ordered to Princeton to seminary to study under Doctor Blizzard, who turned out to be a wonderful mentor, had a great deal of influence on the rest of my career. The study of social theory, or sociology of religion, whatever you want to call it, again I cannot emphasis how naïve I was. When I reported to Doctor Blizzard he had already outlined what courses I would take, and several of the courses were made up, or were seminars, or precepts as they call them in Princeton, involving doctoral candidates. The very first seminar I was in was a two hours seminar on the subject of anomie, and first thing I did after two hours was find a dictionary so I could find out what the definition of anomie was.

Zarbock: A-N-O-M-I-E.

Stevenson: Yes.

Zarbock: Yes.

Stevenson: Any way, that turned our to be a fabulous year of study. A part of the year I studied under a phenomenologist, part of the year I studied under an anthropologist, cultural anthropologist, Doctor Giorgi being the phenomenologist, and Hostetler of Temple was the anthropologist. I was able to write papers. Because my assumption was that I was going to go to Vietnam, so I did some of my research in regards to Hoa Hao and Cao Dai Buddhists in Vietnam area, and about half way through the year I got a phone call early one morning, around six o'clock in the morning from Chaplain Eddy Hemphill who was a very bright, shining star, innovator Chaplain, and he informed me that I was going to go to Vietnam, I had put down on my preference to go to Vietnam, everybody else was going. And long story short, that I would be ordered to the 3rd Marine Amphibious Force, and I would be ordered in as the Personal Response Officer.

Zarbock: What does that mean?

Stevenson: Well that was a good question. I asked Chaplain Hemphill "What does that mean?" and he said "We will brief you before you go. That's all you need to know." He insisted that I be in Washington the night after I graduated from Princeton, so I graduated in the morning, or afternoon, what ever it was.

Zarbock: Was this a degree program that you...?

Stevenson: Yes. I got a Master of Theology degree in the area of sociology religion. Also studied that year under Shaw, I'm trying to think of Doctor Shawl's first name. Anyway, he was the leading firebrand liberation theologian of that period in which, you know, they bring about social change by assassination and everything else. It was a very interesting year of study. Went down to Washington after graduation and was briefed for five days I guess it was, on this personal response program that I was being ordered to impart because of the education I had received at Princeton. Now what was personal response? Well personal response was several things to many people I discovered. In the minds of Chaplain Eddy Hemphill who had convinced the Chief of Chaplains, Jim Kelly at the time, to provide personnel for this program it was peace-fare, rather then warfare. Eddy was a great idealist. And he had convinced the Chief of Chaplains and others that this was the Chaplain core involvement in the Ministry of Reconciliation. (laughs) And reconciliation was a big word in the period of the sixties. You remember there was a Presbyterian Confessional of 1967 which all had to do with reconciliation.

Zarbock: [inaudible] yes.

Stevenson: So then I was given some briefings at marine core headquarters, which were not too clear as to what it was all about. And anyway, the marine core was experimenting with counter insurgency warfare and inter-culture relationships, and the marine core had organized in the I Corps area which was their area in Vietnam, the northern end of South Vietnam, CAP groups, which were combined action patrols, or platoons, these were brave young Marines who went and literally lived in the Vietnamese villages. So I went to Vietnam as the Personal Response Officer attached to the 3rd Marine Amphibious Force headquarters, General Cushman, who became CIA, was the General when I reported in, and then General 'Herman the German' Nickerson was the General who was there when I [audio glitch] it's not unusual for personal response to have technical problems.

(tape change)

Stevenson: Well anyway my duty with Marines then was duty in Vietnam, in I Corps, I discovered my responsibilities were to provide instructions to Marines going into CAP Units in the areas of inter cultural relationships. The basic teaching tool in my opinion was to get young Marines to recognize Newton's third law for every action there's an opposite and equal reaction. If you step on the toes of the Vietnamese people, the Vietnamese people are gonna step on your toes and we tried to teach them, I had a little staff of Marine Corps Gunny and a ARVN Vietnamese gunny named Gunny Wah who was also our interpreter. So we traveled around I Corps up to Dong Ha and Quang Tri and Vandergriff and all these Marine Corps bases providing this education and training and discussing some of these things with various commands.

Zarbock: How well were you received?

Stevenson: I was received very well, well I would have at home a copy of my end of tour report that would give you the details if you wanted to read a long end of tour report but.

Zarbock: As a matter of fact if you would make that available, we'd be absolutely delighted to duplicate that and return the original to you.

Stevenson: Well as things were typed in Vietnam by people who were drafted and so forth, you know that the typing is kind of rough typing but it's all there.

Zarbock: Is it possible, could you make that available?

Stevenson: Yeah I'll mail you a copy.

Zarbock: Wonderful.

Stevenson: I'll make a copy and mail it to you and it basically tells you the reaction that I had as I reported out at the end of the year to the Chief of Chaplains. It's a mixed bag of personal response was required, our forces do need to be conscious of the environment in which they are operating and the culture in which they are operating and so I have no objection to that. I now look back as I tell my friends that we were so lucky to be operating where the basic culture was Buddhist rather than Mohammadean and much tougher in this very sad situation we've gotten ourselves wrapped around in Iraq. As I said my father was in Mesopotamia for 4 years in the First World War and so I know from my father's advice that it's not the place in the world for anybody to be.

Zarbock: I'm sorry, this is extremely interesting to me and I hope historians to come, why did you contrast Buddhism vis á vis the Muslim?

Stevenson: Well militantly Buddhists are pacifists, pacific and militantly Muslims like Christians and Jews are militant okay?

Zarbock: Big difference.

Stevenson: Yeah big difference, I have friends every once in a while who tell me that some clergyman has told them about the Qur'an and how militant the Qur'an is and my response to them is "Well evidently they haven't read the Bible." So religious literature is very militant depending on what passages you wanna put your finger in. Personal response was a required program, many Marines and I could cite some of them that I correspond with to this day, literally put their lives on the line to be friends to Vietnamese, to respect Vietnamese customs so forth and so on. Some of the problems I had with it, which could be seen in this end of tour report was that first of all if you wanted to have legitimacy in this regard with Marines then the instructor should not be a Chaplain but a Marine Corps Officer because the assumption is that the Chaplain is something of a pacifist to begin with by the very fact that he's a Chaplain and so I don't wanna get into all those stories but anyway, you know, the Marines were accepted, some of them of course looked upon what we were trying to do as rather naïve, others looked upon it as hey this is the basic way in which we have to relate to the indigenous population. We did some interesting things in our little shop during the year, we made up charts and posters and things which contrasted the world view of people who lived in the first world and people who lived in the third world in hopes that those of us who came from an industrial society would appreciate those who lived totally in an agrarian society that we might try to understand that they didn't want our fancy roads put on top of their rice paddies that their life was basically village life, that they really were not connected with Saigon or the Saigon government that they lived within their own little world and that we were the big feet stepping all over it. So I also had horrible thoughts about very brave young 18 and 19 year old Marines who listened to our lectures and took them to heart and went out into these villages and tried to practice these things and I'm of the opinion, I have no statistics-- that many of them died because they tried to relate to people rather than just bombing the place and wiping it out. Anyway it was a long year, again the Marines took good care of me, part of my requirements I had to go to Saigon and Vung Tao once a month and lecture at what was called Chords an agricultural program called AIDS and over in Vung Tao to what was called revolutionary development cadre which was basically a CIA program in which they were taking South Vietnamese village people and training them or trying to train them about the ways of democracy and then sending them back out to the villages to try to compete with those who were trying to come in from the north and teach them about communism, very frustrating. Lots of humorous stories if you want humorous stories. I had a Marine Corps General come in one day and said that he had discovered that the Vietnamese did not have a pledge of allegiance to their flag and we said "Well that's probably true" and he said "Well that's what they need, you oughta provide a pledge of allegiance for the Vietnamese flag to increase their sense of patriotism." We said "Well okay" so Gunny Wah and Gunny McEnroe went to work on the project and they came out with these calling size cards with a Vietnamese, South Vietnamese flag on it and imprinted over the Vietnamese flag was a Vietnamese pledge of allegiance taken from the American pledge of allegiance and these were printed up in our shop by the thousands and distributed and of course if you understand the Vietnamese culture, the teachers and the school children and everybody accepted them, were very happy to have them and started every day out with the pledge of allegiance to a flag which would soon disappear when the North Vietnamese came down. It was also interesting dealing with the ARVN which was the South Vietnamese military that I personally never met and I met a good number of them, I never met an ARVN Officer who personally or whose family had not come down from North Vietnam. So what the literature had told me at Princeton about the Vietnamese situation being a Civil War became more and more apparent to me rather than a basic battle between democracy and communism. It was basically a family fight, a Civil War, they're always the most horrible of wars because it's brother killing brother, but that's what it was. We sitting over here were not willing to learn that and I'm currently reading a book entitled "Nixon and Kissinger" I've got the name of the author Dallek or something like that. Anyway it just brings back a lot of memories. I recall one day a Marine Corps Colonel objecting to my presentation and no uncertain terms and ending up by telling me that I didn't recognize the fact that Vietnam would be the new America in the orient. He wasn't too happy when I laughed but those were the kind of days they were and some very real, honest patriots lost their lives in Vietnam and some very real live patriots lost their lives at Kent State and that's the way things were in those days. I was very proud to serve with the Marines and I was very proud that the Marines were as receptive to trying to understand inter cultural relationships and counter insurgency warfare. I don't think anybody else was pushing those buttons at that time.

Zarbock: What was the CIA trying to do, what was their?

Stevenson: Well the only response I had with the CIA program was that they were excited about the fact that we were willing to put out posters that indicated that not everybody who wore black pajamas was VC because many of the people CIA were working with in country wore black pajamas, I mean that's what the natives wore, you know, and so they wanted me to give my inter cultural lectures, my Newton's third law lectures and things to their personnel and to provide them with the posters and things that were coming out of my shop. One of the things that I was lucky enough to create, I don't think I even have a copy of 'em anymore was I created a poster that gave subject matter on the left hand side of the page and then the reaction in the first war world in our complex society and then in the next column the reaction it would have in simple society and of course just by looking at that chart you can see that the answers that a person in complex society has have no meaning to somebody in a simple society and I guess the biggest illustration of that in the year. Another funny story, you gotta know how funny these things can really be, my two gunnies had stayed up all night watching the television when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and my God they were really taken with this as we were all, you know, proud of it and so forth and so on. My Diane had written me, she had moved to her home town in Tarquel, Missouri for the time I was in Vietnam and she wrote and told me how she and the children stayed up, all the relatives to see men walking on the moon and so forth. Anyway the two gunnies got so carried away with this that they thought that they would do up a whole briefing to go around the schools in Da Nang to show the moon walk and they got the pictures and they got all kinds of stuff, I mean they did a great job putting together this wonderful American thing, complex society, put a man on the moon and I said "You know, before you take it to the school kids, it would be good if you presented it to some of the Vietnamese who were working here on the base to get their reaction." Now you gotta understand that the Vietnamese culture is not going to give you anything that's negative, I mean they may not do what you're telling them but they are not going to just downright tell you you're crazy. Well they came back from giving two briefings and they were very discouraged because they had worked very hard on this and as I said they did a good job, they did a really good job. The response they got from some of the workers was "I don't believe you" but the one that hurt them the most was a group of cleaning ladies, Vietnamese ladies who were earned a little money coming and cleaning rooms and things on the base, cleaning my little hooch and the ladies said "Why did you do that?" And we didn't have an answer, here were people in the middle of the war, loved ones being killed or not knowing where loved ones are, many of them people who had left their homes in North Vietnam, quote unquote, "to escape to South Vietnam". The entire society in upheaval, everywhere you looked you saw men and women and children who had lost a limb or two to mines, you know, lost an arm, lost a leg and we presented them with a program about man walking on the moon. It didn't make a lot of sense and difference between complex society and simple society, simple society you grow your rice, take care of the people in the village and I think the most important lesson for any Chaplain or any Minister or any Clergy, in many places in Vietnam the cultural-- they take care of everyone in the village. If a child doesn't have parents or anybody, the village takes care of the child or sort of no such thing as an orphan. But in many parts of Vietnam the person in the village who is looked upon as gifted and who becomes, quote unquote, "The Clergy of the village" takes care of the little alters, the joss sticks and the memories of ancestors and so forth. Is the child that's born with Down Syndrome and this child is special, I mean this person is special because they're different from everybody else.

Zarbock: And characteristically mirthful.

Stevenson: And so they're given holy chores to do, I often use that as an illustration with my fellow clergy about, you know who we are, we are the down syndrome profession, you know, we keep the candles lit and so forth and so on. But we luckily we teach the gospel as best we can teach it. So my Vietnam tour was a mixed bag, I served with Marines, I was more than proud to do that, I have the-- I think a lot of people don't realize that some of the most educated people in our services are our Marines. People like General Trainer who teaches up at Harvard and so forth and so on. Brilliant people and in my case they were people who were willing to experiment and I learned a lot, I learned a lot from the Marines and again it's in the end of tour of report, I'll send you a copy of the end of tour report but I left Vietnam I guess part of the story is the Chief of Chaplains, I was one of many who attempted to serve to the best of my ability and to never speak a negative word to the enlisted personnel or my peers that would add to the endangerment of their lives by telling them what I thought of our policy nationally regarding Vietnam. So it's a situation of mixed emotions which I'm sure many, many of our officers are going through in Iraq. But several of the people who came through from Washington were not happy with my briefings because I tried to be right up front with them as to what I was thinking about including the fact that I thought that the billet would be more successful if a Marine Corps Officer rather than a Chaplain was heading the billet. The Chief of Chaplains at the time got so annoyed with me that he walked out on the briefing and so forth and I can understand that and we laughed about it years later. Also I was to escort him on his-- part of his Christmas trip around the various parts if ICOR and when he got there and heard my briefing he decided he didn't wanna go with me. So I got to escort Billy Graham for half a day instead of the Chief of Chaplains. But then I went back on R&R to Hawaii where the fleet Marine force Chaplain was Chaplain Vinnie Lonigan, Father Vinnie Lonigan and he told me that I was gonna be ordered to the Marine Corps Training Command in Quantico, Virginia to continue teaching and I indicated to him that I'd had enough of it, I did not want to be a cultural anthropology officer, I wanted to be a Chaplain and anyway he indicated that I might not get the set of orders that I wanted and I said "I don't care as long it's a Chaplain's orders" so much to my surprise I got ordered to the Staff of the Chief of Chaplains in Washington DC.

Zarbock: Who was not the Chief of Chaplains who walked out on you?

Stevenson: No he was, yeah Jim Kelly.

Zarbock: Same guy?

Stevenson: Jim Kelly was the same guy and while I was on his staff we had several times of friction in which he indicated that he still didn't think I had the right view of the world and I, being stubborn said "Well I have my view and you know what my view is" and so on and so forth. He got so he would tease me by saying "I hope you're renting because you might be ordered off this staff any day" and I informed him "Yes I am renting, I'm not buying a house, I'm renting." But after a year he stepped down, retired as Chief of Chaplains and Chaplain Frank Garrick came in I eventually was given the job of running the training desk for Navy Chaplains in the Chief of Chaplains staff and so forth and so on.

Zarbock: When were you promoted to Admiral?

Stevenson: I was promoted to Admiral in 1980.

Zarbock: By that time, no let me start that a different way. It strikes me that at that time in your life when the Chief of Chaplain Services walked out of your briefing, that's about as stern a rebuke.

Stevenson: Well it was a very emotional time and I mean, years later Chaplain Kelly, when I was Chief of Chaplain Kelly came by the office one day and we all shared the same secretary through the years and Mrs. Rube came in and she said "Chaplain Kelly is here" and I said "Oh have him come in, I'd like to see him." He walked in the office and he said "I came in, I wanted get the new briefing on that personal response business." I said "No you had your chance years ago and you muffed it, I'm not gonna give it to you" and so forth so. So we were able to, you know.

Zarbock: Is the Chief of Chaplain's a Rear Admiral?

Stevenson: Yes.

Zarbock: So were you Chief of Chaplains?

Stevenson: Yes.

Zarbock: For how long?

Stevenson: Well as a deputy, as a Rear Admiral Deputy for 3 years and Chief of Chaplains for two years.

Zarbock: What were those years?

Stevenson: 1980 to 1985, you see when you asked me, you know, did I feel that I was free to give advice and so forth and so on, I think I do so, pretty much so through my career and.

Zarbock: But remember the cliché, no good deed goes unpunished, how come if you were forthright and direct you ended up being promoted to Admiral?

Stevenson: Well I think you're talking about the political world and I'm talking about the Navy world.

Zarbock: There's a difference?

Stevenson: Yeah there's a difference, there's a difference. I think in the United States Navy and the Marine Corps my experience, you know that the command is going to make the decision and you know that when the decision is made, you're obligated to go. But up until the time the decision is made you are required to speak your mind and command is required to make the decision as to whether your advice is good or bad or to take it or not take it.

Zarbock: Accept it or not accept it.

Stevenson: But I don't recall anybody muzzling me, I think they were very generous with my being naïve quite often and at other times just being out of sync where they were and in many cases because of my training and education and where I grew up I was of a different world view than many of the others, you know, but I don't recall anybody ever muzzling me or muzzling anybody else and yeah and Vietnam was a very emotional situation and when I had a view of things different from the established point of view, I can see where people got great exercised about it. But I don't recall it ever stopping me from feeling that I could speak freely, in fact I used to tell people and they don't believe me, you know, a Navy Chapel in many ways was a much freer environment than a Presbyterian church because a church is required to be parochial but a chapel is required to be open and so that's why I feel strongly there is a great difference between parish ministry and institutional ministry and to me this is a hobby horse of mine. To me the most important thing for a Chaplain is to learn is that that they are doing institutional ministry in which they are responsible to the command to see to it that the religious needs of all the personnel are met.

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