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Interview with George Tumlin, November 8, 2007 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with George Tumlin, November 8, 2007
November 8, 2007
In this interview, Marine Chaplain George Tumlin discusses his military career, including his time working off the coast of Beirut, his experiences working as a Casualty Calls Assistance Officer and the difficulties of the itinerant nature of the military family.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Tumlin, George Interviewer:  Zarbock, Paul Date of Interview:  3/15/2007 Series:  Military Chaplains Length  90 minutes


Zarbock: Good afternoon, my name is Paul Zarbock. I'm a staff member with the University of North Caroline at Wilmington's Randall Library. Today is the 8th of November in the year 2007, and we're located in New Bern, North Carolina. This videotape is part of the Military Chaplains Oral History Project. This afternoon, our interviewee is Chaplain George Tumlin. Good afternoon, Sir, how are you?

Tumlin: I'm doing great. I hope you're doing very well, today.

Zarbock: I am indeed, Chaplain.

Tumlin: Great.

Zarbock: Sir, what individual or series of individuals, or event or series of events led you to enter the ministry?

Tumlin: That's a long story, Paul. It begins back in my childhood. I, for some reason, felt a calling to the ministry at a very young age.

Zarbock: Where were you living, Sir?

Tumlin: In Greensboro, Georgia. It was at a time when my mother was suffering with cancer and wasn't able to go to church with us very often, and we lived at the time down the street from Methodist church, which was about a block up the street from us. My sister and I would often walk to the church, and do so early on a Sunday morning before the services, and I'd end up spending time with the pastor there at the age of about four or five. The pastor's name was Jack Nichols, and he became a strong influence in my life, throughout my life. And he and I would sit on Sunday mornings and we'd just talk, and he was a very gracious man. After I entered the ministry I learned that I was probably interrupting his final moments of study before he went into the pulpit, but he was gracious in his accommodation of a young boy. And I remember talking to him one Sunday morning, and I said, "You know, Brother Jack," that's what we called him, everyone did. "You know, I think that I want to be a minister."

Zarbock: How old were you then, Sir?

Tumlin: Probably about 6. And even at that age, he explained to me it wasn't a desire or want; it had to be a calling. And over the years, I did feel that calling to go into the ministry. Now, I had some sidetracks along the way, as most people do. But I graduated from high school, determined I would not go into the ministry. Enlisted in the Marine Corps. Spent a tour there, and during that period of time felt very strongly that the Lord wanted me to enter the ministry and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Zarbock: How long was that enlistment?

Tumlin: Four years.

Zarbock: Where did you serve?

Tumlin: I served in Albany, Georgia, to begin with shortly, and I went to the-- Camp Smith, Hawaii to FMFPac, and back to Camp Lejeune, and discharged from there. Then I left to go to college, and...

Zarbock: And what was your duty assignment in the Marines?

Tumlin: Well my duty assignment, when I left, I was with what would now be called the FSSG, Fleet Services Support Group, with the motor transport division of it.

Zarbock: Were those good days for you?

Tumlin: They were good days. Hard days; they were during the Vietnam War, so it was a tough time for the Marine Corps. But the Marines, as always, Marine Corps came through with flying colors, they did very well. Despite what many people may think about the war, the Marines were-- did their job and did it very well. Got to know a lot of the people who eventually I served with later, when I became a chaplain. And I remember Eli Takesian, that you've mentioned previously, was at what was called The Rose Garden, in Thailand, in the time that I was there.

Zarbock: The Rose-this is a nickname for-- did it really have roses?

Tumlin: No, it had nothing. [Laughs.] It was just an airfield in northern Thailand from where the fighter pilots would fly out of, and many other operations went into Laos, Cambodia, and into North Vietnam. But I left and went to college.

Zarbock: Where did you go?

Tumlin: I started out in Bob Jones University, and as events would have it, I stayed there for about a year, and went-- returned to the military, shortly, for about, well shortly, for about five years. During that time I finished my college education on what was called the old Boot Strap Program. We were allowed to go to school, military paid for it, and at the end of that time the Vietnam war was-- after I'd received my degree, the Vietnam war was winding down, and they were cutting back forces. I had an obligation to the military as a result of the Boot Strap Program.

Zarbock: Was it one of those one-year for one-year type things?

Tumlin: Yeah, something like that, I forget what the payback was. But because of the cut back I couldn't request to be released to go to seminary, and it meant...

Zarbock: Where did you graduate? Where was your degree?

Tumlin: A B.A. degree at Baptist College of South Carolina, now Charleston Southern University. There and the Citadel, I did some work there, as well. I was stationed at the Citadel at the time with ROTC unit.

Zarbock: So, let me check. So this Boot Strap, when you finished college, with the obligation to go into the military, you had returned to the marines, am I correct?

Tumlin: Yes.

Zarbock: And would you be commissioned?

Tumlin: Not unless you went through a commissioning program. This was just to go to school.

Zarbock: Okay.

Tumlin: But at any rate, they let me out, the letter came back very quickly to be discharged because they were cutting back on forces. At that point I had to put in another letter and say "Look, I don't want to be discharged in June, I want to wait until August." So they extended it to August; I went to seminary. And when I graduated from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 1978, I pastored a church in Alabama for the minimum time required by the Southern Baptist Convention to be a chaplain, and then went back on active duty.

Zarbock: What was the size of the church you pastored?

Tumlin: Oh, we ran about 100 active duty, membership was far more then that. But like many churches, membership and attendance are two different things.

Zarbock: And you were required, well, yes, required, to do the normal things that a pastor would do in any congregation.

Tumlin: Uh-huh.

Zarbock: Provide the sacraments, counseling perhaps?

Tumlin: Counseling, preaching, administration of the-- all the-- I was pastor of the church, yes.

Zarbock: Were you married at the time?

Tumlin: I was, we had two children. Two girls, and was in northwest Alabama in Muscle Shoals.

Zarbock: Well, I don't mean to offend the congregation, but a congregation of 100 is not going to provide you with a Cadillac existence.

Tumlin: [Laughs.] Well, we did all right, but no, it-- people who are looking to make lots of money need not look in the ministry to do that, anyway.

Zarbock: I was astonished to hear, we interviewed several chaplains who upon graduation from seminary, and pastored a serious of small churches, had to go on food stamps. The small rural churches, they were circuit riders. So I wanted to get-- tip my hat there.

Tumlin: We weren't quite there, no. [Laughs.]

Zarbock: But I want to give a tip of the hat to you for that.

Tumlin: Most churches in America are qualified as small churches. They probably have attendance of under 100 people. The latest statistics that I've read. We live in the age of the mega church, but most churches are still small churches, and most churches still only have the one pastor in them. And they serve out their lifetimes doing that, because they fell the call of God to do that. That's what-- they feel that Lord Jesus Christ has called them to do, that's where they are. Many of them do have outside sources of income, you know, they work, their wife works. Many ways to do it.

Zarbock: Yes. So you finished pas-- give me a technical term, you resigned from the church?

Tumlin: Well in Southern Baptist life, it would be that, yes, I resigned from the church to go into the Chaplain Corps. Much to the chagrin of my wife, by the way. She did not like the military that well, I remember, and she had reminded me several times that when we left the Marine Corps the first time, as we were going out the gates of Camp Lejeune going home, that she got a promise from me that we'd never come back. And I kind of grumblingly said "Yes, we'll never be back." And she reminded me that over the years. But I still, during this period of time, felt an affinity for the military, and particularly for the Marine Corps. But more then just an affinity for it, I felt a calling and a need to be there to administer the gospel of Christ Jesus. And in Muscle Shoals one day, we were just kind of looking at some literature, and I said, "You know, being in the reserves wouldn't be that bad." And she said, "Well go ahead and join the reserves," you know, "What would that mean?" I said, "Well, you know, once a month you go somewhere and drill." You know, a couple of weeks in summertime, and that kind of thing. And so I applied for the reserves. In the paperwork at that time, there was a little block that said, "When would you be available for active duty?" This was about September, or October.

Zarbock: Of what year, Sir?

Tumlin: '79.

Zarbock: How old were you, then?

Tumlin: 32. But I put in the paperwork for the reserves, there was a block there, and so well, you know, "What can I put here?" I wondered. My denomination endorsing agent had told me when I was putting it in requesting the endorsement, said, "Well if you want to go on active duty," he said, "It will take three or four years for you to get on active duty at this point in time." Still, drawbacks were going on, you know. Excuse me, Paul. But anyway, he said it'd be three of four years before you would go on active duty. So I thought, "Well, you never know what you're going to do in the future." I said, "Why don't we just mark 'as soon as possible', or 'as soon as an opening'," whatever the statement was, I marked that, thinking, "Well, that will be three or four years down the line," I wouldn't have to worry about anything 'til then. I went to the hospital a few weeks later, visiting someone and came back home, and my wife said "You've got a letter." I had already been up, done the interview with the people in Nashville where we had to get done the physical, so I came home from the hospital a few weeks later, and she said "You've got a letter." She said "You need to read it." It was a set of orders to active duty, to report January the 1st of that year.

Zarbock: Hello.

Tumlin: Hello. [Laughs.] Because what you sign and what you check, you notice I read your paper before I signed.

Zarbock: Yes. [Laughs.] I admire that, by the way.

Tumlin: [Laughs.] So that's how I ended up back on active duty so quickly. We spent 22 years as chaplain, enjoyed almost very moment of it, and it was fruitful ministry. It comes replete with its challenges, its rewards, and it's a good ministry.

Zarbock: Can you reminisce, and recall mirthful, happy, uplifting incidents? And then I'm going to couple that with the sad ones. Give me the bookends of...

Tumlin: The bookends of it.

Zarbock: Of the ups and the downs.

Tumlin: There are many of both categories. Perhaps one of the most humorous was when shortly after chaplain school I reported to Camp Pendleton, California, for my first assignment as a chaplain. We were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines who had recently relocated from Okinawa. They were in Camp Horno, which is about the middle of the base. If you've been to Camp Pendleton...

Zarbock: Not yet.

Tumlin: Okay. Well you'll become aware that Camp Pendleton is a very large geographical area. It is, in fact, larger then the State of Rhode Island. It's big. Horno is about half way across the base from where we lived in, in what you called O'Neil Housing. My first Sunday that I was supposed to preach in a chapel at Camp Horno, getting two kids dressed, unfamiliar territory, always running a little bit late, or at close to the time we have to get there. I did not realize that out in the middle of nowhere, there were several places where for unbeknown reasons, that the speed limit dropped about 30 or 35 miles an hour. And I was in a hurry, and so I was breaking the law a couple of times when I looked up, and there was a blue light in the back of my window. Chapel was just about to start, not too many tens of minutes into the future. So I pulled over, the Marine MP got out, came up, saw the sticker, the insignia, said, "Sir, do you realize that you were speeding?" And I had to admit that I did, and so he began to take my license and I.D. card, and began to write a ticket And I had the urge to still be on my way, didn't want to be late for my first time in the pulpit in the chapel. I said "Corporal," I said, "I don't mean to offend you at all, but," I said, "How long will it take you to write that ticket?" I said, "I'm late. I'm going to be late for chapel and it's my first time there, and I really need to be there as quick as possible." He said, "You're a chaplain?" And I said "Yes." I was not in uniform at the time. He said "Chaplain," he said, "I am not going to give any chaplain a ticket." He handed my license back, and made sure that I got to the chapel on time. So I arrived in style my first time in the pulpit.

Zarbock: Escorted by a Marine MP.

Tumlin: [Laughs.]

Zarbock: You didn't have your wife and children with you in the car.

Tumlin: Oh yes, I did. Yeah, and they don't let me live that one down.

Zarbock: [Laughs.] To this day, I'm sure.

Tumlin: Yes.

Zarbock: Well that's the type of reminiscence I'd be interested in, can you ply me with more? Or bounce back and forth between the happy and the sad.

Tumlin: I like the happy events, the-- There was a Marine Lieutenant, a young 2nd Lieutenant that had not been in the corps for very long at all.

Zarbock: Your rank, by the way, is what?

Tumlin: At that time I was a Lieutenant, which would be the same thing as a Captain.

Zarbock: Captain.

Tumlin: In the other branches of the service. Came into my office and sat down, and after introductions, he just kind of sat there with his head between his hands for a while, and I thought, "What in the world is wrong with this 2nd Lieutenant?" And finally, he said, "Chaplain," he said, "I've really got a problem." He said, "I can't go to anybody else, and I need some help before this thing really gets out of hand." And I said, "All right, tell me the story and we'll see what I can do to help you, if anything." And he so began to say, "Well, part of my job said I'm responsible for the barracks, obviously for where my platoon is." He was an infantry officer. But within the barracks that he was responsible for, his duties of the facilities he was to care for, was also housed a navy corpsmen from clinic in the area. The 2nd Lieutenant didn't see much difference, as far at what the requirements for a Marine in the barracks were, and what a corpsmen were. And, strictly speaking, there is not, about the letter in the law. But he had begun to treat the corpsmen as if they were Marines, and somehow, he had greatly offended them, and, unable to confront him directly, they sought other means to get even with him. We have what's called a Shot Record in the military. It is the records of all the inoculations that you've had since you have been in. In the days before computers, it was literally a shot-card, a little yellow-orange card, every time you had an inoculation it would be entered upon that card. That card would be kept in your medical records most of the time. If you deployed and went somewhere, it would be put on your person, and you could take it out it out, if need be.

His Shot Record showed up missing; he went in and the only remedy was to take the whole series and battery of shots, over again. Being a good young Marine, he went through it like a champ. He took every one of them all over again. It did not daunt him; it did not change anything he was doing in that barracks and his relationship, you know, how he saw that he should be dealing with those corpsmen.

About three months later, he went and had a recall to the medical clinic; they audited his records and were getting ready to go somewhere, he was missing his shot-card again. The only remedy was to take all the shots all over again.

Zarbock: If you don't have the form. [Laughs.]

Tumlin: You don't have it. So he, a second time he took-- well, by now, this is the third time he took the, 'cause he took them when he first came in. And being a 2nd Lieutenant, that's all within about a year, a year and a half, so he took them again. This time, his anger, he really laid it on in the barracks with cleaning up, their racks were never right, and everything else, and a few weeks later, getting ready to go somewhere else, he goes into the clinic, walks out of the clinic and comes into my office and says "Chaplain, it is lost again." That's why he was to see me. There were other remedies he could have taken. He obviously could have gone to the battalion medical officer and spoke with him and had it filled back in, but at the same time that would kind of admit to some failures in leadership on his part, but also would have done un-repairable damage to the careers of some of those corpsmen, who, by the way, did stay in, and became very good senior corpsmen, that they helped save lives during Beirut. I served with some of the later. And rather then destroy them, he came to see if there was some other remedy. He knew that I'd been a former enlisted, and I said "Well, yes, I can go talk to them on that level." And I did. And they aired their grievances about the Lieutenant, and I agreed with them what a son of a gun that some of them could be. And told them that I would air some of those grievances that they could not say back to the Lieutenant for them. One of them walked around behind a desk, sat down and said-- stood up and said "Chaplain, guess what I just found?" And they had found his record. So [laughs], it was a good end to-- it could have been a tragic story.

Zarbock: And a wise end to it.

Tumlin: Uh-huh. By the way, the 2nd Lieutenant did go on to become a very senior Marine officer.

Zarbock: But you're right. If push had gone to shove and the corpsmen were found to have falsified or stolen records, that's a really high courts marshal offense.

Tumlin: It could have been, if it had gone that far, yes.

Zarbock: Yeah, and I also concur with you, there might be some doubt on the part of some hard-nosed individuals, can this lieutenant really run an organization. You know, it's not an Easter Egg hunt, these are men and/or women going into combat.

Tumlin: People have ways, even in a military organization and environment of making points sometimes, when they can. I learned that as a young, very young Marine, when I was on mess duty to start with. I had-- of course had done it in boot camp, went to assignment and supposedly back in those days 30 days a year, was all you could serve as a Marine on mess duty. Had a short assignment in Albany, when to Camp Smith, and found out I was on mess duty again, all within less then a year. But because the fiscal year had changed, or calendar year had changed, you know, people found a way to do it. And so, one day on mess duty...

Zarbock: I've got to interrupt. You and I know what we're talking about, but 20, 30, 40 years ago, language changes. So for the purpose of this videotape, what do you mean by 'mess duty'?

Tumlin: Mess duty is working in the food hall. Before the days when contract workers did that, the lower-end enlisted people served the food, washed the dishes, cleaned the floors, and it was a long day when you did that. A very long day. Because you started a couple of hours before the early risers got up, and then when they went to bed, you were still cleaning up, getting ready for the next day. So you got very little sleep in a 30-day period of time. And, being a young man, I felt put-upon, because I'd already done what I thought was my time. And I was in the kitchen doing some cleaning one day, and the mess sergeant came in, and I knew I couldn't tell him exactly what I thought. I couldn't cal him names, I couldn't confront him; all I could do was say "Yes. No. Right away," and do it. And he made some open ended comment just being, you know, pleasant conversation, you know, about what I thought about the Marine Corps at that point in time. I said, "Well, Sergeant, I'll tell you." I said, "I grew up in Georgia." I said, "You know, my family's farmers," and said, "I grew up with a grandfather who didn't believe in tractors any more then he had to do." I said, "He had mules." And I said, "I followed a mule pretty much most of my life coming up here, smelling their dirty farts and looking at their rear end behind a plough, and I decided I was going to join the Marine Corps, to stop following a mule," and said "I've been following a jackass ever since." [Laughs.]

At that point, I found out there was something worse then just general mess duty. He put me in what was called a pot shack, where you had to wash all the nasty, greasy pots. And they weren't Teflon. And left me there for 30 days. Usually, they would leave people there three or four days and rotate you. I spent 30 days in the pot shack. I have never insinuated that any other sergeant was a jackass since that day.

Zarbock: [laughs]

Tumlin: Even when I was a 06. [Laughs.] He got my attention.

Zarbock: Well that falls in the rubric of a great learning experience for you. Is that a happy event or a sad event?

Tumlin: [Laughs.] That was a learning event. Another thing that comes to mind though talking about Corps men, was, you know, it's not just the young enlisted people that have a way of teaching folks lessons, either. We were deploying, and I'll not be specific, 'cause I'm not sure that officer could lose his license. We were deploying to a certain foreign country for a period of time, and it bordered on another country that's been somewhat hostile to the United States, and in preparation of going there, we were setting up the plans for the camp of where we were going in the meeting, the chaplain had his own tent, CP tent, it's called Command Post tent, so that people could come in for counseling, they'd have some privacy during that period of time. The position place for billeting for this whole time, and this would have been during cold weather, would have been in the Battalion Aid Station, the B.A.S., with all the corpsmen, and all the noise and so forth that were going on in there, and he and I were good friends, so I said "Well let's just take and put my tent right next to the B.A.S. I need to be there anyway, in case something happens, and then you stay in the tent with me," which C.P. tent was a pretty good sized tent.

The G4, or supply officer, as some would call them, was then responsible for setting up all of the tents. He left with the advance party to set it up, with instructions from me to put my tent there next to him, so that the doc could stay with me. Whatever the doctor had done to offend him, I do not know, but when we got there, my tent was so far removed from the B.A.S. that the doctor could have killed himself trying to get there in the middle of the night.

So we simply took the tent and where it was set up, had the corps men come get and take it down and set it up where we had wanted it in the first place. The doctor decided that was not good enough. The supply officer's name was Mike and we affectionately called him Mikey. He was an eater, and for a Marine, he was a little too overweight, and by today's standards, he would not have survived as long as he had. But Mikey would eat anything.

He came by the tent and made some comment about it, you know, it had been relocated, and at that point I could say "Yeah, so what?" I had enough rank. And doc said, "You know, Mike," he said. "We've got a little concern here in the camp." He said, "There's a virus going around, and it is just really tearing peoples' stomach up." And he said "You know, I'd hate to see you get it." He said, "I've got a pill, though, that you can take, and it will kind of help keep you from getting that." And he said, "I want you take one of these pills, and take it in," whatever the prescription was for it, and said, "This will keep you from doing it."

So he gave it, and the supply officer thanked him very dearly for that, and he left. I said "Jim, what's this virus that's going around? I haven't heard anything about that." He said, "It will start in about three hours, and it's going to start with Mikey. And he will be the only victim of the virus." He'd given him a very strong laxative that did indeed tear your stomach up. The latrines were down past where my tent was, and you could hear Mikey at night trotting past our tent in the cold water to hit the latrines. Couple of days later, he came back in and he's talking to the doctor. He said "I must have gotten that bug you were talking about," he said, "It's just been terrible and I can't stay out at the heads." The heads were, of course they obviously called it in the Marine Corps, most people know it as the latrines.

And I thought he would give him an antidote or something. He said "Yes," that it's a bad one, said, "I've got some more of those pills, you'd better double up on them." And this went on for about a week, but he got even with him. [Laughs.]

Zarbock: [Laughs.]

Tumlin: Friend or not, I never took any pills that Jim prescribed.

Zarbock: [Laughs.] But it is curious that Mikey got it and got cured of it. [Laughs.]

Tumlin: Yeah. [Laughs.]

Zarbock: Well, those robust activities are part of the military.

Tumlin: They are part of the culture.

Zarbock: Really.

Tumlin: Yeah. And a lot of people would consider jokes in the military other people think sometimes are pretty cruel, and I may be one of them. But he did go on to become a fine physician.

Zarbock: Again, we spoke off-camera, about the bookends of funny times and the bookend of sad times. And I said we'll put something in the middle. You may have, and I'm not being critical of the military, but absurdities, the things that have taken place. For example, you are looking at a man who in 1947 stopped the entire United States Army. Now, I was at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, I'd just enlisted in the Army, I'd just been sworn in, it's late in the afternoon, we were hustled over to this great big building and the paperwork started on us. One of the things that had to be ascertained immediately was your serial number. Now, the serial numbers were something along the line of Baskin and Robbins. The clerk who was filling out the papers would go over and get a serial number, and that was you from that point on until you were buried. Well, I ended up 17228444. Well, the next morning the United States Army stopped, 'cause it turns out that there were two guys numbered 17228444. Well, guess what the solution was? They alphabetized us, and I became 17228445. It took from 8 o'clock in the morning 'til 10 o'clock in the morning for somebody to figure out, "Take the next number." [Laughs.]

So, you're looking at 17228445. So again, it was one of those clerical errors that took place, but once it was discovered that an error has taken place, the whole system begins to shake and rattle and go into convulsions, and something has to be done. So I wondered if as a chaplain, where you bridge so many sub-units of the military, if you had something relative to supplies, relative to the placement of this, or personnel activities, or something that you think, "Oh gosh."

Tumlin: The heart stoppers on the thing. I know what you're talking about, enlisting thing comes into mind. When I was enlisted and I was going through what's now Avis, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Zarbock: Going through what?

Tumlin: During the initial medical examination and testing that takes place.

Zarbock: Okay.

Tumlin: In the first area. And you know the indignities back in those days, nothing there but guys, and they strip you down to your drawers, and you go through and spend half the day walking around in your drawers, too, and the-- That was in the days when the draft was still going on, so the people doing the examinations and dealing with the people were dealing with everybody there, asked if they were a draftee, 'cause most people were. Very few people have the option of turning around and walking off at that point. They had not been enlisted in the Army at that point, but they were treated pretty much like a recruit was treated.

Zarbock: Sure.

Tumlin: And with the filling out with paper, of course, the place was run by the Army. There were no Marines there, no sailors there, no one else, it was just all Army. And so, the Army has its way of doing paperwork, just like you're talking about, and one of the questions on there is, "Have you ever had any surgeries?" And the guy next to me had filled his out, and he'd put "No," he'd never had any surgeries. And so they came around and they were checking throats, and they looked and they noticed that he was missing his tonsil, or his adenoids, whichever it was, and the guy looked at his paper and he'd said he hadn't had any surgery, and he said, "I thought you said you hadn't had any surgery. You said there was no surgery." He said, "Well that was such a minor thing, I didn't consider it a surgery. They didn't cut me open." And he dressed him down. He said "A surgery's a surgery." He said, "Well, I've been circumcised, too, you want me to put that on there?" [Laughs.] We were about to stop him. Hopefully, since 1947, the military doesn't stop so easily for paperwork.

Zarbock: [Laughs.] No.

Tumlin: I almost did not become a chaplain because of paperwork, however, but when I did go up for my examination as a chaplain to come on, I went through and did all the medical examinations, and then they gave me the color test, and I failed the color test, which I had done previously in the military and the Marine Corps, anyway. But, not thinking anything about it at the time, I couldn't see the color so the Corpsman did a little alternative test. He put a little traffic light out there; I said "I've got it made, now." And so he flipped on one light and he said "What color is it?" And it was up at the top of the little itty-bitty traffic light, and I said "It's red." He flipped another and said, "What color is it?" It was at the bottom. I said, "It's green." Did the one in the middle, and I said, "It's orange." He said, "Well, Reverend," he said, "You know, we switch those lights around on here," and he said, "You missed every one of them." [Laughs.] And so he had disqualified me from enlisted commissioning as a chaplain, because I was colorblind.

Zarbock: Really.

Tumlin: He took it to the physician for the final determination, and the physician came up and looked at it, and he tried his little-- I said "Look, I can tell the first three cards you flip up there, I can see those numbers," you know the little dots that they put on them. He said, "Well that's, you know, just to show you what to look for, that's not part of the test. Anybody can see those." He said, "What are you going to do in the Navy?" I said, "I'm supposed to be a chaplain." He said, "Oh. Well, chaplain doesn't need to see color anyway," and he scratched out the disapproval, or disqualification, signed his name, and the rest is history. So.

Zarbock: Chaplain, where did you serve overseas?

Tumlin: Let's see, first assignment as chaplain I was in Camp Pendleton, Okinawa, we've been to Korea, and then with ships just many other places, Beirut.

Zarbock: You were in Beirut before the bombing?

Tumlin: Right after the bombing. We responded to that.

Zarbock: First of all, again for the...

Tumlin: Which bombing, by the way?

Zarbock: For the people who are going to hear this years from now are going to say "Bombing? What bombing?" Would you put us in the time?

Tumlin: In October of 1983, the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, was bombed on a Sunday morning. A truck loaded with plastic explosive crashed a gate, drove into the barracks, and blew up, killing 206, I believe, Marines. I don't remember exactly at that time. A friend of mine, a guy who went through chaplain school with me, was in the barracks at the time.

Zarbock: And killed?

Tumlin: No, he was not killed. He had been standing at the window and looking out as this truck came in. [Coughs.] Excuse me. Getting ready for his Sunday morning activities, but just looking out the window, and he noticed the truck drive through, crash the gate, come in the lobby, I suppose it did, and it exploded. And it was so quick he didn't have time to respond to it. But he was standing at the window, and the impact in the explosion literally blew him out the window of the second story. And he survived, because he was standing at the window. Life-changing event for him. And I'd give you his name at this point in time, but you may want to interview him later on, and privately, and share it with you. I met him for the first time...

Zarbock: Where does he live now Chaplain, do you know?

Tumlin: No, I don't know. No, I've lost contact, but I could find him. I met him for the first time at the airport in Atlanta, Georgia. I had resigned from my church in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, I'd preached that Sunday morning. Military starts everything early on Monday morning, or Sunday night, which I always found inconvenient, 'cause it required you'd have to travel on Sunday. I'd preached that Sunday morning, my last sermon, my wife and family still staying in the parsonage, they were hoping that after chaplain school that somehow I would not stay in the Navy but come back, so they said "Well, just stay in the parsonage until you get through chaplain school." Left Muscle Shoals, changed planes in Atlanta, you know, the rumor is that to get to the heaven you've got to change planes in Atlanta to get there.

Zarbock: And there's another plane going to hell. [Laughs.]

Tumlin: That's true. Chaplains who listen to this will nod a long time, but Charlie was at the airport and we began to talk and he was about my same age, and he was leaving to go to chaplain school at the same time, we just happened to come up on each other in the airport going on the same plane. Charlie was at that point in time anything but he was the most spiritual minister you would ever meet. Good guy, happy go-- and did well, I suppose, in his church, but there were certain thing about the ministry that, you know, sometimes, you know, people have different things they don't like about it, less favorite things. And I had just finished my last sermon, talking about what you're going to miss, and I said "I'm really going to miss preaching for, you know, two months," and not having a place to preach. And Charlie said "Well, I don't care if I never preach again in my life; I despise preaching." [Laughs.] And I said, "What in the world are you doing in the ministry?" You know. "Well, there are other ways to do ministry." And there are. And a lot of chaplains are not good preachers, but they're good counselors, but a lot of them are not good preachers, far from it. As I would learn, and should have known, though I'd heard many I didn't think were good preachers when I was an enlisted man. But that was my introduction to Charlie. After that time, being blown out of that window and coming that close to death, that he had a renewed relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ that changed how...

Zarbock: And a reverential approach.

Tumlin: Oh yes, very much so. And the flippancy was gone. And he did not stay with the Chaplain Corps; he left and went back to the church, and with a new perspective on what he was doing.

Zarbock: But, chaplain, how long after the bombing of this Marine Corps facility did you arrive there?

Tumlin: Within weeks.

Zarbock: What was the situation morale-wise? Anger? What was the emotional situation that you arrived at? In. Not at, in.

Tumlin: What you would expect from Marines. A regrouping, reforming that already took place, and we began with the job at hand. It's not the time for blaming, the pointing of fingers. It's time for reassessing the situation very quickly and making adjustments to it. You may remember that shortly after that, that the Marines were pulled pretty much from Beirut, as far as billeting. They were put on ships, and the ship would come in every day, offload a group of Marines who would go to their post and stand their post, come back in that evening, pick up that group, put off another group. And they were billeted on the ships rather then abroad. It was the typical Marine Corps "Gung ho, we can do." And of course, replacement hadn't arrived at that time.

Zarbock: Did you serve in Vietnam?

Tumlin: Yes, I did.

Zarbock: With the Marines?

Tumlin: I served with Triple Nickel; it was an Air Force unit in northwest-- pardon me, in northern Thailand.

Zarbock: You called this Triple Nickel?

Tumlin: 555th Tactical Fighter Wing and Reconnai--. 555th Tactical, pardon me, Fighter Squadron they were called. I have to this Air Force terminology correct, and the reconnaissance wing. And that's where Eli was at the time. And operations were run into...

Zarbock: How did you get to that base? You flew in?

Tumlin: Yes.

Zarbock: And when you got...

Tumlin: You'll need to edit this out or we can't...

Zarbock: You don't want to go into it?

Tumlin: No.

Zarbock: Okay, alright. Well then, we won't. Well, what I was going...

Tumlin: We can tie that in later. Another interesting event, talk about the bureaucracy of the military. Out of the events in Beirut, previous to-- [Audio ends abruptly.] (TAPE CHANGE)

Zarbock: Tape number 2, Chaplain George Tumlin. 8 November 2007, New Bern, North Carolina. Take it away, Chaplain.

Tumlin: We'd been talking about Lebanon. Previously you'd asked me about bureaucracy, and the event that comes to mind right out of that [coughs], excuse me, out of that incident was that prior to getting on the USS Ponce that responded and went there to relieve the...

Zarbock: How do you spell that Sir?

Tumlin: Ponce, P-O-N-C-E, like Ponce de Leon.

Zarbock: Oh, yeah.

Tumlin: I had been stationed at Parris Island, South Carolina, with the recruit training there. Time was coming to an end for that tour, and I wanted to go from there to Charleston, South Carolina, and get on a destroyer. Since it was close to Parris Island, would not involve a very long move, we had recently purchased a house there and wanted to stay there, and so I contacted then detailer, the Chaplain Corps' officer who was responsible for making assignments, and put in my preference to go to Charleston, the USS you put in your preferences. I was told that there was no place available in Charleston for me to go, that all the destroyers at that time that were there, destroyer squadrons, and I thought, "Surely, there must be something." He said, "No, there's not a thing at all available for you. You're going to have to go to Norfolk." So I transferred to Norfolk out on the Ponce. And off the coast of Beirut, we came up on a ship one day, and as sometimes is the custom, there was an exchange of officers. Chaplain from the ship came over, was a friend of mine from chaplain school, who had been stationed in Elizabeth City, just right outside of-- Norfolk, Virginia. And he had asked to go to Norfolk at the same time, and was told that, "No, he would have to go to Charleston." He was with a destroyer squadron that had sailed out of Charleston. So we had two chaplains, one who was just outside of Norfolk, who didn't want to relocate his family, but wanted to go up there and get on a ship, and one down in South Carolina that wanted to go to Charleston, and the paperwork and the cards that the recruiters, that the detailers used at that time said, "No, there's nothing available." So they moved him and his family from the Norfolk area to Charleston, moved me and my family from the Charleston area up to Norfolk, and then we met in Beirut. [Laughs.] Again, this is before the computer age, and detailers worked off a series of cards.

Zarbock: Chaplain, reflect, again for the purpose of the tape, and building an interesting situation across history. When you have to pack up hearth and home and leave point A to go to point B, how is the stress managed on the part of the family? The children, as they grew older, of course, are in school, and your wife has established herself in some friendship group, and perhaps employment, perhaps volunteer activity, but nevertheless established herself, they're plucked up and moved to position B, how is...?

Tumlin: Long-term service in the military in many ways is like being in the ministry in an of itself, in it's a family affair. The military member is not by himself there. Decisions that are made about him, decisions that he or she makes impact greatly upon the family. Now, that's true in any family. But usually, the dynamics are not as intense in an ordinary civilian family as they are in the military. Most families are not picking up very frequently and moving thousands of miles, or moving overseas, moving to new states and new cultures and new situations. It happens some, but in the military, it can happen every few years. In the old days, they could happen every year or two. When if first entered the Chaplain Corps, the tour of duty for a junior chaplain was two years. That means that when you got to a place you were there for a year, and then immediately you began talking about where you were going next; they'd let you know a year ahead of time where you were going. So you were always packing up to move, or unpacking.

Now I have been retired seven years now, we've been in our home about nine years or so here in New Bern, and my wife told me just the other day, said, "I think I have finally unpacked all those boxes that we were carting around for years and never got unpacked when we're going." You end up packing up boxes, and then they get stuck in an attic and you'd never get around to unpacking them, because it's time to get up and move again. And it's difficult on families, and it can be very financially hard on families, 'cause the lower officer ranks, we didn't like to think of officers having financial problems, but the lower officer rank, it could be very hard. [Coughs.] Excuse me. It can be very hard on the lower officer ranks, and on most of the enlisted ranks. In a culture which we're already in now, where usually a husband and wife work to support the family, it is hard for a wife to move and find a job. A prejudice develops against military families in the employment market because of that. Many employers have the attitude "They train you and hire you, when in two years you're going to be out of here." It's hard to fault the employers, but it makes it very difficult for the military families. Some exploit that by the way, exploit it...

Zarbock: In what way?

Tumlin: Because they know it's hard for a wife to find a job, they'll end up underpaid, or working there more then they should work, and under conditions that would not be tolerated in other circumstances.

Zarbock: Sure.

Tumlin: The children change schools frequently. My oldest daughter rarely ended up going to the same school two years in a row. That hadn't meant that we'd moved every year, but because of going from grammar school to middle school, transfers thrown in there, only once or twice did she ever end up in the same school twice. She did well, and-- but she's a home schooler now. She has six kids and she home-schools them. Sometimes, I wonder if all that change in the schools just did not give her somewhat of that mind frame, the mindset, and she does very well with it. But it's hard on the families. It's hard on the children to see their parent pack up and leave, not knowing when they will see them. They don't understand what's going on; they've heard the stories of the fathers who didn't come back. They've been there when the children are grieving because they've just learned that a father...

Zarbock: He never will come back.

Tumlin: Will never come back. And in a chaplain family it can be a very real thing, because frequently there's the father, and I guess it could be a female chaplain now, gets called out in the middle of the night to go tell someone that their husband, or their father will never be back. And that's, I think, always one of the hardest things that you'll ever do as a chaplain. You'll go into harm's way yourself, you know, and it's still not the same thing as having to go and tell someone that their loved one will never be seen again. On this side of glory anyway. In 22 years as a chaplain, I've lost count of how many times I've had to tell someone, and deliver bad news, for doing that. It works both ways, the military member not coming back, or delivering news to a service person that one of their relatives back home has passed away; the chaplains do that. On the ship most CO's have the policy that if when a message comes in from the Red Cross, is typically where they come from. If it's bad news, that the message is taken to the chaplain, and then the chaplain is supposed to go and deliver the news.

If it is good news, if it's a birth, then the CO of the ship himself, the captain will call him up to the, up to his at sea cabin if we're at sea, or his in port cabin if we're in port, and he will give them the good news and a cigar. I once said to Captain Emery Zimmer very-- he was a submarine officer, but he was on the Ponce, a wonderful guy, I said "You know, Captain," I said, "This just doesn't seem fair." I said, "I get to tell them their momma's died, you get to tell them that they've got a brand new boy." He said "Yep, that's the way it works, and that's the way it's going to keep working." [Laughs.]

But it can be very difficult. One of the most difficult times I had in delivering a message, a Marine flyer had been killed, and his primary next of kin he listed on his records was his mother. And we had to go tell her that her son had been killed in the-- in a mishap.

Zarbock: When you say we, who?

Tumlin: Okay, we. Yes, two people go. One is the chaplain. In case of a death, there are two; one's the chaplain. The other is what's called a CACO officer, is Casualty Calls Assistance Officer, I believe, is what the acronym stands for. Will go and deliver the news, the CACO officer will then assist them with what paperwork needs to be filled out with, you know, insurance and all kinds of things. But the policy is that as soon as possible, you don't wait, you go and deliver the news. And strict, and for good reason. Navy and Marine Corps have always done that in modern times, and they don't vary from that at all. The other branches of service have started doing it in the last few decades.

But the flyer had been killed, and as we began to run down the mother, of where she was, we'd gone by the house and couldn't find anyone at home, and began to knock on doors around, make telephones calls, to find out she was in the hospital, yeah, for surgery. And we had to go up to the hospital. The woman had found that she had cancer, she had just had a double mastectomy, and we literally had to delivery the message to her as she was waking up from surgery with a double mastectomy. We attempted other ways, but her husband-- who was not the father of the flyer-- insisted she had to know, now, and of course for her, that was a very difficult time, with all of that already, at the same time. So we do many of those. One of the best CACO calls I've ever been on-- you say "How can you have a best CACO call?"

Zarbock: Yeah.

Tumlin: But I did have a good CACO call one time. We got a call in the middle of the night, my sister had come to see me, she swears she'll never come to see me again, 'cause every time she came to see me I had to leave in the middle of the night and go somewhere. But anyway, I had to leave, and we went and run down the father of a sailor had drowned in Hawaii, the story, you know, came in said he and some friends had gone to Waikiki Beach, and they'd fallen to sleep on the beach, which is, you know military speak, they'd passed out on the beach. When they woke up, all they found was his shoes and his clothes, you know, his trunks are on. And they assumed that he had gone out for a swim and had drowned. We went to find the father, we couldn't locate him, we had the address, we went to his house. You're not supposed to call; you knock on the door. We made several trips to his house trying to find him; we could never find him at home, in one case we had just missed him. About two days later, we finally located him, and we were getting a lot of heat out of Washington about why we had not delivered the message to tell him that he was presumed drowned. And so, we knocked on the door, and he came to the door, and of course most people know if there's a military member and one of them is a chaplain, somebody dead.

So the CACO officer starts off and says "Mr. Jones, we have some very bad news for you," and he began to tell him the story how it was presumed his son had been drowned at sea, and they had not yet found the body. And at that point, we were sitting at his kitchen table, and he listened to it, and he was doing very well, and he listened to the story, and then finally when the chief had finished, he said, "Well, gentlemen, I have some news for you too." We said, "Well what's that?" He said, "Well, I just got off the phone with my son about two hours ago." He said, "He's in California, and he's in an unauthorized leave status." He had walked off the beach, got on a plane or something, and left.

Zarbock: A.W.O.L.

Tumlin: Yeah.

Zarbock: [Laughs.] Better that then dead.

Tumlin: Better that then dead. But if we had delivered it on time and caught him, for two days he'd of been thinking his son was dead.

Zarbock: Oh, yeah.

Tumlin: Or at least missing.

Zarbock: Chaplain, one of the questions I've asked everybody else. Was there any time in your military career that you were ordered, or a broad hint made, or even as subtle as kind of a nudge and a wink, that suggested you do something, anything that was in violation of your personal ethic, your morality, or your sense of values?

Tumlin: I have never been ordered, or even suggested that I do anything by military line officer, to do anything that would be in violation of what you ought to be doing as a minister of Jesus Christ on active duty. Line officers, those how have command authority and rank, those who lead the troops into battle, those who fight the ships, and fly the planes, are called line officers, have never done anything like that. Strictly speaking, in the military, a chaplain always works, most of the time, borderline officer. When you're assigned to a battalion, you work for the commanding officer of that battalion. There is an informal chain of authority as well within the chaplaincy, and I'm sure you've heard about that, where at every level of command, there is a chaplain, and the higher the level of command, the more senior they are, and sometimes they begin to think of themselves as commanding officers. And while there is coordination that takes place, and while there is some accountability that is there, it is very informal, very wishy-washy, and it can get to be very difficult to balance the two. Particularly since it's not the line officers, or at least in the past there's not been a line officer that's sat on the promotion boards. It was just the chaplains. And so some chaplains began to lean more to one side then the other, with a view to the future.

Zarbock: I think the phrase is, in order to get along you've got to go along.

Tumlin: Well, sometimes like that.

Zarbock: But mainly-- I don't want to indict the Chaplain Corps, I don't want that to be part of the...

Tumlin: And I'm not indicting them at all.

Zarbock: That phenomena exists I think, I believe, universally. From a tribe of Hottentots in Africa, to gilded palace rooms, it's the way mankind appears to be.

Tumlin: Uh-huh. It goes way back. I think it was Joshua, I know it was Joshua that said to the children of Israel, "Choose you this day whom you will serve," whether it be God or whether it be Beal. "But as for me and my house, I will serve the Lord." Through Joshua, Chapter 21. General Joe Hoare once said, this is when he was-- when he said it, he was a Colonel, was talking about the phenomenon one day, we were on activity and there'd been some problems with a previous chaplain in one of his battalions, and he said "George," he said, "It's like this. With the system that exists," he said, "It's like trying to walk to two dogs barking, and you just have to decide which dog you're going to listen to." I generally just decided I'd listen to the bulldog, the Marine, and work at it from that way. But never did I have a Marine officer with any authority over me try to do that. I can only think, in 22 years as a chaplain, I spent 33 years all totaled in the military, only one time that a senior officer, and at that time the office was equal in rank to me, it was a lieutenant colonel, was upset because I had publicly prayed in the name of Jesus, which was my custom to do; it is my tradition, and by Title 10 of the US Code, I am entitled to do. And nearly always prayed in that way. Well, she took objection to it, and sometime had the notion that that was illegal and I couldn't do that. And she had gone to her regimental chaplain and made a complaint after she had heard that.

Zarbock: She was a chaplain?

Tumlin: No, she was a lieutenant colonel.

Zarbock: Okay.

Tumlin: Of battalion. And made a complaint. He came to me, and then this chaplain said that "You really should not do that." And you know, that that's the nature, I know, that you've talked about, probably heard talked about many times. And he was one of those, and so he came to see me and said, "You know, So-and-So has this complaint," you know, and, "What can I do to work this out? I'm sure it was a slip of tongue." And I said "Ron, there was no slip of tongue." He said, "Well what can I do to work this out between you?" I said, "Nothing for you to do. You don't need to be in the middle of it." I said, "If she's got a problem, come and see me." And he said-- he went and talked to her and came back and said, "Well, she has said that you cannot come down to her battalion-- " I was at higher headquarters, "-- and talk to any of her people until she's assured that you're not going to be praying with any of her people in the name of Jesus." And at that time, I was writing the duty schedule for all chaplains. As previously mentioned, one of those acts is when messages come in, you know, chaplain goes and delivers then. So I was writing the schedule, so I was in a position where I didn't have to write my name in on the duty schedule, but I did, as had been my custom. He said "You can't come down there." And I said "Well, by regulations," and this was at a recruit training place, I said "You know, if bad news comes in the duty chaplain has to deliver the message. I am not going to take my name off the duty schedule; nobody else is going to be called up to take my place. What is she going to do when that happens?" And of course, she ended up backing out. That's the closest I've ever had with a military officer.

The regimental commander where she worked was aware of what was happening, a good Marine officer, just stood back to watch and let things happen as they would, and stayed out of it. And when it was resolved in the correct way, then he let it go. And he would not have allowed the situation.

If she had been in a position of authority where she'd tried to stop me, and there had been an impasse, he would not have allowed that impasse to stand. And most officers I've ever met are courageous enough that they would not endure that. So I have some difficulty understanding what I hear is going on now since I have retired, that chaplains supposedly can't pray in the name of Jesus, and all kinds of things. And who, institutionally, has been part of the chaplain for a long time, what's called pluralism and accommodation, I chose to ignore it. Obviously, I made an 06, Navy captain, out of the process. Some did not. Some have had their careers destroyed in very subtle ways. But again, this does not come-- In my view, did not come from the line officers in the military. It came from an informal system, where it becomes very hard to point a finger and say, "This and so happened because of this."

I think we'd be far better off, if chaplains did not hold military rank at all. That was my opinion when I first became a chaplain; that was my opinion the day that I left. We do not need rank to do our job. We need to be members of the military, we need to be on active duty, we need to be assigned with the unit, because history has proven that everybody who is in the battalion and goes into harm's way needs to be under the uniform code of military justice. They need to be in a position where they are required to follow the orders of those duly appointed over them. The lawful orders of those duly appointed over them. If an officer had ordered me to do anything that was contrary to my faith, it would have been an illegal order because Title 10 of US Code says you don't have to do those things. If there are things part of the conscience and the tradition of, traditions of faith that a chaplain, of any particular chaplain, that would keep them from following that are so unusual, then those people would not be in the military to start with. You know, some waive those rights to come in, without giving you specific denominations, you know, that they have such requirements, not just on the minister but on any member of their faith, that they generally do not see them on active duty. Now for instance, you wouldn't see a Mennonite on active duty, you know; they're pacifists.

Zarbock: A Quaker.

Tumlin: A Quaker, yeah. But if one would want to waive that and they come in, you know, then they follow the orders that are given to them. But I don't think we need rank as military chaplains to do that. The government can do pretty much what the government wants to do. I mean, you can be active duty; they can create a special category for chaplains where you do not have rank. Some other system for administering the business and the organization and assignments of chaplains can be instituted without having to have chaplains who vie for military rank to do it. Seems to be just contrary to what Jesus had to say to Matthew, Chapter 20, you'll recall from the scripture right before he faced crucifixion, disciples started vying among themselves who was going to be the greatest in the Kingdom of God. And he said, "It's not going to be that way amongst you." He said, "The greatest will be the servant of all." And too frequently, chaplains can get tied up in this whole thing of just being a careerist. And it can happen with anyone. It happens with dentists. I have a good dentist friend; it happens with dentists, it happens with doctors.

Zarbock: Higher education.

Tumlin: And higher education, oh my goodness.

Zarbock: Prime example.

Tumlin: We learn it in college and seminary, don't we. [Laughs.]

Zarbock: Absolutely.

Tumlin: You watch the professors.

Zarbock: Yes.

Tumlin: And more so in the colleges I would suppose though, but yes it happens, everywhere.

Zarbock: But, chaplain, and probably this is a propitious time to ask the question, looking back on your life, from coming of age to right now, what sort of credo have you put together for yourself? If led to the wall and blindfolded, and you were allowed the last remarks-- I know that's theatrical-- I meant it to be theatrical.

Tumlin: [Laughs.]

Zarbock: What would you say? That "I, Pastor Tumlin?"

Tumlin: Believe.

Zarbock: Believe and know.

Tumlin: Most credo is I believe. To believe and to know are all the same thing to me. To believe and to know and to do are all the same thing; there is no separation between the two. Jesus said; "If you love me, you will obey me." You know, "Why do you call Lord and do not what I say?" I like what one of my seminary professors said about faith; he said, "We always think about faith as if it-- the word faith, as if it is a noun." But he said, "Really, as far as I can tell and agree, it is really both noun and verb rolled together." Faith is not just about some academic concept that you ascribe to as being true and being factual; faith is more then just doing. He said, "When we open our life to faith, what we're really doing is that we are taking God into our life. We open our life up to God." So this God whom we serve that is everywhere in his universe that he has made, we are acknowledging and allowing now in our life, so the more faith that we have, in essence, is that we are more and more opening our life up for God to be in us. And that exists at every level an consciousness of our being. Both of what we say is true, both of what we speak, and both of what we do, and both of what we hope for. So if tied, blindfolded and put against the wall, the last thing I suppose I'd want to say, is, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved."

Zarbock: Chaplain, it's a privilege to have met you.

Tumlin: And in you, as well.

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