“Cowboy Preacher” was a legendary 45th Infantry Division Chaplain

Thursday, April 4, 2013 1:00 pm

by Oklahoma National Guard

Oklahoma Frontline

By Sgt. 1st Class Darren D. Heusel, Joint Force Headquarters Public Affairs

OKLAHOMA CITY – Generation after generation of Americans have answered the call – especially during war. Thousands of veterans have seen, felt and endured things only war brings. Intense adrenaline rushes, boredom, fear, longing, sadness, euphoria and even tremendous remorse for lost friends are all a part of war. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you saw action at Anzio or in eastern Afghanistan, Soldiers of all generations share a common bond, really a brotherhood, others can only try to imagine.

During these most difficult times, some men and women turn away from faith while others actively seek out spiritual counselors. Since the revolutionary war, that extra lifeline to spiritual contentment has been a military chaplain.

When Colonial forces went to war, they took a local minister with them. For the Colonists, the minister was a powerful figure of authority within the community, and usually the best educated. The ministers were available to counsel and motivate the Colonial fighting men so field commanders held them in high regard.

45th Infantry Division Chaplain and Hero

Two months after the 45th Infantry Division was activated in 1940, William King joined it and prepared to go to war for the second time. He had already experienced World War I as a Navy man.

In peacetime, the “Cowboy Preacher” as he was known by those who knew him best, served as pastor of the Maywood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo. During World War I, Chaplain William E. King served as a Navy gunner on several merchant ships, two of which were torpedoed while he was on them. He was only 16 years old when he enlisted and wouldn’t finish high school until after the Great War.

“But all those students, and even the teachers, seemed so silly to me when I got back,” Chaplain King was quoted as saying in a Dec. 28, 1943 article in the Mediterranean issue of Stars and Stripes. “When you’re in a war, you get a different kind of education. You get an education in the simple fundamentals of life and death, with everything else stripped away. That’s why I became a chaplain, I guess.”

A more mature King would join the famed 45th Infantry Division during World War II. A rather tall man, King was a frontline chaplain with a gawky body and deep, rich voice, who knew what it was like to crawl on his belly through the German lines. During the battle of San Rosso Hill his courage and faith were on full display when an American Soldier lay mortally wounded on a highway between friendly and enemy lines.

In an excerpt from The Best and Worst of Times, The United States Army Chaplaincy 1920-1945 author Robert L. Gushwa tells the story. The Germans let the group reach the body and wrap it in a blanket; as they were lifting it into the jeep, an 88 mm German anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery gun opened up on the men, Gushwa explained. Chaplain King directed the men to take cover while he drove back to friendly lines through the enemy fire. Unfortunately the Soldier died and in the dead man’s pocket were five unopened letters from home that Chaplain King delivered to him on the front lines the previous night.

There are lots of stories about the famous 45th chaplain. A few days earlier, Chaplain King was slightly wounded while carrying water to frontline troops attacking a hill.

“The boys needed water badly, so I and a helper took it up to them,” King was quoted as saying. “I put down a five-gallon can when it exploded straight up. A piece of shrapnel grazed my right hand and cut a hole in my right trouser leg, while my companion was more seriously hurt.”

Near Caltagirone Sicily, King demonstrated under fire that he was ready to minister to both friend and foe, an experience shared by several chaplains throughout the war. As big guns and tanks slugged it out, King crawled to assist a German, whose leg was fractured by machine gun bullets.

He knelt behind a low stone wall, made temporary splints, bandaged the enemy Soldier and gave him water. He discovered that the German was flown there only the day before and had been on the front lines just eight hours.

“He patted my hand and (appeared grateful), saying afterward through an interpreter that he had been told Americans mutilated their prisoners,” King is reported to have said.

Late in the war, King who would go on to become the first chaplain to minister to Soldiers in concentration camps at Buchenwald, Auschwitz and Dachau, and also occupied an administrative position both with the 45th Infantry Division and with VI Corps. But those who knew him best said he didn’t look like an “armchair officer” and his Army records indicate he was anything but your typical “desk jockey.”

During World War I, Chaplain King earned the Silver Star Medal and the Navy Good Conduct Medal. During World War II, while serving in many of Europe’s bloodiest battles, the chaplain earned the Bronze Star Medal with oak leaf cluster, the Purple Heart Medal with oak leaf cluster, the Arrowhead for four invasions and six stars for participating in as many engagements.

His Bronze Star was earned on the battlefield at Anzio. The cluster to the star was earned in an earlier action in Sicily and awarded him for taking care of wounded in the 179th Infantry while they were under fire after being caught in an ambush.

He was wounded first near Finale, on the northern coast of Sicily, while, as he told the Abilene Reporter-News in July 1945, “I was carrying some water up a hill to some fellows.”

Chaplain King died in the summer of 1985 at the age of 84.

Today’s Chaplains learn from King’s example

“Just from what I’ve learned about him, he’s the kind of chaplain that we want our chaplains to emulate,” said Chaplain (Maj.) Brad Hanna, Deputy State Chaplain for the Oklahoma Army National Guard. “He believed in his mission, which was to serve God and take that to the Soldiers in the field.

“He was willing to endure a great amount of hardship to do it. He didn’t just sit in a chapel. He got out in the field with his men.”

Chaplain Hanna said King would drive “a ton of miles” visiting Soldiers in the field and his driver was none other than the legendary author of the “Willie and Joe” cartoon series, Bill Mauldin, himself a member of the 45th Infantry Division.

In fact, one of Mauldin’s more popular cartoons portrays Chaplain King ministering to troops from the 45th Infantry Division in the field while artillery rain down all around them. The caption from the cartoon reads, “…forever, Amen. Hit the dirt.”

John King, 80, said in a phone interview from his home in Corvallis, Or., that his father lied about his age to join the Navy in 1916.

He said his father served in the Navy “until 1918 or 1919,” then went to the University of Southern California, where he played football for the Trojans.

“He was in good physical shape,” said John King of his father, who stood 6-foot-2 and weighed about 185 pounds. “But one of his passions was he loved to cowboy. He had a horse and he was quite the man’s man.”

In fact, John King said, he believes his father is credited with helping to found what is commonly referred to today as the Cowboy Church, where farmers and ranchers meet in the outdoors to worship and praise God.

He accepted a commission in the Reserves in 1930 “because I felt trouble was coming,” and joined the 45th Infantry Division at Fort Sill, Okla. He was assistant division chaplain while there and made division chaplain in August 1942.

“In 1940, war clouds were on the horizon and people were talking about the increasing size of the armed forces,” John King said. “He heard about this unit they were going to form from Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas National Guard units at Camp Barkley, outside of Abilene, Texas.”

John King said his father was part of the initial invasion into North Africa under Gen. “Blood and Guts” George Patton’s command.

“Patton’s outfit also had responsibility for Austria and Bavaria,” John King said.

V-E Day found Chaplain King in Austria. The day before, he had driven into Italy through the Brennar Pass, nearly completing a circle of Southern and Central Europe. Much of his travel was within that circle. During the campaigns for France and Germany, he drove 28,400 miles contacting his chaplains and visiting troops.

John King said his father, who traveled from Illinois to California with his family in a covered wagon, returned to the states in 1946 and remained active in the Reserves, before retiring as a brigadier general at age 65.

Baptism during battle

One of John King’s fondest memories is a story about his dad is when he baptized an American Soldier in the Tyrrhenian Sea, just off the coast of Anzio during the height of the war.

With heavy guns drumming in the background and white-capped waves rushing in from the sea, Pvt. Leo Daniel Fagan, a former dynamite truck driver from Picher, Okla., became the first beachhead Yank to be baptized in the sea since the landing of Allied troops more than two months earlier.

“As the story goes, when my father got ready to baptize Private Fagan, both sides stopped shooting until he was finished,” John King recalled. “Of course, it wasn’t long after and the fighting resumed.”

Maj. Gen. Myles Deering, the adjutant general for the State of Oklahoma, said plans are in the works to name the Fellowship Hall at the new Camp Gruber Thunderbird Chapel in honor of Chaplain King sometime later this year.

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