November 2006

Robert W Woodroofe, Army Chaplain

The following article comes from "Memories of World War II," a book written about the residents of the Deaconess Abundant Life Community in Concord. All veterans are invited to take part in the Flag Retirement Ceremony on Saturday, November 11. Participants should meet at 7:30 a.m. at the second gate of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

When the United States entered World War II following Pearl Harbor, I was 31 years old and assistant minister in St. Bartholomew's Church in New York City. Previously I had been an armchair pacifist, but now that my country was committed to war, I found it morally unacceptable to let others do the dirty work for me and my family. I was reluctant to leave my wife and children. However they agreed that I should go. So I applied for a commission as a chaplain in the United States Army.

In June 1942, I was called to active duty and assigned as chaplain to the 9th Evacuation Hospital, and outfit made up of doctors and nurses from the Roosevelt Hospital in New York. After basic training in Florida and participation in war games in North Carolina, our unit was shipped overseas to Oxford, England. The time I was most afraid of dying were on ships in convoys on the way over due to the German submarines. In November we were sent in a convoy for the invasion of North Africa. This was the start of a three-year stint in which we took part in campaigns in Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily, Italy, France and Germany; treating about 8,500 casualties who were Americans, but also British, East Indians and French Colonials.

My duties as chaplain consisted of conducting worship services for the 9th Evac and for neighboring outfits that had no chaplain; visiting with patients, burying the dead with appropriate prayers, and reporting to Army headquarters the exact location of grave sites. In quiet times, I organized baseball games and sightseeing expeditions. In busy times I assisted in surgery, either administering open-drop ether, or holding retractors for the surgeon.

In North Africa, the scorpions were more to be feared than the German Luftwaffe. The small packets of sugar and coffee that came with C-rations were useful trading material for fresh eggs, oranges and cheese from the native civilians. I told my wife that I would never complain about food again, but I broke that promise.

When it was my turn to censor the outgoing mail, I noticed how often the GI's would use parenthetical remarks in their letters home, such as "The food here is very good (ha-ha)" or "It's very comfortable sleeping on the ground (ha-ha)."

Almost all the deaths that occurred in our hospital were quiet deaths without agony. The doctors were very generous with morphine. I remember the emotional impact of seeing the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor from the deck of the homecoming transport; and the even greater ecstasy of greeting my wife and children whom I hadn't seen for 3 years.

For more information contact Dick Krug, veterans administrator for the town of Concord. He can be reached at 978-318-3038 or by email.