As religion reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Tim Townsend researched and wrote stories about chaplains returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, charting their reintegration into their congregations.
In the process, he learned about Lutheran minister Henry Gerecke, a chaplain from World War II who stepped into world history when he ministered to the 21 imprisoned Nazi leaders that awaited trial for crimes against humanity.
From this experience, Townsend wrote a book titled Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis, and he will present a lecture on that topic at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy. This lecture is part of the Oliver Archives Heritage Lecture Series.
It was a letter addressed to Gerecke’s wife that caught Townsend’s attention: “Written by one, signed by 21 of those on trial,” Townsend said. It was in an exhibit of the history of chaplaincy in America.
“The letter asked her to allow her husband to stay through the trial,” Townsend said. “They had heard a rumor that she wanted him home.”
The architects of the Holocaust wrote to Gerecke’s wife saying they need not tell her how much they loved him. Knowing the man, she would understand how he could be loved.
Townsend said Gerecke was a restless soul. His first job entailed the normal pastoring of a church. During the Great Depression, he saw troubled people on the streets. He quit his church, moved his family into a smaller apartment, and worked as a missioner for the Lutheran church. When war broke out in the 1940s, two of Gerecke’s sons fought in it. Gerecke needed to be part of this global conflagration. At the age of 50, he enlisted.
Gerecke had some special credentials for ministering to the German criminals. He spoke German. He was Lutheran. From his mission duty on Depression streets, he had experience ministering to people behind bars. Nonetheless, no credentials would prepare a chaplain “to kneel down on the cement floor with the likes of Hermann Göring and Hans Frank,” Townsend said.
Gerecke worked alongside a Catholic priest. The Nazi criminals indicated that the two men showed compassion.
“These two chaplains had enough faith in their own faith to try to save the souls of these men before the inevitable, racing against time to bring some sort of light,” Townsend said.
Gerecke knew the horrors. He had been to Dachau. He knew what the men had done. In his letters, he wrote about having anxiety.
“Both chaplains sat in the courtroom, listening to what was happening,” Townsend said. “But they knew their jobs.”
Just like anybody coming back from a traumatic situation, military chaplains need adjustment back to normal lives. Operation Barnabas is a project of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod that ministers to the armed forces. It helps train the congregation to make sure they know what to do and what not to do.
Townsend said it helps people “pick up on cues from war.”
In his research, Townsend learned a lot about the history of chaplaincy. He spent time at Fort Jackson where Gerecke was trained. Today, chaplaincy can be very high tech, Townsend said.
But at the root of it, he said, “Chaplains have important responsibilities, not just to men and women, but to the higher order.”