A Tribute to Chaplain Nate LoeschThe Navy Chaplain entered the ship's wardroom, weary and dejected. His usually pleasant face was pale and drawn, etched by the stress of the mission from which he'd just returned. It was hours after midnight and though tired he knew he could not sleep.
He greeted the Captain with a glance and slumped into a seat at the dining table. "Cup of coffee, Chaplain?" asked the Captain. The Chaplain nodded as if in deep thought. The Captain drew coffee from an urn on the sideboard, placed a cup in front of the Chaplain and sat opposite him.
"Lt. Wyrick is dead," said the Chaplain.
"Yes, I heard," replied the Captain, "We got the report by radio."
The Chaplain and the Captain were friends. Thrown together by the war in the river, they had come to like and respect each other. The Chaplain could have resided aboard the Flagship with his boss and the Commodore. But he chose to live aboard this LST where life was less formal.
The Chaplain stared at the Captain and said, "Wyrick has only been out here ten days. This was his first mission."
"Yes, I know," said the Captain. He knew too that Wyrick had gone on the mission because another officer was sick. Neither the Chaplain nor Wyrick was under the Captain's operational command. His ship merely provided hotel services for them and the combat soldiers and sailors.
The Chaplain turned his cup round and round in his hands staring at it absorbed in thought. The Captain waited in silence. He knew the Chaplain wanted to talk about what had happened on the mission.
"We were going down a narrow canal," said the Chaplain. "The boats were travelling in a column. I was in the third boat. It was very dark."
The Captain listened intently, compassionately to this marvelous man who went into combat with the soldiers and sailors. He was not required to go. Officially he could remain aboard the ship in relative safety. But he went voluntarily into "the valley of death" in the small boats. The men accepted his presence, then expected it. He was popular; he never preached to them, but they felt his goodness and were comforted.
The Chaplain took a sip of coffee and continued his story.
"There was a streak of light and an explosion hit the first boat. A B-40 rocket the crew said. It came from the side of the canal. For several minutes there was shooting and yelling as we fired back. Then it got quiet. We were past the enemy area."
"The command boat called by radio and asked for me. They said Lt. Wyrick was hurt bad and could I come aboard their boat. We took our boat alongside the command boat and I went aboard."
The Chaplain paused for another sip of coffee and went on with the story. "The rocket had torn open his stomach. He was conscious though I could see his insides were exposed and all torn up. He'd been given a shot of morphine and his pain was subsiding."
"I held his head in my lap. It took an hour and fifteen minutes for him to die. There were no helicopters available, we couldn't get him back to a doctor. He talked the whole time. I didn't know him 'til then. He was groggy but he told me about his wife in San Diego. They have two little girls. He told me about his mother, and his childhood. He never asked for anything. He just talked, we prayed together and he died."
Both men were silent. They sipped coffee. Several minutes passed. The Chaplain said softly yet urgently...
"I don't want to go out there again, Al."
"I know, said the Captain, "but you will. And the worst part of it is that you don't have to go. But you will." And he did.
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© 2005, Alfred Dillon