Things were getting bad for the U.S. Third Army in December 1944. Their offensive operations were dampened by incessant rain. Armies don’t work well in rain. Roads and fields turn to mud. Water gets everywhere. Over a period of time without proper sanitation, rain produces disease. More importantly, the momentum of an army can grind to a halt. This was no good for General George Patton, the man who ran the whole outfit.
On the morning of 8 December, Patton called the head chaplain of Third Army, Msgr. James H. O’Neill, and asked if he knew a good prayer for the weather. O’Neill had nothing at hand and typed up something himself on a 3×5 card:
Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies and establish Thy justice among men and nations.
Patton approved and asked for 250,000 copies for every soldier in Third Army. But the story doesn’t end there. The commanding general, wrote O’Neill, “was true to the principles of his religion, Episcopalian, and was regular in Church attendance and practices, unless duty made his presence Impossible.” Patton then asked his chaplain about how much prayer was going on in his army. O’Neill said that when there was fighting, everybody prayed. But in the rain, and the times when danger was close, the troops were quiet. Since men were used to formal settings and ritual, and “both chaplains and men are removed from a special building with a steeple,” prayer wasn’t as common.
The general recognized this problem. He valued prayer, and echoed Stonewall Jackson with a similar response that “God has been very good to us.” If providence existed, then it had certainly saved his forces from defeats in Africa, Sicily, Italy, and now the bulk of the European continent. On the other hand, many American lives were lost on faraway fields in all those campaigns.
Msgr. O’Neill returned to his office to get the now-famous weather prayer to all of Third Army. He prefaced the document with a letter to some 486 chaplains. In that message, he urged his brothers to encourage prayer not so much in the defeat of their enemies, but in the hopeful outcome of survival and peace:
“Those who pray do more for the world than those who fight; and if the world goes from bad to worse, it is because there are more battles than prayers … Urge all of your men to pray, not alone in church, but everywhere. Pray when driving. Pray when fighting. Pray alone. Pray with others. Pray by night and pray by day. Pray for the cessation of immoderate rains, for good weather for Battle. Pray for the defeat of our wicked enemy whose banner is injustice and whose good is oppression. Pray for victory. Pray for our Army, and Pray for Peace.”
In the modern century, U.S. Army chaplains have the same mission as their predecessors. They follow the troops everywhere. And if soldiers today form a multitude of differing cultures, religions, and beliefs, then the chaplain is part of that diversity:
Army Chaplains are expected to observe the distinctive doctrines of their faith while also honoring the right of others to observe their own faith. The Army is a pluralistic environment. Rabbis, Ministers, Imams and Priests serve our Soldiers with conviction and commitment. While serving their own faith groups in the Army, chaplains also ensure and provide the means for others to observe their own faith in accordance with US law and regulations.
It was one of Patton’s contemporaries, Douglas MacArthur, who said that “The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” If there could be someone to think constantly on the days of peace, and to comfort those who suffer war, then the chaplains fulfill their purpose.