Tuesday was the worst day of the week for us Army personnel stationed at Arlington Hall (a former elite girls’ school!), a few miles south of Washington, D.C., during the last days of the Korean War in 1953. We had to get up an hour earlier to attend the dreadfully boring “TIP” – Troop Information Program – in the post movie theater. We had to stay awake through a solid hour to hear the post commander read the latest orders of the WMC, the Washington Military Command, followed by a movie dealing with topics ranging from “The Importance of Military Courtesy” to “The Care and Cleaning of the M1 Rifle.”
We had no idea how different one particular Tuesday would be!
Our commanding officer, Capt. Morris, had earned our ridicule a few months earlier when, with half a million Chinese Communist troops massing just north of the Yalu River, he snarled at us one morning and said, “If there’s anything I can’t stand it’s dirty brass!” (referring to the brass insignia on our uniforms that seemed to need constant polishing).
Facing that horde of angry and sleepy GIs, Capt. Morris began by reading a few orders from the WMC, mostly dealing with enlisted men taking parking spaces reserved for officers, barracks in substandard condition and far too many failures to salute those of superior rank. And then it struck!
The next order from the WMC, said the captain, introduced us to the new CMC, the Compulsory Military Chapel. “Army studies have concluded that the Army spends huge sums of money providing worship facilities and, having noted that such facilities are grossly under-attended, effective next Sunday morning the Compulsory Military Chapel will convene for religious services at ten hundred hours. All personnel will attend; excuse will be by written permission of the commanding officer only. This order applies to all Catholic, Protestant and Jewish personnel.” Capt. Morris then asked if there were any questions.
There followed a catatonic silence, something really hard to describe. It was a truly troubled silence, suddenly interrupted by a strange kind of thunder as the hands of every single one of those hundreds of GIs shot skyward. When Capt. Morris completed his briefing on the Compulsory Military Chapel and asked if there were any questions, it was the stupidest question possible. Damn right, there were questions! Everybody had questions!
“Sir,” said the first questioner, “I’m a Roman Catholic. We don’t countenance worship together with those of any other religion.” “I will repeat that portion of the order that relates to your question,” Morris responded firmly. “‘This order applies to all Catholic, Protestant and Jewish personnel’. Next question.”
“Captain Morris, I’m Jewish,” came the next question. “We don’t worship on Sunday morning. We worship on Friday night and Saturday before sundown.” Capt. Morris cut him short with a lusty, “I will repeat that portion of the order that answers your question. ‘The Compulsory Military Chapel will convene at ten hundred’ – that’s 10 a.m. – ‘Sunday mornings.’ Next!”
“Sir, I live off-post,” began the next GI. “The only time I have to spend with my family is Sunday morning.” And Capt. Morris made equally quick work of him, too, with a crisp, “I will repeat that portion of the order relevant to your question. ‘Excuse from attending the Compulsory Military Chapel shall be only by written permission from your commanding officer.'”
And so on and on and on.
Like a military unit caught in an ambush and struggling to regain footing, the questions leapt from personal pleas to the weightiest questions of constitutional law. “This order clearly violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment, Captain.” “This order does violence to the separation of church and state.”
And of course there was the inevitable MP (military policeman) who merely wanted to know what uniform to wear.
The proceedings began to take on some of the characteristics of a riot. And Capt. Morris stood there fielding questions and shouting “Next!” time after time, and all the while the corporal who ran the movie projector sat disconsolately beside his projector all loaded and ready with the weekly Troop Information film, which, alas, would never be called for this Tuesday at all. Instead there were more and more, angrier and angrier questions.
When the hour was up Morris did a quick change of persona. Instead of acting like a military proconsul bullying hapless slaves into some New Order, he broke into a grin as broad as the front end of a Japanese bulldozer. “Men, I’m so proud of you all,” he said. “This ‘Compulsory Military Chapel’ is completely false. Some of the psychology boys over at the Pentagon wanted to see how an auditorium full of GIs would react to something like this. You reacted like Americans, and I couldn’t be more proud of you!”
I was pretty proud, too. Here these soldiers, who, as far as I could tell, were interested only in beer, girls and comic books, had turned, without warning, into sentinels of freedom. And I even felt a kinship with Capt. Morris, who had conducted himself as more of a professional actor than some who’ve taken home Academy Awards.
I remember wanting to hug him – not a good idea in the Army of 1953. It wouldn’t even be proper congratulating and thanking your commanding officer. The Army has special words for troops who do that. I knew I had to do something to show my appreciation, although I’ve forgotten what I actually did.
I think I polished my brass.