Young on Wukovits, 'Soldiers of a Different Cloth: Notre Dame Chaplains in World War II'

Author: 
John F. Wukovits
Reviewer: 
John Young

John F. Wukovits. Soldiers of a Different Cloth: Notre Dame Chaplains in World War II. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2018. Illustrations, maps. 408 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-268-10393-4.

Reviewed by John Young (University of Alabama) Published on H-War (February, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54766

All scholarly works of any substantial length are, to some extent, labors of love; the necessary investments of time, effort, and physical and mental energies mean that topics tend to self-select on the basis of the author’s abiding interests and life experiences. Yet even acknowledging this reality, some projects stand out. John F. Wukovits’s Soldiers of a Different Cloth: Notre Dame Chaplains in World War II is just such a project. Wukovits, a prolific author and historian of the Second World War, is also a second-generation Notre Dame graduate, and in this engaging work, he tells the stories of nearly three dozen chaplains (having deep connections to South Bend themselves) who left Indiana to serve on foreign fields.

Telling stories is precisely what Wukovits aims to do in this volume. Having chanced upon a brief reference to the titular chaplains in a mid-twentieth-century history of his alma mater, Wukovits decided that he would take up that book’s author’s challenge to flesh out their stories, “but only if [they] had experiences beyond the typical stateside posts” (p. xi). His research proved fruitful in this regard, and the finished work effectively conveys the enormous sacrifices made by wartime chaplains as well as the sheer variety of circumstances and locales in which they found themselves. These seem to be the two major underlying themes, if not quite theses, of Wukovits’s book, in which arguments are usually suggested rather than stated directly.

To dive too deeply into, or provide too many details from, the chaplains’ stories in this review would do a disservice to Wukovits’s work. Because the narratives are those of individuals with whom the reader may not already be familiar, there are elements of suspense and uncertainty that are not typically found in works of historical scholarship, in which outcomes are usually already known to the reader. Fortunately, though, Soldiers of a Different Cloth is divided into three primary sections of three to five chapters each, and these can be addressed more broadly to give a sense of the book’s contents without spoiling its plot. The first (and shortest) section, “The Chaplains Head to War,” begins with a brief prologue focusing on the diversity of four chaplains’ experiences in the momentous days from June 6 to June 15, 1944. The first three chapters, immediately following the prologue, introduce several other chaplains, describe their priestly training, provide an overview the outbreak of hostilities, and take readers through the protagonists’ decisions to join the war effort.

The five chapters of part 2, “Chaplains at the Battlefront,” serve as the core of the book in terms of both length and content. Covering the period from the beginning of 1943 through the end of 1944, the chapters mostly alternate between Pacific and European theaters, illustrating to readers just how many kinds of challenges chaplains were forced to overcome. That the chaplains were willing to brave the horrors (and banalities) of the frontlines, the author observes, could often inspire extra bravery from the soldiers under their care, simply because they knew that “they had a chaplain who did more than just pray” (p. 124). The chaplains’ ongoing efforts to remain connected to life on the home front provide some occasional levity in these chapters as well, such as one priest who took it upon himself to widely publicize the Fighting Irish’s triumph over the rival Michigan Wolverines in 1943.

The final section, “Onward to Victory,” picks up the stories at the beginning of 1945 and continues not only through the end of hostilities but also into the long-term impacts, good and bad, of the chaplains’ sacrifices. One of the most intense passages of the book comes as American soldiers, under General Douglas MacArthur’s leadership, race against the clock to rescue prisoners of war (POWs), while the chaplains and other POWs in those camps try desperately to cling to the hope of freedom in the face of death and deprivation. Another particularly gripping passage describes the internal struggles of a chaplain trying to process what he saw as he arrived at Dachau: “If he were correct in thinking that man was good, how could such depravity exist? If he were incorrect, he would be admitting that the foundations of his religious beliefs were frayed at best, rotting at worst” (p. 268). Yet despite it all, including the mental health struggles that followed many chaplains home, they generally agreed that the war had strengthened them in their faith, making them better able to serve others and to appreciate God’s blessings in the parishes to which they returned.

As noted above, Soldiers of a Different Cloth is not a particularly argument-driven book, and there is little in the way of historiographical discussion or direct engagement with other works of scholarship. But Wukovits has clearly accomplished his stated goal of telling the stories of the Notre Dame chaplains, and by that standard, the book as a whole is a success. Thoroughly researched, clearly written, and often emotionally moving, Soldiers of a Different Cloth will be a must read for professional and “lay” historians of war, religion, and the intersection thereof. A number of supplementary materials, including photographs, maps, a biographical appendix, a chronology of events, and contributions from two Notre Dame presidents round out the volume nicely.

Citation: John Young. Review of Wukovits, John F., Soldiers of a Different Cloth: Notre Dame Chaplains in World War II. H-War, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54766

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