We laid my Uncle Frank to rest 44 years ago. But he was alive in my living room this weekend, speaking from the pages of a diary he wrote as an Army chaplain during World War II.
Frank Mitchell Arnold II was a hero in my family: idolized by my mother, his younger sister by 12 years, and admired by my father, who followed him into the Air Force as a chaplain. Chaplains aren’t normally viewed as war heroes, but Uncle Frank was a war hero in my family. He was awarded a Silver Star, three Bronze Stars (one of them with “V” for valor) and a Purple Heart. I didn’t know much more than that the medals had something to do with tending to casualties under enemy fire and that he had been in the Battle of the Bulge and had been appalled at Gen. George S. Patton’s profanity.
I was just 10 years old when Uncle Frank died, just weeks before Dad was to be transferred into his command in the Pacific, stationed at Wakkanai, Japan. We would have visited Uncle Frank in Hawaii on the way to Japan. But he died of a heart attack on a trip to Thailand. His was the first funeral I remember attending.
We visited Aunt Florence a few times in the years following his death, visits I enjoyed because his son, Frankie, was about my age and we shared a fondness for boyish and adolescent mischief. But Uncle Frank faded into a family legend, a vague memory from a few visits and from stories Mom would tell about his sense of humor, his love of baseball and opera, his gift for languages. And, of course, his heroism.
In the way that families scatter and fail to keep in touch, Frankie and I pretty much lost track of each other. He became Frank (father of Frank Mitchell Arnold IV and grandfather of Frank Mitchell Arnold V) and served an Air Force career himself. We finally reconnected a few years ago when my brother Dan invited some extended family to a reunion in Illinois (he lives in the St. Louis area). We had a smaller gathering in May, when Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kan., asked Dan to speak at its commencement and awarded him an honorary doctoral degree. Over a barbecue dinner after church the next day, Frank said he had found his father’s diary from World War II and asked if Dan, our cousin Doug Worgul and I would be interested. We all answered enthusiastically.
It arrived this week. And finally I’m hearing (reading, actually, but I can almost hear his voice as I read) the war stories Uncle Frank never got to tell me.The diary I have was typed on pages with three holes punched in them for keeping in a notebook. Frank says his mother, Florence (who this year celebrated her 90th birthday in Muncie, Ind.), says that Uncle Frank had a portable typewriter as part of his chaplain’s equipment. (The diary indicates that he had the unpleasant duty of writing letters to family members of casualties.) However, it appears to me that the pages I have were typed by Uncle Frank sometime after the war, perhaps from a handwritten diary. Daily entries that were just a line or two appear to be exactly lined up with each other, which would have been hard to do without just leaving the paper in the typewriter for several days. In addition, the introduction covering his service up to February 1943 appears to have been written later, rather than when he started the diary.
The diary is a mix of mundane everyday life, ministry to men facing combat, actual combat experience, interaction with friendly Europeans and brushes with famous figures of the war. For nephews with only fleeting memories of the family’s war hero, they are glimpses that start to fill out a vague image. But they are only glimpses. No doubt weary after long days facing the stress of war, Uncle Frank made only brief entries into the diary. Though Twitter wouldn’t come along for another 60-plus years, many of his entries would have fit into tweets. But readers of this blog already know you can fit a lot into a tweet.
The diary starts Feb. 19, 1943, at Camp Butner, N.C., with this entry:
Showed “The Power of God,” an excellent 16 mm. sound film in chapel to a good crowd of men.
I was under the mistaken notion that chaplains didn’t handle firearms, but the March 7 entry says otherwise:
And five days later:
Fired on pistol range. Scored 46%! Not good.
This April 12 entry was like many in the diary, telling a lot about Uncle Frank but not telling the whole story:
Learned in a new way the meaning and power of the Holy Spirit. Yielded my life, thought, words, mind, actions, completely to Him. May He keep me faithful and defeat the adversary.
The next entry, May 1, had big news of a military kind:
Promoted! Am now a Captain for the duration.
June 10, 1943, he noted, “One year in the Army.” Apparently physicals were an annual event. His blood pressure was “120/80!!!”
The stateside assignment that year was mundane enough that Uncle Frank hadn’t written in the diary for four months until this Dec. 17 entry:
Second Army Hq. phoned Div. Hq today alerting me for overseas assignment.
In January, he met Florence in New York City for a four-day leave:
1/19 Lazed around. Went to Calvary Baptist Church.
1/20 Took tour of city. Very interesting.
1/22 Florence returned to Chicago.
He set sail for Europe on Feb. 2:
Left U.S. Passed Statue of Liberty at 2:26 P.M. escorted by Navy blimps and planes. Smooth sea. Stiff and very cold wind. 23 chaplains aboard.
2/3 Met General Harrison aboard ship. Small world. Today the sea is rough, and some of the boys are reviewing the diet of the past week.
2/4 “Sailing, sailing …” Happy birthday, Flo!
2/5 More of the same.
They reached Greenock, Scotland, on Feb. 8 and unloaded the next day, greeted by a “bag pipe band, fully kilted.” His first few entries from Britain were upbeat (“Impressions of Scotland: Green hills, snow-capped mountains, flag waving, thumbs up, ‘V’ sign, good coffee at Carlisle.) He wired home and got his first mail. But the war encroaches: (Feb. 20, “Spent P.M. in town, where there is much evidence of bombing.” March 13, “Moved to Newbury. Sky dark and loud with B 26s and P 47s.”)
He got a chance to tour England, visiting Stonehenge, Devonshire and Cornwall (“Delightful scenery). On March 23 he saw Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, “their majesties, and many lesser lights.”
The diary doesn’t say whether he was ill or assigned as a hospital chaplain, but twice he spent stretches at a hospital, each noted just with two entries. Looks to me like he was being treated for something:
2/25 To 10th Station Hospital.
3/10 Discharged from Hospital.
4/13 Hospital again – 67th General at Taunton.
4/23 Out again. Missed Excercise Tiger. 500 men killed by German action.
Whatever, if anything, was ailing him, he felt good enough by May 25 to buy a Harley Davidson motorcycle (or perhaps it was Army-issued. The entry:
Practicing to be a circuit rider. Got a Harley Davidson today.
As D-Day approached, the anxiety and anticipation was reflected in Uncle Frank’s diary:
5/31 Had unusually good Midweek service. Most of the boys were from the 4th Inf. Div… didn’t know when they’d take off. How they sang! “Jesus, Saviour, pilot me … Unknown waves before me roll …” (elipses are in Uncle Frank’s diary)
6/2 All loaded in all five areas. Boys seem cheerful and witty…camoflage … how long?
6/3 Waiting. Weather getting bad!
6/4 Had Staff Conf. this morning. Planning retrograde movement. Channel stormy. Build-up troops moving into Concentration Areas and Marshalling Camps.
6/5 This was to have been “D Day.” What now? Visited Crown Hill Cemetery. Saw 1000 prepared caskets.
6/6 This is it! “D Day.”
Uncle Frank wasn’t in the D-Day invasion, despite the obvious support role. But two days later, he learned he was being assigned to “a tank outfit.” On June 11 and 13 he led services for troops preparing to cross the English Channel into France. The June 13 entry reflects the segregated nature of the military then: “Services for 200 Negro replacements.” On June 16, Uncle Frank learned he was replacing a “Chaplain Bourke” who had been wounded, in the 4th Armored Division. The chaplain’s “T5,” apparently an enlisted man assigned to assist the chaplain, had been killed. As Uncle Frank prepared to move on to his next assignment, his June 19 entry summarized his work in Operation Overlord (his first reference to that name): “My chaplains held 1416 services ministering to 70,252 men.”
His June 30 entry:
Reported to 4th Armored Div. Assigned to Combat Command “B.”
I’d like to post this on July 4 (oddly Uncle Frank didn’t have a July 4 entry any of the three years he kept the diary), so we’ll stop there.