by ADAM GRUENEWALD
Earlier this month, NYA resident and VFW Post 1783 Chaplain Alan Krueger read the proclamation for the annual Immortal Four Chaplains Day observance at Fort Snelling Memorial Chapel.
The ceremony for the Immortal Four Chaplains Day marked the 71st anniversary of the sinking of the transport U.S.S. Dorchester off the coast of Greenland, which took 700 lives in 1943.
Four chaplains of different faiths – Lt. George Fox, Methodist; Alexander Goode, Jewish; Lt. John Washington, Catholic; and Lt. Clark Poling, Dutch Reformed – went from soldier to soldier calming fears and handing out life jackets during the approximately 18 minutes when the ship was sinking.
When life jackets ran out, they removed their own and gave them to others to save lives and were last seen arm-in-arm in prayer on the ship’s hull.
All of the chaplains were posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross.
The story holds a special meaning for Krueger, who was in the Chaplains Corps for over 33 years attaining the rank of Master Sergeant. He served as a chaplain’s assistant during the Vietnam War and also was involved in training chaplains assistants in Minnesota.
“That story really, really grieves me,” he said.
It was through his time in the Army Reserves chaplain’s office, where he met Fort Snelling Memorial Chapel Senior Chaplain Ken Beale, a friend of 20 years and a retired colonel, who asked him to read the proclamation.
“He was a lowly captain, and I saw that he had an awful lot of potential, preaching and a lot of intuition” said Krueger of his first meeting with Beale. “He is just really dynamic and still is.”
While Krueger’s experience helped Beale find his way, his own experience started when he was drafted for the Vietnam War, serving from 1968 to 1970.
Called out of basic training at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, Krueger was offered a position through the chapel for reasons he calls “providential.”
Krueger first attended training at Fort Hamilton Schoolhouse in Brooklyn, where he learned of the Four Chaplains story before serving in Vietnam.
While in Vietnam for 14 months, Krueger was on the Unit Ministry Team, and was assigned to a chaplain, serving as chapel secretary, movie projectionist and the chaplain’s personal bodyguard during combat situations.
Trained to use M-16s, Krueger’s duty was to protect the non-military chaplains if the unit came under fire.
Krueger said he was honored to be part of the chaplains assistants program, which started as chaplains’ roles developed since they were first used in the Civil War.
“It was a unique pairing, a unique job description in a military setting,” he said of his own experiences in helping chaplains support soldiers, assist the wounded and honor the dead.
Downplaying his position, Krueger said he was proud of his service but considers his role light duty compared to the 55,000 people killed in Vietnam, including 6,000 from Minnesota.
“The role I played was really miniscule compared to the guys who were in the infantry,” he said. “The combat experience I had was really petty to these guys out in the field.”
Krueger said he experienced challenges as a chaplain’s assistant, whether through interactions with soldiers going through a difficult time, or even when he was writing letters to be sent home to families of those who were killed.
Describing himself as a “very feeling person,” he said it was difficult. “I’m always emotionally involved with people.”
The time spent in Vietnam had a significant impact on his life and he has retained that emotional connection since returning to the United States in 1970. He worked a wide variety of jobs, including sales, bill collecting and teaching special education, but also remained in the reserves, putting in his maximum amount of time for 31 years before getting honorably discharged.
While in the reserves, Krueger worked with Chaplain James Lauer from Hutchinson to train all of the chaplains assistants in the Fort Snelling jurisdiction and coordinate training sessions with the Minnesota National Guard.
“That was my claim to fame,” he said of the twice-annual training sessions held in various locations in the Midwest on weekends. “We were really successful. We had as many as 50 people attending the training conferences.”
A Faribault native, Krueger moved to NYA when he married Joyce in 1987 after meeting her at a singles retreat at Gustavus Adolphus College and then going on a date during Stiftungsfest in 1986.
Joyce remains his biggest supporter, he said, having understood his time away at conferences in the past.
Krueger was grateful to have her and Tim Swanson of NYA, a former chaplain’s assistant, attend the Immortal Four Chaplains Day ceremony at Fort Snelling in NYA, where he read the proclamation by Gov. Mark Dayton.
“I was proud to have them along,” he said. “When I read it, there was not a sound… I was thrilled. For several days, I was higher than a kite.”
Looking ahead, Krueger, 68, plans to keep attending the ceremony at Fort Snelling and visit the Four Chaplains Chapel in Philadelphia and the War Memorial Chapel in Washington D.C.
“That’s one of my bucket list items,” he said.
While never becoming ordained himself, the story of the four chaplains remains a constant inspiration for Krueger.
“Because I’ve been in the Chaplains Corps in a war zone, I just really appreciate those four chaplains,” he said. “My God, it’s awesome.”
For more information on the Immortal Four Chaplains story and foundation, visit www.fourchaplains.org or for information on the Fort Snelling Memorial Chapel, visit www.fortsnellingmcf.org.
Contact Adam Gruenewald at [email protected]