Robert Speer: A Chaplain’s Tale

Chaplain Robert Speer. Courtesy of the Berlin Observer.

Army Chaplain Robert Speer was born in San Francisco and went to high school in Great Falls, Montana where he met his wife, Lorraine. He was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church after attending the Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. Speer entered the Army Chaplaincy in 1967, during the height of the Vietnam War.

Like all Soldiers, Speer’s duties were defined by Army rules, regulations, and doctrine. Speer was subject to the 1967 version of Field Manual (FM) 16-5, The Chaplain. FM 16-5 (1967) describes the role of the Army Chaplain:

“The mission of the chaplain is to provide for the religious and moral needs of military personnel, their dependents, and authorized civilians. He has a leading role in the deliberate and systematic cultivation of moral and spiritual forces in the Army. The chaplain stimulates and guides the growth of spiritual and moral sense of obligation within the individual.”

On November 1st, 1968, Speer deployed to Vietnam. He was stationed at Camp Eagle in northern South Vietnam with the 2nd Battalion, 327th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.

Wartime service presents chaplains with special challenges. Many Soldiers experience an increased need for the support and comfort they gain from their faith while in combat. At the same time, the conditions in a war zone limit the time and space available for religious services. Speer wrote about the challenges of working with Soldiers in the field:

Tuesday – 26 Nov 68 – TOC

An unidentified Chaplain with the 101st Airborne conducts services in the field somewhere in Vietnam circa 1969.

Counseling is speeded up in a combat situations. You can’t expect second interviews and the usual drill. You have to work fast. You have to get the content of what the man is saying and decide which of four categories he fits into. 1) Guidance. The man asks you a question and you answer it. 2) Neurotic. The man has a problem and he knows it. You help him come to his own solution. 3) Psychotic. The man has a problem but he doesn’t know that he has it. You tell the Surgeon. 4) Reference. The man has a problem and needs the help of someone other than me. You send him to the right place.”

Chaplains are non-combatants and do not carry weapons, even when their assignments take them into battle. On March 6, 1969, Speer went out on a combat assault with Delta Company, 2/327th:

Thursday – 6 March 69 – Delta Company in the jungle

“This afternoon Delta Company sat down in our outdoor theatre to enjoy a USO show. The show started at 1630. At 1645 the show was stopped and the men were ordered to run to their tents, get all their gear and form up for a Combat Assault. I went along. Four Chinooks took off at 1715. We wondered if the LZ would be hot. When you are taking Chinooks in, the LZ is usually cold and this one was cold.”

“I was in the first bird and we were on the ground at 1730. The whole company was deployed on the ground at 1745. Four Cobras circled.”

“We were sent out to look for two helicopters which had been shot down. We walked until dark, then ate and slept in the jungle.”

“Somebody else ate the steak dinner that was cooking for Delta Company.”

The CH-47 Chinook had a top speed of 170 knots and could carry 30 or more Soldiers or lift over 7,000 pounds of cargo. The bird was well known for the extreme power of the rotor wash, which made landing and takeoff unpleasant for anyone on the ground. This CH-47 is bringing supplies to an artillery base in Vietnam in 1967. Photo Courtesy of USAHEC.

Not all his forays into the field ended so well:

Wednesday – 9 July 69 – In the Jungle with Bravo Company

“At about 0630 this morning I was finishing my morning cup of coffee before moving out. There was an explosion about 15 meters from me and everybody got down next to the ground. A mortar round hit squarely in the middle of the “flag” section of our company. It killed three and wounded 22 men. I didn’t get a scratch. I helped the injured as best I could – I wrapped up the company commander’s leg. It is the first time I have literally got the blood of my own men on my hands.”

Soldiers in Vietnam were granted a week of R&R in one of several destinations including: Hawaii, Australia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Philippines, and Singapore. Most married Soldiers went to Hawaii to spend time with their families. In July of 1969, Speer took R&R in Hawaii with his family. His writings from that time are sparse; presumably he was too busy to write much. He did take a few moments to write down his opinion on the value of R&R:

Monday 21 July 69 – Hilo

“The last day of R and R. Already our time together is a memory. I have new confidence as I return to Viet Nam. R and R is the greatest invention since the Wheel!”

“Today is National Moon Day . Today I have 101 days left in my year in Viet Nam.”

Everyone likes to know they are doing a good job, and chaplains are no exception:

Friday – 26 Sept 69 – Eagle

“Makes you feel good – Today one of the troops told me about a conversation in which I was mentioned. He said a medic was talking and said that I had helped him learn how not to be afraid on a helicopter combat assault.”

After Vietnam, Speer did a tour with the Berlin Brigade in Germany. There he gained a reputation for using folk music to connect with his Soldiers. His approach to the chaplaincy even earned him a write up in The Berlin Observer, an Army newspaper (see article below).

Primary Sources

During his time in Vietnam, Chaplain Speer wrote a number of letters to his wife, Lorraine.  Years later, he transcribed those letters into a typed manuscript that is now part of the collection at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, PA.  Here are some highlights from this manuscript:

November, 1968

December, 1968

January – February, 1969

March, 1969

May – June, 1969

July, 1969

Sept. – Oct. 1969

Research Intern:  Sam Rogers

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