COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The U.S. Army Chaplains Museum at Fort Jackson has artifacts dating back to the earliest days of the chaplain corps, which was founded by an act of the Continental Congress in 1775. George Washington appointed the first chaplains.
But it is looking now for more modern memorabilia. The museum is reaching out to veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq for stories, memorabilia and artifacts illustrating the service of chaplains in those conflicts. It is especially looking for items made by soldiers for chaplains and then used by chaplains for ministering to soldiers, said museum technician Tim Taylor.
"We want to collect the stories from those wars, both the good and the bad," said Taylor, a 30-year Army veteran who now spends his days as a self-described "history detective" tracking down elusive items from the past.
Although the chaplains archives, located at the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School, has thousands of items from the Revolutionary War to the present (the vast majority of the artifacts are not on display in the museum due to space limitations), it is those handmade items that are the most poignant.
For instance, during World War II, when Father William Leonard arrived in New Guinea, he found he had no chapel. So the men of the 9th Ordnance Battalion, where he was assigned, built him one.
"They used whatever they could scrounge together," Taylor said.
The centerpiece of the chapel was a stunning altar, now on display in the museum, made from salvaged wood and shell casings.
The base is a 500-pound block of mahogany spiked with two 90 mm artillery shells to hold up the mahogany table. The candle holders are made from 40 mm shells. And the crucifix was hand-carved by a private from Wisconsin using only a pocketknife and broken beer bottles. The rosewood used for the crucifix was salvaged from a sunken Australian destroyer.
The museum also features a large altar and pulpit carved by German and Italian prisoners of war in the United States. The altar was at Fort Devins, Mass., and moved to the museum when the chapel there closed.
It also has the vestments worn by Father Emil Kapaun, who recently was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his service in the Korean War. He was a prisoner of war who was killed by the Chinese for ministering to other POWs.
Most recently, curators were given a handmade steeple that topped an Army chapel in Afghanistan. Civilian contractors and Navy engineers made the steeple out of flattened 40 mm shells and the bell from 50-caliber machine gun shells.
Taylor said that any soldier that has items or stories about chaplains -- even emails or just anecdotes -- in the two wars should call the museum or just stop by.
"Most of our donations just walk through the door," he said.
The museum moved to Fort Jackson in 1995 from Fort Monmouth, N.J. It is part of the Army Chaplain School, which not only trains all the chaplains for the Army, but for the other branches of the service as well.
It does not, however, teach people to be ministers.
"We teach ministers to be chaplains," said Mark Johnson, Army Chaplain Corps historian.
There are about 4,500 chaplains in military as a whole, with 2,500 in the Army.
The Army Chaplain Corps has in its ranks Buddhist and Muslim chaplains as well as Catholic and Protestant. The first Hindu chaplain in any branch of the service joined the Army corps in 2012.
"The United States doesn't have the largest army in the world, but it has the most chaplains of any army in the world," Johnson said. "Religion is tightly woven in the fabric of America and the Constitutional right of freedom of religion is something we guard very dearly in the military."
Although open to the public, the museum serves another purpose besides telling the stories of chaplains past. It also is intended to inspire the chaplains of the future, said Col. Mark Nordstrom, a chaplain and director of training and leadership development at the chaplain school.
"It's intended to create esprit de corps," he said. "People become chaplains and chaplain's assistants for many different reasons. (The museum shows) they are joining something that is a lot bigger than themselves. As they walk around these halls they get a connection with those who have gone before them."
IF YOU GO
HOURS: 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday through Friday; closed weekends and federal holidays
DIRECTIONS: From Interstate 77, take Exit 12 (Forest Drive/Strom Thurmond Boulevard) onto Fort Jackson. All visitors must stay in the far right lane and be prepared to show a driver's license. Once on Fort Jackson, continue on Strom Thurmond Boulevard. Make a left onto Lee Road and another left onto Benning Road. The parking lot is on Benning Road, across the street from the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School. The museum is located under the center's breezeway.
A display of the Four Chaplains, a World War II episode where the chaplains aboard the German-torpedoed Dorchester selflessly gave their lives so other soldiers might be rescued
A piece of the Pentagon wall blown out on 9/11
The remains of a chaplain's kit used by Medal of Honor recipient Chaplain Charles J. Watters, who was killed near Dak To, Vietnam, in 1967
Vestments, altar pieces and memorabilia from famous World War I chaplain Patrick Duffy
A seven-foot-wide altar handmade by soldiers in New Guinea during World War II out of shell casings and mahogany
Contact the museum at (803) 751-8827 or stop by.