SMDC History: Island Memorial Chapel marks 70 years

By Sharon Watkins Lang, USASMDC/ARSTRAT Historical OfficeFebruary 27, 2015

Island Memorial Chapel Marks 70 Years
1 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Island Memorial Chapel Marks 70 Years
2 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Island Memorial Chapel Marks 70 Years
3 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

February 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the Island Memorial Chapel located on Kwajalein Atoll.

Despite the sometimes harsh environment, the structure, voluntarily constructed by Soldiers, sailors and Marines of all faiths stationed on Kwajalein Atoll in the waning months of World War II to commemorate their fallen comrades, has survived and is to many the "most attractive" and "best-loved landmark" on the island.

In 1949, Chaplain (Lt.) George K. Davies, Tusculum College president and former Navy chaplain published an article in "The Chaplain" which provides insight into the history of this unique structure.

Three weeks after D-Day for Operation Flintlock, the battle for the Marshall Islands, there were three chaplains stationed on Kwajalein. They were Chaplain (Maj.) Thomas Sigler, Protestant, and Chaplain (Capt.) John Archibald, Roman Catholic, both of the 87th Airdrome Squadron, and Chaplain (Lt.) George Davies of the U.S. Navy.

Davies recounts that the held his first church service on Feb. 27. 1944 under a tent fly near the commanding general's office. Later that day he conducted a service for the 25th Marines in their chow tent and ended the day with an evening service in a hospital tent.

To meet the needs of the community services were held in the Quonset hut that housed the chaplain's office and the Navy library and the "Eighth Street Chapel," which later became the Fleet Marine Recreation Center.

With no funds allotted for a chapel, once the Richardson Theater was completed in the summer of 1944 the open air venue provided an initial solution with joint services for the Army, Navy and Marines stationed on the island.

In September 1944, with the arrival of Maj. Gen. Louis Woods, Fourth Fleet Marine Air Wing commanding general, a new emphasis was placed upon creating a chapel. After studying the facilities on nearby islands, the chaplains and 1st Lt. Daniel Warner of the 893rd Aviation Engineers, who served as the architect, briefed Brig. Gen. Ogden Ross, island commander, in December 1944.

Due to its limited size, a Quonset hut approach was rejected in an effort to create one chapel for all. The team also dismissed the concept of a mixed Quonset/frame building approach. With the assurances that there was sufficient wood remained from other projects to support the effort, Ross tasked Warner to design the proposed wooden chapel.

The project quickly moved forward as Warner submitted his design to an interfaith committee the next day. With their concurrence, the group again briefed Ross and Woods. The leaders approved the concept and accepted the recommendation that the chapel be located near the island headquarters.

Two days later, the ground was broken for the chapel. All services participated in the project. The Army provided the grounds, aggregate, the cement and the lumber. The Marines supplied the carpenters while the Navy carpenter shops made the pews, altars, railings, steps and risers. As construction began, others joined the project volunteering their assistance as needed.

Ross formally dedicated the Island Memorial Chapel on Feb. 11, 1945 with the unveiling of a Memorial Tablet. Carved out of mahogany, the slab reads:

This chapel is dedicated to the memory of the gallant officers and men of the armed forces of the United States who gave their lives in the capture of Kwajalein February first to February fifth One Thousand Nine Hundred and Forty Four rest in peace

Ross then presented the chapel to representatives of the three faiths. Chaplain (Capt.) Robert Workman and chief of Navy chaplains, gave the dedicatory address. The service closed with "Faith of our Fathers" sung by the congregation and choir composed of personnel from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, the Nurses' Corps and the Red Cross.

As Davies notes "thus, the chapel was dedicated by and for all island personnel, for all faiths."

Despite some dramatic modifications, the integrity of the 1945 chapel remains intact. According to the Kwajalein Master Plan, engineers completed major structural repairs and reinforcement with metal pipe in 1967. Eight years later, in 1975 a $220,000 rehabilitation project saw the pews restored and the walls and roof replaced.

Finally in February 1994, the community unveiled a stained glass window commemorating the 50th anniversary of the battle for Kwajalein and Roi-Namur. In keeping with the traditions of the chapel, the window, funded through voluntary donations, is a memorial to those who served.

A kneeling Soldier holding authentic dog tags is surrounded by symbols representing the 7th Infantry Division and the 4th Marine Division, the United States and the Republic of the Marshall Islands and regrowth in a war torn land.

Inscribed across the bottom the text reads, "In memorial to those gallant men who paid the supreme sacrifice for freedom at Kwajalein, 50th Anniversary, February 1944."

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