Collection showcases history of chaplains
Walking into Chaplain Robert Nay’s office, I noticed a sign hanging on his wall. Inscribed in black, old-style lettering, it reads: “Chaplains Room – All Rank Abandon – Ye Who Enter Here.”
Nay told me the signboard was a copy of one that hung in a chaplain’s office in Belgium during World War I. In fact, according to Nay, the original sign is still hung above the office of the WWI chaplain. The building now is an outreach to needy people, and the office is a museum of the chaplain from WWI.
Nay’s wife asked her father to make the copy of the sign for her husband. The sign is to encourage those who enter the room to abandon their rank, but also encourages chaplains to reach out and serve all the soldiers regardless of rank, explained Nay, an Army colonel.
And those who do enter Nay’s office, are quick to learn that the protestant chaplain assigned to U.S. Army Japan is quite the history buff. In fact, Nay’s office is known across Camp Zama as a “museum” of military chaplaincy history.
Three display cabinets showcase a vast collection of historical items, ranging from readings, diaries, prayer books, manuals and photo albums, to uniforms and chaplain’s kits for various denominations.
“Reading old manuals, after-action reports and diaries help me learn from others,” said Nay, who has obtained history-related degrees, has contributed to the chapter on Chaplain Equipment to the book G.I. Collector’s Guide, Volume II, and has published his own book, Army Chaplains Field Manuals, 1926-1952.
“Learning about the chaplain whose kit or other artifacts I have helps me about the human dimension,” Nay said as he pointed out the items in the cabinets. “There are many good examples within our history.”
Throughout the years, other chaplains, soldiers and their family members have added to his collection, and he has also picked up items at secondhand stores or flea markets.
“I collect these items because each one has a story,” Nay said. “The story helps me serve soldiers and families in the military.”
Today, he possesses more than 1,000 items in his collection. Most of them are currently located in the United States.
I was able to take a closer look at some of his collection in his office as Nay opened the display shelves for me.
I was deeply impressed with a couple of chaplain’s kits in his collection.
The kit of Chaplain Keith Munro struck me with sadness.
Munro was killed when an enemy bomber crashed while he was conducting a Sunday service for the soldiers of his battalion in the Pacific.
“As a chaplain, when we speak, it could be our last message,” Nay said while showing the kit to me. What would our last message be? You’ll never know.”
Nay shared a story and showed the type of kit Chaplain Francis Sampson used during World War II and the Korean War.
Sampson made a combat jump from an airplane, landing in Normandy shortly after D-Day as part of a unit that liberated a concentration camp. Because it was heavy and shaped like a suitcase, Sampson’s kit cut loose and fell to the ground when his parachute opened. He never recovered the kit. He jumped again with a similar kit during another war operation. He lost his kit again. This scenario happened again during the Korean War in the 1950s.
When Sampson became a general, he directed the chaplaincy to develop a jumper-friendly soft bag to be used for chaplain kits.
Nay said that learning from previous chaplains’ mistakes and successes helps him be a better chaplain. “I share these experiences with other chaplains,” said Nay, whose encyclopedic knowledge about the Chaplain Corps and his frank and warmhearted personality engages those who approach him.
“The chaplaincy has a rich history of nurturing the living, caring for the wounded, and honoring the fallen,” Nay said. “The history and traditions of the chaplaincy are part of the overall history of our nation’s military and directly impact and serve our nation’s greatest resource, its people.
“I believe the rich history of the Chaplain’s Corps helps current chaplains with their identity, role and function in the Army,” he said.