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Hospital and Welfare Duties

Hospital and Welfare Duties

Quite apart from taking daily prayers, conducting Sunday services, leading study classes, and the other tasks which plainly fall to the lot of a naval chaplain, there are other phases of his work. There is, for instance, the regular visiting of the sick and wounded. This is, of course, one of the primary duties of a chaplain, one that he would naturally perform regularly, even though it were not laid down so quaintly in King's Regulations and Admiralty Instructions that the chaplain is to ‘visit the sick bay periodically, taking care that his visits are not so infrequent as to occasion alarm’. Each chaplain visited his own men as far as possible, but for obvious reasons a great deal of this work fell on the chaplain at the Naval Base.

The Royal New Zealand Naval Hospital, opened in August 1941, was near the Base and was visited almost daily by the Base chaplain. But there were also many cases requiring special treatment and these were scattered all over Auckland. Men in the Public Hospital, the Military Annexe, Green Lane Hospital, the auxiliary hospital at the Ellerslie racecourse, the Avondale Mental Hospital, and Little St. Dunstan's, all received the solicitous care of the Base chaplain. The United States authorities established a hospital in Remuera where a number of British seamen also received treatment. It was to this hospital that the numerous casualties from HMAS page 154 Canberra were taken after the Battle of Savo Island, in the Solomons, in August 1942. These men looked for their spiritual ministrations to the Base chaplain.

A painful, difficult, but important task that also fell to the Base chaplain was calling on the relatives of those who had lost their lives. Generally the relatives had been informed by telegram, but it happened now and then that the chaplain was the first bearer of the sad news. This delicate task was a most wearing one, yet there is no doubt that it was supremely well worth while. Every chaplain, too, had the difficult and unenviable task of writing letters of sympathy to the families of the men known personally to him.

‘Following the custom of the Service, the dead were buried at sea.’ These words appear in many of the ‘letters of proceedings’ of captains of His Majesty's ships reporting on actions fought by them during the war. They recall yet another tradition of the Royal Navy which has always believed that the sea on which he sails and fights is the sailor's fitting tomb. As Kipling has written:

We have fed our sea for a thousand years
And she calls us, still unfed,
Though there's never a wave of all her waves
But marks our English dead.

Thus did Drake go to his rest off Puerto Bello in 1596. At Jutland, on 31 May 1916, 5590 officers and men of the 6000-odd British seamen who died that day went down with their ships. In December 1939 the Achilles, Ajax, and Exeter buried their dead at sea off the River Plate.

The solemn rite of burial at sea is about the last service the naval chaplain can perform for his dead shipmate. In ships where no chaplain is borne, this duty devolves upon the captain. The body, sewn up in the dead man's hammock and weighted with a projectile, is borne aft on a grating to the quarter-deck and placed close to the ship's side, where it rests under a Union Flag in the presence of the ship's company, assembled by divisions under the silent guns. At the command ‘Off Caps!’ all heads are bared while the burial service is read. Overhead the White Ensign flutters in the breeze and all about is the sea, restless to the horizon, reminder of perils passed and of dangers to be met. Vigilance can never relax in time of war, and even while the silent assemblage follows the words of the chaplain or the captain, others are on watch page 155 and alert for instant action. The ship may slow down, but it is seldom safe to stop. At the appropriate passage, the Union Flag is removed, the grating tilted, and the body passes overside to sink quickly into the depths of the sea, to the accompaniment of three volleys fired by the Royal Marines, or a gunner's party, followed by the sounding of ‘Last Post’.

To the Base chaplain fell also a great deal of welfare work on behalf of the men serving overseas. This work covered a wide field and required endless tact and patience: domestic problems such as sick wives, sick children, mothers in hospital, obtaining help or arranging hospitality for children, unfaithfulness, domestic disputes, and finding accommodation for families arriving in Auckland. The great influx of Americans made its impact upon certain sections of the community, especially upon some of our sailors' homes, in a manner that brought no credit to either side. All these matters had to be given careful attention, for if a sailor is worrying about the conditions under which is wife and children are living, it affects his morale and his fighting efficiency suffers.

Under the general heading of welfare work must be mentioned the part of the chaplains in assisting the Army Education and Welfare Service. At sea they also undertook other jobs, each essential in its way, but for which no special officer was appointed. Thus the tedious task of censoring letters was done, in part, by the chaplains.