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Posts Tagged ‘Elmer P. Gibson’

Brynn Hoffman served as a summer intern with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources in the Office of Archives and History.  As a member of the Military Archives team, she researched the story of Rev. Elmer P. Gibson, an African American chaplain during World War II and the Korean War, through the study of his papers and war documents. Hoffman is a graduate student in the Public History program at N.C. State University.  Her internship was made possible through a generous gift from Rusty Edmister.  

As my time with the Elmer Gibson collection comes to an end, it seems like the appropriate time to consider what an influential man Gibson really was.  Elmer Gibson played a critical role in American society and served the United States Army during some of the most pivotal time periods in American history.  The 20th Century was a period of change and Gibson was able to fully experience and participate in many of these changes. 

Gibson served in the United States Army as a chaplain throughout World War II and the Korean War.  As a chaplain, Gibson served the spiritual and emotional needs of soldiers during the difficult times of war. He offered religious services on an almost daily basis and counseled men one-on-one about personal and professional issues.  In addition, he also put his own life in danger because he was stationed alongside soldiers overseas and in the battlefields. 

Besides just performing his chaplain’s duties, Gibson went out of his way to actively participate in the debate over the integration of the United States Armed Forces.  While in the Army, Gibson earned the prestigious Legion of Merit Award for his service in World War II and the Bronze Star and Oak Leaf Cluster for his service in the Korean War.  Gibson retired from the Army in 1957 with the ranking of Lt. Colonel.   

After his time in the Army, Gibson went on to earn a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology fromTempleUniversityin 1959 and was elected as the president of Morristown College in Tennessee that same year.  He stayed at Morristown College for the next ten years and actively encouraged the higher education of African-Americans of all ages.  Additionally, he also served at several churches, was a loving husband, and was the proud father of two children, Cornelia Gertrude and Elmer H.  

Having the opportunity to work with the Elmer Gibson collection has been an incredible experience on two levels.  First, I had the opportunity to work with and process an entire collection from beginning to end.  Basically, I organized the collection and created a finding aid to help lead researchers through Gibson’s papers. More interestingly, however, I had the chance to learn a lot about an incredible man and what it means to be a chaplain in the United States Armed Forces.  Although I have knowledge of all the wars the United States has participated in, my understanding of what life was like for the men and women participating in these wars is lacking, and this collection gave me the chance to get know one of these men.  Working with this collection has been a treat for me and I look forward to more of these experiences in my future!

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Brynn Hoffman is a summer intern with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources in the Office of Archives and History.  As a member of the Military Archives team, she is researching the story of Rev. Elmer P. Gibson, an African American chaplain during World War II and the Korean War, through the study of his papers and war documents. Hoffman is a graduate student in the Public History program at N.C. State University.  Her internship is made possible through a generous gift from Rusty Edmister.         

During most of World War II, Elmer Gibson was stationed as a chaplain in the Aleutian Islands.  After learning this fairly early in my exploration of his papers, I had to answer two simple questions for myself  in order to better understand Gibson’s service: Where are the Aleutian Islands?  And why was it important for troops to be there during World War II?  Admittedly, my knowledge of any geography outside the continental United States is below average for most people my age, so I had to do some research to really be able to answer these questions. 

Here’s a quick summary for those of you as geographically challenged as I am:  The Aleutian Islands are a chain of small volcanic islands off the coast of Alaska that form an arch stretching westward from the Alaskan Peninsula.  Most of the islands are part of Alaska, with only a few of the western-most islands belonging to Russia.  The Aleutian Islands are usually considered to be the most untouched part of the Alaskan wilderness and contain 57 volcanoes in total, making the islands the northern edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire.   Click here for more about the Aleutians. 

The fight for control over the Aleutian Islands was part of the Pacific Campaign during World War II, and started in June of 1942.  Japanese troops occupied two of the islands, Attu and Kiska, and due to the remoteness of the islands and the difficulty that extreme weather created, it took the United States nearly a year to force the Japanese out.  The Aleutian Islands were very valuable to both sides because whoever occupied the islands controlled most of the Pacific transportation routes.  In addition, the United States feared that if the Japanese had stayed on the islands they would have had an easier time launching aerial assaults against the west coast of the United States. 

The battle for control over the Aleutian Islands is often forgotten by historians because of the simultaneous campaign taking place at Guadalcanal in the Pacific.  There seems to be a constant debate over the significance of the Aleutian Islands campaign amongst professional historians, some claiming it was a diversionary tactic used by the Japanese to draw U.S.troops out of Pearl Harbor, while others believing the Japanese were truly concerned with protecting the northern edge of their empire.  Regardless of the reasoning, the battle on the Aleutian Islands was hard on Allied troops and many lives were lost.  Besides just the threat of war, soldiers had to deal to with a rocky and barren landscape covered by snow that made traveling difficult and supplies scarce.  The conflict on the Aleutian Islands lasted only a year, but soldiers were stationed there for the entirety of World War II.

Gibson spent the majority of World War II on the islands as a chaplain for the troops.  Many of the pictures he took while in the Aleutian Islands show only snow covered mountains surrounded by rocky terrain.  Often times Gibson and the other chaplains had to hold religious services outside on the snow and ice because the tents were not big enough to hold a large group at once.  Imagine spending such a long period of time stationed on a small island that is covered in a dense fog for the majority of the time and has an average of 250 rainy days a year!  How miserable!

Often times the Aleutian Islands campaign is forgotten in the midst of other more dramatic conflicts during World War II.  Working on the Elmer Gibson Collection has helped me become more aware of the situation that many Allied troops found themselves in throughout World War II, even if they were not stationed in areas more commonly recognized as war zones during this time period.

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Brynn Hoffman is a summer intern with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources in the Office of Archives and History.  As a member of the Military Archives team, she is researching the story of Rev. Elmer P. Gibson, an African American chaplain during World War II and the Korean War, through the study of his papers and war documents. Hoffman is a graduate student in the Public History program at N.C. State University.  Her internship is made possible through a generous gift from Rusty Edmister.

During World War II, as with other conflicts before and after it, theUnited Statesmilitary censored letters and photographs that the troops sent home to friends and family members.  Censorship could include anything from blacking out short phrases or key words in letters to confiscating photographs or packages.  Anything that could aid the enemy in discovering where troops were located or what future plans of attack the Allied Forces had could be censored.  Most letters would have been stamped and initialed by a censor before being placed in the mail and sent home to friends and family.  Personnel assigned to postal censorship could expect their duties to include any of the following: censor outgoing mail from enlisted men and women, reviewing for a second time a certain percentage of letters that had already been reviewed once, inspecting packages and personal belongings, and reporting on and looking for trends in censorship violations.

Often times, censors were highly trained to recognize codes that soldiers used to try to alert their families of their locations or when they thought they would be coming home.  Using the first letter out of every sentence to form another word or using seemingly random words to distinguish months of the year were all common tactics.  However, in just as many cases, soldiers had no intention of revealing confidential details, but would accidentally give out information in their letters or photographs without even realizing it.  Many times soldiers would express frustration in their letters home because they did not feel like they could really write anything to their loved ones for fear of having a violation.  During World War II the phrase “Loose Lips Sink Ships” was used in British propaganda to illustrate the point that gossip and rumors can quickly spread to enemy ears even if that was the not the original intent.  

When going through the Elmer P. Gibson collection, I ran across a government issued letter sent to Gibson in 1947 stating that some photographs he had sent home during the war had been held by the War Department Board of Review and were now being returned to him.  When I found this letter, an envelope containing two negatives was attached to it and I got very excited. Obviously my first thought was that these negatives would contain highly confidential information that I would get to uncover.  Unfortunately, my excitement quickly faded when I realized they were only photographs taken of the landscape, presumably in the area that Gibson had been stationed.  I assume that these were confiscated by postal censors because they felt that if the photographs reached the wrong hands, the enemy might be able to discover the location of the Allied troops.

From my understanding, this type of mistake on the part of soldiers was not uncommon.  Most of the time the men and women did not even realize they were violating the rules when they wrote home.  Something that they thought was so simple or unimportant could be seen by the censors as delicate information.  Could you imagine not knowing where your son or daughter was stationed?  Or not being able to tell your wife when you would be allowed to return home?  I imagine that this type of censoring was incredibly difficult to handle for both the soldiers involved as well as the recipients of their letters.

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Brynn Hoffman is a summer intern with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources in the Office of Archives and History.  As a member of the Military Archives team, she is researching the story of Rev. Elmer P. Gibson, an African American chaplain during World War II and the Korean War, through the study of his papers and war documents. Hoffman is a graduate student in the Public History program atN.C.StateUniversity.  Her internship is made possible through a generous gift from Rusty Edmister.

What exactly is an Army Chaplain?  I had to ask myself that question when I first began looking at Elmer P. Gibson’s papers a few weeks ago, and have recently gone back to investigate further.  A military chaplain ministers to members of all branches of the United States Armed Forces and often times must serve all spiritual needs, regardless of religious affiliation.  Chaplains also minister on topics other than religion, such as ethics, morals, and team morale.  Additionally, chaplains perform weddings, funerals, baptisms, and other religious ceremonies to the Armed Forces personnel and their families.  Most other countries worldwide provide chaplains to minister to the needs of their armed forces as well. 

According to the United States Army Chaplain Corps, the Army Chaplain Schoolwas created in 1918 to accommodate the need to train chaplains to serve the large number of soldiers being prepared to enter World War I.  On March 3, 1918, the firstChaplainSchoolbegan inFort Monroe,Virginia.  Since its start in Fort Monroe, the United States Army Chaplain School relocated multiple times until it reached Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where it remains today.  In the United States, chaplains have a military officer’s rank that is based on their years of service and promotion selection amongst their peers.  Chaplains wear the uniform associated with their respective branch of the armed forces but do not wear the ceremonial officer’s sword or firearms during the normal course of duty or in combat.

Serving as a chaplain may seem like a fairly easy task to most people, but based on some of the papers I found in the Elmer Gibson collection, I would have to disagree.  Gibson had worksheets from his time in Chaplain School that clearly illustrated tasks such as wrapping a body to be buried, digging and placing a grave within a cemetery, and marking a grave appropriately according to the fallen soldier’s rank and religious affiliation.  In addition, chaplains are often times responsible for alerting family members of the death or injury of their loved ones serving in the Armed Forces.  Although my common sense should have told me otherwise, I had never really considered that duties such as these would be expected of a military chaplain.  This job must be incredibly emotionally taxing on a person, especially if they were stationed over seas in an area that was seeing a lot of combat.  The more I learn about Elmer Gibson, the more thankful I become that people like him are willing to serve the United States Armed Forces in this way, especially since I am certain that I would never have the strength to do so.

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Brynn Hoffman is a summer intern with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources in the Office of Archives and History.  As a member of the Military Archives team, she is researching the story of Rev. Elmer P. Gibson, an African American chaplain during World War II and the Korean War, through the study of his papers and war documents. Hoffman is a graduate student in the Public History program atN.C.StateUniversity.  Her internship is made possible through a generous gift from Rusty Edmister.

Today I ran across some of Elmer Gibson’s papers related to his involvement in debates over whether or not to integrate the United States Army. Admittedly, I have little knowledge about the integration that took place in the Armed Forces shortly after World War II, so I had to do some investigation of my own in order to fully understand Gibson’s position on the idea.

The United States Armed Forces have an interesting history of integration and segregation throughout their existence. White and black soldiers fought next to each other starting as far back as the North American colonies. It was not until the War of 1812 that white and black units began to be separated, and remained so until the Korean War. Even when the Army was segregated, many black soldiers still chose to fight and played very important roles in the victories gained by theUnited States. Throughout World War I and World War II, commissioned officers were mostly white, with black troops serving as truck drivers, dock workers, and other roles that did not usually involve combat.

By the time troops returned home from World War II, Army officials were being called on by Civil Rights leaders to desegregate all of the Armed Forces. In 1948 President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which ordered the integration of all sections of the Armed Forces. Even with Executive Order 9981, integration did not seriously occur until the Korean War was well under way. After the first few months of the Korean War, the Armed Forces were facing incredibly high numbers of white losses and finally began accepting black troops as replacements. This forced immediate integration of many units and showed that these units could still perform well in combat situations. Army officials took notice, and on July 26, 1951 the Army officially announced its plans to desegregate.

In Gibson’s papers there are several items related to the desegregation of the Army, and some proved to be very interesting. One in particular caught my attention because of the hand-written notes attached with it. The item was a survey that Gibson completed titled “Employment of Negro Manpower.” What I find most impressive about Gibson’s responses to the questions asked are his concise answers, free from any hint of anger or hostility regarding segregation.

For example, Gibson responded to the question “Should the quota system [in regards to race] be abolished?” with the following answer: “Yes. To establish a quota on the basis of race is discriminatory. However, to maintain the proper balance, the physical and mental (or aptitude) and educational standard should be raised and then form requirements for all enlistments.” Later in the survey, Gibson suggests that “A service school should be established and courses conducted on the program and policy of the Department of the Army with regard to desegregation.”

Gibson seemed to be very aware of the need for slow change in order for it to be well received and have staying power. At the same time, he was clearly not afraid to speak his mind and let the Army know how he, an African-American in the Army, felt about the Army being segregated. It seems as though his belief was to educate soldiers on the positive aspects of desegregation to make it as smooth as possible while also encouraging the Army to create higher standards of physical fitness and mental aptitude, instead of using standards based on race.

It is easy to forget, even as a graduate student in history, that segregation was once a part of people’s daily lives throughout theUnited States. To think that even if you wanted to serve your country as a soldier, you would still be separated by race, is something that is hard for me to conceive of. Having the opportunity to dig around in Gibson’s papers as I get them ready to head to the shelves has been an eye-opening experience for me. It is always good to be reminded of past figures who have helped overcome obstacles so that we forget they even once existed.

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Brynn Hoffman is a summer intern with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources in the Office of Archives and History.  As a member of the Military Archives team, she is researching the story of Rev. Elmer P. Gibson, an African American chaplain during World War II and the Korean War, through the study of his papers and war documents. Hoffman is a graduate student in the Public History program at N.C. State University.  Her internship is made possible through a generous gift from Rusty Edmister. 

My latest find in working the Elmer P. Gibson collection concerns the correspondence regarding his Legion of Merit Award in 1945.  It delighted me, and it is wonderful to know that I have to opportunity to work with the papers of such an incredible man. I get more excited each time I sit down with his collection because I feel like I am getting the opportunity to know a man who still has so much to teach us. He worked hard and always seemed to go above and beyond his assigned duties and made himself useful wherever possible. Rev. Gibson felt that it was his duty to serve all people, not just certain groups, and that is a lesson still worth learning today.

The Legion of Merit Award, first awarded in 1942, is very prestigious and usually awarded to members of the armed services that display exceptionally meritorious conduct in their roles and go above and beyond in the performance of their daily duties and achievements.

He was awarded the Legion of Merit for his service between Jan. 25, 1944 and Oct. 17, 1945. During this time, he was Regimental Chaplain of the 364th Infantry Regiment stationed in theAleutian Islands. He mentions in a biographical note he wrote that, at the time he was awarded the Legion of Merit Award he was one of only two living African-American chaplains to receive the decoration. From what can be found in his collection, he was recommended for the award by several of his peers and superiors, highlighting the fact that he must have been a truly deserving recipient. In one such letter of recommendation from a peer, Chaplain William E. Austill, Rev. Gibson was described as such:

“He has constantly maintained a high quality of work, in spite of the fact that there were no promotions available for him in his Regiment nor in the Department. He had the best interests of the men of his Regiment in mind at all times. He sent pictures of them to home-town papers, whenever the men were given recognition in any event…I felt it my duty to call his superior achievements to your attention. If there would have been any opportunity whatsoever, we would have promoted him to the rank of Major, but he suffered the same fate as several others in the Department who had been in grade a long time, but for whom there were no openings.”

Rev. Gibson was also praised by many for performing services not only for the black troops for which he was assigned, but also offering religious services for the white troops as well. He believed strongly in bringing white and black men together as often as possible in order to teach each group tolerance for the other. From the letters that I have found in his collection, his peers found this to be an especially praiseworthy quality.

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