The Chaplain’s Assistants Who Won the Cold War


“To most people, a veteran was a veteran – all were the same, whether one man had survived the deadliest combat or another had pounded a typewriter while in uniform.” – Eugene Sledge, World War II hero featured in the HBO series, The Pacific.

At last word, HBO had no plans to produce a sequel to Band of Brothers and The Pacific.

A proposal for a third series about Air Force typists – the chaplains’ Assistants who played a crucial role in preserving freedom in the 1960s – has been ignored by Tom Hanks.

The five minutes of out-takes from forgotten screen tests are unlikely ever to be seen, but a transcript has been rescued from the cutting room floor.

Scene 1. Close-up of a 70-something, bespectacled, goateed man, his receding gray hair covered by a worn baseball cap. He is looking at an off-screen interviewer, not at the camera. The man is struggling with his emotions.

 “I don’t know if the people back in the States ever realized the sacrifices the men and women in uniform made in the Cold War,” he is saying. “It was worse in the chapel than anywhere.”

 Cut to a plump man with a shaved head and pink face.

 “Chaplains had to have their sermons typed on time or they couldn’t preach on Sundays. And their handwriting was real terrible. One time I typed, ‘Jesus Galls Us’ and the chaplain read it out loud. The commander almost had us taken out and shot.”

 Cut to a third man wearing an obvious toupee. He has tears in his eyes.

 “I had to type the chapel bulletins and take the masters to the base print shop. If the printer was late, there were no bulletins. Without bulletins, the services fell apart. A goddamn mess.”

 The goateed man.

 “One time the bulletins didn’t show up for the Christmas Eve service. The chaplain was calling out Easter hymns. His typist collapsed under the stress – spent three months in the hospital in Lakenheath. Even after he got out, he was never the same.”

 The shaved-headed man.

 “No one thought any less of him, though. We understood. We’d all been there.”

 The toupee-wearing man.

“The chaplain was charged with protecting the mind, body and soul of the whole goddamned aerospace team. You know – the men and women who was protecting the country from the goddamn Red Menace.”

 The goateed man.

“It was our job to keep the chaplain prepared, intellectually and spiritually. The typewriter was our weapon in that war.”

 The shaved-headed man.

 “You quickly learned that the typewriter was your friend. Your only friend, really.”

 The goateed man.

 “After a while you got so you knew every bell and key on your Underwood. You could field strip it, lay all the pieces on your desk, and put it back together inside of 20 minutes.”

 The toupee-wearing man.

 “Some guys took their typewriter to bed with them.” (He stifles a sob and tries to wave the camera away.) “It got so goddamn lonely.”

The goateed man.

 “The typewriter was an essential instrument in the Cold War. We used to sing this song while we marched: ‘This is my weapon (gesturing to a typewriter), this is my gun (nodding self-consciously toward his groin), one is for working, one is for fun.’” (After moments of silence he blinks self-consciously into the camera.)

 The shaved-headed man.

 “I don’t think any of us really knew how to type right – most of us were two-finger hunt-and-peckers.”

 The goateed man.

“We didn’t get all our fingers into play, but we were fast.”

 The toupee-wearing man.

 “We were Goddamn fast.”

 The Goateed man.

 “We knew we had to be fast. If we didn’t have the sermon typed, the chaplain couldn’t preach. If the chaplain couldn’t preach, the morale of the Aerospace Team was in the toilet.”

 The shaved-headed man.

 “You know what that means.”

 The toupee-wearing man.

 “Might as well goddamn surrender.”

 The goateed man.

 “But we were very seldom late with those sermons. We didn’t think much about it then, but our typewriters and us were a helluva team.”

 The shaved-headed man.

 “I like to think of what one of my buddies said to his grandson when he asked, ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the Cold War?’ And he replied, ‘No, I wasn’t a hero, son. But I served with typists.’”

 The goateed man.

(Holding up his two index fingers.) “Look at the callouses. These two fingers did a helluva lot of pecking for my country.”

 The Shaved-headed man.

 “Was it worth it? Hell, yeah, it was worth it. Next time you’re at a Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day parade and you see a clerk-typist in uniform, buy him a beer.”

 The toupee-wearing man.

 “Say, hail, typing guy. Your carriage return bell was the goddamn ding of freedom.”

 End of scene 1.

Addendum. True story: My 11-year-old grandson asked his father what I had done in the Air Force. My son-in-law replied, “I think Grandpa sat at a desk using a typewriter.

My grandson blinked in puzzlement.

“What,” he asked, “is a typewriter?”

About Philip E Jenks

Philip, a synodical deacon in the ELCA Metropolitan New York synod, is a retired communicator for American Baptist Churches USA, the U.S. Conference for the World Council of Churches, the U.S. National Council of Churches, and two Philadelphia area daily newspapers. He and his spouse, the Rev. Dr. Martha M. Cruz, are the parents of six adults and are members of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rye Brook, N.Y. They live in Port Chester, N.Y.
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2 Responses to The Chaplain’s Assistants Who Won the Cold War

  1. Kurt says:

    That was what I did in the Air Force. When I deployed to Desert Storm with some other admin guys we declared that we were “Air Force Admin, America’s last line of defense.” Thanks for the read.

  2. The toupee-wearing man didn’t seem as spiritual as the others. I suspect that would be easily lost behind the typewriter all that time. I was at Air Force crew chief in 1962 I used an old typewriter quite a bit doing paperwork on my airplane.

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