Journal

Memorial Day Musings

by | May 20, 2015 | Editorial

Spring is here and the stores are already full of beach towels, pool toys and picnic baskets. The days are long, the SoCal nights are balmy, and thoughts turn to Memorial Day and backyard barbecues.
This year, as it happens, Memorial Day falls on the second day of the Jewish holiday of Shavous, so the barbecue will have to wait. But I can’t help thinking about Memorial Day–in a rather unusual context.

There’s a song that keeps running through my head. It’s on my 1940’s playlist, an original radio broadcast recording from World War II by Gene Autry. It’s called “Praise The Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” The title by itself has at times been used satirically, even derisively in recent years. That’s a shame, really, because if you listen to all the words, you realize the song has a very strong, uplifting message.

The title is actually just the first part of a sentence, the second part of which says: “and we’ll all stay free.” It turns out that this was uttered by a chaplain on a US naval ship taking fire during the attack on Pearl Harbor. A legend grew surrounding that line, ” Praise The Lord and pass the ammunition, and we’ll all stay free!” And from that legend came the famous song, written by Frank Loesser.

The lyrics tell the story of the ” sky pilot” ( chaplain) , who steps up when the gunner is hit, then the gunner’s mate:

Up jumped the sky pilot, gave the boys a look
And manned the gun himself as he laid aside The Book,
Shouting:
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
Praise The Lord and pass the ammunition and we’ll all stay free!

The song came out in 1942, but it was not till the 1950’s that the truth of what actually happened came to light. The ship was the USS New Orleans and the “sky pilot” was Chaplain Howell Forgy, a Lieutenant stationed on the ship on that December morning in 1941. As he later recalled, the ship was docked when the attack by the Japanese began and all the electrical power wasn’t on. So the men had to form lines in a bucket brigade to lift the ammunition up . He formed part of the line and tried to cheer the men on. When he saw they were getting tired he uttered his famous phrase, ” Praise The Lord and pass the ammunition.” He modestly claimed in later years that that was all there was to it.

Maybe so, and it’s an inspiring story. But the song itself, apocryphal though it might be, is rousing. It goes on to quote the sky pilot further:

Praise the Lord and swing into position!
Can’t afford to sit around a- wishin’
Praise The Lord, we’re all between perdition
And the deep blue sea!

And later:

Praise The Lord, we’re on a mighty mission!
All aboard, we’re not a- goin’ fishin’,
Praise The Lord and pass the ammunition
And we’ll all stay free!

There are many versions besides the Gene Autry one. Several add a line:

Praise The Lord and swing into position!
Can’t afford to be a politician!

Hmmm.

Every rendition, however, has a catchy, melodious tune and escalates to the satisfying crescendo at the end : ” And we’ll all stay free!”

Sometimes, even in legend , there is great truth. As Memorial Day approaches, the song is a reminder to me of the courageous men and women who have fought- and those who continue to fight- so we can all stay free. So we can have a backyard barbecue. Or not. So we can worship for a religious holiday. Or not. Or so we can pack a picnic and brave the freeway to the beach.

And it is a further reminder that though we must always have faith, sometimes we need ammunition, too. That seems as relevant today as it was way back then.

This year, as it happens, Memorial Day falls on the second day of the Jewish holiday of Shavous, so the barbecue will have to wait. But I can’t help thinking about Memorial Day–in a rather unusual context.

There’s a song that keeps running through my head. It’s on my 1940’s playlist, an original radio broadcast recording from World War II by Gene Autry. It’s called “Praise The Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” The title by itself has at times been used satirically, even derisively in recent years. That’s a shame, really, because if you listen to all the words, you realize the song has a very strong, uplifting message.

The title is actually just the first part of a sentence, the second part of which says: “and we’ll all stay free.” It turns out that this was uttered by a chaplain on a US naval ship taking fire during the attack on Pearl Harbor. A legend grew surrounding that line, ” Praise The Lord and pass the ammunition, and we’ll all stay free!” And from that legend came the famous song, written by Frank Loesser.

The lyrics tell the story of the ” sky pilot” ( chaplain) , who steps up when the gunner is hit, then the gunner’s mate:

Up jumped the sky pilot, gave the boys a look
And manned the gun himself as he laid aside The Book,
Shouting:
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
Praise The Lord and pass the ammunition and we’ll all stay free!

The song came out in 1942, but it was not till the 1950’s that the truth of what actually happened came to light. The ship was the USS New Orleans and the “sky pilot” was Chaplain Howell Forgy, a Lieutenant stationed on the ship on that December morning in 1941. As he later recalled, the ship was docked when the attack by the Japanese began and all the electrical power wasn’t on. So the men had to form lines in a bucket brigade to lift the ammunition up . He formed part of the line and tried to cheer the men on. When he saw they were getting tired he uttered his famous phrase, ” Praise The Lord and pass the ammunition.” He modestly claimed in later years that that was all there was to it.

Maybe so, and it’s an inspiring story. But the song itself, apocryphal though it might be, is rousing. It goes on to quote the sky pilot further:

Praise the Lord and swing into position!
Can’t afford to sit around a- wishin’
Praise The Lord, we’re all between perdition
And the deep blue sea!

And later:

Praise The Lord, we’re on a mighty mission!
All aboard, we’re not a- goin’ fishin’,
Praise The Lord and pass the ammunition
And we’ll all stay free!

There are many versions besides the Gene Autry one. Several add a line:

Praise The Lord and swing into position!
Can’t afford to be a politician!

Hmmm.

Every rendition, however, has a catchy, melodious tune and escalates to the satisfying crescendo at the end : ” And we’ll all stay free!”

Sometimes, even in legend , there is great truth. As Memorial Day approaches, the song is a reminder to me of the courageous men and women who have fought- and those who continue to fight- so we can all stay free. So we can have a backyard barbecue. Or not. So we can worship for a religious holiday. Or not. Or so we can pack a picnic and brave the freeway to the beach.

And it is a further reminder that though we must always have faith, sometimes we need ammunition, too. That seems as relevant today as it was way back then.

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