Reprinted with permission from Baptist Bulletin July/August 2012. All rights reserved.
Chaplain Stan Beach was not supposed to be here, not climbing up the narrow trail toward Nui Cay Tri Ridge near Vietnam’s Demilitarized Zone.
Four months earlier, the Navy had given him orders to report to the South Pole. It would have been a cold, quiet way to spend 1966, a nice place to wait out the war. But after the chaplain from Cass City, Mich., received his papers, he had petitioned the Navy for a transfer—to Vietnam.
Now he was walking toward another no-name hill in the jungle, a place the Marines called “Mutter’s Ridge” in their radio call-signs. The southern boundary of the DMZ was marked by an east-west line of mountains, Razorbacks, named for crests that might only be 15 yards wide. Tough territory to defend. And the trail, the only way up, was an obvious target.
The Marines pass by a bloody fatigue jacket, then a skull impaled on a stake. Having fought for this real estate before, they were now challenged by reinfiltration. The North Vietnamese Army was somewhere, everywhere, dug in and hiding.
A Newsweek reporter was walking with the Marines, writing in his notebook, noting the words of a crudely written sign tied to a branch: “We come back kill marines.”
The ambush was sprung quickly.
The point man stumbled over a bamboo pole, triggering a claymore mine three yards back. Four casualties, then chaos as the machine guns opened up, firing everywhere at once. On a day when too many news reporters and photographers were tagging along, the company from 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines had a duty.
The Newsweek reporter noted Chaplain Beach, carrying injured soldiers over his shoulders, running down the hill several times to stash the casualties in the safety of a mortar crater while they waited for a helicopter. No time to talk.
The chaplain’s attitude toward the imbedded journalist seemed a bit frosty. Maybe it was because the reporter had borrowed a flak jacket from a dead Marine, or maybe it was the two-bar helmet he had snagged from a Navy captain. If the chaplain had known that Arnaud de Borchgrave was also the son of a Belgian count, he probably wouldn’t have been any more impressed. There would be time for friendships later, after the war.
In the meantime, why was the chaplain stuck in the middle of a firefight? Chaplains weren’t supposed to be this far forward. They usually performed their ministry duties from the rear, well after the firefight was over, when the questions started to flow from the survivors.
“You can be a liability or an asset,” Chaplain Beach would tell a researcher many years later. “You’re a liability when you’re with a company, normally, but three companies back. But you also can be an asset. I went through field medical school before I worked with the Corpsman. They were busy bandaging and I was waving the medevacs to my truck…. So I was there, that’s all I can say.”
Stan Beach remembers some of the casualties, even today—they had been attending his Bible study. The first Marine to walk into the ambush was captured by the North Vietnamese Army, then spent six and a half years as a prisoner of war. The second man, cut down by machine guns, had died with a photo in his pocket, a daughter who was born 13 days earlier. “He was going to show me the picture when we stopped at the end of the day,” Chaplain Beach would say later.
Then 32, married with two children, the chaplain was the old man in a company where the enlisted soldiers might be 19 or 20. Once he gained their trust, he fielded every sort of question. Money, drugs, unfaithful girlfriends, nervous wives, children they might never see. And death. Lots of questions about death.
The battle went on for five days. Expecting a helicopter resupply that never came, the Marines were carrying very little. When their single C-ration pack and a canteen of water ran out, there was nothing.
Was there ever a time he thought he might not make it? Decades later, the chaplain talks with the Baptist Bulletin and answers the obvious question.
“Yeah, there were times!” he answers. “We had no food or water for three days. And we had no resupply; we could not get any bodies out. If we could get anything out, it would be a wounded man. The bodies were too late. So I wrapped the bodies, my clerk and I, in ponchos. Moved them to the side. We had a pretty good pile by the end.”
The chaplain, the man in charge of counseling the survivors, was thinking about death. A lot. He remembers a note that a friend had sent him, including a thought-provoking Bible verse: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
“And I had trouble with that verse. Not trouble believing it, but trouble understanding it this way. It’s so wonderful to die? But the verse really says, or can say, ‘To have already died, that would be wonderful.’”
Translating from his Greek New Testament (“having already died,” he says), Chaplain Beach reflected on the safety and assurance of death. “It’s getting there—the process of dying” that still troubled the chaplain. “We are constantly wasting away. Then there is a point of death, when you die. And then there is a promise in death, that I shall see Him face to face and be with Him.”
Then the chaplain quotes a sonnet by Rupert Brooke, words written on a small slip of paper in his billfold: “Safe though all safety’s lost; safe where men fall; And if these poor limbs die, safest of all.”
Thinking seriously about death has practical applications for a combat chaplain’s ministry. “When you understand it Biblically, it’s not something you have to be fearful of, whatsoever,” Chaplain Beach says now. “I should not be an idiot and expose myself, but at the same time, I should not let fear slow me down from what the Lord has coming.”
While sitting in his mortar crater, he watched a Chinook helicopter drop a net of supplies. A few cans of water actually stayed, rather than rolling down the hill toward enemy territory. While he filled his canteen, the Marines asked him to volunteer again. “The next company is moving up. Will you move with us?”
But Chaplain Beach was worried about something more basic. He wasn’t sure that he could move at all.
“My legs were getting very weak, rubbery, and I knew something was wrong. And my hands were shaking. We were dehydrated. We had not had food, not had water, and I knew I was physically at the end.
“I made a cup of coffee…I don’t know…I thought I was leaning against a tree, and BOOM! And then I was very relaxed, no pain. Silence.”
His left leg was shattered by a short round, friendly fire, an artillery shell that fell short of its intended target. Then after the medics strapped him to a gurney and prepped him for a flight out, he was hit again by mortar fire.
The Newsweek reporter was still writing in his notebook, recording a chaplain’s battlefield prayer:
“My God, I hope the choppers make it today.”
The next morning, Ellen Beach was running late and somehow missed Hugh Downs on the Today Show. But her neighbors heard the report—the Marines were surrounded on a ridge, and the Baptist chaplain from Michigan was badly wounded.
Soon after she sent the kids off to school, Ellen saw the black car drive up to the house, with two Navy officers in dress uniform. But the news was better than expected. Stan Beach was alive, just shot all to pieces.
Decades later, right after the uniformed officers unveiled the plaque for Stanley M. Beach Hall, the retired chaplain gave full credit to “My prize, my joy of all these years,” a wife who “faced every challenge with a kind of a positive, contagious spirit.”
Including his six months in Vietnam and another 18 months recovering in military hospitals, he would be away from his family for nearly two years.
Home on convalescent leave, Chaplain Beach watched out the window as his six-year-old son played on the lawn. Limping, holding his left leg stiff, walking just like dad. Beach remembers how his son had played war games with the neighborhood kids, right up until the day one boy’s brother was killed in the war. No more guns and war games.
After years of preparation, careers are made in a few moments. Larry Burrows would win a Pulitzer for a photo he made during the battle. Arnaud de Borchgrave would become editor-in-chief for the Washington Times and later the CEO of United Press International. And decades later, the current generation of Navy chaplains refer to Stan Beach as a hero, a word that combat veterans use with unusual precision.
Back when the soldiers and sailors came home from Vietnam, no one called them heroes. Our celebrity culture had watered down the label, using it for rock-and-roll guitarists and World Series pitchers. At the lowest point, the word was even used to describe war protesters—political heros to those who criticized the war.
Now the Vietnam vets have lived long enough to see a different problem, a post-9/11 irony, when “hero” is used to describe anyone who ever wore a uniform. Not so fast. The Vietnam generation still had questions, ones that Chaplain Beach would spend the rest of his life trying to answer.
He remembers two Marines from his outfit in Vietnam, church guys who pestered him with questions that stayed with him while he was recovering in the hospital.
A guy would say, “I’m from a good church, a Christian.” But all I ever heard was, “What if you died tonight, where would you go?” But nobody thought to ask, “What if you wake up tomorrow in this rotten world, with people dying around you? How do you live?”
Another guy said, “In my church, I never heard any of that. Matter of fact, my church is demonstrating against me being here. I have no connection to them at all.”
Both questions were one and the same. How does a chaplain minister to a generation of soldiers who come home from war, disenfranchised from their church, questioning religion?
“We need to feed these guys, stabilize them,” says Chaplain Beach now. “Not just salvation messages. And that’s what I’ve appreciated about the GARBC over the years—such good Bible teaching.”
Stan Beach would answer the questions by developing innovative chaplaincy programs to help combat veterans answer real-life questions. His postwar career took him from base to base, finally landing him as the head of the Naval Chaplaincy School. Along the way, his ministry was marked by character qualities that might not be expected of grizzled combat veterans. At the Fort Jackson ceremony to rename the schoolhouse building in honor of Chaplain Beach, his 30-year ministry was described as patient, compassionate, humble, and unfailingly kind.
“He joined that great fellowship of suffering that can never be explained, it can only be experienced,” Chaplain John Craven had said in an earlier tribute. Craven himself was one of WWII’s most decorated chaplains; he knew the fellowship of suffering all too well. He was on Iwo Jima the day the Marines raised the flag; he was at Bethesda Naval Hospital the day the family came home from Dallas with President Kennedy’s body. Craven had learned how suffering changed a man: “Out of that experience of suffering was born an extraordinary sense of compassion that has characterized Chaplain Beach’s ministry, and it has epitomized the very best of our ministry.”
Now the chaplain sits down at the table slowly. A few years back, well after his retirement, they finally took his left leg, leaving a prosthetic in its place. His white hair is still a regulation crew cut, though it does nothing to conceal the cochlear implant hardware sticking to his head behind his ear. The morning ceremony, followed by a long reception, has tired him out.
“It’s going to take a long time to soak in. It was overwhelming,” he tells us, describing his thoughts about the recent tribute. Like all true heroes, he’s uncomfortable with the label, still thinking about the soldiers who didn’t come home. “You just do what you gotta do, where the Lord puts you,” he says.
On the wall over his head, someone has made a large banner to remember a few of the chaplain’s words, something he said years ago while lying on the gurney, just after the medics told him he might lose his leg: “I guess a chaplain leaves a little part of himself everywhere he goes, sometimes physically.”
Now he has left his name on the building, and left a legacy for future Navy chaplains. “Chaplain Stan Beach has left more than a little part of himself with the Navy Chaplain Corps,” says Rear Adm. Mark Tidd. “He has left the spirit of the sailor, the moxie of a Marine, and above all, the heart of a pastor everywhere he has served.”