December 07, 2011

“Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!”


On December 7, 1941 — the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt would call “a date which will live in infamy” on the following afternoon — hundreds of Japanese warplanes made a deadly surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

When the crew of the heavy cruiser USS New Orleans rushed on deck they saw devastation around them.

Not far away, a huge cloud of smoke was rising from the USS Arizona and the big battleship was sinking.

Beyond the Arizona, the USS Oklahoma was rolling over. Sailors were jumping from its sides.

Another nearby battleship, the USS West Virginia, was badly damaged and sagging amidships.

The New Orleans was docked for repairs when the attack occurred. As usual during repairs, the ship’s electricity was temporarily coming through a power cable from the shore.

Soon after they came on deck, the crew began firing the cruiser’s guns at Japanese planes.

But when they needed more ammunition they discovered that the power cable to shore had been cut, making the electric ammunition hoist inoperable.

Undeterred, the men formed lines and began carrying the heavy shells to the guns by hand. As they did, ship chaplain Lieutenant Howell M. Forgy walked along the deck encouraging them, shouting “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!”

The Japanese pilots eventually flew away after sinking nine U.S. ships and damaging 21 others. Their attack killed 2,350 Americans, including 1,177 sailors on the USS Arizona.

The next day, America officially entered World War II.

In the months that followed, word spread about the memorable line shouted by a chaplain during the Pearl Harbor attack.

In some stories about the quote, the chaplain was unnamed.

In others, including a widely-read article in the November 2, 1942 issue of LIFE magazine, he was identified as Captain W.A. Maguire — a senior Navy chaplain who outranked Forgy and was on a dock in Pearl Harbor that day.

According to the Life article, Maguire said he didn’t actually remember if he had shouted “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!” But he didn’t deny it.

Stories about the incident inspired American songwriter Frank Loesser to write a patriotic song that used “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!” as the title and chorus. (You can listen to the song and read the lyrics by clicking this link.)

Loesser’s song was published in 1942, recorded by several artists and quickly became popular. The version by Kay Kyser and his band reached #1 on the pop singles chart in January 1943.

The LIFE article and the popularity of the song led the crew of the USS New Orleans to urge Chaplain Forgy to come forward and set the record straight about the fact that it was he — not Maguire — who said the now famous words.

At first, Forgy demurred, but eventually his shipmates persuaded him.

The officers of the USS New Orleans arranged a meeting with the press and the real story of this famous World War II quotation was finally revealed.

Chaplain Forgy made it through the war, returned to a civilian ministry and died in Glendora, California, in January 1972.

His famous quote lives on.

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