“A thousand and one things have happened”: Letters from a WWII Chaplain

Four months after the Second World War had been brought to America’s shores at Pearl Harbor, Fr. Leonard Cuellar CMF received permission to enlist in the US Army as a chaplain. His first letters from bases in the United States paint a picture of a rapidly militarizing country. He wrote from Pendleton Air Field, a civilian-turned-military airbase, and next from Camp Tanforan, a place he described as a racetrack-turned-Japanese-internment-camp-turned-military-camp. From the latter location he wrote: “A thousand and one things have happened: some have discouraged the chaplain but some have given him a deep joy and satisfaction.” His letters from the US were descriptive of the challenges faced by American soldiers and some of the particulars of life on base.

Fr. Leonard Cuellar CMF, 1942

Fr. Cuellar’s letters changed once he was sent abroad with the 814th Aviation Engineers Battalion in 1943. Per Army regulations, he could only write and receive letters in English and he could not specify his location. During this time, his letters mostly contained report information about the Masses he conducted and were sent from “Somewhere in Italy.” In one letter dated November 1943, Fr. Cuellar wrote: “There is very little I can say at present. Although there is a lot to say…The only thing I can say is that we are alright.”

At the time of his discharge in 1945, Father Cuellar had received four battle stars and attained the rank of Major. He had travelled through Italy, Sicily, and Northern Africa. In 1960, he returned to military chaplaincy work at the Whipple Veterans’ Association Center in Arizona, where he served until his death in 1978.

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