With World War II looming, Delbert Kuehl was studying to be a pastor with hopes of serving as a missionary overseas. But the farmboy from Minnesota soon realized God was prompting him in a different direction – to enlist in the Army and serve his fellow soldiers as a chaplain.
Kuehl explained his decision to his girlfriend and fellow seminarian Delores Johnson. “Someday, will you raise a son for me?” he asked. Delores accepted the unusual marriage proposal, but the wedding would have to wait. Kuehl was off to war.
In 1942, Kuehl volunteered as a chaplain for the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, 504th Regiment. He trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, and qualified as a paratrooper. Before his unit shipped out, Kuehl organized a church service for the regiment’s 1,800 men. “Two men came,” he said. “And one of those was drunk.”
If the men wouldn’t come to him, he said, “I decided I’d go to them. I would go where they went.”
Kuehl was a hands-on, front-lines kind of chaplain. He jumped into battle with the paratroopers, armed only with a cross. He often took fire, going places other chaplains wouldn’t.
“He was a true man of God and absolutely fearless,” wrote platoon leader T. Moffatt in his book, Strike and Hold. “No officer in the regiment commanded greater respect than he did.”
On September 20, 1944, Kuehl’s regiment was ordered to help British troops seize the Nijmegen Bridge along the Rhine River in Holland. Heavily armed Germans had dug in on the other side of the river, and most of the men considered it a suicide mission. Kuehl thought, “Boy, if they ever need me, they’re going to need me now,” and joined the assault wave.
They crossed the river, fighting a strong current in small plywood and canvas boats and creeping through a fog of bullets. Even though fewer than half of the 24 boats made it across, the mission succeeded. Kuehl tended to the wounded and was credited with helping to save 35 men, despite being seriously injured in the back by flying shrapnel.
Kuehl showed his grit again on a mission in Italy. After an all-night assault on the German side of the mountains, American troops had been forced to pull back before dawn, leaving wounded men behind. Kuehl and some medics gathered supplies for a rescue mission. They raised a tattered Red Cross flag on a stick as a sign of peace to the German troops. The Germans opened fire immediately as the group started down the exposed ridge. Suddenly, the gunfire stopped. Kuehl and the medics quickly gathered the wounded; Kuehl hoisted a man over his shoulders and ran back up the ridge. The Germans opened fire again as they crossed back over to the American side of the mountain.
Kuehl continued to serve at the front lines, becoming an inspiration to those around him.
In his book, All American, All the Way, Phil Nordyke quotes Private First Class James L. Ward about Kuehl:
“I first met Chaplain Delbert Kuehl when Ray Walker and I were dug in on the Mussolini Canal, manning a .30-caliber light machine gun. On this particular day, shortly before dusk we observed a soldier moving in our direction. He was carrying an M1. When he arrived at our position he said, ‘We’re going to have a prayer meeting.’ No one will ever know how much it meant to have our chaplain there with us. You’d never know where or when Chaplain Kuehl would show up. It seemed like he was always around when you needed him most.”
By the time Kuehl left the military, he had earned numerous medals: two Bronze Stars, the Sliver Star, a Purple Heart, three Presidential Unit Citations, and the Outstanding Citizen Medal.
Dolores was waiting for Kuehl when he returned home. She finished her seminary studies on a Friday and married him four days later, wearing a wedding gown fashioned from the silk fabric of one of Kuehl’s parachutes.
After the war, General Douglas MacArthur appealed for American missionaries to minister to the people of Japan during reconstruction. The Kuehls answered that call and moved to Japan as TEAM missionaries. They helped plant a vibrant church during the 1950s, and some of their first members went on to become leaders in the Japanese national church.
Later, the TEAM board asked the Kuehls to return to the United States, where they served for years in the home office, recruiting and preparing new missionaries. Kuehl officially retired in 1981, but continued to serve on TEAM’s board for 15 more years.
He and Delores eventually settled down back in Minnesota, where Kuehl specifically made a point to minister to fellow World War II veterans. Kuehl passed away in October 2010, leaving behind his wife Delores and five children, some of whom serve with TEAM to this day.
-Written by Lisa H. Renninger
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