The term “holy helo,” originally coined as “holy helo hops,” was formally introduced into the United States Navy in 1948. This initiative came about through the efforts of the Chaplain Corps to “provide more comprehensive religious coverage for fleet units.” In the era following the Second World War, when most sailors were still deeply rooted in their Christian faiths, this new concept, made possible by the introduction of the helicopter into the fleet, increased the likelihood of the faithful serving out at sea in retaining their Christian identity in the hopes of eternal salvation.
During the Vietnam War, “holy helo” runs became so normalized as an operational necessity that Chaplain Commander Willie D. Powell, attached to USS Princeton (CV-37), made more than 100 helicopter drops during a single deployment in 1965. Chaplain Powell provided religious services to the smaller ships, frigates, and destroyers tasked to defend the carrier. Now, over a half-century later, what has become of the “holy helo” and its due regard as an operational necessity for the fleet?
After having served on four patrols (i.e., roughly over a year) on a guided-missile cruiser with a carrier strike group in Southeast Asia and, to a far greater extent, the South China Sea, it has become clear that the once-routine operation is now fading away to non-existence. What evidence prompts me to make such a judgment? In this particular year at sea, only one “holy helo” run was made by a Catholic chaplain, who was attached to a carrier—my ship. To put this into perspective, my fellow Catholic sailors received the Eucharist—the source and summit of the Christian life—on one out of those 365 days. Naturally, this prompts the question: how could this happen?
The Chaplain Corps will attribute the decline of “holy helo” runs to the gradually diminishing number of U.S. Navy Catholic Chaplains. There is some truth to this claim; Paul Shinkman, senior writer for U.S. News & World Report, noted in 2013 that there were only 52 active-duty Catholic priests for roughly 107,000 Catholic sailors and Marines. According to inside sources in the Military Archdiocese, the number currently stands in the low 40s.
Although the figure is extremely low and in danger of going lower, the Chaplain Corps readily ensures that a Catholic priest is always assigned to a deployed aircraft carrier to celebrate Mass on the carrier as well as the neighboring U.S. warships supporting the strike group. I can attest to this point as a Catholic priest was attached to the same carrier strike group I operated with for all four patrols. Logistically, it takes merely fifteen to thirty minutes for the Catholic priest to fly from the carrier to any of the neighboring warships. Still the question remains: how was it that only a single “holy helo” run was made over a twelve-month span given such close proximity to adjacent ships? This is, I believe, due to two justifiable reasons.
The Roman Catholic faith is considered by the Chaplain Corps as a co-equal denomination to the hundreds of Christian sects that exist in the service. As the number of Catholic chaplains gradually declines, an ever-growing rate of non-Catholic chaplains are filling the command leadership roles in the upper echelon. The individuals who fill these ranks are the ones who decide the routineness and regularity of the “holy helo” runs. Since the Holy Mass itself is considered just another ordinary Christian religious service, the assumption is made—again primarily by non-Catholic Command Chaplains—that the Mass can be substituted with a lay-led service. Herein lies the subject of my second point: the lay-led service.
The advent of the lay-led service, introduced in the early days of the U.S. Navy, brought both positive and negative developments to the fleet. It allows sailors that are not assigned a chaplain of their specific faith background to perform religious services per their respective denominations. Various Christian denominations, no matter how small or great in membership, are thus able to remain alive and flourish on the high seas. Unfortunately, this positive result comes to the detriment of those who profess the Catholic faith.
Since, as stated earlier, the Catholic faith is now considered co-equal to all other Christian denominations, if no Catholic priest is assigned to a specific warship, but a Catholic lay leader is appointed and able to conduct a lay-led service, the religious need is considered to be met—on paper. As the primary lay leader onboard my warship, I’ve noticed that the services I lead are seen by my chain of command as a proper substitute for the Holy Mass. With the religious requirement met, no one seems to advocate for a “holy helo” run, including the religious ministry teams assigned to the carrier and nearby warships. Eventually, there is a general consensus among the laity that a priest will not come for the duration of the deployment. So what can be done to resolve this issue which most concerns Catholic sailors?
The Chaplain Corps must resurrect the regularity of “holy helo” runs in regions where Catholic chaplains are present, as regularly occurred in the Vietnam War. For Roman Catholics, there is no appropriate or worthy substitute to the Holy Mass and the sacraments offered by a Catholic priest. What is at stake here is the eternal salvation of American Catholic sailors who chose to leave the comforts of their friends, families, and local parishes to serve this exceptional nation. Let us recall the sense of religious urgency of Carrier Chaplain Commander Bruce H. Williams returning from a deployment in Southeast Asia in the 1960s:
The chaplains did more holy heloing than in the past. I often led four or five services on Sunday off the Yorktown in destroyers in the area. We tried to cover all other ships within 120 miles of us. On one occasion I traveled 425 miles on one Sunday to cover four ships. [It is wonderful to see] how the helo has increased the range of the circuit-riding preacher since the days of the horse.
Photo courtesy of the author.