Desperate times call for desperate measures. When Pearl Harbor was hit in a surprise attack at dawn, in 1941, the scattered American forces were pinned down by the charging Japanese Zero planes.
The legend says that during the attack one army chaplain was among the defenders who were returning small-arms and machine gun fire on the oncoming fighters.
In the heat of the battle, he was asked by the men to say a prayer for them, as they were afraid that those were the last moments of their lives. It is said that the chaplain lay down his Bible, manned one of the machine guns and shouted: “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition”. This gesture boosted the morale of the soldiers and they continued the defense of the harbor. A song was written dedicated to the fighting chaplain, by Frank Loesser in 1942, where the priest was credited as “The Sky Pilot”.
The True Story
The true story is a bit different from the legend. According to author Jack S. Mcdowell, the Sky Pilot was indeed a chaplain called Lieutenant Howell Forgy, but he wasn’t manning the machine gun.
The story was exaggerated as a patriotic inspirational song for American soldiers on the battlefields, but also for the people on the home front. The stories made their way to the press which falsely attributed the phrase to other chaplains and Forgy was left out of the event.
Howell Forgy was aboard the USS New Orleans at the time of the attack. The story was reconstructed from several sources, one of them being Forgy himself. The officer in charge of the ammunition line on the USS New Orleans reported that he originally heard the phrase during the attack.
When he heard it, he turned around and saw Chaplain Forgy walking towards him through the line of scared man, patting them on the back and saying the famous sentence: “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition”. The officer reported that it had an effect on the man and on him also, for he felt comforted and prepared.
After the recording of the song, another lieutenant who served in Howell Forgy outfit made a remark how they used to kid him about the event, encouraging him to claim the phrase and stop the counterfeit of the story.
According to the same officer, the chaplain was a modest man and he believed the story should remain uncredited to him or any other particular person, for that matter, since this way as a legend it could inspire the soldiers more.
Jack McDowell noted that the press became more interested in the story and eventually got the permission to interview the crew members of the USS New Orleans to figure out the identity of the Sky Pilot. Chaplain Forgy’s superior officers set up a meeting with members of the press and at last, the real story of the song and the man who had inspired it was confirmed.
Forgy Tells The Story
Later, after the war, Forgy made an appearance on the popular game show “I’ve got a secret”, where he recalled and told the entire event:
“Well, I was stationed aboard the USS New Orleans, and we were tied up at 1010 dock in Pearl Harbor when we attacked again. We were having a turbine lifted, and all of our electrical power wasn’t on, and so when we went to lift the ammunition by the hoist, we had to form lines of men — form a bucket brigade — and we began to carry the ammunition up through the quarterdeck into the gurneys, and I stood there and directed some of the boys down the port side and some down the starboard side, and as they were getting a little tired, I just happened to say, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” That’s all there was to it.”
An interesting fact is that the phrase was later attributed a satirical meaning. During the African-American Civil Rights Movement, in the 1960s, the phrase indicated the increasing militarization of both the government and the movement.