Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition – The Legendary Army Chaplain Of Pearl Harbor

Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition
And – We’ll – All – Stay – Free!

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 song was originally published as a sheet music piece by Famous Music Corp. Sheet music meant that it wasn’t recorded but written with notes and lyrics, so it can be reproduced by anyone in large numbers.

The true story is a bit different from the legend. According to author Jack S. Mcdowell, the Sky Pilot was indeed a chaplain – 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.

Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2 "Zero" on the aircraft carrier Akagi, during the Pearl Harbor attack
Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2 “Zero” on the aircraft carrier Akagi, during the Pearl Harbor attack, from the collection of the Australian War Memorial. 


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.

The aerial view of Pearl Harbor. Photo credit: Naval History and Heritage Museum
The aerial view of Pearl Harbor during the attack. 

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.

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.”

The Pittsburg Post-Gazette noted that the phrase was also a quote from the 1939 John Ford picture titled “Drums Along the Mohawk“, but it was not of relevance to the true story that happened on the morning of December 7th, 1941.

In 1974, New York Times noted that the song was performed for the first time by the opera tenor, Robert Rounseville. Other versions of the song include a recording by The Merry Macs, The Jubalaires and Kay Kyser and his Orchestra which reached the number 1 position on the Billboard Chart in 1942.

A portion of the song was featured in the Superman cartoon “Jungle Drums” in a scene where Hitler bows his head at the news that Allied forces cut off a major assault of German U-boats. Frank Loesser, the original author of the song, donated all his royalties from the sale of the song to the Navy Relief Society.

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.

You can listen to the two versions of the song on links bellow, the first one being the original song by Frank Loesser and its most successful cover by Kay Kyser.

Nikola Budanovic

Nikola Budanovic is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE