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You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” Like many others, you may have wondered where it came from. Some older adults will recall hearing it in the hit song from 1942. Associating it with America’s involvement in World War II. Others will have heard the phrase occasionally without giving much thought to its origins.
Shouting Praise the Lord, we’re on a mighty mission
All aboard, we ain’t a-goin’ fishin’
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition
And we’ll all stay free.”
–Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition (with lyrics by Frank Loesser)
Songwriter Frank Loesser composed “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” in response to the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. James “Kay” Kyser & His Orchestra popularized the war-themed hit nearly eighty years ago, and it became an instant classic and an inspiration for millions of Americans.
Despite Loesser taking some artistic license with the lyrics, they are based on actual events. The phrase itself was uttered during the attack. The song tells a story of heroism under fire, propelling it to number two on the song charts—right behind Bing Crosby’s rendition of “White Christmas.”
Here’s how it all came about:
The Story Begins With A U.S. Navy Chaplain
Howell Forgy was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, playing football at West Philadelphia H.S. and later at Muskingum (Ohio) College. Because everyone knew he intended to enter the ministry, he was affectionately known as “Father Forgy.”
Howell graduated from the Princeton Theological Seminary in 1937 and served at Presbyterian churches in Ft. Collins, Colorado, and Murray, Kentucky. After graduating from Murray State Teacher’s College in Kentucky, Rev. Forgy joined the Navy, leaving behind his congregation and wife, Louise.
Lieutenant (j.g.) Forgy was eventually assigned to the heavy cruiser USS New Orleans, stationed at Pearl Harbor in the Territory of Hawaii. From the deck of the New Orleans, Forgy witnessed the infamous attack on December 7, 1941. The USS New Orleans was undergoing repairs and was without dockside power when the attack occurred on that Sunday morning at 0748 hours.
What happened next is the stuff of legend.
The Attack On Pearl Harbor
On a typical peacetime Sunday morning in the Navy Yard at Pearl Harbor, Chaplain Forgy was lying in his bunk thinking about his morning sermon. Suddenly, the ship shook violently, and the general quarter’s alarm sounded. He immediately ran to his station in the sickbay before heading up to the deck.
What greeted Howell was “to remain the most shocking sight in my whole life.” Japanese Zeroes and carrier bombers were laying waste to the warships on Battleship Row. The USS Arizona was blowing up nearby, eventually sinking with 1,177 officers and crew members losing their lives.
As Forgy stepped outside the hatch, the bullets were ricocheting as he “did a jig down the deck.” Another officer, Lieutenant Edwin Woodhead, stood nearby as both men saw a Japanese plane go down in flames. Reverting to his days on the football field, Forgy shouted, “We got one of those sons of bitches!”
Woodhead realized that the topside gunners would need more ammunition. However, without electrical power for the hoists, he needed to come up with an alternative.
The Bucket Brigade
Woodhead rounded up as many men as he could find to form a line—a sort of bucket brigade– to pass the hundred-pound, five-inch shells topside to the deck guns. Soon, the men were carrying the ammunition up through the quarterdeck into the gurneys.
The 6′ 2″ former college lineman turned pastor wanted to lift one of the shells onto his shoulder. He realized that, as a chaplain, he was not permitted to fire a gun or take material part in a battle. So, he did the next best thing.
Some years later, Forgy would recall what happened next: “The boys were getting dog-tired. All I did was slap them on the backs and smilingly say, ‘Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.’ I guess I used un-chaplain-like language because afterward, on the well deck of our cruiser, I overheard a couple of boys say, ‘Chaplains can cuss like a bo’sun mate when they have to.'”
Lieutenants Forgy and Woodhead survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, as did the USS New Orleans. But it wasn’t until months later that Forgy found out his words had been turned into a popular ballad.
A Humble Hero
For quite a while after Pearl Harbor, stories were exchanged among servicemen and in their letters home about the chaplain who uttered the now-famous phrase. In time, these stories made their way to press writers who mistakenly attributed the words to various other chaplains.
One officer on the USS New Orleans said that when the ship’s crewmen heard the song, they would kid Chaplain Forgy and tried to persuade him to set the record straight about who spoke those encouraging words. However, Forgy was unwilling to grab the credit. He reasoned that “the episode should remain a legend rather than be associated with a particular person.”
Reporters interviewed the crew members on the New Orleans involved in the incident. Eventually leading to the Navy brass permitting the press to interview Chaplain Forgy. He gave several interviews, including one printed in Time magazine in 1943, “On Religion: Change of Tune.”
A Rally Cry For The Ages
In 1944, Chaplain Forgy would write his best-selling memoir, And Pass the Ammunition. It begins on the morning of December 7, 1941, and details his wartime experiences in the South Pacific. Including how he sustained his faith aboard the USS New Orleans, one of the most decorated ships of the Second World War.
Lieutenant Forgy served throughout the rest of World War II, retiring in 1946 with the rank of Commander. He retired from his duties as a pastor and served as the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association chairman in the early 1960s. He returned to his civilian ministry, but in 1959 he began using a wheelchair after suffering a stroke.
On January 20, 1972, Howell Forgy passed away. Crossing over two days after his 64th birthday, leaving behind his wife, a daughter, and three sons.
As for “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” it may have started as a rallying cry and the shortest sermon ever, but Howell Forgy’s words have endured as one of the greatest patriotic songs and slogans of all time!