Thursday, December 15, 2016

"You must believe in Russia:" The Military Service of Reverend Jesse Halsey, Part 1

During WWI, Reverend Jesse Halsey served abroad doing "War Work" as a chaplain, ministering to servicemen “whatever, whenever, and wherever." In my research I've found one account, published in 1940, of his war work written by another YMCA secretary, Ethan T. Colton. The book is called "Forty Years With Russians." My great-grandfather served in Russia at the direct behest of President Wilson, whose student Jesse had been while they were both at Princeton. Apparently, the two had a great affinity for one another for, as one of Jesse's students told me, "They swapped dictionaries." My great-grandfather was granted an indefinite leave of absence, with full salary and expenses, by the trustees of his church in Cincinnati in order to take up work with YMCA. He said, "My church took care of my family, kept my job all during the war—I was gone a year or more—and welcomed me home. They had loaned me to the government without expense and I have always been proud of them." 

For more than 12 months in 1917-1918, Halsey served in Moscow with the YMCA, as American Consul in Murmansk, as a Chaplain in British Navy in the Arctic Circle, and as a representative of American Red Cross. Halsey recalled that President Wilson had directed him to search for a diplomatic contact at Murmansk inside the chaos of the 1918 Russian Civil War. He also spoke frequently of the suffering of the common people in Russia, even the soldiers, saying they were "thinly fed borscht." And "They carried spoons in their boot tops." 

As Colton recounts, “Spaces are wide in European Russia. At its northern extremity, well within the Arctic Circle, Jesse Halsey began activities in Murmansk among the American, British, and Russian crews of the cruisers lying there. Charles Hedden came to reinforce him. Together they fulfilled with distinction not only their appointed mission but that of rendering unofficial government services that drew high tribute from the American consular, military, and naval representatives.” In the forward to the book, General Secretary of the YMCA War Work Council John R. Mott writes, in 1940: You may not understand Russia, but you must believe in Russia.

En route back to Washington to advise Wilson, my great-grandfather was briefly stationed at the Eagle Hut, a center operated by the Y.M.C.A. in London for servicemen on furlough. One night he climbed up the observation tower on the base and found a solitary soldier there. Halsey asked the soldier why he was in the watch tower rather than down carousing with the other boys? The soldier said, “My damn mother.” Halsey told him: “One of the things that’s absolutely necessary in life is to have damned mothers who help you understand what you need to be.”

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