Keep Oral Histories coming through your tax-deductible donation now.

Rear Admiral Neil M. Stevenson, Chaplain Corps, USN (Ret.) (1930-2009)

Rear Admiral Neil M. Stevenson, Chaplain Corps, USN (Ret.) (1930-2009)Based on seven interviews conducted by Paul Stillwell from February 1988 through March 1990, the volume contains 346 pages of interview transcript plus an index and appendices. The transcript is copyright 1998 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee placed no restrictions on its use.

In telling of his life and career, Chaplain Stevenson made it clear that he wanted to contribute more than just a collection of sea stories. As a result, he emphasized more than a dozen issues while doing the telling. One point that he made repeatedly was that members of the Chaplain Corps should emphasize institutional ministry rather than limiting themselves to parish ministry. Stevenson was born and reared in Brooklyn and got his undergraduate education at the small Tarkio College in Missouri. He later got his religious training at Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary. He began his active Navy service as a student in 1957 at Chaplain School in Newport, Rhode Island. Subsequent duties were at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, with Destroyer Squadron Ten; at Naval Station Newport, on board the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CVA-60); and at Naval Air Station Glenview, Illinois. In the late 1960s he was a postgraduate student in at Princeton Theological Seminary, then was involved with the Personal Response Program in South Vietnam. In the early and mid-1970s he was in the training division on the staff of the Chief of Chaplains, a student in the Chaplain School advanced course, and senior chaplain at the Naval Training Center, Orlando, Florida. He served in 1976-77 on the staff of John O'Connor, Chief of Chaplains, and provides some superb observations on O’Connor’s style and achievements. Stevenson subsequently was Fleet Chaplain, Pacific Fleet/Chaplain, Naval Logistics Command Pacific Fleet, Deputy Chief of Chaplains, and served from 1983 to 1985 as the Navy’s Chief of Chaplains. In his post-retirement years he worked as a civilian pastor.

An index to this volume can be viewed here (.pdf).

In this clip from his second interview with Paul Stillwell at the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland, on 11 February 1988, Chaplain Stevenson speaks of being a chaplain on sea duty and offers advice for other Navy chaplains.

Louis J. Kaep, "At Peace With God," watercolor on paper.Paul Stillwell: Then it was on to sea duty.

Admiral Stevenson: Then it was on to sea duty.

We knew that in somewhere between nine months and a year we were going to get orders to sea duty. Again I was very fortunate. I got orders back to Newport, Rhode Island, to Destroyer Squadron Ten–Lightning Ten. The hardest part of that was finding a place to live. Newport wasn't an easy place to find a place to live in those days. We went back and found a little cramped place.

In that destroyer squadron I was introduced to the real Navy–a very important part of any chaplain's career. I discovered years later just how important shipboard duty is for a chaplain when I became a supervisory chaplain and had a couple of chaplains working for me who had not been to sea in ships. There's a world of difference between a chaplain who has served in a ship and a chaplain who has not. I mean, the earlier in your career you can get that ship, the better off you are.

Paul Stillwell: What advantages does that bring?

Admiral Stevenson: I think that it's only when you get into a ship that you really understand the chain of command. Chain of command outside of a ship is sort of a management system, but in a ship it's a reality. It's a visible reality every moment of the day.

As a chaplain you become totally familiar with the life of a sailor, not in some mockup ship at Great Lakes, but the reality of the frustrations of maintaining ships, operating ships. The reality is that the day does not end at 5:00 o'clock, or 6:00 o'clock, but it goes around 24 hours a day. The real Navy is made up of, in the best sense of the word, workaholics.

I don't think any shore duty, or even overseas duty, would make you conscious of what the real Navy is like. The Navy has its origins at sea and brings them to land. The risk factors on human lives, the introduction to people being lost at sea, blown off a carrier deck and lost, etc. The sea as adversary, etc.

Paul Stillwell: The reality of deployments, separations.

Admiral Stevenson: The reality of deployments, the reality of not going ashore in your own home port because some equipment has broken down.

No, I don't think that a chaplain can really counsel effectively unless he has been there himself. I go back to that basic counseling situation of the Navy. You know the old expression regarding children being conceived and born. You have to be there for the laying of the keel but not for the launching. A way of measuring the transformation of a civilian clergyman into a Navy chaplain is when one recognizes the needs of the Navy–the fact that dads can't always be there when babies are born. Again, it sounds impossible in a civilian frame of reference. But once you've put in your tour of sea duty, it's understandable.

Paul Stillwell: How does one chaplain go about serving all the ships in a squadron?

Admiral Stevenson: How many hours have we got for this? [Laughter]

Okay, for a chaplain even to go to destroyer duty is a culture shock. It was that for me. You have come from a busy parish situation, and you have come from a recruit training command, where you had an office and where you had counseling situations and you were teaching courses, and so forth. Then you get on a destroyer, where you find that there is no office space. The majority of the counseling is going to be done in what they call "the ministry of presence," which basically means you're walking around, climbing up and down ladders, you're running into people who say just, "Hey, Chaplain, I need to talk to you about this." So you grab a corner someplace, or you step into a gun mount or passageway to have some privacy. That's an entirely different world.

In those days the chaplain was kept busier–I guess that's the right word–in port than at sea because he was largely confined to the one ship at sea. We continued to have character-education lectures, and we'd give them on the mess decks, as we would normally have divine services on the 01 or in the mess decks.[1] It was really a ministry of getting to know absolutely everybody. I must say that there were times when I was bored, and I did my share of reading, because everybody else was so tied up. Or the sea conditions were such that one wasn't getting around very much in the North Atlantic.

Helo-hopping from an aircraft carrier to the stern of a destroyer in the late 1950sIn 1958 they had really just started helo-hopping. In fact, my predecessor had always moved from ship to ship by highline, and I moved from ship to ship mostly by helicopters. In those days we were totally unprepared for helicopter transfers. I remember the first time I made a helicopter transfer, the XO went back to the fantail with me, and he said, "They'll lower this harness and you put it around you either frontwards or backwards. We'll see when it gets here which way it is." Because he didn't know and I didn't know how to get into the harness. Kind of awkward when you get hooked up the wrong way.

In the helicopter they used in those days, you came up through the deck of the helicopter, and the hatch would be hanging down. Normally you ended up getting your head cracked as you were getting in and out, because you didn't wear a helmet. It was easier to get out of a helicopter, though. You just sort of sat on the hatch, and when the hatch opened up you dropped out in the arms, as it were, of the friendly confines of the horse collar.[2]

Paul Stillwell: How much movement did you do from ship to ship?

Admiral Stevenson: Well, it depended on circumstances: where we, what the operations were, and the sea state. We didn't do nearly as much in those days as the chaplains do today. We're talking about a period of time in which helicopters did not fly after sundown. The big joke on the ASW aircraft carriers was that the helicopter pilots knew all the movies because they were able to be in the wardroom every night.[3]

Paul Stillwell: I think you told me yesterday when the recorder wasn't running that the chaplain moved with the movies, too, so you saw the same movies every place you went.

Admiral Stevenson: I remember one Christmas in that squadron when I moved from ship to ship every day, and the same movie went with me every day.

It was a great adjustment for me. Again, I'm grateful to all those shipmates who educated me on what the requirements of my job were. Chaplains were also heavily involved in those days in arranging tours during port visits.

One of the really exciting and fun things for me in those days, when we were deployed, was finding a Catholic priest to celebrate Mass. When you'd chop to the Sixth Fleet, you received from the Sixth Fleet chaplain a list of civilian priests that you might find in the ports of the Med.[4] You'd get off the ship and go hunting for this church or this abbey. You encountered the language problem while trying to find it. Then you were sometimes debating what price would be paid for a priest to come and say Mass on your ships. Sometimes the remuneration included a can of coffee or things like that.

But one of the great concepts of ministry in destroyers was the recognition that you were to be available and visible to everyone in the squadron. How you made yourself available and visible to them and got from ship to ship was a major problem. At one time I had 11 destroyers, and another time I had 8 destroyers. One time, quite humorously, I had two destroyers in the Mediterranean and four destroyers in the Pacific, and I think two others somewhere else. That was a highly impossible situation.

[1]Decks above the ship's main deck have zeroes preceding them. In ascending order they are 01, 02, 03, etc. "Mess deck" is the term for the area where enlisted crew members eat. In more recent years it has come to be known officially as the "enlisted dining facility."

[2]The horse collar is a doughnut-like device that goes under the armpits of the person being raised and lowered. It is attached to a wire that is winched up as the passenger is raised from the deck of the ship.

[3]ASW–antisubmarine warfare.

[4]"Chop" is short for change operational control. Med–Mediterranean Sea.



Conferences and Events

WEST 2019

Wed, 2019-02-13 - Fri, 2019-02-15

Sharpening the Competitive Edge: Are We Ready to Compete, Deter, and Win Globally? Wednesday, 13 February - Friday, 15 February...

2019 U.S. Naval Institute Member Event

View All

From the Press

23 January - Book Talk

Wed, 2019-01-23

9 February - Presentation

Sat, 2019-02-09

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 140 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership