Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition! Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition! Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition! And we'll all stay free!

This rousing refrain is from a song written by Frank Loesser soon after the U.S. entered World War II and published in 1942. The song title and lyrics were inspired by the words of a Navy chaplain spoken to encourage seamen on a ship during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Mr. Loesser donated his royalties from the sales of more than two million records and one million copies of sheet music to the Navy Relief Society. During the war, he was employed by the Radio Productions Unit, which produced recruitment programs and later by the Special Services Unit, doing similar work.

The Fabricated Myth

In the months before Loesser was inspired to write this song, rumors had been spreading far and fast about a military chaplain ('sky pilot') who had put down his bible and manned a gun battery during the Pearl Harbor attack. A well-spun version of the rumor story was stated as fact on the cover of the sheet music for this song in the original publication:

As sailors boiled from below decks of a U.S. Navy warship to fight off low flying Japanese planes, Chaplain William Maguire left his altar and ran to a gun station where one of the gunners had been killed and another wounded. In the unholy roar of that torrent of bombs, Chaplain Maguire shouted his now famous words: "I just got one of them!! Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!!'

That became the official story behind the song. It was approved by the Office of War Information and accepted by the nation's press. The record was not set straight until the end of the war.

The Truth

This song was indeed inspired by the exhortation of an actual Navy chaplain on board one of the ships in Pearl Harbor during the attack. The real 'sky pilot' was Navy Lieutenant Howell M. Forgy, who was serving on the U.S.S. New Orleans when the attack occurred. Chaplain Forgy did indeed speak the words 'Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition', but he did not take over a gun position in place of dead gunners. He was doing his duty by trying to strengthen the spirits of a line of men who were laboriously feeding shells to guns from the ship's magazine, bucket-brigade style, as bombs were exploding, ships were sinking and men were dying all around them. When the song hit the airwaves and the official story hit the press, the men of the New Orleans who had survived with Chaplain Forgy urged him to let the true story be known, but the Lieutenant declined. He said that it was not important that the words be associated with any particular individual. In 1944, however Forgy published his book entitled And Pass the Ammunition, wherein the actual history was revealed.

So What?

Was this song and the official story behind it propaganda, a justified patriotic rallying cry, a battle hymn, or a distasteful mixing of religion, warfare and politics? I would say it's a bit of all those things, in various proportions that will accord with your personal attitudes and view of things.

The horrifying shock to the psyche of a proud nation of having a foreign nation not only attack its soil without warning and kill many of its people, but also having a large part of its naval might destroyed in one strike is enough to explain both the government's desire to whip up fervor for war and the public's receptiveness to it.

The strong interest of the war-time government in the effect of the song is made obvious by both the official approval of the Office of War Information and their direct action in limiting the broadcasting of the song to no more than once in four hours. The OWI did not want the people to quickly get tired of hearing the song, thus lessening its influence. This is a small, but exceptionally clear example of a government's willingness to be unconcerned with truth when it is inconvenient to that government's purposes and its willingness to rely on fabricated, emotional stories to mold the opinions of the people to favor its policy.

What is really disturbing, though, is how the official story and the song lyrics so effectively twine together religion and the fight to 'stay free'. The image of a man of the cloth firing a battery of anti-aircraft cannon at the 'unholy' attackers with dead and wounded heroes beside him and saying, “I just got one! Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!” is very powerful. The 'God is our ally' message quickly brings to mind another powerfully emotional and rousing war song, the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Holy war, Batman!

The complete lyrics

Down went the gunner, a bullet was his fate
Down went the gunner, and then the gunner's mate
Up jumped the sky pilot, gave the boys a look
And manned the gun himself as he laid aside The Book, shouting...
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
And we'll all stay free!
Praise the Lord and swing into position,
Can't afford to be a politician.
Praise the Lord, we're all between perdition
And the deep blue sea!
Yes, the sky pilot said it,
You've got to give him credit,
For a son-of-a-gunner was he, 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!
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
And we'll all stay free!

Frank Loesser
The truth

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