History of Chaplains in the Air Force

Since its inception the Royal Australian Air Force has engaged Chaplains in both the permanent (full-time) and specialist reserve (part-time) capacity.

Chaplains have served Air Force personnel and their families in both tragic and joyous times, and during conflict and peace. They were the early providers of spiritual, religious and pastoral care support to Air Force personnel and their families.

Initially, part-time Chaplains were engaged to meet the religious needs of personnel. The first full time Chaplain was Father Ken Morrison, a Catholic Priest who was appointed on 5 September 1939 - two days after the declaration of World War II.

With a growing number of Chaplains needed to serve the rapidly expanding Air Force, it was clear that an organised Chaplaincy Service was needed. Fr Morrison was joined by the Rev'd I Davidson, a Presbyterian Minister. Together, the two full-time Staff Chaplains marked the formation of the Air Force Chaplain Branch on 31 August 1940.

In the most trying circumstances, those initial Chaplains found themselves being deployed wherever they were needed. Catholic Chaplain J Pierce, together with five Air Force personnel, commandeered a Bentley in Malaya for escape to Singapore. Then, with sixty Air Force personnel, he commandeered a semi-derelict vessel for an escape journey from Singapore to Darwin.

Chaplains Bob Davies (Anglican), John McNamara (Catholic) and Fred McKay (Presbyterian) served in the Middle East and the Mediterranean between 1942 and 1945. They led the way in embracing religious diversity, and showed a Christianity ‘with its sleeves rolled up'. They also kept families in Australia informed with (security cleared) news from the Front.

Methodist Chaplain Gordon Wood lost his life when a flying bomb hit the church where he was worshipping on 18 June 1944, highlighting that Chaplains are at times in harm’s way. At the time of his death, Gordon was carrying some significant personal possessions for another Chaplain (of another denomination) which were forever lost, but highlighting the extent of the camaraderie which had been established within Chaplaincy even in its early phases of establishment.

It is with that same spirit that Chaplains today serve God and the Air Force on Australian soil and beyond, seeking to provide spiritual, religious and pastoral support to personnel and their families in times of joy and tragedy.

Air Force chaplains have continued to serve in that expeditionary spirit, in places such as:

•    Japan (as part of the post war British Occupation Force)
•    Korea
•    Vietnam
•    Kuwait
•    East Timor
•    The Middle East, and
•    On many humanitarian missions.

A critical component of permanent and reserve Chaplaincy has been its history of professional development. Today, the Defence Force Chaplains’ College in Canberra continues to professionally equip ADF Chaplains with a strategy and confidence to provide the best of contemporary ministry in a sometimes challenging, dynamic and unique environment.