In 1983, on the 50th anniversary of John Craven’s enlistment into the Marine Corps, Commandant General P. X. Kelley declared him a “Legend” who served with the Marines longer than any other chaplain in American history.
Born in 1916 in Missouri, Craven enlisted in 1933 at 17 and completed boot camp at Parris Island. While serving on the USS New Mexico at Pearl Harbor, he sensed a call to ministry. He left the Corps to earn academic degrees in theology. He returned to active duty in 1942 as a Southern Baptist chaplain.
He served in many high-casualty combat campaigns in WWII including Marshall Islands, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima. He accompanied Marines on amphibious landings through the Pacific and witnessed the raising of the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi at Iwo Jima. The Fourth Marine Division knew him as “John the Baptist.” Four men accepted Christ on the boat before landing on Iwo Jima. He baptized them as soon as possible after they survived the bloody landing. The imagery of them being buried with Christ into death then raised to new life is captured in historic photos.
In Korea, he was with the Marines during the landing at Inchon, the battle for Seoul, and suffered severe frostbite while urging his Marines to endure the bloody retreat from the Chosin Reservoir.
Tom Brokaw in The Greatest Generation Speaks retells stories of Chaplain Craven praying with wounded Marines. Chaplain Craven believed that the Lord’s Prayer is the most effective medicine for shell shock.
In 1963, he ministered to the grieving family of President John F. Kennedy at Bethesda Naval Hospital. He was Fleet Chaplain during Vietnam, and ended his active duty career at Headquarters Marine Corps in Washington, D.C. serving for five years as the Chaplain of the Marine Corps.
Chaplain Craven retired from active duty in 1974 after more than 30 years of military service, decorated with the Silver Star and Bronze Star. But he was not finished. He returned to Okinawa as a missionary, and later ministered in Norfolk Virginia.
In his latter years he served as chaplain at Vinson Hall Retirement Community for Navy and Marine Corps Officers in McLean, Virginia, not far from the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial depicting the iconic flag raising at Iwo Jima.
This “Legend” died in 2001 at the age of 85 and is buried with our nation’s heroes at Arlington National Cemetery. In his memory, the Navy created the John H. Craven Servant Leadership Award, given to the chaplain that “exemplifies the essence of the chaplain for whom it is named,” honoring effective spiritual leadership.
I am grateful to my college roommate, U.S. Navy Captain Terry C. Gordon who is also a USMC Chaplain, for informing me about this Legend. Join me in remembering the legacy of CAPT John H. Craven, CHC, USN, a true American hero. On this Memorial Day, let us remember all who died for freedom.