A Call to Service

black and white image of Robert Preston Taylor in military chaplains uniform
Chaplain Robert Preston Taylor early in his post-World War II military career

Robert Preston Taylor was born in Henderson, Texas, in 1909 and attended Baptist revivals from an early age. As a teenager he began preaching at the events, gaining a small following and lauded for his work. He attended Jacksonville (Texas) College Academy and Junior College, then Baylor University and Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary, all while following his call to serve. But what happens when that call takes you to battle? To serve God while fighting for your life?

For Taylor, his journey to serve God and country began in 1938 while he was serving as a preacher at the South Fort Worth Baptist Church. He received a letter from the Chaplains Division of the War Department seeking men to minister to American troops. After praying, Taylor answered the call by joining as a Reservist. He was stationed at Fort Hood for two months later that year. In 1940, the call came once again from the War Department. This time to serve one year in the Army Air Corps as a Chaplain. Again, he prayed, and decide he would take a leave of absence from the church. He was assigned to the Army Air Corps, 31st Infantry Regiment, Philippine Division located at Barksdale Field, Louisiana. Because of rising tensions, the division was activated and arrived in the Philippines in May 1941.

While in the Philippines, Taylor was united with twenty-five other chaplains and provided servicemen regular chapel services until the attack on Pearl Harbor. Once the U.S. declared war, Manila was attacked by the Japanese. With casualties rising and a constant need for services, Chaplain Taylor was authorized to use one of the few remaining Jeeps to travel and minister to the troops. He saw a need for the presence of the Word. As circumstances worsened, services became mere scraps of paper passed about with hymns, a verse or two of song, and short bits of scripture.

In the Spring of 1942, U.S. and Filipino troops could no longer sustain action against the Japanese, and officially surrendered. As the Japanese prepared to transport the now prisoners of war, they began confiscating items of personal value. For Chaplain Taylor that meant the loss of his Baylor class ring. On April 8, the troops, already weakened by malaria and dysentery, were forced to endure over twenty-four hours without food or water at the beginning of a sixty-five-mile trek across the peninsula, what would be become known as the Bataan Death March.

The walk took about five days as Japanese troops inflicted many torturous acts upon the prisoners, pushing them to their brink. As they marched, Taylor became both a physical and spiritual pillar, literally holding up his comrades as he professed his faith. Through sheer luck, the chaplain was rescued before the end of his trek. An American ambulance patrol was given permission to collect those in the worst physical health. Although Taylor was not among them, he was recognized as a chaplain and for his need at the Japanese prison camp hospital ward.

Chaplain, Brigadier General Robert Preston Taylor. Taken when he was Assistant Chief of Chaplains of the United States Air Force.

The hospital provided a reprieve, if only temporary. It was bombed and evacuated; survivors were sent to Cabanatuan prison camp. In camp, Taylor learned only half of the chaplains in the unit survived. As new assignments were made within camp, Taylor chose to attend to the frailest, those in the “pearly gates ward,” or death house. After repeated denials by the strict Japanese camp management to perform any worship services, he ultimately joined the funeral detail to ease his thoughts of men being laid to rest without a final blessing.

Prisoners were denied many basic needs in Cabanatuan, including medicine. Aware of this, Chaplain Taylor, at his own risk, organized a smuggling operation to obtain supplies. The operation was only thwarted by his own request for a Greek New Testament Bible. This request sent him to the hot box, a 20 square foot cell he shared with one other. In confinement, Taylor’s faith waivered, but the hope of others and constant conversation with the Lord uplifted him when he was low.

After fourteen weeks of confinement and reduced rations, dysentery took its toll on Taylor; his release to the hospital ward only came at the eminence of his death. Still unable to perform worship services, the prisoners defiantly sat in vigil outside the hospital ward and conducted prayer chains around the clock for two weeks. Taylor’s recovery brought a renewed hope and visible symbol of prayer to camp. After a two-month recovery, and change of camp management, Taylor helped perform the first camp wide religious service. In his time at Cabanatuan, Chaplain Taylor ministered to over 10,000 men, sharing his faith, and observing that of others.

Taylor’s call to ministry led him throughout his imprisonment and beyond. After nearly four years he was released and looked forward to seeing his wife, only to discover she believed him to be dead and had recently remarried. Not letting this affect his faith, the chaplain decided to continue military service over 105 days of convalescent leave. His decision made him one of only two chaplains in his unit who endured the atrocities of World War II to continue his career. Taylor’s experiences allowed him to share his faith through his chaplaincy and public speaking engagements. Eventually, Taylor remarried, had one son, and turned a one-year commitment into more than 25 years of service that culminated as the Chief of Chaplains for the United States Air Force.

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