As a U.S. Army chaplain in Vietnam, Donald L. Crowley came close to being killed several times, but his devotion to the men he served and his faith in God’s protection helped sustain him, say colleagues and family members.
Crowley, who went on to become chief of chaplains for the California National Guard, died Jan. 16 in El Dorado Hills after recent years of declining health, according to his family. He was 82.
“He was the greatest man I ever met,” said Murray “Bird” Birnbaum, who was a sergeant with the Army’s 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry in Vietnam when he met Chaplain Crowley. “He was extremely brave. He had more faith than anybody I ever met.”
Donald Crowley was born July 20, 1932, to Nolan and Bertha Crowley. He was the sixth of seven children and grew up on the family farm outside Yale, Okla. He met his future wife, Alice Fletcher, when both were in high school, and they married after graduation. He enrolled in Oklahoma State University, and the couple started a family. Three children were born during those college years, with Alice working at a local bank and Donald working on oil rigs to support the family.
He had attended evangelistic crusades by Oral Roberts in Tulsa, and at one of these tent meetings, he gave his life to Christ. After graduating from OSU with a geology degree, he felt called to full-time ministry and was encouraged to pursue a master’s degree in theology. He and his family moved to Mill Valley so he could attend Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.
After graduating from seminary and the birth of a fourth child, he decided to become a military chaplain. In his mid-30s, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was commissioned as a captain in the Army Chaplain Corps.
“He knew there was a great need for chaplains, and he saw it even more when we were in the middle of a war,” Tim Crowley said of his father’s decision.
Chaplain Crowley served three tours of duty in Vietnam. Although, as a chaplain, he never carried a weapon, “he refused to be on the back lines,” his son said.
Birnbaum said he met Chaplain Crowley when he spotted him walking alongside troops in the field. Most chaplains flew in and out, spending only a short time near the front lines, Birnbaum said, but Chaplain Crowley stayed with the troops, even crawling into tunnels to help search for the enemy. He was always there to counsel soldiers when the company suffered heavy losses, including deaths from friendly fire, Birnbaum said.
“I used to go to him after anything bad happened. … He convinced me that there was reason for me to continue on,” Birnbaum said.
“He was like my father, older brother and best friend all rolled into one,” Birnbaum added. “For me, it was a dark time, and he got me through it.”
Mike Devereaux, who was in Vietnam in 1967 and ’68, recalled a Christmas spent at a base camp. The small chapel could accommodate only six to eight people at a time, so Chaplain Crowley held Christmas services for one group after another all day long, Devereaux said.
Chaplain Crowley also was moved by the plight of the Vietnamese people, and he recruited battalion members to help build orphanages there during the war.
He received numerous awards and decorations for his service in Vietnam, including the Silver Star, three Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts, his family said.
Tim Crowley said his father had several close calls. On one occasion, as Chaplain Crowley was leaning against a tree, a Viet Cong soldier came upon him and fired an AK-47 at him from 10 feet away. Another time, he tripped over a booby trap, but it didn’t explode.
Chaplain Crowley received the Silver Star, the Army’s third-highest medal, for his actions on March 2, 1968, when his unit came under intense enemy fire and sustained many casualties. He carried ponchos and canteens of water to the troops, assisting in locating the wounded.
In 1976, Chaplain Crowley transitioned to full-time active duty with the California National Guard. Promoted to the rank of colonel and named chief of chaplains, he personally recruited more than 200 chaplains to serve with the National Guard. He later was given the state-recognized rank of brigadier general, a rank rarely attained by chaplains, his colleagues said.
“Someone said he was the only general you talked to without standing at attention,” recalled Devereaux.
After retiring from the National Guard, Chaplain Crowley served as an interim pastor for several churches in the Sacramento area.
He and his wife Alice were married for 45 years. After her death, he married Mary Chan in 2003.
Chan recalled her husband, a man always ready to lend a hand, describing an incident that happened in San Francisco while he was attending a conference. He was standing outside a hotel in full dress uniform when a taxi pulled up. A woman got out and, apparently thinking he was a hotel bellman, asked him to take her bags, which he carried into the lobby. When she tried to tip him, Crowley declined, explaining that he was a military chaplain. The woman was mortified, but he reassured her, joking that he had been wondering what he could do as a second career and now he knew.
In addition to his wife and his son Tim, of Tulsa, Okla., Chaplain Crowley is survived by his daughters, Cindy Blanchette and Julie Merkel, both of Carmichael, and son Chris Crowley of Loomis, as well as nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
A service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Arcade Church, 3927 Marconi Ave.
Call The Bee’s Cathy Locke, (916) 321-5287.