A Life of Service
Before he served the Lord in God’s Army, Commissioner Robert Rightmire proudly served his country in the U.S. Coast Guard aboard the USS Admiral Eberle during World War II. Rightmire, now retired, talks about his military service and how it helped guide his future in The Salvation Army.
It started with a flood
In 1937, I was 13 years old when the Ohio River overflowed, causing one of the worst floods in American history. Although the area where I lived was spared, my family volunteered to help people affected. My mother and I went to help The Salvation Army.
Water filled the corps building, so the officers used a local elementary school for shelter and feeding. My mother supervised the school dining room. I remember walking around town with my wagon, going door to door to collect donations to take to the school.
I attended Army services, first at the elementary school, and then closer to my home at Cumminsville, Ohio. While in high school, I was accepted as an officer candidate. I was prepared to begin training right after graduation. But, I was drafted to fight in World War II before I could finish high school.
A Coast Guard musician
I had a brother in the United States Air Force who was killed while returning to England from a bombing raid. Another brother in the Navy, working on a submarine, survived the attack at Pearl Harbor. He recommended me for the Coast Guard, thinking it would keep me close to home. He could not have been more wrong.
I traveled the world aboard the USS Admiral Eberle, a transport ship carrying about 5,000 troops and 525 in the crew. I had a musician’s rank. Every day, I played the routine bugle calls. When I wasn’t doing that, I volunteered with the officer chaplain, assisting him with jobs such as setting up the ship’s library and organizing worship services for the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish soldiers. Many of them came to us for communion and weekly Bible study.
Memories aboard the Eberle
I vividly remember one trip returning from the Philippines. We brought refugees from a Japanese prison camp. One of them was an Englishman whose wife had been killed by the Japanese. He traveled with his 12–year–old daughter, until she took sick on the ship and died. I performed the funeral ceremony. We gave the child a traditional burial at sea, as we would have given any soldier.
One cloudy Sunday morning, I preached to the troops. I retold the story of Noah and the Ark. As I spoke about God protecting us from storms in our own lives, the clouds opened, and a rainbow shined down on the deck where we gathered. More than a few jaws dropped when this happened.
When our ship crossed the equator, it was customary to hold a “King Neptune Celebration.” All men on board who had never crossed the equator before were considered “landlubbers.” They were rounded up and put through rigorous ordeals, including body painting. The celebration concluded by seating them on a ducking chair, and suddenly dumping them backwards into a water tank to swim their way out. Nobody ever singled me out as they did other men. But nonetheless, I volunteered to be thrown in the water. I thought it was better to do that than to be caught hiding from them!
Twenty years later, I was a captain in The Salvation Army. While attending the International College for Officers in London in 1963, the General reflected on Jesus’ words, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” The General admonished delegates to listen to what Jesus wants to say to us. I thought, He is going to say something directly to me.
In London, I had become friendly with a British officer who was serving in Japan. Speaking to him reminded me of my wartime experiences.
Sailing back from Nagoya, Japan, where I had witnessed the utter destruction of the city and knew the effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I heard General Douglas MacArthur, now supreme commander of Japan, speak from Tokyo and call for American missionaries to travel to Japan.
MacArthur explained that, with Emperor Hirohito defeated, Japan had lost the embodiment of its religion. The emperor himself was worshiped as a god, and his surrender left a vacuum of faith in the country. At the time, I had considered the idea of being a missionary to Japan. Years later at the International College for Officers, I wondered if I was wrong to pass up that mission. Now, Jesus was speaking to me and guiding my future in the Army.
In August 1964, my wife Katherine,* our children Evelyn and David, and I arrived in Yokohama for the first of three assignments in Japan. We were appointed as assistant divisional leaders in Western Japan, and were kept busy while learning the language and culture.
We worked with translators, but I gradually picked up the language well enough to do services, such as weddings. We also fed homeless people, especially in the winter months and at night. The Army would set up canteens at train stations, department stores, and anywhere there was a steam vent. That’s where we found people looking for warmth and for food.
During our final appointment in Japan as territorial leaders, I met Pope John Paul II. Up until then, no Salvation Army leader had met with him. In our personal conversation, he wanted to know about the Army’s work in Japan.
Another memorable appointment was during my time as chief secretary in South Africa. I was there during the Soweto uprising of the late 1970s. This was a time of institutionalized racial segregation in the country. Government law dictated the separation of blacks from whites. Apartheid was a way of life. The Salvation Army had no choice but to go along with the system in place.
We had a training college for white cadets and another one for black cadets. However, when the Army planned special events with territorial leaders, cadets, both black and white, gathered in the white training college.
My family lived in Johannesburg and hosted black residents from then– Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) who worked at the headquarters. We would invite them for dinner. At night, I would drive them back to their home in Soweto. This was an illegal act; a white person was not allowed in Soweto after sundown. I could have been arrested for doing this for our friends, but I took the chance. They lived in the Army School and Training College compound that was dark and completely without electricity. Later, I was successful in appealing to the USA Eastern Territory to provide electricity for the compound.
Taking command of the vibrant Korea Territory, we found ourselves deeply involved in aggressive evangelism, fervent prayer meetings, and rapid corps growth. We opened a new corps almost monthly. A large officers’ training college campus was built to accommodate the number of cadets. We were privileged to participate in the exciting 100th anniversary celebrations of the Protestant Church in Korea with a rally of one million Christians! The Salvation Army had strong ties with the U.S. Army base in Seoul. We made trips to the dangerous DMZ to see our brave U.S. and Korean soldiers stationed there. As territorial commander, I served on the USO board of directors serving our military forces in Korea.
Our last appointment as active officers was as leaders of the impressive USA Central Territory, known as “The Army’s best kept secret.” We witnessed there the dedicated and quality service of Salvationists. During our tenure, we also opened new corps. Ironically, one was the large Chicago Korean Corps (Mayfair Community Church).
A blessed life
The Salvation Army itself was active in helping the military back home. I remember the Army taking over a mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City to host servicemen needing a place to stay.
When the Eberle docked on the West Coast, I visited corps in coastal cities. I also brought with me some of my shipmates to the corps; they were always welcomed. There was always someone to invite us to their home for dinner, and to tell us that we were in their prayers. Through my time in the military, I was able to fellowship with Salvationists all over the world. Best of all, I met the love of my life, my wife Katherine, with whom I have shared life and service for the past 70–plus years.
interview by Hugo Bravo
* Commissioner Katherine R. Rightmire was promoted to Glory on June 30, 2017.