Wartime Experience Shaped Marine Vet John Chafee's Career in Government

Inaugural of Governor John Chafee, with Virginia Coates Chafee and Adjutant General Leonard P. Holland, January 1965. (Photo: Rhode Island State Archives)
John Chafee, with Virginia Coates Chafee and Adjutant General Leonard P. Holland, is inaugurated as Rhode Island's governor in January 1965. (Rhode Island State Archives photo)

At a gathering of Korean War veterans, a member of Capt. John Chafee's company recounted a day when it had to move across snow-covered ground believed to be a minefield. Chafee took point and led his men through the area. Looking back, they all saw exactly one set of tracks: Chafee's. The Marines had such faith in their commander's decisions that every one of them had stepped precisely in his footprints.

"As did his Marines so long ago, many of us are trying to follow in John Chafee's footsteps, setting a standard of decency, civility and kindness, remembering how to disagree without rancor," U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said last October, honoring her distinguished (and more liberal) colleague.

Chafee once said that he learned from his World War II combat experience on Guadalcanal and Okinawa that there was no rhyme or reason to who lived and who died in wartime. He became committed to living honorably and well because each day was a gift of grace.

Chafee, a Republican, served as secretary of the Navy, governor of Rhode Island and two terms as a U.S. senator. He was first moved to his country's service as a Yale freshman. Enlisting in the Marines because he wanted to fight, he rose from private to lieutenant during the Second World War. After V-Day, he took off his uniform and graduated from college and then Harvard Law School.

But the Marines weren't finished with Chafee. He was called back to active duty and answered that call without complaint even as he was sent to the mountains of Korea. One of the young lieutenants who served under Chafee called him "the most admirable man I've ever known;" that lieutenant, James Brady, made his CO the hero of his novel, "The Coldest War."

When Chafee died last fall at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, he received eulogies from fellow politicos like Hutchison, from former comrades-at-arms like Brady and from people all over the country whose lives he had touched. One of them was Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), who said, "I have had many occasions to say, 'I am so impressed, John, by what you did.'" Chafee would have been aware that this tribute meant something; after all, as secretary of the Navy in 1969, he signed Kerrey's Medal of Honor citation.

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