A ‘Greatest Generation’ Servant of Christ

by Eric Erkkinen

Recent statistics tell us that our cemeteries are adding World War II veterans at a rate of nearly 1,100 per day. The Department of Veterans Affairs tells us that of the 16.5 million World War II veterans, only around 2.8 million remain. Journalist Tom Brokaw referred to them as the “greatest generation.” One such servant of Christ is Chaplain Robert F. Rolf.

Chaplain Rolf and his wife, Dorothy Rolf
Photo courtesy LCMS Ministry to the Armed Forces

I met Rolf at a Veterans Day service in 2007. At the conclusion of the sermon, I joined Chaplain Gary Hill in recognizing the veterans. Rolf rose and stood at attention in the dress green uniform he wore proudly for 32 years, having provided pastoral care to countless soldiers.

A Minnesota native, he graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, in 1941. He returned home, and before long was called to Zion Church in Cleveland to serve the German-speaking members of the congregation and the community.

When the young men of the congregation left for the war, Rolf joined the effort. In September 1943, he was commissioned in the Army as a chaplain first lieutenant, and he reported to Harvard University for training.

“One day all the chaplain trainees were ordered to assemble in our Class A uniforms (dress greens) on the parade field,” he recalls. “It was raining pitchforks and hammer handles. As we stood in formation, now soaking wet, we found out why we were there: To be informed as to where we could get our Class A uniforms cleaned!”

After training, Rolf served as a chaplain in Oregon before being ordered to the European Theater.  He recalls falling asleep under a tree one night during combat in Italy. As morning broke, he awoke to discover an unexploded artillery shell lodged in the ground next to the tree. “The Lord was definitely watching over me that night,” he says.

Chaplain Rolf during WWII
Photo courtesy LCMS Ministry to the Armed Forces

Throughout the bitterly fought campaign in Italy, Rolf and his chaplain assistant, “Slick” Proemsey of Maplewood, Mo., visited soldiers and held services. Christmas Eve service for about 15 soldiers was in a barn, a touching reminder of the first Christmas. On Easter Sunday, a soldier was baptized using Rolf’s helmet as the baptismal font.

After discharge from active duty, Rolf returned to Cleveland, became assistant pastor of St. Mark, and founded the Cleveland Lutheran Veterans Club, which still offers activities for Lutheran veterans and their families.

Rolf was ordered back to active duty during the Korean Conflict and served in Germany. He retired with 32 years of service as an LCMS Army chaplain, at the rank of LTC (lieutenant colonel).

Rolf married his first wife Ruth Schmidt (deceased), a Navy nurse, after WWII. He has been married to his second wife, Dorothy, for seven years. They are both 94 and live in Rocky River, Ohio. He remains a hero and servant of Christ.

Chaplain (LTC) Eric Erkkinen (USA, retired) is assistant director of LCMS World Mission’s Ministry to the Armed Forces. Rev. Gary Hill, pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church, Parma, Ohio, provided interview notes for this story.

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