EDITOR’S NOTE — Roy Oliver McClain received five Bronze Stars for his service in World War II as an Army chaplain who took part in six amphibious landings in the Pacific Theater, including on Iwo Jima. And, although McClain died 38 years ago, his courageous exploits as God’s man on the battlefield have been preserved in snippets from sermons and interviews from decades past. Christian Index writer and Southern Baptist historian Charles Jones took the time to dig into McClain’s life for the following Veterans Day feature, which also describes the man’s post-war efforts as a champion for Civil Rights in the U.S.
Roy Oliver McClain didn’t talk much about his experiences in World War II — but on occasion — he did share a few poignant details of life as an Army chaplain.
It was in a sermon that the longtime Georgia pastor described the intense moments aboard a ship filled with troops who were preparing to invade Okinawa before sunrise on Easter Sunday morning in 1945.
“I asked hundreds of men to bow their heads in prayer before we hit the beaches,” he said in the 1954 sermon. “In the pale glow of that tensive moment with all heads bowed, they seemed to be as one — Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Indian, Black, White, Hawaiian, Oriental. And, just for a split second, there was a vison of brotherhood, for two hours later the common denominator, death, was on the face of many.”
McClain, who lived to become pastor of Atlanta’s First Baptist Church, took part in six amphibious assault landings in the Pacific Theater, receiving five Bronze Stars for his deeds.
Born into humble circumstances on a farm in Donalds, South Carolina in 1916, McClain shared some of his life story in a 1965 interview and from time to shared brief details of his military service in sermons.
Born the fourth of six children in a close-knit family, McClain spent after-school hours and summers helping with chores on the farm. The family was very active in their local church, where his father was a deacon, and his mother was a Sunday School teacher and president of the Women’s Missionary Union. McClain would later dedicate his doctoral dissertation to “the memory of my Father and Mother through whom I was led to the Light.”
McClain was baptized when he was 12 and soon began teaching a Sunday School class in their small rural church. During his senior year in high school, he received an academic scholarship which allowed him to attend college. There he majored in accounting with the eventual goal of becoming a certified public accountant. After two years of college, he began working as a bookkeeper.
In 1936, he attended a conference at Ridgecrest Baptist Assembly at Black Mountain, North Carolina, where George Truitt, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, preached. That week, McClain surrendered to a call to the ministry.
Enrolling at Furman University in the fall, he became active in the school’s ministerial association. He soon began preaching at three rural churches on the weekends. Several years later, while at another Ridgecrest Conference, he met Betty Bryant, a fellow South Carolinian, who he married in 1943.
Graduating Furman University in 1941, he enrolled at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the fall of 1942.
America had entered WWII in December 1941, and — because of the urgent need for chaplains — the military lowered their admission standards to the Chaplains Corps to three years pastoral experience and one year of theological training. In 1943, McClain was accepted into the Army’s chaplains program, completing his chaplaincy training at Harvard. While stationed in Hawaii preparing for deployment, he learned the Japanese language and was able to serve as an interpreter.
In the Pacific Theater, he was involved in six amphibious assaults on Guam, Leyte, Samar, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He was riding in a Jeep following the beloved wartime journalist Ernie Pyle the day Pyle was killed. McClain was one of the chaplains who conducted his funeral.
On beaches, in foxholes, aboard ships, and in field hospitals, McClain ministered to wounded and dying men. He ministered to men who were facing the possibility of death at a moment’s notice while he was also in harm’s way.
During the war he developed short, pointed and concise sermons, often preaching multiple times each day. His compassion deepened as the months and years of war rolled on. He learned to look beyond external cultural and racial differences to understand that all men are worthy to receive the grace of God. His war experiences prepared him for ministry during the turbulent civil rights years ahead, where he would experience a different type of combat, a different type of fire.
Returning home, he finished his education completing a masters and doctorate. He pastored in Greenville and Orangeburg, South Carolina, before accepting the call to First Baptist Atlanta in 1953, where he became one of the nation’s first pastors to expand his reach by broadcasting on network television. The following year he also began a four-year stint as the preacher on the nationally broadcast “The Baptist Hour” radio program.
In 1955 McClain and fellow Baptist, Billy Graham were named in Newsweek’s listing of “Ten of America’s Greatest Preachers.” In 1958 he led the First Baptist Atlanta to pioneer live weekly broadcasts of their worship services. He was in great demand as a speaker serving as the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Pastors Conference in 1960–1961.
One attribute of McClain, which was expressed by his son Dick McClain, was that his father “always wanted to do the right thing.” That’s why he waded into the battle for Civil Rights. In 1957, McClain led the Atlanta Ministers Association to publish “The Ministers Manifesto” which ran on the front pages of Atlanta’s newspapers. The document was a plea for Civil Rights debates and differences to be handled peacefully by the citizens of Atlanta.
In 1958, a second draft, supported by a larger number of Atlanta ministers, was published following the Atlanta Synagogue bombing. It was credited, by many, for keeping racial violence lower in Atlanta when compared to other cities.
In 1963, McClain led First Baptist of Atlanta to address the issue of race and church membership. It was remembered as a very contentious season in the life of the church. McClain received death threats. Some burned a cross on his lawn. Dick McClain remembers his dad driving them to school, with a police escort. But as Dick McClain reflected, his father’s attitude was, “If anyone comes to worship, they should be welcomed.”
The church voted to open the doors to African American’s seeking membership.
In 1969, McClain resigned from the church and, for several years, fulfilled long standing speaking engagements. He later returned to the pastorate at First Baptist Church in Orangeburg, South Carolina, where he remained until his death at age 69. At his funeral, McClain was remembered as a great preacher, a good husband and father, and denominational servant. A true renaissance man, he was a leader, preacher, farmer, hunter, fisherman, author, warrior, scholar and musician.
McClain was also remembered as a man who braved the hardships of WWII and came home ready to wade into and help win the fight for Civil Rights.