Born on January 3, 1936, one of five kids, Robert R. Brett knew from an early age what the wanted to be. As his sister Rosemary Rouse noted, “He always wanted to be a priest. He was always there for everyone.”
He attended Saint Edmond’s and Saint Gabriel’s grade schools and then attended a preparatory seminary for high school. Brett entered the Marist novitiate at Our Lady of the Elms on Staten Island and made his profession of vows on September 8, 1956. Studying at Catholic University, he received a BA in philosophy in 1958 and a Master’s Degree in Latin in 1963. He was ordained a priest of the Society of Mary in 1962 by Bishop Thomas Wade at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
While teaching Latin at the Immaculata Seminary in Lafayette, Louisiana in 1967, he decided to enlist in the Navy as a chaplain. Neither a hawk nor a dove on Vietnam, Father Brett believed that it was his duty to go where he was needed the most, and he decided that the men fighting in Vietnam needed him. He joined the Navy specifically to volunteer for combat duty in Vietnam with the Marines. (The Marine Corps, although many Marines choke to admit it, is part of the Department of the Navy, and receive their chaplains from the Navy.)
Father Brett was commissioned a Lieutenant in the Navy, and, after training at the Chaplain School in Newport Rhode Island, and Marine combat training at Camp Pendleton, California, he arrived in Vietnam on September 15, 1967, assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division. His goal was simple: wherever Marines in his unit were in danger he was going to be there, to say Mass, give the Last Rites to the dying and help the wounded. His own personal safety was simply going to have to take a back seat to this mission.
His superiors quickly realize that this priest was going to need an assistant and a guard since he was so intent on going into harm’s way. They assigned him Corporal Alexander Chin, a truly remarkable Marine.
Of African-American and Chinese ancestry, Corporal Chin had served in Vietnam for several months when he had a religious conversion. He announced that he could no longer kill the enemy, but that he had no problem still putting his life on the line for his country. Assistant and guard to a chaplain seemed like an appropriate assignment for this particular Marine.
Much of Father Brett’s service in Vietnam centered around the Battle for Khe Sanh. Situated in northwestern Quang Tri Province, Khe Sanh was next to the border between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese sought to replicate their victory at Dien Bien Phu over the French in the 1950’s by massing several divisions and overrunning the Marines at Khe Sanh. They failed, and the Marines inflicted far more casualties on the North Vietnamese Army than they sustained. Intense fighting at Khe Sanh lasted from January 21, 1968 to April 8, 1968, and Chaplain Brett was in the thick of it, along with Corporal Chin.
His commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Kurth recalled Father Brett in his book Walk With Me: a Vietnam Experience:
Our battalion is extremely fortunate to have an outstanding Chaplain to minister to our spiritual needs. Each infantry battalion in Vietnam has an assigned Chaplain to provide religious service to the men. The assignments are not done by religious denomination, rather on who is available at the time of a billet opening. Therefore, a unit could have a Methodist, Baptist or Presbyterian minister, a Jewish Rabbi, or Catholic Priest- whoever is due for assignment. They are a special type of religious leader- usually very down to earth, realistic and straightforward men, as they would have to be to reach men in wartime circumstances, yet, still very spiritual.
We happen to have a very personable Catholic priest, Father Robert Brett. He identifies with all the men and ministers to them constantly. On Sundays he holds mass on a makeshift altar and attendance is quite good. We obviously have to hold several services so we do not weaken our overall defenses. The large attendance doesn’t surprise me, since every man feels threatened and seeks divine guidance and favor. My constant prayer, since even before I arrive in Vietnam, asks the Lord to grant safe return to my family. I ask that he give me a future with my 51 1/2 year-old son. It will be tragic if he grows up without a father and I have missed some of his early years. I happen to be Catholic so I attend all of Father’s service whenever possible.
Father Bob is totally dedicated to his job and truly wants to be there to watch after his community of men. He walks around our positions on Hill 558 with a small placard on the side of his helmet that says, “Some men wait to the 11th hour to believe, but they die at 10:30!”
On 5 Feb, he demonstrates just how far and at what risk he will go to perform his duties. Echo company on Hill 8651A is heavily attacked at 3am, suffering numerous casualties. After bothof the NVA assaults are repulsed, we know we have to sendreplacements via choppers to Captain Breeding. At around 7am, a couple of choppers arrive at 558 to pick up the replacements. One of the people already aboard one of the choppers is David Duncan, a civilian combat photographer, who is the only journalist to ever visit our forward positions at Khe Sanh. His photographs become famous. Just as the last replacements board, Father Brett runs up to a chopper and tells the pilot he will be accompanying the replacements. He never bothers to ask permission or seek approval; he just feels he is needed on Hill 861A after their ordeal.
When he arrives on the hill, Captain Breeding spots him and blurts out, “Who’s that SOB walking around without his weapon?” When told it was the 2/26 Chaplain, he adds, “That’s great, I don’t need to baby-sit any more people on this hill.” That doesn’t raze Father Bob; he just continues to talk to as many men as possible. The men are deeply impressed and appreciative of his commitment and presence.
He spots the Marine positions on Hill 861, K Co 3/26 and tells one of the senior NCOs that he wants to visit those men too! He is told that it is impossible, as there is a mine field between the two positions 300 yards apart. The good padre is very serious and insists, so they walk over to Hill 861 trying to avoid the mines. After a brief visit, he returns to 861A and then back to 558 by mid-day. I would not have let him go if he had bothered to tell me of his intentions. In his mind, his desire to be of service and to administer to those men superseded any need to seek permission. Who can argue?
The Chaplain would often say Mass 10 times a day. He seemed to be utterly tireless as well as utterly fearless.
On February 22, 1968 Father Brett and Corporal Chin were at Khe Sahn. Colonel Kurth tells us what happened:
The next day a chopper arrives at the combat base runway to pick up Father Brett, his enlisted assistant, Corporal Alexander Chin, and a few other individuals. As they approach the chopper, the NVA begins shelling the base with 122mm rockets. Father Brett tells another Marine to take his place aboard the aircraft, and he and Chin run back to a trench alongside the airfield. The helicopter takes off and heads for our position. The shelling continues andone rocket round finds the trench immediately killing several Marines. Among the dead are Father Brett and Corporal Chin. The Corporal, an African/Chinese-American, already possesses two purple hearts for wounds previously sustained. He also had been one of my S-3 jeep drivers during our operations in the Hue/Phu Bai TAOR.
I cannot express adequately my shock and regret when I receive the message informing me that Father Brett and Corporal Chin had been killed in the rocket attack, just moments ago. At this point I’m not sure about your total reaction, but let me assure you it immediately changes my attitude and belief in divine intervention and/or involvement. How can a merciful God allow this kind of tragedy to a man of the cloth, a good man, a dedicated minister to his people? How could you deal with such an obvious inconsistency? It took me awhile following this event to return to a religious posture, and I still can’t purge it from my mind. I also deal with the guilt that if I had allowed him to go the day of his first request or not at all, he would not have been at that locale on the first day he was killed. The total shock extends to every Marine who knew him.
Man’s nature is to search for reason, yet he is incapable of answering the big questions and must rely on fate, not understanding. When we become too self important and think we should know all the answers, all we need to do is sit in the field and gaze at the multitude of stars and planets in the night sky in just this galaxy alone. We then realize how small we are in the grand scheme. Without faith, we become even more insignificant.
Shortly after this tragic loss, I prepare an award recommendation for the Legion of Merit. Lt. Col Heath signs the recommendation and it is forwarded to 3rd Mar Div and approved. Father Brett is posthumously awarded that medal. Small compensation, but extremely well deserved. If anyone deserves burial at Arlington Cemetery, it is Father Brett.
Father Brett was buried at Arlington eventually, his body being re-interred there in 1998. In a moving ceremony described here, in 1999, Corporal Chin’s body was moved from a family plot to lay next to Father Brett’s in Arlington.
Father Brett received many honors after his death, including the naming of a building for him at the Navy Chaplain school, but I am sure the honor that he held most dear is that the Marines he served at Khe Sanh built a chapel in his honor at Khe Sanh following his death.