On this day in 1882, a hero is born. George S. Rentz would go on to become the only Navy Chaplain to receive a Navy Cross during World War II.
Chaplain Rentz had already served in World War I and was pushing 60 years old by the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Nevertheless, he was soon in the thick of things, serving aboard the heavy cruiser USS Houston.
Rentz had already made a favorable impression on his crew. A story is told about an early February 1942 battle in which Rentz refused to find cover. He instead circulated among his men, offering encouragement.
“When the sailors saw this man of God walking fearlessly among them,” one officer noted, “they no longer felt alone.”
But his real heroism came a few weeks later, just after the Battle of the Java Sea. Allied forces took a hard hit at that February 27 battle, but Rentz’s cruiser survived, as did the Australian light cruiser HMAS Perth.
Unfortunately, Houston and Perth would be hit again the next night as they attempted to pass through the Sundra Strait.
Houston had already been injured during the battle the night before, so her guns weren’t all operational. Worse, the two Allied ships were badly outnumbered. They held their own for a little while, but by midnight both Houston and Perth were sinking.
Houston’s crew was left in the Pacific, clinging to floating wreckage. Rentz was among the survivors who’d found their way to an overcrowded pontoon.
The chaplain was the oldest man there. He didn’t want to be wearing a life jacket while other, younger sailors had none. He kept trying to give his life jacket away.
“You men are young, with your lives ahead of you,” he said. “I am old and have had my fun.”
His pleas fell on deaf ears. His men loved him and kept ignoring his attempts to give away his own life jacket.
“He kept telling us that he was an older man,” Pfc. James Gee recounted, “and would give his space on the raft to someone who had a longer span before him. He said he was not afraid to die. We thought we had dissuaded him.”
In the end, though, Rentz wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. He saw a young injured seaman, Walter Beeson, badly burned and barely clinging to the pontoon. He removed his life jacket and shoved it towards the young seaman. He said a quick prayer, and swam away.