John Handy, Jr. was born in 1918 in Pennsylvania. According to a personal anecdote, Handy’s grandfather was a soldier in the 9th U.S. Colored Troops. He was wounded at the Battle of Petersburg and convalesced at the U.S. General Hospital, Fortress Monroe, creating an emotional connection to the fort for a young Handy prior to his own service there. While still a student at Shaw University, Handy filled out a draft card as World War II raged on in Europe. He was ordained in the United Methodist Church and entered the Army as a chaplain in 1943. Assigned as the regimental chaplain to the 375th Engineer General Services Regiment, he served for two years across Europe and the Philippines in a segregated unit. Handy was lost behind German lines during the Battle for St. Lo in 1944 and also reported ministering to prisoners of war during his World War II service. Following the war, Handy spent about two years as a chaplain at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, before being assigned as the base chaplain in Kobe, Japan in 1949.
During the Korean War, Handy served overseas with the 24th Regiment, 25th Infantry Division. This regiment was the last segregated unit for which General Ridgeway received authority to inactivate. The inactivation occurred three years after Executive Order 9981 ordered the integration of the Armed Forces and while the unit was actively serving in the Korean War. In a 1973 questionnaire, Handy wrote that, during his Korean service, he was shipwrecked between Pusan, Korea and Sasebo, Japan for three days and nights due to a typhoon. He believed that his faith and prayer helped him to survive his wartime experiences and help others to do the same.
Upon returning to the states, he served as assistant post chaplain, then post chaplain at Fort Eustis. In the spring of 1953, Handy stopped to help at the scene of an accident near Williamsburg on Route 60. He was later accused by the Williamsburg Fire Department for meddling and preventing the emergency responders from doing their job. Fort Eustis authorities denied these accusations and cited praise of Handy’s actions by both a physician and nurse at the scene. Whether the accusations were born of racism or not is unknown, although Handy is referred to as a “Negro chaplain” in newspaper accounts of the charges against him.
Chaplain Handy would also serve as an instructor and department chairman at the U.S. Army Chaplain School at Fort Slocum, New York before a tour as staff chaplain of the U.S. Army, Hawaii. In August 1968, Col. Handy was appointed deputy chaplain, U.S. Continental Army Command headquarters. During this time he also served as national secretary of the Military Chaplains Association, of which he had personally organized two chapters.
When asked about the most significant events of his peacetime service, Handy cited the organization of two choral groups. The first was formed in the 365th Regiment, 9th Infantry Division in 1947 and would become the official Fort Dix chorus and the other was formed in the 47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado in 1957, eventually becoming the Official Chorus of the U.S. Fifth Army. The importance of these choruses to his career exemplifies his passion for praise through music.
Chaplain Handy retired in October 1969 after 26 years’ active service, receiving his Ed.D. from the University of Colorado in 1971 with a dissertation titled, “The Ability to Understand Verbal Communication and to Communicate this Understanding as an Outcome of Counselor Education.” In August of the same year, he was appointed a member on the Advisory Council of Educational Television by then Governor of Virginia, Linwood Holton. He would go on to work at Hampton Institute as the director of the Department of Psychological Services and an assistant professor of Psychology and Guidance. Later he would serve as the Director of the Division of Graduate Studies and the Dean of the School of Business. In January 1976, Handy was appointed the acting Academic Dean, and one of his firsts acts was to visit all seven academic divisions of the college in order to gauge the problems and operations of each. In 1979, he spoke out against the suggested closure of Fort Monroe, saying that the fort’s support of Hampton ROTC programs and its important historical connection to the college were grounds for its retention. Col. Handy passed away in 1995 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Chaplain Handy’s story is well-documented by the U.S. Army; however, we first read about him in the local Fort Monroe newspaper, the Casemate Chronicle. After learning about his role as deputy staff chaplain for the Continental Army Command, we located more information about his service through contemporary newspapers, the Hampton University Museum Archives, and various Army databases. The Army Heritage and Education Center has several documents pertaining to his career following World War II, including a digitized chapel program from Camp Kilmer. The U.S. Army Chaplain Corps Museum was especially helpful in providing information on Col. Handy’s military career, while knowledge of his civilian honors was provided by Hampton University.
Fort Monroe Authority. “John William Handy, Jr.” Illuminating Shadows, April 18, 2023. [access date]. [URL].