Forgotten Hero: The story of Chaplain David Quinn, USN

In August 1945 this Crisfielder’s death was announced; now his life story is told

By Maj. Gen. James A. Adkins, Ret. Special to the Crisfield-Somerset County Times
Posted 8/19/21

The Crisfield Times on Aug. 10, 1945 published a notice on the front page that Lt. David Long Quinn, a U.S. Navy chaplain who had been a prisoner of war held by the Japanese for more than three …

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Forgotten Hero: The story of Chaplain David Quinn, USN

In August 1945 this Crisfielder’s death was announced; now his life story is told

Posted

The Crisfield Times on Aug. 10, 1945 published a notice on the front page that Lt. David Long Quinn, a U.S. Navy chaplain who had been a prisoner of war held by the Japanese for more than three years, was killed after the ship he and other prisoners were on was bombed and sunk (which was not accurate). The true life story of this Crisfield native — son of the newspaper’s publisher Lorie C. Quinn Sr. — was researched by retired U.S. Army Major Gen. James A. Adkins and is presented here.

* * *

At Arlington National Cemetery, not far from the grave of President John F. Kennedy, is an area known as Chaplains Hill. Buried there among the almost 250 chaplains who lost their lives in service to our nation is a Crisfielder, Chaplain David Long Quinn, Lieutenant, U.S. Navy.

Like so many other American heroes, his story has never been fully known locally or simply forgotten. What follows is a glimpse into his remarkable and tragic journey.

Crisfield, in 1897, was a bustling port known for its seafood. David was born that year on March 28 into a prominent Crisfield family. His father was Lorie C. Quinn Sr., founder of The Crisfield Times and the city’s second mayor. His mother, Katie, was active in the local community and instrumental in pursuing a hospital and library. David’s brother, Lorie Quinn Jr., would take over the family newspaper business; his brother Wallace would make a fortune in the menhaden business; his brother Egbert would also become the mayor of Crisfield.

William Wilson Quinn, David’s Crisfield cousin, attended West Point and became a lieutenant general in the U.S. Army with combat service during WWII and Korea.

By the time David Quinn was a teenager, his family was living on Chesapeake Avenue, just a few blocks from the heart of Crisfield. In a newspaper interview later in life, Quinn said he was "raised up" on soft shell crabs and oysters and other such bounties from the Chesapeake Bay. The family home was donated in 1969 by Wallace Quinn for use by the Head Start program. It was named the Katie M. Quinn Memorial Children’s Center in honor of Chaplain Quinn’s mother.

David worked in the family newspaper business when not in school. As a young boy, he helped at The Crisfield Times as a "printer’s devil." He would set type, run the presses, and report for his father’s newspaper. His WWI draft registration described him as tall, slender, with red hair and light blue eyes.

When David graduated from Crisfield High School, war was raging on the European continent, and eventually, the United States would enter the war. He served in the U.S. Navy during WWI from 1918 to 1919 with duty at Naval Training Station Hampton Roads where he trained on radio equipment.

After the war, David Long Quinn was off to college. He studied at the University of Maryland College Park, Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College) and eventually graduated from George Washington University in 1922.

By learning languages and international law, he hoped for an appointment to the foreign service but would soon be called to another duty.

David entered the Episcopal Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, where he completed his studies in 1924 at the age of 27. He would have subsequent parish assignments in Northeast, Maryland; Alvin, Texas; and Washington, D.C.

While in Texas, he met the young daughter of a local farmer, Dorothy "Dot" Davis. They married in 1927 in Brazoria, Texas, south of Houston.

In the midst of the Great Depression, the young couple was called in another direction as The Reverend David Quinn received an appointment in January 1931 as a chaplain in the United States Navy, one of only two chaplains selected by the Navy that year. At the time, he was serving as the assistant minister of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Washington.

By April, he was off to his initial training in Providence, Rhode Island. Thus began the young couple’s exciting Navy career, one that would end in tragedy. That year, Japan invaded Manchuria as it started its expansion in Asia.

After Quinn’s initial training to prepare him for service as a Navy chaplain, the young couple was off to their first assignment with the fleet on the west coast at San Pedro, Calif. His first ship was the USS Relief, the first ship in the Navy built from the keel up to be a hospital ship. By 1933 Quinn had transferred to the battleship USS Arkansas to serve as a chaplain with additional duty as the editor for the ship’s newspaper, The Arklite. He put to good use those newspaper skills acquired from working as a teenager at The Crisfield Times. The ship’s newspaper helped to build morale, and the ship distributed over two thousand copies weekly.

In 1934 after his initial time with the fleet, David and Dot Quinn were on their way back to Maryland for duty at the United States Naval Academy. No doubt, this provided opportunities for them to visit friends and family in Crisfield. Unfortunately, the tour in Annapolis was only two years, and the couple was again off on another Navy adventure. This time Chaplain Quinn was assigned to the USS Chaumont with duty in the Pacific as storm clouds gathered on the horizon.

His duty on the Chaumont, a transport ship, provided a front-row seat to the hostilities erupting between Japan and China.

During Quinn’s two years on the USS Chaumont from 1935 to 1937, the ship made numerous trips to the coast of China. In the summer of 1937, the ship transported the 6th Marines under General Beaumont to Shanghai to augment U.S. forces protecting U.S. nationals in the International Settlement, an enclave of foreign business activity and other neutral parties.

The Second Sino-Japanese War had begun in the summer of 1937, and there was open combat between Chinese and Japanese forces all around the boundaries of the International Settlement. The battle for Shanghai involved 300,000 Japanese troops and 700,000 Chinese troops and was considered the beginning of WWII in Asia.

Eventually, most U.S. citizens and military personnel evacuated, many on Quinn’s ship. Shanghai’s International Settlement eventually fell to the Japanese after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

A February 1938 edition of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin featured the Shanghai experiences of Chaplain Quinn, stating that he was among just a few officers who had witnessed the fierce fighting between the Chinese and Japanese close up. The newspaper’s reporter, Nash Witten, drew a sketch of Quinn to accompany the article, and the same drawing is used with this article.

Upon completing his tour on the USS Chaumont, Chaplain Quinn took up duty as the chaplain for the submarine base at Pearl Harbor. The Hawaiian paradise suited David and Dot Quinn. They became active in their local church, hosted dances, dinners, and bridge parties. In addition to his chaplain duties, David Quinn became the editor of The Subbase Patrol, the base newspaper. Dot worked for The Advertiser newspaper in Honolulu as the Navy Society section editor.

They would have nearly three years to enjoy this tropical paradise before Chaplain Quinn’s career would take another turn.

As America debated the ongoing wars in Europe and Asia, Chaplain Quinn, in the fall of 1941, received orders to report to the Philippines, where he would become the chaplain for U.S. 16th Naval District. Only weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor, David would leave Dot in Honolulu and report to his new assignment at Cavite Navy Yard, not far from Manila. Located some five thousand miles west of Hawaii and nearly surrounded by Japanese bases, the American outpost in the Philippines would be increasingly vulnerable to attack.

It was a tense time for U.S. forces stationed in the Pacific as many felt war with Japan was imminent, and it was.

Early on the morning of December 8, 1941, due to the Philippines’ location west of the International Date Line, U.S. personnel received word of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. No doubt David Quinn’s first thoughts were of his wife in Honolulu. His safety shortly would be in peril.

The commander of the Cavite Navy Yard, home of the U.S. Asiatic fleet, received the following message, "Japan started hostilities. Govern yourself accordingly." Now the question was when the Japanese would attack the Philippines.

The answer came on the morning of December 10 when 130 Japanese planes attacked American bases all across the Philippines. Twenty-seven of those planes targeted Cavite, Chaplain Quinn’s duty station. After more than an hour of constant bombing, the entire Navy yard was ablaze, and destruction widespread. Torpedo boats, their decks soon slick with blood, began to evacuate the wounded. Five hundred Americans and Filipinos were killed or injured during the attack.

Chaplain Quinn did not evacuate, and the Japanese captured him as they began their ground attack and occupation of Manila. His captivity began months before the surrender of all U.S. forces in the Philippines and before the infamous Bataan death march. What followed were three years of hell in Japanese captivity for Quinn and the other 72,000 American prisoners taken by the Japanese there.

In May 1942, Quinn’s parents received a telegram from the Navy stating that their son was missing and probably a prisoner of war. The telegram read, "The Navy Department regrets exceedingly to advise you that information has just been received indicating your son, Lieutenant David Long Quinn, CHC, United States Navy, was performing his duty in service to his country in the vicinity of Manila at the time it was captured, about December 26. He will be carried on the records of the Navy Department as missing pending further information. No report of his death or injury has been received and he may be a prisoner of war. It will probably be several months before definite official information can be expected concerning his status. Sincere sympathy is extended to you in your anxiety and you are assured that any report received will be communicated to you promptly."

A Crisfield Times article on May 22, 1942, reported that the Quinns had last heard from their son around Christmastime when he reported that he was well.

The Baltimore Sun reported in December 1942 that four nurses who served with Chaplain Quinn traveled to Crisfield to tell his parents of their experience in the Philippines. They told the story of how Quinn had ensured they would be able to escape before the arrival of the Japanese, and their last image of David Long Quinn was of him standing in the doorway of a burning hospital as he bid them farewell.

The Japanese shuffled Quinn between several POW facilities during his three years in captivity. One such transfer involved his movement on a train from Manila to Cabanatuan in a small boxcar packed with 80-100 men for the six to eight-hour trip. Disease and extreme heat resulted in death for 2,000 of the 8,000 prisoners at the prison within four months.

Multiple escape attempts failed. On one occasion, four Americans were recaptured and forced to dig their own graves. Japanese guards then beat and executed the escapees in front of the entire prison population.

Even in the crowded and filthy conditions, Chaplain David Long Quinn continued to carry out religious duties. One prisoner recorded in his secret diary that Chaplain Quinn led at night a series of Bible studies on the life of Paul.

Late in 1944, the Japanese, anticipating that the Americans would soon retake the Philippines, made plans to move the American prisoners to Japan. Quinn, along with other prisoners, was transferred to Bilibid Prison near Manila in October 1944. On December 13, the Japanese marched over 1600 prisoners from the prison to Pier 7 at the Manila harbor. They chose a circuitous route so to humiliate the prisoners in front of the citizens of Manila.

After three years of inhumane treatment, enduring starvation, lack of water, brutal beatings, exposure, and disease, Lieutenant David Long Quinn boarded what was known as one of the "hell ships" for transport to Formosa. While the exact facts are elusive, it is believed that his first ship was attacked by American planes, and he was then transferred to another.

While some reports had him dying when the ship came under attack by an American plane, a fellow prisoner noted in his diary that Lieutenant David Long Quinn, serial number 63952, died on January 7, 1945, en route to Formosa shortly before arrival. Once the ship docked, the Japanese allowed the prisoners to bury the dead, including Quinn, in a mass grave. Of the 1,619 POWs who boarded the ship in Manila, only 497 survived to reach Japan.

Nearly 20,000 Allied prisoners of war perished on these "hell ships" during WWII.

After the war, Dorothy "Dot" Quinn traveled to Japan, where she worked with the U.S. Army occupation forces. She was there when the Americans found the mass grave holding David Quinn’s remains. Dot attended the trials of those Japanese charged with war crimes related to their inhumane treatment of American and allied prisoners. She sought answers to the fate of her husband.

After two years in Japan, Dot Quinn stopped off in Honolulu on her way back to the United States. She told her old friends that she planned to take a year off and just drive around the country. Mrs. David Long Quinn never remarried and eventually moved back to Texas, where she died in 1991. The couple had no children.

On September 7, 1949, at 11 in the morning, the repatriated remains of Chaplain David Long Quinn, Lieutenant, U.S. Navy, were buried on Chaplains Hill at Arlington National Cemetery with the Chief of Navy Chaplains officiating.

We should never forget the ultimate sacrifice of this Crisfielder, who long ago left his hometown on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and eventually gave his life in service to our nation. He posthumously received the Prisoner of War Medal.

— Retired Major General James A. Adkins served as Maryland’s 4th Secretary of Veterans Affairs and the 28th Adjutant General of Maryland. He writes from his homes in Crisfield and Salisbury.