Many American men and women have given their lives up for their country, displaying incredible fortitude and bravery in the face of war. Lebanon can claim one particularly extraordinary man among the country’s heroes.
George Snavely Rentz was born in Lebanon to William and Catherine Rentz, originally of Pottsville, on July 25, 1882. His childhood was spent in Kansas but he returned to Lebanon for his high school years. In 1903, he graduated from Pennsylvania College in Gettysburg (now Gettysburg College). Following this, he attended the Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, graduating there in 1909 and subsequently becoming ordained in the Presbytery of Northumberland.
Rentz returned to his home valley in the following years, pastoring at local churches in Hershey, Welsh Run, and Harrisburg. He married Rebekah Klepper in 1911 and together they raised four children.
When the US entered World War I in 1917, Rentz, in his mid-30s, was appointed temporary acting chaplain with the rank of lieutenant, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) website. Following the war, Rentz continued his involvement with the Navy, serving as chaplain to various ships and gaining several promotions, ultimately gaining the title of regular chaplain with rank of commander in 1924.
In late 1940, Rentz transferred onto the USS Houston, a cruiser ship of the Pacific, and reportedly became well-liked among the crew members. For the next year, he “energetically and enthusiastically devot[ed] himself to the welfare of the ship’s officers and men,” according to the NHHC.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor at the end of that time period in December 1941 precipitated the US entry into the war, and the USS Houston, under Captain Albert Rooks, sailed into the Pacific Ocean theater as the flagship of the Asiatic Fleet.
The ship was involved in several battles for a brief period of time before she met her fate at the Battle of Sunda Strait, in the early hours of March 1, 1942. The USS Houston, alongside the Australian cruiser HMAS Perth, were recovering from the earlier Battle of the Java Sea. The two ships unexpectedly found themselves outnumbered by a force of Imperial Japanese Navy ships. After hours of exchange, the HMAS Perth was sunk, followed shortly by the USS Houston.
The survivors of the latter’s sinking, Rentz included, found themselves on an overcrowded float with several men still floundering in the water without life jackets, including Seaman 1st Class Walter Beeson, whose 20th birthday couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Rentz made up his mind. He decided to give up his place on the small float and his life jacket to one of the others who were still struggling in the wreckage. None accepted his offer at first. Finally, he removed his jacket, slid into the water, said a prayer for the remaining survivors, and swam off into the ocean. Beeson, who reluctantly ended up taking the jacket, later recalled the 59-year-old chaplain’s words before leaving: “You men are young with your life ahead of you, I am old and have had my fun.”
According to the NHHC, Beeson was the only one of the men on the float to survive the war; the others either died before dawn or were killed after being taken as prisoners of war.
Until 2021, Rentz was the only Navy Chaplain to be posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest honor given behind the Medal of Honor. He was joined by Lt. Thomas Conway in January of this year. Incidentally, the USS Houston’s captain, Albert Rooks, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor; he had been killed on the bridge and went down with the ship after excellent guidance through its battles.
Rentz’s sacrifice has been remembered through the years. In 1966, the new Reuter organ of the Derry Presbyterian Church in Hershey — where Rentz had pastored from 1913 to 1916 — was dedicated in his name. The instrument was recently relocated to a church in Memphis, Tennessee as Derry Presbyterian is in the process of installing a new organ.
The Rentz name has also been remembered far beyond the Susquehanna Valley. In the 1980s, the Navy honored Rentz with the naming of a new frigate, the USS Rentz, which launched in 1983 and was commissioned the following year. At the ceremony were survivors of the USS Houston sinking as well as Jean Lansing, George Rentz’s daughter, who also sponsored the ship. After decades of use, she was sunk purposefully in 2016 in the western Pacific Ocean.
The crest of the USS Rentz is included below. Its design includes a shield bearing a cross symbol, reflective of Rentz’s faith, and a simple phrase. “Dread Nought” refers not to the type of battleship but the much older, literal term “dread nought:” to fear nothing.
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