Padre of Guadalcanal

BE058992Frederic Gehring was probably lucky that he was born and reared in Brooklyn.  It has always been a tough town and it prepared him for the adventurous life he was to lead.  Born on January 20, 1903,  he went on to attend and graduated from Saint John’s Prep.  Setting his eyes on being a missionary priest, he entered the minor seminary of the Vincentians, Saint Joseph’s, near Princeton,  New Jersey.  Earning his BA in 1925, he entered the seminary of Saint Vincent’s in Philadelphia.

Ordained as a priest on May 22, 1930, he was unable to immediately go to China due to military activity of the Communists in Kiangsi province.  For three years he traveled throughout the US raising funds for the missions in China, and, at long last, in 1933 he was able to pack his bags and sailed for China.  Laboring in the Chinese missions from 1933-1939 in the midst of warlordism, civil war and the invasion of China, commencing in 1937, by Japan must have been tough, but Father Gehring was always up to any challenge.  For example,  in 1938 Japanese planes strafed a mission he was at.  Father Gehring ran out waving a large American flag in hopes that the Japanese would not wish to offend a powerful neutral nation and would stop the strafing.  The Japanese planes did fly off, and Father Gehring was pleased until someone at the mission pointed out that maybe the Japanese had simply run out of ammo!  In 1939 Father Gerhring returned to the States to raise funds for the missions.

Immediately following Pearl Harbor, Father Gehring joined the Navy as a Chaplain.  In September 1942 he began an unforgettable six month tour of duty with the First Marine Division fighting on Guadalcanal.  Marines, although they are often loathe to admit it, are a component of the Department of the Navy, and the US Navy supplies their support troops, including chaplains.  (One of my friends served as a Navy corpsman with a Marine unit in Vietnam.  After his tour with the Navy he enlisted with the Marines, was commissioned a Lieutenant, and spent his entire tour with a detachment of Marines aboard an aircraft carrier.  As he puts it, he joined the Navy and spent his time slogging through the mud with Marines.  He then joined the Marines and spent his time sailing with the Navy.)

Guadalcanal marked the turning point of the war in the Pacific.  In August 1942 the US went on the offensive for the first time when the First Marine Division, the Old Breed,  landed on Guadalcanal and took the Japanese air base there.  This set off a huge six month campaign, where US forces, often outnumbered on land, sea and in the air, fought and defeated the Imperial Army and Navy.  The importance of Guadalcanal is well captured in this quote from Admiral William “Bull” Halsey: “Before Guadalcanal the enemy advanced at his pleasure. After Guadalcanal, he retreated at ours”.

Guadalcanal

Upon arrival on Guadalcanal, Lieutenant Gehring quickly became known as “Padre ” to the men of the Old Breed, the title usually bestowed upon chaplains, especially if they were Catholic priests.  He soon became known for wanting to be where the fighting was in order to help the wounded and administer the Last Rites.  Initially this took some of the Marines by surprise.  Jumping into a foxhole during a heavy fire fight, a shocked Marine already in the foxhole, noticing the crucifix dangling from his neck, cried out to him, “Padre, what are you doing here?”  Gehring calmly replied, “Where else would I be?”  He would routinely say Masses so close to the fighting, that the Marines said that he would say Mass in Hell for Marines if he could drive his jeep there.  The Marines quickly decided that it was a lost cause asking the Padre to stay behind the lines.  They were doing well if they could convince him to stay within friendly lines!  Three times he went out on behind the line missions to rescue trapped missionaries on the island, mostly Marist priests and sisters, rescuing 28 of them, assisted by natives of the Solomons.  For this feat he was the first Navy chaplain to be awarded the Legion of Merit by the President. (more…)

My Place Is With Them

 

The video above depicts Father Michael Quealy saying Mass in Vietnam. The video has no sound, but without words we can see the fervor with which the priest is saying Mass.  That was all Father Quealy.  Whatever he did in this world he did 100%.

Born in New York City on September 11, 1929, he dreamed as a boy of being a missionary in Asia.  He would go to Asia, as a priest, but as a Chaplain in the Army.  A graduate of Seaton Hall University and Maryknoll Seminary, he had served as a priest in the diocese of Mobile Alabama, before joining the Army as a chaplain in 1965.  He did so to bring the sacraments to soldiers on the battlefield in Vietnam.  As much as it was in his power, he wanted no soldier to die fighting and go into eternity spiritually unarmed.

Assigned to the third brigade of the First Infantry Division, the Big Red One, in June 1966, he quickly began hitching rides on medical evacuation choppers.  They would be going to where the fighting was, and as far as Chaplain Quealy was concerned, that was where he needed to be.  He would land, help with the wounded, usually under fire, and give the Last Rites to the dying.  He did not check to see if the dying were Catholics, reasoning that the sacrament would do no harm to non-Catholics, and might do them an infinity of good.  Troops began to talk about this Catholic Chaplain who was fearless.

Eugene Tuttle, a soldier with the Big Red One, recalled Father Quealy:

My battalion was near Father Quealy’s the day he was killed in Tay Ninh province on Nov. 8, 1966. The terrible news reached me the next day, He had heard my confession in Lai Khe about a month earlier. Young men dying was bad enough, but it seemed like a sacrilege for a priest to be killed while providing comfort to the wounded and dying. I had met him months earlier on my first full day in the field, when before boarding our tanks and APCs, to be sent out as “bait” until reinforcements could rescue us, Chaplain Quealy invited the Catholics among us to join him. He told us that reconnaissance had just confirmed the VC were dug in and waiting for us in the bush. He then draped his stole over his shoulders, reminded us that an Act of Contrition could substitute for confession when one was in immediate danger of death. It was an unforgettably dramatic moment, and the chaplain was an unforgettably kind man. I regret just learning of this opportunity now to pay long overdue homage to him. God bless his soul!

On November 8, 1966, Father Quealy heard about fighting near Tay Ninh and rushed to get aboard a medical copter.  A staff officer tried to dissuade him, saying that it was much too dangerous a situation.  Father Quealy did not even slow down, but shouted over his shoulder, “My place is with them!”

The first battalion, twenty-eight infantry was under such intense fire that the helicopter Father Quealy was on board had to circle for an hour before it could land.  When it did, Father Quealey  charged into action.  Here is a report of what happened next: (more…)

Published in: on August 4, 2015 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on My Place Is With Them  
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Franciscan Paratrooper

Father Ignatius Maternowski

For love of Him they ought to expose themselves to enemies both visible and invisible.

Saint Francis of Assisi

Ignatius Maternowski entered this Vale of Tears on March 28, 1912, in Holyoke, Massachusetts, the son of Polish immigrants  He attended, appropriately enough, Saint Francis High School.  Impressed by the Franciscans he encountered there, he decided to become a Franciscan priest.  He was ordained to the priesthood on July 3, 1938.  His gift for preaching manifesting itself, he was assigned as a missionary-preacher at the friary of Saint Anthony of Padua in Elicott City, Maryland.

From the time of Pearl Harbor he sought permission to serve as a chaplain and in July 1942 he enlisted in the Army.  He served as a chaplain in the 508th regiment of the 82nd Airborne.  In the aftermath of the chaotic combat drop into Normandy on the night before D-Day, Captain Maternowski busied himself in tending both American and German wounded. (more…)

Published in: on July 16, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Franciscan Paratrooper  
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Ladder to Heaven

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Joseph Verbis Lafleur was born into a large Cajun family in Ville Platte Louisiana on January 24, 1912.  From early childhood his ambition was to be a priest.  Entering Saint Joseph’s Minor Seminary in Saint Benedict, Louisiana he quickly became noted for his good humor, quick wit and athletic prowess.  He also had a marked interest in French military history and would recite the last words of Marshal Michel Ney before his execution by the restored Bourbons after the Hundred Days:  “Come see how a soldier dies in battle, but he dies not.”

Ordained in 1938 he was assigned as assistant pastor at Saint Mary Magdalene in Abbeville, Louisiana.  Depression era Louisiana knew poverty that people today would find hard to believe.  Father Lafleur supplied balls, bats and gloves to the boys in his parish and helped organize baseball games.  After his death some of the boys learned that Father Lafleur had purchased the equipment by pawning his wristwatch.

Father LaFleur joined the Army Air Corps in 1941 over six months before Pearl Harbor.  Four months later Lieutenant LaFleur was sent with the 19th Bombardment Group to Clark Field in the Philippines.  The new chaplain was popular with the men:  he helped organize a baseball team, founded a discussion group and his door was always open to them.

On December 8, 1941 the Japanese attacked Clark Field and Chaplain LaFleur sprang into action.  Ignoring exploding bombs and flying shrapnel he helped treat the wounded and administered the Last Rites to those beyond human help.  For his actions that day he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

As the Philippines were conquered by the Japanese Father LaFleur passed up an opportunity for evacuation, stating that his place was with the men. (more…)

Father Major General

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A leap year baby, Francis L. Sampson  was born on February 29, 1912 in Cherokee Iowa.

A quarter of a century later he graduated from Notre Dame and made a bee-line for St. Paul’s Seminary at Saint Paul Minnesota.  Ordained a priest for the Des Moines Iowa diocese on June 1, 1941, he served briefly as a parish priest at Neola, Iowa and taught at Dowling High School in Des Moines.

Eager to become a chaplain, as soon as he received permission from his Bishop Father Sampson enlisted in the United States Army in 1942.  Always looking for a challenge, he became regimental chaplain of the 501st Parachute Regiment of the 101rst Airborne.  In his memoirs, Look Out Below!, Father Sampson wrote about his joining a very tough branch of the service:

“Frankly, I did not know when I signed up for the airborne that chaplains would be expected to jump from an airplane in flight.  Had I known this beforehand, and particularly had I known the tortures of mind and body prepared at Fort Benning for those who sought the coveted parachute wings, I am positive that I should have turned a deaf ear to the plea for airborne chaplains.  However, once having signed up, I was too proud to back out.  Besides, the airborne are the elite troops of  the Army, and I already began to enjoy the prestige and glamour that goes with belonging to such an outfit.”

The newspapers during the war would call him the “Paratrooper Padre”. (more…)

Published in: on August 9, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Father Major General  
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Dynamo From Ireland

Father John McElroy, S. J.

 

A year before the colonies won their fight for independence, John McElroy first saw the light of day in Brookeborough, County Fermanagh, Ireland on May 11,1782.  At this time English imposed penal laws meant that Irish Catholics were treated like helots in their own land.  The great Edmund Burke described the penal laws well:

“For I must do it justice;  it was a complete system, full of coherence and consistency, well digested and well composed in all its parts.   It was a machine of wise and deliberate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”

As a result of these laws McElroy could receive little education in Ireland.  Ambition and a thirst for knowledge caused him, like many Irish Catholics before and since, to emigrate to the US, landing on our shores in 1803.  He became a bookkeeper at Georgetown College, studying Latin in his off hours.  In 1806 he joined the Jesuits as a lay brother, but his intelligence and his industry quickly marked him down to his Jesuit superiors as a candidate for the priesthood.  Ordained in 1817 , for several years he served at Trinity Church in Georgetown, until being transferred to Frederick, Maryland, where, during the next twenty-three years, with the boundless energy which was his hallmark,  he built Saint John’s Church, a college, an orphan’s asylum, and the first free schools in Frederick.  He was then transferred back to Trinity in Georgetown where he remained for a year until the Mexican War began.

I have detailed in a post here how Father McElroy and Father Anthony Rey, both Jesuits, were chosen to be the first Catholic priests to be appointed as chaplains in the United States Army.  In 1886 after his death the reminiscences of Father McElroy were published of what occurred:

“In a few days, the two Fathers called on the Secretary of War for instructions how to proceed. He (Mr. Marcy) received us very affably, expressed his desire that we should visit the President, and ordered his chief clerk to prepare letters for the Commanders of different posts to facilitate our journey; besides he requested me to give him my views of what he should expect while with the Army, which I sent him a little later in writing and which he embodied, almost transcribed, in his despatch to General Taylor. The Secretary introduced us to the President, who received us with great kindness and regard; he expressed a hope that our mission would be one of peace; that we carried not the sword, but the olive branch, that our mission would be a refutation of the erroneous opinions held in Mexico, that the United States warred against their religion, etc. He continued to state very frankly the great desire he had to bring their matters of dispute to an amicable conclusion.

“As neither of us could speak Spanish I proposed to the President the propriety of associating with us a third clergyman who was familiar with the language. He very promptly adopted my suggestion and told the Secretary to embody that in his despatch to the General-in-Chief, where it will be found. (more…)

Published in: on August 7, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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Grunt Padre Honored in Vietnam

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As faithful readers of this blog know, I have many times had posts about heroic Catholic Chaplains serving in our military.  A man whose courage beggared description is Servant of God and Medal of Honor recipient Vincent J. Capodanno, known as the Grunt Padre.  I am not ready yet to do a full post on him, wishing to do him justice, but a recent news story in The National Catholic Register caught my eye:

DA NANG, Vietnam — Bishop Joseph Chau Ngoc Tri of Da Nang recently said Mass  in honor of Father Vincent Capodanno, a U.S. chaplain killed during the Vietnam  War, and he encouraged his people to ask the priest’s intercession.

Ted Bronson, a retired Navy Captain, told Catholic News Agency June 26 that  Bishop Tri “is a brave bishop, fostering Capodanno under the umbrella” of  Vietnamese communism.

The Mass, said on June 14, marked the 55th anniversary of Father Capodanno’s  priestly ordination. Father  Capodanno was ordained for the Maryknoll Missionary order, and he later  became a chaplain for the U.S. Navy.

While with Maryknoll, Father Capodanno served in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and  then he requested to be reassigned as a chaplain with the Marines. He was sent  to Vietnam in 1966 and requested an extension to his tour of duty when it was  up.

On Sept. 4, 1967, his unit was in the Que Son Valley near Da Nang, and they  became outnumbered by North Vietnamese forces. As American soldiers were being  gunned down, Father Capodanno went about giving viaticum and anointing  to the dying, as well as medical aid to the wounded.

Shortly after reassuring a wounded Marine, Father Capodanno went to another  soldier who had called out for help. Both he and the solider were shot and died.  He was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1969.

His citation for the Medal of Honor says he “left the relative safety of the  company command post and ran through an open area raked with fire. …  Disregarding the intense enemy small arms, automatic weapons and mortar fire, he  moved about the battlefield administering last rites to the dying and giving  medical aid to the wounded. (more…)

Meek, Pious and Brave as a Lion

Father Peter Paul Cooney

Peter Paul Cooney was born in County Roscommin, Ireland in 1822.  He went with his family to America at the age of 5.  Raised on a farm in Monroe, Michigan.  Studying at Notre Dame it was perhaps fated that he would become a Holy Cross priest, although he wasn’t ordained until the age of 37.  When the Civil War broke out Father Cooney was at Notre Dame.  Although at 39 he was rather old for a military chaplain, he enlisted in the 35th Indiana Infantry, nicknamed the First Indiana Irish, and served 44 months, the entire War, with the 35th.

In a regiment of brave mostly Irishmen, Father Cooney stood out.  After the battle of Murphreesboro the Colonel of the regiment, Bernard F. Mullen wrote:

To Father Cooney, our chaplain, too much praise cannot be given. Indifferent as to himself, he was deeply solicitous for the temporal comfort and spiritual welfare of us all. On the field he was cool and indifferent to danger, and in the name of the regiment I thank him for his kindness and laborious attention to the dead and dying.

After the battle of Nashville, Brigadier General Nathan Kimball summed up the chaplain:

Of Father Cooney, chaplain of the Thirty-fifth Indiana, I commend him as an example of the army chaplin; meek, pious, and brave as a lion, he worked with his brave regiment in the valley of the shadow of death, affording the ministrations of his holy religion to the wounded and dying, and giving words of encouragement to his fellow soldiers.

Before battles, Father Cooney would stand before the regiment, lead the men in prayer and give them mass absolution.  The commander of the Army of the Cumberland, Major General William S. Rosecrans, a fervent Catholic convert, was so taken by this that he ordered the Protestant chaplains in the Army to do likewise!

Father Cooney noted in his letters home to his brother that Protestant soldiers would often attend Mass, especially before a battle, and some of them converted.  He believed that the courage of Catholic soldiers in the Army helped break down prejudice against the Faith that some of their Protestant fellow soldiers had originally harbored.

I have been for the last two months very busy in preparing the men to complete their Easter duty, otherwise I would have written oftener, to you. Our division consists of about twelve thousand men and there are Catholics in every regiment. Protestants attend the sermons by thousands in the open field. I have baptized many of them and prejudice against to the Church is gone almost entirely.
A short time ago I baptized and gave his first Communion to the Major General commanding our division. He is now a most fervent catholic and his example is powerful over the men of his command. I have every assistance from him in anything that I require for the discharge of my duties. He is extremely kind to me. (more…)

Published in: on May 9, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Meek, Pious and Brave as a Lion  
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Pow Servant of God Receives Medal of Honor

The POW Servant of God Father Emil Kapaun received the Medal of Honor on April 11, 2012.  Here is what he did to earn it.

Serving as a chaplain at Fort Bliss, Father Kapaun was ordered to Japan in 1950.  Upon the outbreak of the Korean War, he was assigned to a front line combat unit, the 3rd battalion, 8th cavalry regiment, 1rst Cavalry Division.

With his unit Father Kapaun participated during June-September 1950 in the desperate defense of the Pusan Perimeter and then in the breakout from the Pusan Perimeter, which, combined with the Inchon landings in Operation Chromite, the brilliant stroke by General Douglas MacArthur,  led to the eviction of the invading North Korean armies from South Korea and the capture of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on October 19, 1950.  During all of this Father Kapaun was a whirlwind of activity:  tending the wounded, administering the Last Sacrament to the dying, keeping up the morale of the troops.  He said mass as close as he could get to the battle lines from an improvised platform on a jeep.

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On November 1, 1950 Chaplain Kapaun’s unit ran headlong into advancing Chinese Communist forces at Unsan, North Korea, about 50 miles south of the Chinese border with North Korea.   The official citation of the award of the Distinguish Service Cross to Chaplain Kapaun tells of his role in the battle:

The Distinguished Service Cross is presented to Emil Joseph Kapaun(O-0558217), Captain (Chaplain), U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection withmilitary operations against an armed enemy of the United Nations while serving as Chaplain with Headquarters Company, 8th Cavalry Regiment (Infantry), 1st Cavalry Division. Captain (Chaplain) Kapaun distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action against enemy aggressor forces in the vicinity of Unsan, Korea, on 1 and 2 November 1950.

On the afternoon of 1 November 1950, and continuing through the following 36 hours, the regiment was subjected to a relentless, fanatical attack by hostile troops attempting to break through the perimeter defense. In the early morning hours, the enemy succeeded in breaking through the defenses, and hand-to-hand combat ensued in the immediate vicinity of the command post where the aid station had been set up. Chaplain Kapaun, with complete disregard for his personal safety, calmly moved among the wounded men, giving them medical aid and easing their fears. His courageous manner inspired all those present and many men who might otherwise have fled in panic were encouraged by his presence and remained to fight the enemy.

As the battle progressed, the number of wounded increased greatly and it became apparent that many of the men would not be able to escape the enemy encirclement. Finally, at dusk on November 2, 1950, the remaining able- bodied men were ordered to attempt to break through the surrounding enemy. At this time, although fully aware of the great danger, Chaplain Kapaun voluntarily remained behind, and when last seen was administering medical treatment and rendering religious rites wherever needed.

Along with the other Americans captured Father Kapaun was marched north in bitterly cold winter weather approximately 100 miles.  One of his fellow prisoners, Herbert Miller, was wounded and had a broken ankle.  Mr. Miller survived the war and here is a recent statement by him on what happened next.  “I was wounded with a broken ankle and the North Koreans were going to shoot me. He brushed them aside, reached down and picked me up and carried me. How he found the strength, I’ll never know. He was the bravest man I ever saw.”

Father Kapaun and his fellow POWs were taken, after their two week march, to a temporary camp which they called The Valley located 10 miles south of Pyoktong, NorthKorea, the first in a series of camps in the area where Father Kapuan and the men from his unit were held.  Of the approximately 1000 Americans who were taken here 500-700 died.  I was astonished in researching this article to learn that during their first year of operation the Chinese POW camps had a death rate of 40%, which makes them worse than the Japanese POW camps during World War II in which approximately one-third of the Allied prisoners perished.

Then the events began which made Father Kapaun unforgettable to the men who survived this Gehenna on Earth.  First, the men needed food.  On the miserable rations they had from the Chinese they were starving to death.  Father Kapaun staged daring daylight raids into surrounding fields to scavenge for hidden potatoes and sacks of corn.  If he had been discovered it is quite likely that he would have been shot on the spot.  He always shared his food with the other men, and his example shamed his fellow prisoners who also scavenged for food outside of the camp to do the same and share their food. (more…)

Published in: on April 14, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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The Dominican and the Devil Dogs

Father Paul Redmond

The sons of Saint Dominic have supplied many heroic military chaplains throughout their illustrious history, and one of these men was Father Paul Redmond.  Born on March 27, 1899 in New Haven, Connecticut, he served as an enlisted man in the United States Navy during World War I.  He was ordained a priest in the Dominican order in 1930.

By 1942, Father Redmond was 43 years old, about a decade older than the average chaplain.  No one would have said anything if he had sat this World War out.  Instead he joined the Navy and became a Marine chaplain, and not just any Marine chaplain.  He took a demotion in rank from corps chaplain to battalion chaplain to serve with the 1st and 4th Raider battalions, elite combat formations.  Among men who were brave simply by virtue of qualifying to join such outfits, Chaplain Redmond stood out.  During the campaign on Guam, Father Redmond would go into the mouths of caves occupied by Japanese troops to attempt to convince them to surrender, and I find it difficult to think of anything more hazardous offhand. (more…)

Published in: on March 18, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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