Father Cyclone and the Fighting 69th
Larry Lynch was born, the first of 12 kids in his family, in the City Line neighborhood of Brooklyn on October 17, 1906. He grew up on some pretty tough streets while also serving as an altar boy at Saint Sylvester’s. He came to greatly admire the Redemptorists, an order of missionary priests founded by Saint Alphonsus Liguori in 1732. In America the order had distinguished itself by its work in some of the roughest slums in the country and thus it was small wonder that a tough street kid would be attracted to them. Larry Lynch was ordained a priest in the Redemptorist Order in 1932.
His initial assignment was as a missionary priest in Brazil, in the parishes of Miranda and Aquidauana in the State of Mato Grosso, quite a change from Brooklyn! In 1937 he served at Old Saint Mary’s in Buffalo, New York with mission assignments to Orangeburg, North Carolina and Ephrata, Pa.
Prior to Pearl Harbor, in September 1941, Father Lynch enlisted in the Army as a chaplain. He served at Camp Wheeler, Georgia, Fort Polk, Lousiana, and in the Mojave Desert in California with the 31rst regiment of the 7th Armored Division. In December 1943 he was sent overseas to New Caledonia in the Southwest Pacific.
Assigned initially to the 42nd Quarter Master Battalion in Noumea, Captain Lynch quickly began making himself unforgettable. The commander of the outfit was Lieutenant Colonel Julius Klein, a remarkable man in his own right who had served as an American spy in Germany during World War I. Klein, to his astonishment, found himself agreeing that he and all the staff officers in the battalion would be at Christmas Mass that evening, although he wondered what a Jew like him would be doing at a Catholic Mass! Father Lynch had that type of effect on people, his enthusiasm tended to overwhelm all opposition. He decided that the chapel was too small for the Mass and it was held in the base amphitheater. The amphitheater filled to capacity, the Christmas carols at the Mass were led by a soldier named Goldstein, a great tenor, who Father Lynch had met on the troop transport. Father Lynch explained the priest’s vestments prior to beginning for the benefit of the non-Catholics present:
“Father Stearns of the Navy will celebrate the Mass. Before he begins, there’s a lot even Catholics should know and I’ll bet a nickel there are some right here who couldn’t explain why a priest wears all those vestments, for example. Well, it’s time we all knew why and it won’t hurt you non-Catholics to know either.”
“Father Stearns will begin to put on his vestments, and while he does, well talk about them a little. First, as to the why. Every one of them is a symbol, a symbol of service to God.”
He picked up the amice and held it high. “This, for example. It’s just a piece of linen, and it is called an amice: A-M-I-C-E. Jesus was blindfolded, and the amice represents that blindfold. Okay, Father.”
He extended the amice to Father Stearns who put it on.
“Herod placed a garment on Jesus to make a fool of Him. You remember that. This white robe white to signify purity is an alb: A-L-B, and the alb is symbolic of that garment. Incidentally there are six colors used by the church and each one of them is significant: white for purity and joy, red for blood and fire, green is the symbol of hope, violet for penance. . . .”
The Mass had a huge impact on everyone present, and Colonel Klein announced that he was glad he came.
Thus began Father Lynch’s whirlwind of activity on New Caledonia. He quickly began introducing himself to the troops in his care, usually stating that he was from Brooklyn and that he was God’s gift to the United States Army. He would eat with them, drink beers with them, smoke cigars with them, joke with them, listen to their problems and, all the while, use every moment to bring them closer to God. He would come into their barracks and replace their pinups with pictures of “his girlfriend”, his expression, “Our Lady of Perpetual Help” to whom he had a special devotion. He would often say this prayer: “My Lady of Perpetual Help, with you by my side, I cannot fail. Help me now, as you have helped me all the days of my life. I need you more than I have ever needed your help so that I can be I must be the finest chaplain in the finest army in the world. Help me, Lady of Perpetual Help. Help me to do better than my best, for the greater glory of your Beloved Son, my Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.”
The men respected and liked Father Lynch and quickly nicknamed him Father Cyclone because he always seemed to be in movement and involved in some project. No doubt part of the respect was because Chaplain Lynch could be quick with his fists if he had to be. He heard that another officer had made reference to the “magic” that went on in the confessional. Lynch confronted the other officer and asked him if he had made this remark. The other officer confirmed that he had made the remark. Father Lynch then proceeded to floor him with a right to the jaw. No doubt this will scandalize some of the readers of this post, but the young men under the spiritual supervision of the Chaplain thought it was great, and this admiration helped him in bringing them closer to Christ.
Soon after he arrived on New Caledonia Father Lynch would disappear for hours on end. Other officers became alarmed. What was this wild man priest up to now? Was he going to an “off-limits” location? Actually he was. He had discovered a near by leper colony at Ducos, and he was using his free time to lend them a hand. Father Lynch decided that the non-stop Army poker games would make a good source of donations to help the lepers. The poker players quickly decided to maintain a separate pot for the lepers during each poker game so that Father Lynch wouldn’t take all the money!
Running a mission at the St. Joseph’s Cathedral on Noumea, with the permission of the French priest assigned to the Cathedral, Father Lynch was able to convince almost ever American on the island, over 12,000 men, to attend, and every Catholic Chaplain on New Caledonia participated. The bishops of New Caledonia and Noumea presided. The donations raised from the mission went to the Cathedral which received more money from the mission than it had in the past three years.
He threw a picnic for the Catholic personnel on the Island and then threw one for the Protestants, with the food being informally “donated” by the Army. On Good Friday 1944 he had a seder for the Jewish troops.
Troop ships heading off from Noumea for combat, would often find Father Lynch on them hearing confessions and leading rosaries. He was always glad to lend a hand to other Catholic Chaplains whenever needed, especially for these activities.
On September 26, 1944 the Elihu Thompson, a liberty troop ship, ran into a mine as it entered the harbor of Noumea. Father Lynch assisted in the rescue efforts. A dying soldier, a Private Jacob, asked for a rabbi to say the Jewish prayer for mourning the dead. No rabbi was present, so Father Lynch said it: “Yisgadal Viyiskadash Shemay Rabbah…”. The soldier died just as the prayer finished. This astonished Colonel Klein who was with Father Lynch. He responded that he had learned it as a missionary in Brazil. Colonel Klein was overcome with emotion, called him Rabbi Lynch, and told him that the boy’s mother would bless him. Just prior to this incident, on the same day, Klein had advised Father Lynch that he, Lynch, was now in charge of all chaplains on New Caledonia.
Word came to New Caledonia that the Fighting 69th, formally known as the 165th regiment, was now stationed on Espiritu Santo after having participated in savage fighting on Saipan. We have encountered the Fighting 69th, so named in Civil War fighting by General Robert E. Lee, in two prior posts on this blog here and here. It was also looking for a replacement Catholic Chaplain. Father Lynch didn’t hesitate. A New York regiment filled with Irishmen seemed like a natural fit for the Chaplain, and he wanted to be involved in the fighting. Although he had grown very fond of the men on New Caledonia, he didn’t feel it was proper for him to stay behind the lines while other men were going into combat and risking their lives, men who needed spiritual assistance more than any other men. Over the objections of his friend Colonel Klein, he put in for a transfer. It was granted, but before he left he received this commendation:
FOR OUTSTANDING SERVICES
CAPTAIN LAWRENCE E. LYNCH, 0-428150
CHAPLAIN’S CORPS, UNITED STATES ARMY
You are highly commended for outstanding services in the South Pacific Area from December 1943 to December 1944. As chaplain representing the Catholic faith in the New Caledonia Island Command, you have had a stimulating influence on a great number of troops. These men, whose work was carried on under difficult and trying circumstances through long hours of day and night without adequate recreation or rest periods, have found you always ready as their constant advisor and benefactor, as well as religious leader. You realized early in your stay the important part a man of your calling could play in furthering the war effort by maintaining contact with the troops under your care. To that end you were always available to care for their welfare. You did not wait for their request for assistance, but sought them out at their work and in their organizations, in order to administer to their needs. You were tireless in your
efforts, always inspiring men to greater devotion to God and Country. The exemplary manner in which you performed your job, above and beyond the call of duty, reflect good credit on yourself, your profession and the military service.
Major General, USA. Commanding
After he got to the 165th he spent three days before reporting in, eating in enlisted messes and getting to know the regiment. The regiment first learned that he was present when he placed out a sign indicating that he was saying Mass tomorrow. This disconcerted the regimental commander, since he couldn’t understand why Father Lynch hadn’t reported in upon arrival, but he soon learned that the Chaplain had his own way of doing things. At the Mass, prior to beginning, Father Lynch introduced himself as being from Brooklyn and God’s gift to the Army which elicited the usual laughter. Then he said the following:
“Now, let’s get down to the business before us. We’re going to celebrate Holy Mass, that’s what
you’re here for. But before we begin, let’s talk just a minute about this business of the Mass itself. In just a few minutes, we’re going to witness a miracle. You hear that? A miracle, men. Never forget that it is a miracle. Because in just a few minutes, I’m going to stand there, at that altar, and I’m going to bring Jesus Christ here to you.”
“I’m going to repeat His very own Words, those unforgettable, incredible Words . . . and by the power which God Himself has given me, I will change bread and wine into the Sacred Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.”
“His own Sacred Body. His very own Blood. Jesus Christ, Himself! He will be here in person. He will be here before your very eyes, ready to come into your hearts, if you will let Him.”
“Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, Who was willing to hide His divine nature, Who was willing to take on our human nature, so that we might call Him brother.”
“You wouldn’t hesitate to talk to your brother. Would you? Of course not. Okay, then. Let’s get going all together in this business of talking to God.”
“The Mass is one way of talking to God. When you participate in the Mass, you’re talking to God. I am only your instrument in this business of the miracle of changing bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ; this is YOUR Mass. You must do your share to make it acceptable to God.”
“When you see the living Christ here before you on the altar, that gives you a break. That gives you your chance to talk to Him. Tell Him what’s in your hearts. Remember that I am only your go-between. I am only the guy who is here to bring you and Christ together. Tell Him your problems. Talk to Him as you would talk to your brother.”
“Remember, men. This is YOUR Mass. I am only your ambassador, designated to bring you and Jesus Christ together.”
By the end of the Mass the regimental commander knew that the 165th had the right priest for what awaited them.
What awaited the Fighting 69th was the penultimate land engagement in the Pacific for the U.S. The island of Okinawa, chief island of the Ryukyus, located 956 miles from the Home Islands of Japan, was to be the last battleground prior to the invasion of Japan. Defending the island were 77,000 troops of the Japanese Thirty-Second Army under Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima, backed up by 9,000 land bound Imperial Japanese sailors and 39,000 local draftees, including 15,000 labor troops. The Japanese fortified the southern portion of the island intensively, with a series of concentric lines of pillboxes, trenches and tunnels. To take the island the U.S. amassed the largest invasion force in the history of the Pacific War. The Tenth Army under Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., consisted of the III Amphibious Corp made up of the 1rst and 6th Marine Divisions and the XXIV Corp consisting of the Army 7th and 96th Divisions. The Tenth Army also had as independent Divisions the Army 27th and 77th and the Marine 2nd. The Fighting 69th was part of the 27th Division.
D-Day was set, as more than a few of the troops wryly noted at the time, for April 1, April Fools Day, 1945. The battle raged for 87 days. The intensity of the fighting is graphically depicted in the Japanese name for the battle: tetsuno b?f?, violent wind of steel. In a grim foretaste of what an invasion of the Home Islands would have been like, 110,000 Japanese troops were killed, 12, 513 Americans were killed, including General Buckner, and 38, 916 Americans were wounded. Although the US forces made strenuous efforts to minimize civilian casualties, over 100,000, some estimates ranging as high as 150,000, Japanese civilians died, many as a result of committing suicide under orders from the Japanese Army. There were many hellish battles fought in the Pacific, but Okinawa, along with Iwo Jima, are in a special class as to sheer human suffering.
The Fighting 69th landed on Okinawa on April 9th. Prior to shipping out Father Lynch had held a Division wide Mission on Espiritu Santo for three days. Every Catholic in the Division went to Confession and Communion. Spiritually fortified, the regiment went into battle. Three days after landing they were given their assignment: take Machinato Air Field. Here they encountered the strongly held Machinato Line, which would not be breached until April 24th.
Throughout the fighting Father Lynch was in the front lines with the troops, much to the dismay of his superior officers. He would show up at headquarters each evening to find out which battalion of the regiment would have the heaviest of the fighting on the next day. Tomorrow he would be with that battalion, giving mass absolutions, helping the wounded, and giving the Last Rites to the dying. The night before the 24th he learned that the third battalion would be making the attack. He arrived there but was told by the battalion commander not to leave the command post. The Japanese were shelling the position. He heard one of the soldiers scream who had just been hit by shrapnel. He did not hesitate. He got out of the trench and ran to the soldier host in hand and leaning over the dying solder he said “Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custo”, and got no farther as a Japanese shell killed him and the soldier. The battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Claire, ran out and pried the host from the fingers of Father Lynch and ate it to prevent the desecration of the host falling to the ground. He then lifted up the Chaplain’s body and brought his mortal remains back into the Command Post.
The body of Father Lynch is buried in the Redemptorist Cemetery, Mount Saint Alphonsus, Esopus, New York. Catholic War Veterans after the war founded the Lynvets Youth Sports Association in his honor. A superb biography of Father Lynch, Father Cyclone, may be found on line here. Father Lynch died as he had lived, doing whatever he could to bring Christ to his fellow man. If there is a better way for a priest to die, I can’t think of it.