Padre of Guadalcanal
Frederic 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”.
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.
The natives had great respect for Father Gehring and when they found a six year old Chinese girl who had been beaten, bayonetted and left for dead by the Japanese, they knew who to turn to. The entire country was riveted by the story of how the priest, helped by hard case combat Marines, nursed the little girl back to health. After the war Gehring was able to reunite the girl with her mother. Her story is told in a book Father Gehring wrote in 1962, A Child of Miracles.
The Padre naturally made a lot of friends on Guadalcanal and one of his best friends was a Jewish boxer from Chicago turned Marine, Barney Ross. (Ross is pictured at the beginning of this post with Father Gehring. Ross is the one without a hat. The names of the parrots, alas, are lost to history.) Among a lot of very tough men, Ross was one of the toughest. On November 20, 1942 a patrol he was with was ambushed by the Japanese. All the other men being wounded, for twelve hours Ross fought on alone, eventually killing the two dozen Japanese soldiers attacking his platoon, for which he was awarded a Silver Star. Shortly thereafter he became one of the first Marines to come down with malaria. Nursed back to health by Gehring, who gave him a saint’s medal which he wore around his neck next to his mezuzah, Ross assisted Gehring at a memorable midnight mass on Christmas 1942. Among all the Marines, only Ross knew how to play an organ. Father Gerhing was a skilled violinist, and between them they led the 700 Marines in attendance through the traditional Christmas hymns while the Japanese shelled them. At the end, Ross said he was going to sing a song in honor of their mother and his mother, and proceeded to give an unforgettable rendition of My Yiddisher Mama. There was no Jewish chaplain with the Marines, but Father Gehring, who knew Hebrew, and Ross led regular Shabbat services for the Jewish Marines.
Space in a blog post doesn’t allow me to tell of all the activities of Father Gerhing on Guadalcanal. Suffice it to say that he came to Guadalcanal a Navy Chaplain, and left it a Marine legend. Leaving the island in February after most of the fighting was finished, Father Gerhing spent months being treated for Dengue Fever. Recovering he served for the rest of the war.
After the war he spent 18 years in the United States Navy Reserves, rising to the rank of Captain, the Navy equivalent to being a full colonel in the Marines. Until his retirement in 1994 at the age of 91, he served full time as a priest, including teaching at Saint John’s University at Jamaica, New York, raising funds for Vincentian Missions and being the pastor of Saint Vincent’s parish in Germantown, Pennsylvania from 1963-1969. Beginning in 1969 he joined the Miraculous Medal Novena Band, and preached novenas throughout the country.
After his retirement in Florida, he had a constant flow of friends and well-wishers coming to see him. One frequent visitor was Patsy Fasano, the grown up Chinese girl he had helped save on Guadalcanal. He had named her Patsy, and she eventually emigrated to the US, became a nurse and married. Amazing how often the good that we do will repay us in the long run.
Father Gehring died in his sleep in 1998 at age 95 on April 26, 1998, the third Sunday of Easter that year. I don’t blame the Grim Reaper for not wanting to face such a formidable man when his eyes were wide open.