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.

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.

The Old Breed

18 Responses to Padre of Guadalcanal

  • Don the Kiwi says:

    Another great story Don.

    My oldest son is currently in Honiara on Guadalcanal with the Australia & NZ Bank as their regional corporate manager. He has sent some interesting photos back (also on Facebook) of some of the memorial sites around the island.
    He will be returning home in November after a year away – haven’t had the chance to go and visit him there, much to my chagrin – I love travel.

  • Donna V. says:

    A beautiful story. I am glad that the good Padre lived on to do many other good works after the war was over.

    And I love the story about Ross and “The Yiddisher Mama” song. I’m sure there was plenty of mutual respect among the men of different faiths fighting that war, even if that generation did not feel the need to trumpet their “diversity” and “inclusiveness” to the world.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    Don, I will say again that it is a small world! I know only one person who has been to Guadalcanal, a retired Methodist Minister, who was a navy corpsman with the Marines in 42. He has some interesting tales to tell!

    Helen, I envy you. In addition to being a great priest and a very brave man I also suspect he was a character and a half, and I would have loved to have heard his stories!

    Donna, I have noticed in the military that almost all differences become small ones when facing a crisis, and there is no crisis like combat.

  • Raymond G. Aguirre says:

    The article on Father Gehring and Barney Ross was fasinating to read and is very personal to me. I have been researching the 52nd Field Hospital on Guadalcanal. I had heard about the Christmas Service from a army veteran who was with the 101st Medical Regiment with the Americal Division. People forget that the Army entered combat in Nov. ’42′ and fought along side the Marines. I have often wondered about the details of the Christmas Service as mentioned in the letter from a veteran. He humbly stated that on Christmas Eve services were held at the chapel tent and Barney Ross, ex-boxing Champ sang and played the orgin and he was quite good! I have often wondered where did the organ come from on a jungle island during some of the most savage combat of the pacific? Well now I know, thanks to Father Gehring’s personal belongings. I love the photograph and would like to use it for a unit history that I am working on for the 52nd. I plan on devoting a segment to the Ministries including the Chapel that the natives built for the cemetery dedication, and also the hospitals own chapel tent who’s altar was painted in frescos by one of the enlisted personnel. One more interesting fact that I was told by my dad who was a member of the 52nd was the death of Father Neil Doyle who was wounded on New Georgia and died on the operating table after being evacuated to Guadalcanal. He had developed gangrene in his leg and my dad donated blood for his surgery. The hospital personnel really took it hard when news spread that he had died. He was wounded giving last rites on the battlefield on Munda, New Georgia. How can I obtain copy of the picture of Gehring and Ross for my publication and consent. I would like to hear any fedback regarding this subject. By the way, Oct.26th is my birthday, this is one of the best presents ever!

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    Thank you for your comments Raymond and especially for the interesting information on Father Neil Doyle who will be a subject of one of my future posts. I will try to find where I got the picture from. I recall it took some doing. Unfortunately I have no rights to it, but I will attempt to locate the original source and post it here.

  • Raymond G. Aguirre says:

    Thank you for replying. I am looking forward to reading your article on Father Doyle. If you haven’t researched the Archdiocese of Hartford you might consider a inquirey. Sister Irene Fortier was kind enough to send me some material on Father Doyle back in 1995. This event remained forever etched in my Dad’s memory and although it was difficult, I did eventually hear his side of the story. I have some photos of a Chatholic Chaplain saying mass inside a tent on Guadalcanal. This was before the Natives built and dedicated the chapel at the cemetery in March of ’43′. I would like to identify the Chaplain in my photos although I know there were many men of the cloth serving with different outfits. Perhaps it may be John F. Culliton,John P. Mahoney, Bishop Aubin, John P. Daly, Thomas O’Malley just to name a few who were on the island at the time. I don’t believe it is Father Gehring. If I can be of any help let please let me know. You had mentioned that you knew a Methodist Minister who was a medic on Guadalcanal. Would it be possible to forward my information regarding the 52nd Field Hospital? The army took over the Marines field hospital “C-1″ after it arrived in Nov ’42′ and treated the sick and wounded from all branches of the military until evacuation was possible. I would love to hear from him.

  • Tom Looney says:

    Has anyone mentioned Marine Chaplain “Padre” Tom Reardon? I have gorgeous photos and article about his time at Guadalcanal. He went in with the first wave of Marines and eventually contracted malaria and left the island unconcious, before recovering in California. He is the PADRE showcased in the book and motion picutre “Guadalcanal Diary.” He was my dad’s first cousin and had an accomplished life post-war, and is still honored each year with an award at the Seton Hall University School of Law. The photos I have of him saying mass on the island are spectacular.

  • Robert Burns says:

    Great information. I too have been collecting informatoin on the 214th Coastal Artillery (AA)regiment, attached to the Americal Division on January 1943 on Guadalcanal. My father s/sgt Robert Burns served with the HQ Battery, 2nd Battalion of the 214th CA (AA). The unit Chaplain’s name was J.F. O’Connell, he may appear in the March 1943 photo mentioned above on Guadalcanal. I would appreciate any information you can provide for this period on Guadalcanal.

  • Rev Mick O'Donnell says:

    What a terrific story – thank you. I visited Guadalcanal about 30 times in my 5 years as the Catholic Police Chaplain with RAMSI 2004>2009. In 2006 we blessed a beautiful thached roof open sided chapel overlooking the Red Beach landing zone, where ironically RAMSI came ashore in 2003. From the altar you can look out across the Channel toward the Florida Islands and Tulagi. Conducting services there each Sunday is alive with the spirit of all the men who were killed in ’42 & ’43. I always offer prayers for the thousands who died right here in this area – Tenaru is a few miles away – you can hear the waters lapping on the beach from the chapel, and Savo Island is just around the corner to the left. If you want to visit this beautiful memorial chapel you’d have to request permission at the security gate of the RAMSI compound, called Guadalcanal Beach Resort [GBR]. The Australian Government through RAMSI largly funded the chapel with its heavy wooden pews, altar, chairs and large Christian cross prominent. Thanks again for enshrining the stories in our memories. Blessings, Rev Mick O’Donnell, former Australian Federal Police Chaplain

  • Tom Looney says:

    Here is a letter from Padre Thomas M Reardon to his sister Mary Reardon (who was Sister Margaret Thomas, Sisters of Charity) dated August 6, 1942 (the original letter is in very good condition in a scrapbook page.
    I was born 17 years later TO THE DAY and named for him: Thomas Matthew Looney. Here is his letter written on the eve of battle.

    Dear Mary,

    Remember me, your brother. I used to say, “join the convent and see the world.” Well, you can change it—join the Marines and see the world. I hope you are well and taking good care of yourself. Regards to Sister Rosalie.
    We are on the eve of battle Mary. We have full expectations of licking the enemy. All of the boys are ready! Confessions conversions communions are a big part of my life with the boys.
    My life has been hidden from you so I wouldn’t have you worry about me. You know how much I love you and how proud I’ve always been of you. Both of us can be so thankful for such a grand Mom and Pop and cousins at 276. I know your prayers follow me. Don’t worry about me—I have a job to do and am proud to be with the boys. I feel that all your prayers at home will protect me. Remember Mary your brother loves you very much too much that you should worry about me. Together as grateful children of good parents we place ourselves in the arms of Jesus for his love and consolation. Adieu–God Bless You Fr. Tom

  • Tom Looney says:

    I discovered this item online and thought it would be of interest regarding Msgr. Reardon

    Chaplain Heroes

    Chalice of Rev. Thomas M. Reardon, U.S.N.R. (1909- 1987)
    1934
    silver and gold plated
    Gift of the Reardon Family to the Archives of the Archdiocese of Newark, Seton Hall University
    Thomas M. Reardon (1909-1987) was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Newark in 1934. In 1941, before Pearl Harbor, he entered the United States Navy as a chaplain, volunteering for service with the United States Marine Corps. He was the first chaplain to go ashore with the Marines at Guadalcanal. His exploits were featured in the book and film, ?Guadalcanal Diary,? with actor Preston Foster in the leading role. Monsignor Reardon later served as Regent of the School of Law of Seton Hall University and Pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, Bloomfield, NJ.

    Inscribed ?In Memory of My Parents Thomas and Mary Reardon Chalice used at Guadalcanal Aug. 8th- Dec.2nd, 1942.? This chalice was part of Father Reardon?s ?Mass Kit,? and was used by him during the Battle of Guadalcanal.

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