Great Jesuits 5: Medal of Honor
Number 5 in my series on Great Jesuits of American history. A hallmark of the Jesuit Order has always been utter fearlessness. The Order founded by that Basque soldier turned saint, Saint Ignatius Loyola, had as little use for fear as it did for doubt. The “black robes” of the Jesuits in New France were typical of the Jesuit soldiers of Christ in their almost super-human courage in disdaining the torture and death they exposed themselves to as missionaries to warlike tribes.
Firmly in this tradition of courage is Joseph Timothy O’Callahan. Born on May 14, 1905 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, he attended Boston College High School. He joined the Jesuits in 1922 and obtained his BA from Saint Andrew’s College in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1925, and his Masters in Philosophy at Weston College in 1929. Ordained in 1934, he served as a professor of Mathematics, Philosophy and Physics at Boston College until 1937. He then spent a year as a professor of Philosophy at Weston Jesuit School of Theology, before becoming head of the Mathematics department at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.
On August 7, 1940, Father O’Callahan was appointed a Lieutenant JG in the United States Navy. His decision to join the Navy as a chaplain shocked some of his friends, one of them remarking, “Let someone younger help those boys. You can’t even open your umbrella!” Nothing daunted, Chaplain O’Callahan served at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida from 1940-1942. From 1942-1945 he served as chaplain at Naval Air Stations in Alameda, California and at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. It was almost at the end of the war when he was assigned to sea duty and reported aboard the Franklin, an Essex Class Fleet Air-Craft Carrier on March 2, 1945. The Franklin was the fifth ship in the United States Navy to be named after Benjamin Franklin, and had seen a lot of combat during the War. It was about to see more.
On March 19, 1945, the feast of Saint Joseph, the Franklin was conducting air raids against Honshu, one of the Japanese Home Islands. Only fifty miles off-shore, the Franklin was closer to Japan than any US aircraft carrier had come before during the War. At 7:08 AM a single Japanese dive bomber pierced the cloud cover and dove for the Franklin dropping two semi-armor piercing bombs. One bomb struck the flight deck centerline, penetrating through to the hangar deck. The other struck the aft of the carrier, penetrating through two decks. The Franklin was immediately rocked by huge explosions as the bombs ignited ammunition and gasoline. A series of explosions would rock the ship for hours as the crew of the Franklin fought to save her.
Approximately 2600 officers and men were aboard the Franklin. 724 would died that day and 265 were wounded. Many men would engage in heroic actions as the Franklin struggled to survive, but the deeds of Lieutenant Commander O’Callahan stood out.
After the bombs hit, Father O’Callahan said a quick prayer that God might forgive the sins of the crew of the Franklin. He then ran to his quarters and put on his lifebelt and helmet which had a big white cross on it. He and Protestant Chaplain Gatlin began to tend to the wounded brought forward to the Officer’s Quarters, with Chaplain O’Callahan giving the Last Rites many times.
He then ran up to the flight deck which was engulfed in flames. He helped the wounded and organized teams to fight the fires. Captain Leslie E. Gehres, the skipper of the Franklin, observed Father Callahan from the bridge, where he was trapped by the fires. Gehres was a stubborn and sometimes cantakerous mustang, an enlisted man who rose to be an officer. His stubbornness served him in good stead this day. He had already ignored the advice of the Admiral who had been aboard the Franklin, before he transferred his flag to another vessel, that the Franklin be abandoned. Gehres was not about to abandon his ship, especially with hundreds of crewmen trapped below deck. Recognizing Father O’Callahan from the white cross on his helmet, Gehres, using a bull horn, yelled at him to take command on the flight deck to fight the fire. Captain Gehres later told Mrs. O’Callahan, the mother of the Chaplain, that Father O’Callahan was the bravest man he had ever seen.
Organizing teams of officers and men, Father O’Callahan led them in picking up ammunition near, or even in, the fires, to pitch overboard before the ammunition exploded. It is hard to imagine anything more hazardous. Evacuating ammunition from the main gun magazine, Father O’Callahan went himself into the magazine with a fire hose to extinguish the flames so that the ammunition could be pitched over the side.
The crew took courage from the calm example of the priest. Many men began following him around to help. He seemed to be everywhere, fighting fires, giving the last rites, helping the wounded, all the while outwardly showing no fear and proceeding calmly and deliberately about his many duties. When the flight deck fires seemed to be under control, he went below deck several times to lead out trapped crewmen, personally leading to safety over 700 of them. Unbelievably, the Franklin stayed afloat and was towed back to port. The crew of the Franklin won their fight to save their ship.
For his actions that day Captain Gehres recommended Father O’Callhan for the Medal of Honor. He was the first Chaplain to be awarded that decoration. His Medal of Honor citation reads as follows:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as chaplain on board the U.S.S. Franklin when that vessel was fiercely attacked by enemy Japanese aircraft during offensive operations near Kobe, Japan, on 19 March 1945. A valiant and forceful leader, calmly braving the perilous barriers of flame and twisted metal to aid his men and his ship, Lt. Commander O’Callahan groped his way through smoke-filled corridors to the open flight deck and into the midst of violently exploding bombs, shells, rockets, and other armament. With the ship rocked by incessant explosions, with debris and fragments raining down and fires raging in ever-increasing fury, he ministered to the wounded and dying, comforting and encouraging men of all faiths; he organized and led firefighting crews into the blazing inferno on the flight deck; he directed the jettisoning of live ammunition and the flooding of the magazine; he manned a hose to cool hot, armed bombs rolling dangerously on the listing deck, continuing his efforts, despite searing, suffocating smoke which forced men to fall back gasping and imperiled others who replaced them. Serving with courage, fortitude, and deep spiritual strength, Lt. Commander O’Callahan inspired the gallant officers and men of the Franklin to fight heroically and with profound faith in the face of almost certain death and to return their stricken ship to port.
These videos describe the attack on the Franklin. The second video has a section on the actions of Chaplain O’Callahan.
After the War Father O’Callahan returned to his academic duties with the Jesuits. He also stayed in the Naval Reserve and retired as a Captain. He died on March 16, 1964 and is buried in the Jesuit cemetary at Holy Cross. A Destroyer Escort was named in his honor. The O’Callahan Assembly of the Knights of Colombus in Sebring, Florida help keep his memory alive. Holy Cross has the O’Callahan NROTC Committee to help train future naval officers. The science library at Holy Cross is named after him. The best memorials to Father O’Callahan are of course the lives of all the men he helped save on March 19, 1945, and the descendants of those men.