Give Us This Day

William Thomas Cummings, pictured viewer’s left in the above photograph, is known for the phrase, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”  This is the story of the priest behind the phrase.

Born in 1903 he studied at Saint Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California and was ordained a priest in 1928.  Wanting to be a missionary priest he joined the Maryknoll Order.  In December 1941 he was serving as a missionary priest in the Philippines.  On December 7, 1941 he showed up at the American Army headquarters in Manila in white vestments and offered his services as a chaplain.  The commandant of the Manila garrison attempted to talk him out of it.  He was 38, old for a combat chaplain, and he was nursing a back injury.  He was also near-sighted and lean as a rake.  Father Cummings vehemently replied that he was determined to be an Army chaplain.    Commissioned as a first lieutenant, he joined the Army in its epic retreat to the Bataan peninsula, where American and Filipino troops, on starvation rations and wracked with malaria, would make a heroic stand for months against the Japanese Imperial Army.

Believing themselves deserted by the US, the troops sang this bit of bitter doggerel:

We’re the battling bastards of Bataan,

No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam.

No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces,

No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces.

And nobody gives a damn.

General Douglas MacArthur, in command of all American and Filipino troops in the Philippines, continually pleaded with Washington for a relief force to Bataan.  Shamefully, some of the messages from Washington indicated that a relief force was being put together.   These were lies.   After Pearl Harbor the US simply lacked the naval assets to successfully reinforce Bataan.  Any attempt to do so would almost certainly have led to a military disaster for America.  MacArthur refused an order that he leave Bataan, and stated that he would resign his commission and fight as a volunteer.  He finally left after a direct order from President Roosevelt, but refused to be smuggled out in a submarine, instead going by PT boat to demonstrate that the Japanese blockade of the Philippines could be penetrated.  After he arrived in Australia he was shocked to learn that there were no plans for the relief of the Philippines.  His main goal throughout the war thereafter was the liberation of the Philippines and the rescue of the American and Filipino POWs.

On Bataan Chaplain Cummings quickly became an Army legend.   On Good Friday 1942 at a Bataan field hospital undergoing bombardment Nurse Hattie Bradley witnessed Father Cummings in action:  More piercing screams. Scores must be dead or dying, she was convinced. She dashed into the orthopedic ward for help. There, panic was on the verge of erupting. Then she saw the chaplain…standing on a desk. Above the roar of the airplanes, the explosions and the shrieks of the wounded, his voice could be heard: “Our Father, who art in heaven…” Calmed by his prayers, the patients quieted.”  Father Cummings did this in spite of one of his arms being broken by shrapnel from a bomb. 

On Bataan he was always with the troops near or on the front line.  He said innumerable Masses, administered the Last Rites to the dying and helped with the wounded.  His field sermons were memorable.  In one of them he made the famous observation that “There are no atheists in foxholes.”  The quotation was passed on in the book “I Saw the Fall of the Philippines” by General Carlos P. Romulo, one of the Filipino troops evacuated from Bataan, which was published in 1942.

Father Cummings had an opportunity to be evacuated to Australia, but declined saying he had to remain with his men.  He was one of five priests who participated in the Bataan Death March, a 60 mile trek straight out of Dante’s inferno, organized by the Japanese Imperial Army after the fall of Bataan.  Given virtually no food and no water, subject to random beatings and casual murder by their guards, out of a force of 75,000 troops, some 5000-10000 Filipinos died and some 600-650 Americans.  Father Cummings was interred by the Japanese at Bilibid Prison and Cabanatuan Prison.  Throughout his ordeal he was an inspiration to all the POWs he came in contact.  He became known as “the man who can’t say no.”, a testament to his eagerness to help his fellow prisoners.

As the tide of war ran against Japan, the Japanese decided to send as many of the Allied prisoners of war as they could to Japan.  In Japan the prisoners would labor as slaves, and be used as hostages in the event of an Allied invasion of Japan.  The ships on which the prisoners were transported were designated as “Hell Ships” by the POWs.  Given virtually no food or water, the prisoners were stuffed into dark and dank holds, airless and sweltering, where most of them would not survive to arrive in Japan.  The ships were also subject to Allied bombing and torpedo attacks, as the Japanese refused to designate to the Allies which ships were carrying POWs.

On December 13, 1944, almost two months after the beginning of MacArthur’s liberation of the Philippines, Father Cummings and 1600 survivors of Bataan were jammed aboard the Oryoku Maru, a pre-war passenger ship and now a Hell Ship, to be taken to Japan.  Allied air attacks caused the voyage to end abruptly at Subic Bay.  300 of the prisoners died in this brief voyage of two days.  On December 27, 1944, 1000 of the prisoners, including Father Cummings, were jammed into the  Hell Ship Enoura Maru, taking them to Japan and away from any hope of liberation by MacArthur’s forces.

The voyage would last until January 29.  Out of the 1000 men, 435 would survive, with 131 dying within a week of landing in Japan.  Many of the men died of illness, starvation and thirst, the Japanese rationing the prisoners to two to four spoonfuls of water each day.  Many men went mad.  The ship was subjected to Allied bombing.  The ship arrived in Takeo Harbor in Formosa on January 1, 1945.  Allied bombing while in the harbor killed about 350 men.  The survivors were placed aboard the Hell Ship Brazil Maru for the final stage of the trip to Japan.  Throughout the voyage, Father Cummings was their one beacon of hope.  Each night, although he was visibly dying, he would lead them in prayers.  One of the survivors recalled these prayers. 

“I shall never forget the prayer that Father asked that first night after the bombing, when the Japs would not let us move the bodies. Before, many men had paid no attention, but this night the minute he stood up there was absolute silence. I guess it was the first real and complete silence that there had been since we left Manila. Even the deranged fellows were quiet.

“And I remember what his opening words were. He said, ‘O God — O God, please grant that tomorrow we will be spared from being bombed.”

Another survivor, Ray Bodine, summed up what Father Cummings did in this journey through Hell:  “actively and zealously ministered to the men during this nightmare voyage to Japan. He prayed, performed last rites, and cheered the men right up to the moment of his own death.”

Just before he died he told his fellow prisoners that if he survived the War he hoped to work with street kids in Tokyo.  One of the men scoffed and said that the Japanese were hopeless.  Father Cummings responded, “Son, no one is hopeless.”

On January 28, 1945, the voyage was nearly complete, although the few hundred survivors had no way of knowing that. Time for the evening prayers had arrived and the men looked to Father Cummings.  It was clear to all that their valiant priest was clearly in the final stages of dying.  However, Father Cummings rallied himself for one last supreme effort and led the men in the The Lord’s Prayer.  He reached the words, “Give Us this day”, when his soul left his body, and he, no doubt, finished the prayer in Heaven. 

One of the survivors later recalled, “I remember wondering how a dying man could have such a strong, clear voice.”   For a man by himself it was probably impossible, but with God all things are possible.

39 Responses to Give Us This Day

  • Don, thanks for posting this. ‘Give Us This Day’ was the title of a book written by Sidney Stewart, a survivor of the Bataan march and three years of captivity in Jap prison camps. In his memoir, Stewart discusses at length the reliance he and fellow GIs had on Father Cummings during those dark times. The book was written in 1956. Here is a link for more info:
    http://www.mishalov.com/Stewart,Sydney.html
    Along with Escape from Davao, Give Us This Day should be recommended reading for every American.

  • Thank you Joe. I am aware of the memoir, from which I have taken the title of the post, although I have not yet read it. I hope to remedy that before the end of the year.

  • Thank You.

  • Thanks for this. I’m reading “Grunt Padre,” the story of Fr. Capodanno. Fr. Mode recites vignettes about the Maryknollers of that era, including Fr. Cummings and later, Bishop Ford in China. What an astonishing group of men.

  • It brought tears to my eyes to think of our true heros and the horror they have gone through. Thank you for this post – it is inspirational to know men like him existed and exist today.

  • Thank you gentlemen. Recalling the lives of heroic priests such as Father Cummings gives me hope for humanity.

  • Thanks for this Don. A very touching and inspiring story. I recall seeing the movie “Bataan” back around 1957 when I was at Sacred Heart College. Quite a chilling movie, parts of which I can still recall.
    At this time of year – August 6th Hiroshima day, and August 15th.- Assumption, and the end of hostilities in the Pacific, I am reminded of my youth when, as a late teenager/early 20′s, many of my dad’s friends (dad fought in North Africa and Italy) had fought in the Pacific – mainly the air force. I have always been interested in aircraft, and I would listen with rapt attention to these men as they recounted their exploits. They were then in their late 30′s/early 40′s,- this being the early/mid 60′s – so their memories were vivid, as then it was still quite recent history.
    Your story also reminds me of our Fr. Francis Douglas, killed by the Japanese in the Phillipines in 1943 at age 33years.
    Thanks again.

  • When I read stories like this, I can’t understand why some Catholic commentators get so mad about us a-bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It reminds me of the way hippy-dippy types used to bawl how we were “mistreating ” the VC during the Nam conflict. The Cong and the Japanese both had a policy of treating their captives in an inhumane fashion. Both of them should consider themselves lucky that we did not return the favor in kind. As far as I’m concerned, the Japanese should be thankful that we only a-bombed two cities, instead of invading the mainland and killing far more troops and others than those a-bombs ever could!

  • Interestingly, the number of American POWs who survived German prison camps was, percentage-wise, 10 times higher than those in Jap camps where roughly only 3 percent survived, according to my recollections. Near the end of the war, “kill orders” went out all over the Pacific, leaving relatively few POWs left.

    Further, our treatment of German and Japanese POWs was by contrast humane to the point that they were fed basically the same food our troops got and otherwise were treated as fellow human beings. By contrast, the Japs were the ultimate racists, viewing all Americans as “sub-human.” Also, the Jap culture for centuries taught that to surrender as a prisoner rather than to die was cowardly; hence, their disdain for Westerners. And, lastly, their guards were the dregs of the Imperial Army, misfits and goons for the most part.

  • The Japanese gave good treatment to Russian prisoners taken in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. By World War II a spurious code of Bushido had the Japanese military in its grip and the Japanese treated prisoners with little mercy. Western prisoners had a death rate of 27.1%, seven times the rate of Western prisoners held by the Nazis. Most of the men released by the Japanese were mere skeletons and had survived through incredible tenacity and luck. In regard to China, Japan after the war released 56 Chinese prisoners. The Japanese routinely immediately murdered any Asians who fought against them and were luckless enough to fall into their hands. Millions of Chinese were slaughtered in ways that horrified Nazi observers. The Japanese high command had issued an order that all Western prisoners of war were to be executed immediately if the Japanese Home Islands were invaded.

  • Don, the aforementioned Sidney Stewart was 65 pounds when he was rescued. He was 6-foot-1.

  • BTW, I just started The Rape of Nanking, a pre-WWII horror story of epic proportions. No wonder the Chicoms hate the Japanese so much.

  • “I recall seeing the movie “Bataan” back around 1957 when I was at Sacred Heart College. Quite a chilling movie, parts of which I can still recall.”

    One part of the film that I can recall Don is a meeting between Allied officers and Filipino guerrillas where the officers are warning them where MacArthur’s initial landings are going to occur so that the Filipino civilians can be evacuated. The Filipino guerrilla leader notes that such an evacuation would warn the Japanese that an invasion was coming and that therefore there would be no evacuation.
    Here is a link to a clip from the film. The scene I mentioned begins at 6:56.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3z0e87Ff308&feature=related

    Filipino and American guerrillas fought on throughout the War. By the time MacArthur returned the Japanese had tenuous control of only twelve of forty-eight provinces. The Japanese killed some one million Filipinos during the War but they never conquered them.

  • I couldn’t get through the Rape of Nanking Joe, I was too appalled. I have read a great deal about Man’s inhumanity to Man, but the Japanese Imperial Army in that particular slaughter set a new record in my estimation for putting massive amounts of people to death in ways of unimaginable cruelty. In 2007 100 Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers in Japan denounced the Rape of Nanking as a Chinese fabrication. If that were only the case.

  • The Chinese lost some 10 to 20 million people at the hands of the Japanese, all but some three million civilian deaths. This is a part of the War in the Pacific that has been largely forgotten outside of China, but it should not be.

  • Don, the author, Iris Chang, took so much heat in the book’s aftermath for alleged sloppy research that she fell into depression and finally killed herself. Most scholars and historians appear to find her account credible, but there was a concerted effort — by the Japanese in particular — to find fault with her work. I’m just on the first chapter and so far, yes, it is appalling. As much as I want to avert my eyes from such horrors, I feel I cannot. Evil should be looked square in the eye and, when possible, be fought at every turn.

  • Her suicide was appallingly sad Joe. The historical record is crystal clear in regard to the Rape of Nanking. There were plenty of Westerners in Nanking at the time who recorded precisely what was happening. One of the heroes who saved 200,000-250,000 Chinese was John Rabe, a Nazi businessman. Here is one of many notes that he made at the time:

    “Two Japanese soldiers have climbed over the garden wall and are about to break into our house. When I appear they give the excuse that they saw two Chinese soldiers climb over the wall. When I show them my party badge, they return the same way. In one of the houses in the narrow street behind my garden wall, a woman was raped, and then wounded in the neck with a bayonet. I managed to get an ambulance so we can take her to Kulou Hospital…. Last night up to 1,000 women and girls are said to have been raped, about 100 girls at Ginling Girls’ College alone. You hear nothing but rape. If husbands or brothers intervene, they’re shot. What you hear and see on all sides is the brutality and bestiality of the Japanese soldiers.”

    Rabe was a man of rare courage. He later renounced his membership in the Nazi party. After the War he and his family were living in dire poverty. Though China was wracked by Civil War, the citizens of Nanking hearing about his troubles sent him 2000 dollars and until the Communist takeover sent him and his family a large package of food every month for which Rabe and his family were very grateful. He died of a stroke in 1950, and he is one former Nazi I hope some day to encounter in Heaven.

  • On the tenuous connection of books nearly too depressing to read — have you read Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands yet, Don?

    I started on it last night, and within a few pages was thinking maybe I should go back to the Great War (Storm of Steel is next on my list there) in order to avoid the depression. However, a friend of mine who teaches Polish history tells me that I absolutely must read it, so I guess I shall have to.

    It takes a great deal to make trench warfare look cheerful, but living between Russia and Germany during the 30s and 40s pretty much fits the bill.

  • Darwin, that reminds me of Jerzy Kosinki’s The Painted Bird, a fictional account of Poland during WWII, which reads all too real.

    Don, there was a biopic made about Rabe but don’t know if was released in the U.S. Here’s a link:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Rabe_%28film%29

  • “On the tenuous connection of books nearly too depressing to read — have you read Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands yet, Don?”

    No Darwin, although it is on my list. Eastern European history always reminds me of Hamlet: it goes on at great length, all the participants seemed to be touched in the head to a certain extent, and everybody ends up murdered!

    Norman Davies, although he is a good bit of a snot like most Brit historians, is my favorite when it comes to Polish history.

    Storm of Steel is a true classic! Ernst Junger who saw some of the most horrifying combat imaginable actually enjoyed the War! An ultra German nationalist he was also an anti-Nazi and was peripherally involved in the the Von Stauffenberg assassination attempt. His eldest son, a naval cadet, was sentenced to a penal battalion for subversion and died in Italy in 1944.

    A writer of true genius, Junger was also a druggie who experimented with drugs most of his life. A year before his death at 102 in 1998 he converted to Catholicism and faithfully received communion regularly thereafter. Junger is one of the more fascinating literary figures of the 20th Century in my opinion.

  • Thanks for the tip Joe. I’ll try to get my hands on it.

  • Don, found it at my local library and have ordered. 74% ‘fresh’ on Rotten Tomatoes.
    http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/john_rabe_2008/

  • Hey, Don…look what I found:

  • That last one was in German…Here’s the official trailer:

  • Bravo Joe! That trailer has sold me on the film!

  • Re Storm of Steel, which I have yet to read. Check out this review:

    (A brilliant book, a great book. Horrifying in its realistic greatness. Power, nationalistic passion, verve—the German book on the [First World] War. A member of his generation rises to speak about the deeply emotional event of war and performs miracles in presenting his innermost feelings.)

    — Joseph Goebbels, 20 January 1926

  • Yeah, the Nazis assumed since Junger was an uber Nationalist he was one of them. After they took over they learned better when he declined a seat in the Reichstag and declined to head the German Academy of Literature. By 1938 he was under investigation by the Gestapo and banned from writing. He spent World War II as an Army Captain. I have little doubt that he would have been executed by the Nazis, but for the immense prestige that he enjoyed in Germany, and the fact that he kept a low profile.

  • Don, apparently Storm of Steel went through several revisions and translations to “tone it down,” as it were, due to its graphic nature.

    I plan to get to Bloodlands, too. So many books; so little time. BTW The Catholic Thing has an essay today on reading, which TAC followers may find of interest.

  • apparently Storm of Steel went through several revisions and translations to “tone it down,” as it were, due to its graphic nature.

    With the knowledge of a man who just read the introduction to the new Penguine translation last night…

    The first edition was in 1920, and was basically a straight transcription of Junger’s diaries. There was another edition in 1924 which turned it into a polished “literary” version, but still distinctly dark and bloody. Junger revised it again in 1934 and in the process cut out many of the most nationalistic and political passages — this was as it was becoming an international best seller (Junger was already becoming very popular in France) — somewhat to the annoyance of the Nazi’s.

    Junger continued to revise the work up through 1961.

    Actually, the same friend recommended Junger, Bloodlands, and 14-18 (which I just finished), all of which look to be very good (though not exactly cheery) reads.

  • The Japanese, as a whole, have not owned up to their atrocities in the same way the Germans have. With certain noble exceptions–one of which was atom bomb survivor and Catholic scientist Takashi Nagai, who permitted his hauntingly brilliant “Bells of Nagasaki” to be printed with an appendix detailing Japanese atrocities in the Philippines. The Occupation government required this in order for “Bells” to be printed.

    Speaking of which, Bells is must reading, as is Ignatius’ biography of Nagai, “A Song for Nagasaki.”

  • Is his cause up for canonization?

    There are memorials to Fr. Capodanno and Fr. Kapaun at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Wisconsin. This Shrine commemorates the first approved Marian apparition in the U.S.. Approval was very recent.

  • I have seen no evidence of any attempt to have Father Cummings canonized. Maryknoll recognizes him as one of the nine Maryknoll martyrs:

    http://www.maryknollaffiliates.org/en/news-and-information/maryknoll-news/societycentennial/654-maryknollsmartyrs.html

  • Don.
    The movie I was referring to was the previous movie “Bataan” made in 1943 according to the youtube item – not “Return to Bataan” – but seeing The Duke in action was worth the watch.

    Interesting that the comments morphed into WW2 in Germany WRT actions and POW’s – my uncle Joe Murphy – obviously of Irish stock – flew navigator in Lancasters and was shot down 4 times, but escaped only 3 times – (the luck of the Irish?) and was a POW for the last 18 months of the war.
    But my comment is really about a German gentleman I got to meet, and I served (Acolyte) at his Requiem Mass a couple of months ago. I had met Rudi in a retirment home a year before where I take Holy Communion to each week to several residents.
    Rudi Baumgart was born in 1925 in Romania of German parents – his father working in mining there. When He was an infant his family moved to Latvia to a farm his father inherited from his great grandfather. In 1939 when Germany invaded Latvia, Rudi was conscripted into the Wermacht as an engineer on his own insistence. When the Red army invaded Poland, where Rudi was stationed, he returned to Latvia. But Russia also invaded Latvia, and he was conscripted into the Russian army. When war ended, he did not believe a promise made to many German soldiers by the Russians, and he and several other germans escaped back to West Germany. He would never speak of the things he did while escaping to survive – it must have been very traumatic for him.
    He married and eventually made his way to Australia, then to NZ. His marriage broke up in Oz where he left a son and a daughter and worked in NZ where he made many friends and met another woman who he never married, but loved her dearly till she died in 2005. He returned to his Catholic faith through the efforts of a lovely local Catholic woman. On some occasions when I took him Communion, he would clasp the crucifix in his hands, and with tears say that he might not be forgiven for the terrible things he had done in his earlier life. He had been to Confession regularly before I met him, and had been annointed a few times due to his infirmities, and I assured him that Jesus had forgiven him his sins.
    He had a vibrant sense of humour – would often speak to me in German with a grin on his face – did he really translate what he said correctly ? :-). I took him Communion two weeks before he died – the next couple of weeks he would be asleep; he died four days after my last call.
    May God rest your soul. Reqiescat in Pace, Rudi Baumgart

  • A beautiful story indeed Don! I was unaware of the film Bataan until internet research led me to believe that it was probably the film you were referring to. It was notable for two things: giving, for the time, a realistic view of combat, and for a young Desi Arnaz, years before he married Lucille Ball.

    Here is a link to a clip from the film:

  • “Junger was also a druggie who experimented with drugs most of his life. A year before his death at 102 in 1998 he converted to Catholicism and faithfully received communion regularly thereafter.”

    An ex-Nazi and drug dabbler converting to the Faith at the age of 101? I guess there really is hope for us all….

  • “a young Desi Arnaz, years before he married Lucille Ball.”

    Lucy and Desi were married in 1940.

  • You are correct Elaine. Interestingly enough, they divorced in 1944 and subsequently reconciled. It is incredible to me that the marriage survived for two decades.

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