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.