A Priest Born on Flag Day

One of the most highly decorated chaplains of World War II, Father Elmer W. Heindl used to joke that his decorations were simply due to him being in the wrong place at the right time.  Born on June 14, 1910 in Rochester, New York, the oldest of six children, Heindl decided at an early age that he was meant to be a priest and was ordained on June 6, 1936.  He said that being born on Flag Day indicated to him that during his life he would do something to honor the Stars and Stripes.

In March of 1942 he joined the Army as a chaplain.  Assigned to the 2nd Battalion of th 148th infantry attached to the 37th Division, he served on Guadalcanal, New Georgia and in the Philippines.  He quickly gained a reputation for utter fearlessness under fire, giving the last Rites, tending the wounded and rescuing wounded under fire.    In regard to the Last Rites, Father Heindl noted that he did not have time to check dog tags to see if a dying soldier was a Catholic.  “Every situation was an instant decision.  You didn’t have time to check his dog tag to see whether he was Catholic or not. I’d say, in Latin, ‘If you’re able and willing to receive this sacrament, I give it to you.’ And then leave it up to the Lord.”

He earned a Bronze Star on New Georgia when on July  19 and July 23 he conducted burial services, although in constant danger from Japanese sniper fire.  The citation noted that his cheerful demeanor and courage inspired the troops who encountered him.

During the liberation of the Philippines, Captain Heindl participated in the bitter fighting in Manila.  He earned a Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award in the United States Army for valor, during the fighting at Bilibid prison to liberate American and Filipino POWs who had been through horrors at the hands of their Japanese captors that I truly hope the readers of this post would find literally unimaginable.  Here is the Distinguished Service Cross citation:

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Captain (Chaplain) Elmer W. Heindl, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as Chaplain with Company E, 2d Battalion, 148th Infantry Regiment, 37th Infantry Division, in action against enemy forces on 6, 8 and 11 February 1945, in the Philippine Islands. During the assault on the Bilibid Prison in Manila on 6 February, Chaplain Heindl learned that a soldier lay critically wounded on the top floor of a two-story watch tower under enemy fire. Accompanied by a medical aid-man he entered the tower and climbed to the wounded soldier, who was bleeding profusely and obviously had but a few moments to live. Fully aware that enemy machine guns were trained on the tower, Chaplain Heindl calmly knelt and offered prayers for the dying man. He then carried the body down the ladder and away from the tower. Entering the tower once more, he carried out a second man who lay wounded on the first floor, and under enemy fire helped to carry him to an aid station. On 8 February when his unit was under enemy mortar and rocket fire, Chaplain Heindl observed an officer who was seriously wounded. Without hesitation he left his foxhole, crawled to the officer and dragged him to an aid station. On 11 February when nine men were killed and others wounded during an engagement, he dragged the wounded under fire to comparative safety and administered last rites for the dying. Through his extraordinary heroism and firm faith in the face of all danger, Chaplain Heindl proved himself worthy of the highest tradition of his Church and his military service. His intrepid actions, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, the 37th Infantry Division, and the United States Army.

General Orders: Headquarters, U.S. Army Forces in the Far East, General Orders No. 123 (1945)

Action Date: February 6, 8, & 11, 1945

In April in the Philippines Father Heindl earned a Silver Star, the third highest decoration for valor, for rescuing wounded under fire on April 17 and 25.  Although he received a decoration for these dates, Heindl would always do this as a matter of course.  If there were wounded on a battlefield, and if he could reach them, he would, his own danger never being a consideration for him.

Miraculously, Father Heindl came out of the War without a scratch.  In honor of this miracle, he received an honorary Purple Heart.  He remained in the Army Reserves after the War, retiring as a Colonel in 1970.  He served as a priest in the Rochester diocese for many years, dying at 96 in 2006.  On Flag Day June 14, 2010, his friend Bob Lonsberry wrote a column about him, which ended with the following:

I don’t know that some priests and Catholic leaders appreciated him as much as they should have. In a liberal diocese he was a little too red, white and blue for the prevailing sentiment.

But parishioners loved him, and veterans loved him, and I loved him, too.

In the hospital room where he would die, brought low by an equipment failure and some medical misadventures, we talked about Mother Angelica and Fulton Sheen. We talked about Jesus Christ and George Washington.

And he talked about veterans, a flock he ministered to for more than 50 years.

The best man I ever met would have been 100 today.

On Flag Day.

8 Responses to A Priest Born on Flag Day

  • “The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Captain (Chaplain) Elmer W. Heindl, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as Chaplain with Company E, 2d Battalion, 148th Infantry Regiment, 37th Infantry Division, in action against enemy forces on 6, 8 and 11 February 1945, in the Philippine Islands.”

    “Miraculously, Father Heindl came out of the War without a scratch. In honor of this miracle, he received an honorary Purple Heart.”

    Chaplain Elmer W. Heindl would not be allowed to minister in the new atheism. The new atheism has rescinded the Act of Congress, July 9, 1918 and the Order of the Purple Heart for Catholic Chaplains. The new atheism has rescinded the FREEDOM OF RELIGION for Catholics, as though becoming a Catholic Priest and Chaplain removed their citizenship.
    I am heartened by Chaplain Elmer W. Heindl’s selfless courage. I woud only hope under similar circumstances I could do the same. I would also hope that under similar circumstances, America would continue to acknowledge valor and genius to every person so entitled.

  • I must say I was quite moved by the beauty of the actions described in the DSC citation. To give of one’s self so fully for their neighbor is something truly inspired by the Holy Spirit.

  • It reminds me AS of a commercial I saw in the sixties with a young nun tending a leper. The voice over says, “Sister, I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.” The nun looks up, smiles, and says, “Neither would I!”.

  • If I correctly understand this administration’s new directives for military chaplains,
    the likes of the good Fr. Heindl wouldn’t be welcome unless he was willing to toe
    the line concerning blessing same-sex weddings and endorsing homosexuals in
    the military. I believe our government views men like Fr. Heindl as “haters”.

    Today, he wouldn’t be decorated, he’d probably be asked to resign.

  • Too true Clinton. One of many reasons to make certain that Obama is looking for new employment come next January.

  • Alphatron Shinyskullus says:
    “I must say I was quite moved by the beauty of the actions described in the DSC citation. To give of one’s self so fully for their neighbor is something truly inspired by the Holy Spirit.”

    The true beauty of Father Elmer Heindl’s face is captivating.

  • Beautifully done. Thank you. It reminds me of what I was taught in a Catholic military school, now closed, “Pro Deo, Pro Patria”, though I doubt that I would have the courage and equanimity he demonstrated.
    By the way, what do you think about President Obama being invited by Cardinal Dolan to keynote the Al Smith Dinner in October along with Mitt Romney? Will this give him cover with Catholics who traditionallay vote Democratic and help re-elect him?

  • It is an old tradition to invite the President and his Challenger in a Presidential election year. Let us see what Cardinal Dolan says at the dinner. This might be one for the record books!

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