I normally take great pride in being an American, but there are passages in our history which all Americans should be ashamed of. During our Civil War in many prison camps, both North and South, POWs were treated wretchedly with inadequate shelter, clothing and food. The worst by far was Andersonville. The vast tragedy at Andersonville came about for a number of reasons.
First and foremost was the breakdown of the prisoner exchange system. From the summer of 1862 to the summer of 1863, captured Union and Confederate troops would be released within 10 days after giving their parole. This was a promise not to fight until after they had properly been exchanged for a prisoner on the other side. The system operated by exchanging paroles from prisoners of equivalent ranks or of different ranks as follows: 1 general = 46 privates, 1 major general = 40 privates, 1 brigadier general = 20 privates, 1 colonel = 15 privates, 1 lieutenant colonel = 10 privates, 1 major = 8 privates, 1 captain = 6 privates, 1 lieutenant = 4 privates, 1 noncommissioned officer = 2 privates. The system worked reasonably well until the issue of the treatment of black troops came up. The Confederates refused to recognize black soldiers as Union troops under the system and reduced many of them to slavery. The Union as a result refused to abide by the system. General Grant also had suspicions that the system wasn’t being completely honored in any case. After Vicksburg he had paroled the entire Confederate army that had been captured after the fall of that city. In the fighting around Chattanooga later that year he was dismayed to find among the captured Confederate troops men who had surrendered at Vicksburg and who had not been exchanged. Realizing that the Confederates needed their prisoners back in their ranks , and that the Union had an endless supply of manpower, he thought that it was a benefit for the Union that the system had broken down and adamantly refused Confederate attempts in 1864 to revive prisoner exchanges. A good article on the exchange of prisoners is here.
Second was the series of small POW camps in the vicinity of Richmond, which, with the break down in the prisoner exchange system, were soon overflowing with Union prisoners. In November 1863 Captain Richard Widner came to the hamlet (population 20) of Andersonville, Georgia to investigate the prospects of building a large POW camp there. He liked what he saw: plenty of water near at hand, located near a railhead and situated in the Deep South, far away from the Union armies. In December of 1863 he began construction of Andersonville Prison. (The official name of the prison was Camp Sumter.) Local slaves were brought in to clear the land in January 1864 and to build the stockade. The Prison encompassed 16.5 acres with a small creek flowing through the site to provide water. No barracks were built to shelter the prisoners. The capacity of prisoners that could be held there was estimated to be 10,000. The first Union prisoners were shipped to in February 1864. With heavy fighting that began in May as Grant battled his way towards Richmond, the number of prisoners swelled to well beyond the capacity of the prison. By June the prison population had ballooned to 20,000. The boundary of the prison was extended using prison labor labor 610 feet to the north during June. By August 33,000 Union prisoners were held within the stockade of Andersonville.
Third, for security reasons, the prisoners were not given the materials to build barracks. Andersonville’s prison guards consisted of overaged men and underaged boys, and permanent barracks where the prisoners could live, and plot escape attempts unobserved, were thought by the authorities to be too much of risk with prison guards of this calibre. The Union prisoners, except for what makeshift shelters they could improvise, were exposed to the elements at all times.
Fourth, the creek flowing through Andersonville served both as a source of water and as a latrine. The Union troops, with appropriate black humor, labeled the creek “Sweet Water Branch’.
Fifth, medical care at Andersonville was basically non-existent, with the small medical staff completely overwhelmed.
Sixth, the Union soldiers were in theory to get the same daily ration as a Confederate soldier. What they received, if they were lucky, was rancid grain and a spoonful or two of peas or beans. To be fair, the Confederates during this stage of the war had a great deal of difficulty providing rations to their own troops.
Seventh, incompetence on the part of the camp’s commander Captain Heinrich “Henry” Wirz. Ironically trained as a medical doctor in Europe prior to the Civil War, the Swiss born Wirz took command of Andersonville in March 1864. Tried and executed after the war, the only Confederate to be executed following the war, Wirz has been called both an innocent scapegoat and a demon of cruelty incarnate. I will not venture into that battleground. I will note that in the face of the humanitarian disaster that developed at Andersonville Wirz did little and seemed to spend most of his time trying to get promoted, eventually getting his wish and attaining the rank of Major shortly before the end of the War.
All of these factors led to the deaths of almost 13,000 of the approximately 45,000 Union soldiers who passed through Andersonville. Surgeon Joseph Jones of the Confederate Army on an inspection tour wrote a report to the Surgeon General of the Confederacy on October19, 1864 regarding conditions at Andersonville:
“Macon, Ga., October 19, 1864
Surgeon-General S. P. Moore, Confederate States Army, War Department, Richmond, Va.
Sir: I have the honor to give the following brief outline of my labors, conducted in accordance with the orders of the surgeon-general:
Immediately after the brief report upon hospital gangrene, forwarded to the surgeon-general, I repaired to Camp Sumter, Andersonville, Ga., and instituted a series of investigations upon the diseases of the Federal prisoners.
The field was of great extent and extraordinary interest. There were more than 5,000 seriously sick in the hospital and stockade, and the deaths ranged from 90 to 130 each day.
Since the establishment of this prison on 24th of February, 1864, to the present time, over 10,000 Federal prisoners have died; that is—near one-third of the entire number have perished in less than seven months.
I instituted careful investigations into the condition of the sick and well and performed numerous post-mortem examinations. The medical topography of Andersonville and the surrounding country was examined, and the waters of the streams, springs, and wells around and within the stockade and hospital carefully analyzed.
Diarrhoea, dysentery, scurvy, and hospital gangrene were the diseases which have been the main cause of this extraordinary mortality. The origin and character of the hospital gangrene which prevailed to so remarkable a degree and with such fatal effects amongst the Federal prisoners, engaged my most serious and earnest consideration. More than 30,000 men, crowded upon twenty-seven acres of land, with little or no shelter from the intense heat of a Southern summer, or from the rain and from the dew of night, with coarse corn bread from which the husk had not been removed, with but scant supplies of fresh meat and vegetables, with little or no attention to hygiene, with festering masses of filth at the very doors of their rude dens and tents, with the greater portion of the banks of the stream flowing through the stockade a filthy quagmire of human excrements alive with working maggots, generated by their own filthy exhalations and excretions, an atmosphere that so deteriorated and contaminated their solids and fluids that the slightest scratch and even the bites of small insects were in some eases followed by such rapid and extensive gangrene as to destroy extremities and even life itself.
A large number of operations have been performed in the hospital on account of gangrene following slight injuries and mere abrasion of the surface. In almost every case of amputation for gangrene the disease returned, and a large proportion of the cases have terminated fatally.
I recorded careful observations upon the origin and progress of these cases of gangrene, and examined the bodies after death and noted the pathological changes of the organs and tissues. The results of these observations will be forwarded to the surgeon-general at the earliest practicable moment.”
Into this man made Hell on Earth on June 16, 1864 came Father Peter Whelan. In May of 1864 Father William J. Hamilton, a mission priest in Georgia, had visited Andersonville and had been revolted by the conditions there. He urgently asked his Bishop, Augustin Verot, to assign a priest to the prison full time. The Bishop sent Father Whelan. Continue reading
Lieutenant j.g. Aloysius Schmitt had just finished morning mass aboard the USS Oklahoma. Acting chaplain of the Okie, a Sunday meant a busy day for him, a relaxed day for almost everyone else on board the ship. Since they were in port and the country was at peace a Sunday was a day of rest. Besides, the port was a tropical paradise. Life was good for the crew of the Okie.
Father Schmitt, born on December 4, 1909, was an Iowan, about as far from the sea as it is possible to be in the US. Studying in Rome for the priesthood, he was ordained on December 8, 1935. After serving at parishes in Dubuque, Iowa and Cheyenne, Wyoming, Father Schmitt received permission to join the Navy and was commissioned a Lieutenant j.g. on June 28, 1939.
On December 7, 1941 at 8:00 AM the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor began. The Oklahoma and the other battleships on battleship row were the primary targets. Alarms began to sound on the Oklahoma, and the ship was hit almost immediately by nine torpedoes from Japanese torpedo bombers. The ship began to list badly and every sailor knew that it was probably just a few minutes before the Okie would capsize. Continue reading
Whenever the collection for the Archdiocese for Military Services comes around, I always dig deep to give a contribution and I hope all of you do also. As faithful readers of this blog know, I have special respect for Catholic Chaplains who go in harm’s way to bring the love of Christ onto the battlefield. Father Z reports that some Catholics on the left, surprise!, disagree:
Fishwrap (aka National Schismatic Reporter) has yet another attack piece against the important collection to be taken up this weekend for the Archdiocese for Military Services.
In other words they are attacking Catholic chaplains.
In the latest divisive hate piece Fishwrap has this suggestion:
Outside the clergy, a small, lay-led online effort seeks to offer Catholics opposed to the collection an alternative when the basket makes its way through the pews.
Catholics Against Militarism has made available on its website downloadable cards for Catholics opposed to the collection “to put in the collection basket instead of money, just to make their voices heard,” member Ellen Finnigan said.
The cards, in part, read: “A nationwide collection for AMS sends a message to American Catholics that the Catholic Church condones America’s current military activity and post-9-11 wars. … Church is no place to glorify the ideals of the professional military class, which run contrary to most, if not all, Christian beliefs and teachings, including the Christian Just War theory. Today, in a spirit of peace, I offer my dissent.”
Fishwrap upbraids those who create “divisiveness” or who use sharp rhetoric.
And yet here is Fishwrap attacking an established, recognized ministry to well over 1 million lay people, some of whom are children, some of whom are suffering in horrible life-threatening circumstances. Some of them are poor, they work for almost nothing.
Go here to read the rest. The collection is tomorrow in my diocese and the effort of the National Catholic Reporter is causing me to up my donation. I hope you will follow suit. Here are thirty-eight very good reasons to give to support these very brave priests:
Peter Paul Cooney was born in County Roscommin, Ireland in 1822. He went with his family to America at the age of 5. Raised on a farm in Monroe, Michigan. Studying at Notre Dame it was perhaps fated that he would become a Holy Cross priest, although he wasn’t ordained until the age of 37. When the Civil War broke out Father Cooney was at Notre Dame. Although at 39 he was rather old for a military chaplain, he enlisted in the 35th Indiana Infantry, nicknamed the First Indiana Irish, and served 44 months, the entire War, with the 35th.
In a regiment of brave men, mostly Irish, Father Cooney stood out. After the battle of Murphreesboro the Colonel of the regiment, Bernard F. Mullen, wrote:
To Father Cooney, our chaplain, too much praise cannot be given. Indifferent as to himself, he was deeply solicitous for the temporal comfort and spiritual welfare of us all. On the field he was cool and indifferent to danger, and in the name of the regiment I thank him for his kindness and laborious attention to the dead and dying.
After the battle of Nashville, Brigadier General Nathan Kimball summed up the chaplain:
Of Father Cooney, chaplain of the Thirty-fifth Indiana, I commend him as an example of the army chaplin; meek, pious, and brave as a lion, he worked with his brave regiment in the valley of the shadow of death, affording the ministrations of his holy religion to the wounded and dying, and giving words of encouragement to his fellow soldiers.
Before battles, Father Cooney would stand before the regiment, lead the men in prayer and give them mass absolution. The commander of the Army of the Cumberland, Major General William S. Rosecrans, a fervent Catholic convert, was so taken by this that he ordered the Protestant chaplains in the Army to do likewise!
Father Cooney noted in his letters home to his brother that Protestant soldiers would often attend Mass, especially before a battle, and some of them converted. He believed that the courage of Catholic soldiers in the Army helped break down prejudice against the Faith that some of their Protestant fellow soldiers had originally harbored.
I have been for the last two months very busy in preparing the men to complete their Easter duty, otherwise I would have written oftener, to you. Our division consists of about twelve thousand men and there are Catholics in every regiment. Protestants attend the sermons by thousands in the open field. I have baptized
many of them and prejudice against to the Church is gone almost entirely.
A short time ago I baptized and gave his first Communion to the Major General commanding our division. He is now a most fervent catholic and his example is powerful over the men of his command. I have every assistance from him in anything that I require for the discharge of my duties. He is extremely kind to me. Continue reading
The POW Servant of God Father Emil Kapaun received the Medal of Honor on April 11, 2012. Here is what he did to earn it.
Serving as a chaplain at Fort Bliss, Father Kapaun was ordered to Japan in 1950. Upon the outbreak of the Korean War, he was assigned to a front line combat unit, the 3rd battalion, 8th cavalry regiment, 1rst Cavalry Division.
With his unit Father Kapaun participated during June-September 1950 in the desperate defense of the Pusan Perimeter and then in the breakout from the Pusan Perimeter, which, combined with the Inchon landings in Operation Chromite, the brilliant stroke by General Douglas MacArthur, led to the eviction of the invading North Korean armies from South Korea and the capture of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on October 19, 1950. During all of this Father Kapaun was a whirlwind of activity: tending the wounded, administering the Last Sacrament to the dying, keeping up the morale of the troops. He said mass as close as he could get to the battle lines from an improvised platform on a jeep.
On November 1, 1950 Chaplain Kapaun’s unit ran headlong into advancing Chinese Communist forces at Unsan, North Korea, about 50 miles south of the Chinese border with North Korea. The official citation of the award of the Distinguish Service Cross to Chaplain Kapaun tells of his role in the battle:
The Distinguished Service Cross is presented to Emil Joseph Kapaun(O-0558217), Captain (Chaplain), U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection withmilitary operations against an armed enemy of the United Nations while serving as Chaplain with Headquarters Company, 8th Cavalry Regiment (Infantry), 1st Cavalry Division. Captain (Chaplain) Kapaun distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action against enemy aggressor forces in the vicinity of Unsan, Korea, on 1 and 2 November 1950.
On the afternoon of 1 November 1950, and continuing through the following 36 hours, the regiment was subjected to a relentless, fanatical attack by hostile troops attempting to break through the perimeter defense. In the early morning hours, the enemy succeeded in breaking through the defenses, and hand-to-hand combat ensued in the immediate vicinity of the command post where the aid station had been set up. Chaplain Kapaun, with complete disregard for his personal safety, calmly moved among the wounded men, giving them medical aid and easing their fears. His courageous manner inspired all those present and many men who might otherwise have fled in panic were encouraged by his presence and remained to fight the enemy.
As the battle progressed, the number of wounded increased greatly and it became apparent that many of the men would not be able to escape the enemy encirclement. Finally, at dusk on November 2, 1950, the remaining able- bodied men were ordered to attempt to break through the surrounding enemy. At this time, although fully aware of the great danger, Chaplain Kapaun voluntarily remained behind, and when last seen was administering medical treatment and rendering religious rites wherever needed.
Along with the other Americans captured Father Kapaun was marched north in bitterly cold winter weather approximately 100 miles. One of his fellow prisoners, Herbert Miller, was wounded and had a broken ankle. Mr. Miller survived the war and here is a recent statement by him on what happened next. “I was wounded with a broken ankle and the North Koreans were going to shoot me. He brushed them aside, reached down and picked me up and carried me. How he found the strength, I’ll never know. He was the bravest man I ever saw.”
Father Kapaun and his fellow POWs were taken, after their two week march, to a temporary camp which they called The Valley located 10 miles south of Pyoktong, NorthKorea, the first in a series of camps in the area where Father Kapuan and the men from his unit were held. Of the approximately 1000 Americans who were taken here 500-700 died. I was astonished in researching this article to learn that during their first year of operation the Chinese POW camps had a death rate of 40%, which makes them worse than the Japanese POW camps during World War II in which approximately one-third of the Allied prisoners perished.
Then the events began which made Father Kapaun unforgettable to the men who survived this Gehenna on Earth. First, the men needed food. On the miserable rations they had from the Chinese they were starving to death. Father Kapaun staged daring daylight raids into surrounding fields to scavenge for hidden potatoes and sacks of corn. If he had been discovered it is quite likely that he would have been shot on the spot. He always shared his food with the other men, and his example shamed his fellow prisoners who also scavenged for food outside of the camp to do the same and share their food. Continue reading
The sons of Saint Dominic have supplied many heroic military chaplains throughout their illustrious history, and one of these men was Father Paul Redmond. Born on March 27, 1899 in New Haven, Connecticut, he served as an enlisted man in the United States Navy during World War I. He was ordained a priest in the Dominican order in 1930.
By 1942, Father Redmond was 43 years old, about a decade older than the average chaplain. No one would have said anything if he had sat this World War out. Instead he joined the Navy and became a Marine chaplain, and not just any Marine chaplain. He took a demotion in rank from corps chaplain to battalion chaplain to serve with the 1st and 4th Raider battalions, elite combat formations. Among men who were brave simply by virtue of qualifying to join such outfits, Chaplain Redmond stood out. During the campaign on Guam, Father Redmond would go into the mouths of caves occupied by Japanese troops to attempt to convince them to surrender, and I find it difficult to think of anything more hazardous offhand.
In the midst of the attack on Orote Peninsula on Guam, the Chaplain was tending the dying and wounded while under fire. He called to his assistant Henry to give him a hand. His assistant was understandably reluctant to expose himself to enemy fire. Father Redmond yelled to him that as long as he had led a good, clean life nothing would happen to him. Henry yelled back that he had not led a good, clean life and therefore he was going to sit tight until the firing let up.
One Marine recalled Redmond’s almost preternatural courage: Continue reading
“Your soldier’s heart almost stood still as he watched those sons of Erin fearlessly rush to their deaths. The brilliant assault on Marye’s Heights of their Irish brigade was beyond description. We forgot they were fighting us and cheer after cheer at their fearlessness went up all along our lines!”
Confederate Major General George Pickett in a letter to his fiance
A moving video of the Irish Brigade at the battle of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862, based on the movie Gods and Generals. It was criminal military malpractice for Burnside, perhaps the most incompetent general in the war, to assault the fortified Confederate positions, but his idiocy does not derogate in the slightest from the extreme heroism of the Union troops who suffered massive casualties while attempting to do the impossible.
The Irish Brigade was one of the units called upon that day to do the impossible. One of the regiments in the Brigade was the 69th New York, the Fighting 69th as they would be designated by Robert E. Lee for their gallant charge at this battle, a unit faithful readers of this blog are quite familiar with. This day their chaplain personally blessed each man in the regiment. They called him Father Thomas Willett. That was as close as they could get to pronouncing his actual name.
Thomas Ouellet, a French Canadian Jesuit, fit perfectly among a regiment of tough Irishmen. Normally mild mannered and kind, he could react sternly to sin or to any injustice done to “his boys”. Abbe Ouellet had been with the regiment from its formation at the beginning of the war. During the battles of the Seven Days of the Peninsular Campaign earlier in 1862, he had barely slept as he tirelessly tended the wounded and gave the Last Rites to the dying. After the battle of Malvern’s Hill, he traversed the battlefield all night with a lantern after the Union army had withdrawn, seeking wounded to help and dying to save. He was captured by Confederates, who, learning he was a priest, treated him with kindness and swiftly released him. Continue reading
When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say, For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today
Inscription on the memorial to the dead of the British 2nd Infantry Division at Kohima.
World War I was a ghastly conflict with tens of millions of men slaughtered in all the horrors that war in the industrial age was capable of mustering. After the War which ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, Veterans Day was set aside on November 11 to honor those men who had fought with courage for their country. In our country Veteran’s Day eventually came to honor all those who had served in the military. As Lincoln said at Gettysburg, “It is all together fitting and proper that we do this.” Why it is important that we do that I will leave to Father Francis P. Duffy who served as a chaplain with the Fighting 69th in France in World War I. You may read prior posts about him here and here. Father Duffy was a man of faith and courage, so much courage that it was proposed that he be nominated for the Medal of Honor until he laughed at the idea. His leadership skills were so valued that General Douglas MacArthur even briefly considered placing him, a chaplain, in command of the 69th, which would have been a first in American military history. When the 69th got back to New York after the War Father Duffy wrote about its reception and why it was important to honor the men who had served, and, especially, the silent victors who remained in graves in France:
It was a deserved tribute to a body of citizen soldiers who had played such a manful part in battle for the service of the Republic. The appreciation that the country pays its war heroes is for the best interest of the State. I am not a militarist, nor keen for military glory. But as long as liberties must be defended, and oppression or aggression put down, there must always be honor paid to that spirit in men which makes them willing to die for a righteous cause. Next after reason and justice, it is the highest quality in citizens of a state. Continue reading
Joao Baptista DeValles was born in 1879 in Saint Miquel in the Azores. At the age of 2 his family moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. His first name anglicized to John, he quickly proved himself a brilliant student, eventually being fluent in six languages. Ordained a priest in 1906 he served at Falls River at Espirito Santo Church, founding the first Portuguese language parochial school in the United States while he was there. He later served at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in New Bedford and was pastor at Saint John the Baptist Church, also in New Bedford.
After the entry of the US into World War I, he joined the Army as a chaplain, serving with the 104th regiment, a Massachusetts National Guard outfit, part of the Yankee (26th) Division, made up of National Guard units from New England. The Yankee Division arrived in France in September 1917, the second American division to arrive “Over There”.
The 104th was a hard fighting outfit, serving in all of the major campaigns of the American Expeditionary Force. For heroic fighting at Bois Brule in April, 1918 the French government awarded the regiment a collective Croix de Guerre, an unprecedented honor for an American military unit. There were quite a few very brave men in the 104th, and among the bravest of the brave was Chaplain DeValles. For his heroism in rescuing wounded, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest decoration for valor in the United States Army. Here is the text of the citation:
104th Infantry Regiment, 26th Division, A.E.F. Date of Action: April 10 – 13, 1918 Citation: The Distinguished Service Cross is presented to John B. De Valles, Chaplain, U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in action near Apremont, Toul sector, France, April 10 to 13, 1918. Chaplain De Valles repeatedly exposed himself to heavy artillery and machine-gun fire in order to assist in the removal of the wounded from exposed points in advance of the lines. He worked for long periods of time with stretcher bearers in carrying wounded men to safety. Chaplain De Valles previously rendered gallant service in the Chemin des Dames sector, March 11, 1918, by remaining with a group of wounded during a heavy enemy bombardment. General Orders No. No. 35, W.D., 1920 Continue reading
One of the titans of the Catholic Church in the Nineteenth Century in the United States was Archbishop John Ireland, the first Archbishop of Saint Paul, Minnesota. Future blog posts will cover his career as Archbishop. This blog post is focused on his service during the Civil War. Ordained a priest only a year, Father John Ireland at 24 in 1862 received permission of his bishop to join the Fifth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. He joined the regiment immediately after the battle of Shiloh.
At the battle of Corinth on October 4, 1862 the Fifth Minnesota saved the day for the Union with a charge that stopped a Confederate breakthrough of the Union lines. Running short on ammunition, the troops received additional cartridges from Chaplain Ireland who ran down the line dispensing ammunition. When the fighting was over, the soldiers noted that their chaplain tirelessly tended the wounded and administered the Last Rites to soldiers whose wounds were beyond human aid.
The troops were very fond of their young priest and built him a portable altar from saplings. His sermons were popular with the men, being direct, blunt and brief. He was noted for his sunny disposition, quick wit and his courage. He was also an enthusiastic chess player, and would take on all comers in the evenings in camp.
Before battles he would hear the confessions of huge numbers of soldiers, with some Protestant soldiers often asking for admission to the Church. He was always ready to pray with any soldiers no matter their religion, and give them what comfort he could in reminding them that God was ever at their side during their time of peril. On one occasion he went to the side of an officer who had been shot and was bleeding to death and had asked for a chaplain. the Archbishop recalled the scene decades after the War. ‘Speak to me,’ he said, ‘of Jesus.’ He had been baptized — there was no time to talk of Church. I talked of the Savior, and of sorrow for sin. The memory of that scene has never been effaced from my mind. I have not doubted the salvation of that soul.”
Father Ireland was mustered out of service in March of 1863 due to ill-health, but he never forgot his time in the Union Army. He was ever active in the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization, and would write about his experiences as a combat chaplain. Unlike most Catholics of his day, he was a firm Republican, the friend of Republican presidents including McKinley and Roosevelt, and never forgot why the Civil War had to be fought, as this statement by him regarding the rights of blacks indicates: Continue reading
(This is a post I did in 2009. It seemed appropriate to repost it today. Father Gehring pray for us that we may have the courage to face our challenges in life and win victories over them.)
Frederic 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”.
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. Continue reading
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: Continue reading
It is ironic that a priest who became so associated with Galveston and Texas was a Yankee! James Martin Kirwin was born in Circleville, Ohio on July 1, 1872. Kirwin was ordained to the priesthood on June 19, 1895. Incardinated in the Diocese of Galveston, Texas, while in the seminary he attended, Father Kirwin was sent to the University of America in Washington, DC by the Bishop of Galveston, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in theology. His ability being recognized early, Father Irwin was made rector of Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Galveston in 1896.
Throughout his priesthood Father Kirwin was always a whirlwind of activity, and he quickly became noticed for the heroism with which he attended the sick during the yellow fever epidemic of 1897. During the Spanish-American War he helped raise the First United States Volunteer Infantry and served as its chaplain with the rank of captain. Although the regiment never served over seas, the fate of most of the American units raised for the Spanish-American War, Father Kirwin’s service began a life long association for him with the Texas National Guard and the United States Army.
Father Kirwin rose to national prominence after the Galveston hurricane of 1900, the worst national disaster in US history which killed approximately 8,000 people. He helped found a committee of public safety which restored law and order to the city, he drafted the martial law plan, helped with the burial of the dead, and organized and served on the central relief committee which aided victims of the hurricane. Together with his good friend Rabbi Henry Cohen, he spearheaded the efforts over the next few years to rebuild Galveston, including the building of a seawall for the city, the cornerstone of which he blessed in 1902 and saw through to completion in 1905. Continue reading
For love of Him they ought to expose themselves to enemies both visible and invisible.
Saint Francis of Assisi
Born in Louisville, Kentucky on July 17, 1913, Herman G. Felhoelter was ordained a Franciscan priest in 1939. He served as an Army chaplain during War II and was awarded a Bronze Star.
Reenlisting in the Army after the war, on July 16th 1950 he was a Captain serving as a chaplain with the 19th Infantry in Korea. The 19th was in a tough spot that day. The North Koreans had established a road block in the rear of the regiment near the village of Tunam, South Korea. The regiment was in retreat, moving through mountains, trying to get around the roadblock, and slowed by the numerous wounded being carried due to the heavy fighting with the North Koreans during the battle for Taegu. It was obvious by 9:00 PM on the evening of July 16th that 30 of the most seriously wounded could go no farther due to their stretcher bearers being exhausted. Father Felhoelter and the chief medical officer Captain Linton J. Buttrey volunteered to stay with the wounded while the rest of the men escaped. Father Felhoelter was under no illusions of what would happen to the wounded and to him after the advancing North Koreans captured them, and swiftly gave them the Last Rites while he tended to them. Continue reading
The men of the 5th Ranger Battalion could barely keep from laughing when they first saw their chaplain, Lieutenant Joe Lacy, a week before D-Day. These were young men, in peak physical condition. Father Joe Lacy was old by Ranger standards, knocking on 40, overweight by at least 30 pounds, wearing thick glasses and short, 5 foot, six inches. He was described by one Ranger as “a small, fat old Irishman.” No way would he be able to keep up when they invaded France.
On the trip across the Channel to France, Chaplain Lacy told the men: “When you land on the beach and you get in there, I don’t want to see anybody kneeling down and praying. If I do I’m gonna come up and boot you in the tail. You leave the praying to me and you do the fighting.” A few of the men began to think that maybe this priest was tougher than he looked. Continue reading