“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 After the battle of Malvern’s Hill, he traversed the battlefield all night with a lantern after the Union army had withdrawn, seeking wounded to help and dying to save.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