Some men become legends after their deaths and others become legends while they are alive. Lewis Burwell Puller, forever known as “Chesty”, was in the latter category. Enlisting in the Marine Corps in 1918 he would serve until 1955, rising in rank from private to lieutenant general. Throughout his career he led from the front, never asking his men to go where he would not go. For his courage he was five times awarded the Navy Cross, a Silver Star, a Distinguished Service Cross, and a Bronze Star with a v for valor, along with numerous other decorations. In World War II and Korea he became a symbol of the courage that Marines amply displayed in both conflicts.
His fourth Navy Cross citation details why the Marines under his command would have followed him in an attack on Hades if he had decided to lead them there:
“For extraordinary heroism as Executive Officer of the Seventh Marines, First Marine Division, serving with the Sixth United States Army, in combat against enemy Japanese forces at Cape Gloucester, New Britain, from 26 December 1943 to 19 January 1944. Assigned temporary command of the Third Battalion, Seventh Marines, from 4 to 9 January, Lieutenant Colonel Puller quickly reorganized and advanced his unit, effecting the seizure of the objective without delay. Assuming additional duty in command of the Third Battalion, Fifth Marines, from 7 to 8 January, after the commanding officer and executive officer had been wounded, Lieutenant Colonel Puller unhesitatingly exposed himself to rifle, machine-gun and mortar fire from strongly entrenched Japanese positions to move from company to company in his front lines, reorganizing and maintaining a critical position along a fire-swept ridge. His forceful leadership and gallant fighting spirit under the most hazardous conditions were contributing factors in the defeat of the enemy during this campaign and in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
Stories began to cluster about him. When he was first shown a flame thrower he supposedly asked, “Where do you mount the bayonet?” Advised that his unit was surrounded he replied: “All right, they’re on our left, they’re on our right, they’re in front of us, they’re behind us…they can’t get away this time.” On an inspection tour of a Marine unit he became exasperated at the lack of spirit he saw and finally said,”Take me to the Brig. I want to see the real Marines!” During the Chosin campaign in Korea when the Marines were fighting their way to the coast through several Communist Chinese corps he captured the tactical situation succinctly: “Retreat! Hell, we’re just attacking in a different direction.” Little surprise that Marine Drill Instructors at Parris Island still have their boots sing good night to Chesty Puller some four decades after his death.
Puller was an Episcopalian. However he made no secret that he greatly admired Navy Catholic chaplains who served with the Marines, and had little use, with certain honorable exceptions, for the Navy Protestant chaplains sent to the Corps. His reasons were simple. The Catholic chaplains were without fear, always wanted to be with the troops in combat, and the men idolized them for their courage and their willingness, even eagerness, to stand with them during their hour of trial. Continue reading
Born on January 3, 1936, one of five kids, Robert R. Brett knew from an early age what the wanted to be. As his sister Rosemary Rouse noted, “He always wanted to be a priest. He was always there for everyone.”
He attended Saint Edmond’s and Saint Gabriel’s grade schools and then attended a preparatory seminary for high school. Brett entered the Marist novitiate at Our Lady of the Elms on Staten Island and made his profession of vows on September 8, 1956. Studying at Catholic University, he received a BA in philosophy in 1958 and a Master’s Degree in Latin in 1963. He was ordained a priest of the Society of Mary in 1962 by Bishop Thomas Wade at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Retired Archbishop Philip. M. Hannan of New Orleans, still alive at the age of 97, discusses his service in the video above, made in 2007, with the 505th parachute infantry regiment of the 82nd Airborne in World War II. Ordained at the North American College in Rome on December 8, 1939, he served with the 82nd Airborne as a chaplain from 1942-46, and was known as the Jumping Padre. He was assigned to be the chaplain of the 505th Regiment with the rank of Captain shortly after the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. He had many adventures during his time with the 505th, but perhaps the most poignant was what happened to him on May 5th, 1945, in the final days of the War in Europe.
On May 5, 1945, the 505th overran a concentration camp near Wobbelin in Germany. Captain Hannan and his assistant James Ospital hurried to the camp to see what they could do to help. A scene of complete horror awaited them. Corpses were sprawled everywhere. Dying prisoners lay in filthy bunks crudely made out of branches. All the prisoners looked like skeletons, both the dead and the living. The camp reeked of the smells of a charnel house and a sewer.
A truly remarkable interview conducted in 1982 of the experiences as a Catholic Chaplain of Father William Bonniwell, O.P. during World War I. At the time of the interview Father Bonniwell was 96 and I think his vigor and clarity of recollection and speech are astounding. I have done my best on this blog to tell the stories of some of the Catholic Chaplains who served in the military in our nation’s history, and it is heartwarming to be able to present a video of one of these brave men telling his story.
After the War he had an illustrious career. He was a professor of homiletics at the Dominican House of Studies in River Forest, Illinois. He was head of the Preacher’s Institute in Washington DC. For many years he was on the staff of St. Vincent Ferrer in New York City. He was the author of ”Margaret of Castello,” , a biography of the 14th-century Italian Dominican nun, who is a true patron of unwanted children, as she was born a dwarf, hunchbacked, blind and lame and was ultimately rejected by her parents, and throughout her travails radiated the love of God. He translated from Latin ”The Martyrology of the Sacred Order of Preachers”, and produced the groundbreaking History of the Dominican Liturgy 1215-1945.
Number 5 in my series on Great Jesuits of American history. A hallmark of the Jesuit Order has always been utter fearlessness. The Order founded by that Basque soldier turned saint, Saint Ignatius Loyola, had as little use for fear as it did for doubt. The “black robes” of the Jesuits in New France were typical of the Jesuit soldiers of Christ in their almost super-human courage in disdaining the torture and death they exposed themselves to as missionaries to warlike tribes.
Firmly in this tradition of courage is Joseph Timothy O’Callahan. Born on May 14, 1905 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, he attended Boston College High School. He joined the Jesuits in 1922 and obtained his BA from Saint Andrew’s College in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1925, and his Masters in Philosophy at Weston College in 1929. Ordained in 1934, he served as a professor of Mathematics, Philosophy and Physics at Boston College until 1937. He then spent a year as a professor of Philosophy at Weston Jesuit School of Theology, before becoming head of the Mathematics department at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.
On August 7, 1940, Father O’Callahan was appointed a Lieutenant JG in the United States Navy. His decision to join the Navy as a chaplain shocked some of his friends, one of them remarking, “Let someone younger help those boys. You can’t even open your umbrella!” Nothing daunted, Chaplain O’Callahan served at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida from 1940-1942. From 1942-1945 he served as chaplain at Naval Air Stations in Alameda, California and at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. It was almost at the end of the war when he was assigned to sea duty and reported aboard the Franklin, an Essex Class Fleet Air-Craft Carrier on March 2, 1945. The Franklin was the fifth ship in the United States Navy to be named after Benjamin Franklin, and had seen a lot of combat during the War. It was about to see more. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
William Henry Ironsides Reaney was a cradle Catholic. He was also cradle Navy, having been born to Commander Henry Aubrey Vailey Reaney and his wife Anne on July 21, 1863. His middle name was Ironsides after the steamer his father was serving aboard. Some accounts say that his birth came unexpectedly as his mother was visiting his father aboard ship. The proud father then asked the crew what name they should call the baby boy and they shouted out, “Ironsides”! Probably apocryphal, but it was a fitting beginning for the man if true.
After the Civil War, Henry Reaney stayed in the Navy, eventually reaching the rank of Captain, while he and his wife had six children in addition to their first born, William. The family settled in Detroit, and William graduated from Detroit College. Deciding on becoming a priest, William enrolled at the Saint Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He was ordained by Cardinal Gibbon at the Cathedral in Baltimore in 1888. From 1889-1891 he was pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
The ancestral lure of the sea called to Father Reaney, and in 1892 he was appointed a chaplain in the Navy, the second Catholic chaplain in that branch of the service. He served on many ships as a Navy Chaplain, perhaps the most notable being the Olympia, the flagship of Admiral Dewey during the Spanish-American war.
Number 3 of my series on great Jesuits of American history.
A year before the colonies won their fight for independence, John McElroy first saw the light of day in Brookeborough, County Fermanagh, Ireland on May 11,1782. At this time English imposed penal laws meant that Irish Catholics were treated like helots in their own land. The great Edmund Burke described the penal laws well:
“For I must do it justice; it was a complete system, full of coherence and consistency, well digested and well composed in all its parts. It was a machine of wise and deliberate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”
As a result of these laws McElroy could receive little education in Ireland. Ambition and a thirst for knowledge caused him, like many Irish Catholics before and since, to emigrate to the US, landing on our shores in 1803. He became a bookkeeper at Georgetown College, studying Latin in his off hours. In 1806 he joined the Jesuits as a lay brother, but his intelligence and his industry quickly marked him down to his Jesuit superiors as a candidate for the priesthood. Ordained in 1817 , for several years he served at Trinity Church in Georgetown, until being transferred to Frederick, Maryland, where, during the next twenty-three years, with the boundless energy which was his hallmark, he built Saint John’s Church, a college, an orphan’s asylum, and the first free schools in Frederick. He was then transferred back to Trinity in Georgetown where he remained for a year until the Mexican War began.
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.
October 27, 1913. The Great War was soon to begin in Europe and Leo Peter Craig was born into this world in Everett, Massachusetts. He was five years old when his mother died, leaving his father with five young children to raise. Under these unusual circumstances, his Aunt, Veronica Craig, a member of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield Kentucky, received a dispensation from her vows in order for her to help raise her brother’s children. For 18 years she dedicated herself to this task, becoming a second mother to young Leo. After the children were all raised, she returned to the religious life. Leo attended the LaSalle Academy of the Christian Brothers in Providence, Rhode Island. Going on to Providence College, he obtained his BA in 1935, at which time he entered the Dominican novitiate at Saint Rose’s in Springfield, Kentucky. He completed his philosophy courses at the Dominican House of Studies in River Forest, Illinois, and his theological training at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. He was ordained to the priesthood on May 21, 1942.
Hattip to the Curt Jester. Father Emil Kapaun, the POW Servant of God who died a heroic death in a Chinese POW camp during the Korean War, and who I have written about here, here and here may soon have a new earthly honor. Army Secretary Peter Geren has recommended that Father Kapaun be awarded the Medal of Honor. Now it is up to Congress to pass the legislation to send the award on to President Obama. I recall when I drafted my original post I was surprised that Father Kapaun had not been awarded the Medal of Honor since clearly he had earned it many times over. If awarded the Medal, he would bring the number of chaplains to eight who have received the highest military decoration this nation can bestow.