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.