OPELOUSAS, La. — On Oct. 17 in St. Landry Church before family, the local bishop, school students and local dignitaries, heroic Second World War chaplain Father Joseph Verbis Lafleur posthumously received a second Distinguished Service Medal and Purple Heart for actions on board a Japanese prisoner of war ship that cost him his life but saved scores more.
U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-La., presented the medals to Father Lafleur’s nephew Richard Lafleur and his wife, Carol, at at St. Landry Catholic Church, where the priest celebrated his first Mass following ordination in 1938.
It was the second event honoring the chaplain in as many months, following an annual memorial Mass Sept. 7 attended by some 800 people.
During the war, Father Lafleur served as a chaplain in the Army Air Corps at Clark Field, the Corps’ post in the Philippines, roughly 60 miles west of Manila.
Chaplain to the Core
The Japanese attacked the post the same day as the attack at Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. As enemy planes furiously attacked overhead, Father Lafleur ignored bodily safety to aid the wounded and give absolution to the dying. For his bravery, the Army awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross, the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.
When given the chance to evacuate back to the States, the chaplain refused, saying, “I shall stay here. My place is with the men.”
In May 1942, he was on the island of Mindanao and amongst the last of the American troops to surrender to the Japanese. Thereafter, Father Lafleur became a prisoner of war at the infamous camps at O’Donnell and Cabanatuan, amongst other locations.
Just as he heroically ministered to the troops at Clark Field, Father Lafleur did the same in every camp in which he was imprisoned. The Japanese progressively reduced the amount of medicine and food given to the men, so he sold his watch and glasses to local Filipinos to procure these items. He often gave weak prisoners his own meager rations. Even though he contracted malaria several times, he refused medicine because he always said someone else needed it more.
When a stronger prisoner once stole food from his weaker comrades, the enraged chaplain stormed up to the man and floored him with one punch. He later apologized in his thick Cajun French accent, but this episode demonstrates his zeal for his men.
Additionally, the camps had “hospitals,” which were really places where men were sent to die. Even though it violated camp regulations, Father Lafleur snuck into these buildings to nurse and otherwise tend to the patients. One man credits the care the priest gave him with giving him the hope and courage to get better. Fellow inmates credit him with being a light and tether to civilization, where, otherwise, “survival of the fittest” would have set in.
As if these activities and the brutal work details for which he volunteered — even though as a chaplain and officer he did not have to — weren’t enough, he built a modest chapel, appropriately named St. Peter in Chains. Catholics and other POWs attended his daily Masses for the comfort provided by his beautifully reverent performance of the pre-conciliar liturgy.
A lapsed Baptist named Bill Lowe closely watched all of this and saw in “Father Lafleur something I wished I had.” Lowe converted, which had the added benefit of enabling him to allow his marriage to his high-school sweetheart, who would not marry him unless he adopted the Catholic faith. Lowe reports “many” became Catholic “because of the life and witness of Father Lafleur,” a man for whom parents were naming their children even before he entered the seminary. Lowe’s own son Frank became a priest and Air Force chaplain.
By late summer 1944, losing the war and with American planes regularly bombing their positions in the Philippines, the enemy decided to prevent the POW liberation by evacuating them to Japan.
Thus it was that, Sept. 7, 1944, Father Lafleur and 750 other American prisoners were on the Japanese ship Shin’yō Maru, which sailed as part of a convoy back to the enemy’s homeland.
American intelligence believed the ships were transporting Japanese troops, and the submarine USS Paddle went to investigate the area. Shin’yō Maru was the lead ship in the convoy, and the Paddle’s torpedoes hit the vessel twice. Survivors say the first one hit in the aft hold, and the second one struck the forward hold, where the heroic chaplain was.
The Japanese officer in charge of the POWs would have simply let the Americans sink with the ship. A sympathetic enemy officer, however, opened the holds so the men could escape.
Father Lafleur, emaciated, his hair and beard hanging down past his neck, and wearing only a loincloth, could have been one of the first men into the ocean. However, he insisted all of the 500 or so men in his hold get out before he would evacuate.
The Japanese soldiers fired machine guns at the escaping prisoners, and some even threw grenades into the hold. The Shin’yō broke in half and sank a short while later. The last anyone saw of him, Father Lafleur was helping people up the ladder and out of the hold. Because of his efforts, however, 83 men escaped and swam to shore. In nearby jungles, Philippine guerillas hid them until a Navy submarine came to their rescue.
That heroism was highlighted in a keynote speech at the 2017 National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., on June 6. Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA — who celebrated the memorial Mass for Father Lafleur in 2015 — said of the heroic chaplain: “He was a man for others right to the end. … Father Lafleur responded to his POW situation with creative courage. He drew on his virtue to care for, protect and fortify the men imprisoned with him. Many survived because he was a man of virtue who gave unstintingly of himself. To speak of the greatness of our country is to speak of men and women of virtue who gave of themselves for the benefit of all. We build for a new tomorrow when we draw from that wellspring of virtue.”
Father Lafleur started life in Ville Platte, Louisiana, where he lived until his father abandoned his family, leaving his wife to raise their seven remaining children (one son died in infancy). The mother, who spoke only French, took odd jobs and grew a garden to feed the impoverished family.
His nephew Richard’s wife, Carole Lafleur, relates that while most people threw away the outer leaves of a cabbage, Mrs. Lafleur “kept the bottom leaves to feed the family and sold the heads for money.”
When even this wasn’t enough, the single mother moved her brood to Opelousas to live with her married daughter Olivia. That is where Verbis spent most of his prewar life. Many family members still live in town, including Richard and Carol, who have helped coordinate the September memorial Mass since 2004. Each commemoration of the remarkable priest’s life features a different celebrant. This year, local priest and Air Force chaplain Father Brad Guillory presided. Father Guillory is not only from the same county as Father Lafleur, but he, too, is from Ville Platte, and his first pastoral assignment was, just like Father Lafleur, in Abbeville.
In his homily, Father Guillory said, “If it had not been for Father Lafleur, I might not be a priest or serving in the Air Force. If not for him touching my life, I might not be here tonight.”
Two things about Father Lafleur inspire the chaplain in his own ministry. “One of them is his earnest care for his flock. The other is what he told others during his captivity: ‘My place is with my men,’” he said.
The memorial Mass this fall was the first in many years to be celebrated with Father Lafleur’s own chalice.
St. Landry pastor Father James Brady made two special announcements.
The first was that Father Lafleur will posthumously receive a second Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on the Shin’yō Maru, which occurred this week.
The second was that Bishop J. Douglas Deshotel of Lafayette has invited Father Brady and Father Mark Ledoux “to submit a proposal for the filing of a petition of a cause, and then he will decide whether to allow the submission of an application” for beatification. He stressed this is all “very preliminary” and is not equal to actually opening the cause.
Asked why her uncle being raised to the altars through beatification would be good for the Church, niece Carola Huntley reflected, “He felt he was here on earth to serve other people.”
She added, “By reading his story, people might then get a better understanding of how really important we all are to each other. Because a lot of times we forget about that, whether it’s family, friends or just people in general.”
Carol Lafleur echoed this sentiment, saying, “God gives us love, and I think that’s what Father Lafleur had. He had a love for his God and a love for his country and everyone whom he ever met.”
Register correspondent Brian O’Neel writes from Quarryville, Pennsylvania.