On the Battlefield, Some Heroes Wear Clerical Collars

BOOK PICK: Heroic Catholic Chaplains

(photo: Ignatius book cover, cropped)

Heroic Catholic Chaplains

Stories of the Brave and Holy Men Who Dodged Bullets While Saving Souls

By Thomas Craughwell

TAN Books, 2018

216 pages, $24.95 (hardcover)

To order: tanbooks.com or (800) 437-5876


The late author Thomas Craughwell knew how to weave together exciting stories. His last book, Heroic Catholic Chaplains, released this May, a month before his unexpected death, is filled with them. The subtitle captures them this way: Stories of the Brave and Holy Men Who Dodged Bullets While Saving Souls.

Naturally, Craughwell recounts the heroic deeds of chaplains many of the faithful are familiar with and whose causes for canonization have been opened, like Servants of God Father Emil Kapaun, who died a prisoner of war during the Korean War, and Father Vincent Capodanno, who died in Vietnam.

Even more, the book is chockful of lesser known or forgotten heroic chaplains who risked their lives ministering to Catholics on the battlefield, anointing the dying and rescuing the wounded in the heat of combat, as well as bringing comfort behind enemy lines.

A few of these courageous chaplains the author salutes are Father Francis Sampson, who parachuted into Normandy on D-Day 1944 with the troops, became a POW, survived and went on to become the U.S. chief of chaplains.

There’s the vivid story of Father Elmer Heindl in the Pacific Theater in World War II and some extremely dangerous situations he endured to minister to the dying and wounded and to save injured soldiers, especially during the liberation of Manila.

Among the heart-wrenching stories Craughwell recounts are those of the priests who were among the POWs on the horrendous Bataan Death March in World War II and the accounts of Father Aloysius Schmitt, who was the first Catholic chaplain to die at Pearl Harbor in 1941 aboard the battleship Oklahoma while helping other sailors survive, and of Father Ignacy Matrernowski, the only U.S. chaplain killed on D-Day. And Father Lawrence Lynch, self-proclaimed “God’s gift to the Army,” was a great devotee of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

Inspiring stories are plentiful, too, of chaplains who survived while praying, anointing, ministering and bringing the wounded to safety — showing faith under fire valiantly, including Medal of Honor recipient Father Joseph O’Callahan, who served aboard the USS Franklin aircraft carrier.

Surprising facts pop up, one after another. One concerns Father James O’Neill and Gen. George George Patton’s “Weather Prayer.” Patton asked the chaplain to write a prayer for good weather so the Americans could stop the Nazi advance during the Battle of the Bulge.

Craughwell recounts: “On the morning of December 8, 1944, Father O’Neill received a phone call from the general. It had been raining long and hard, and Patton was not happy about it. ‘Do you have a good prayer for weather? We must do something about those rains if we are to win the war.’ Father O’Neill said he couldn’t think of one off the top of his head but would find one. But after consulting a few prayer books, he came up with nothing suitable. Staring out the window at the pouring rain, a word sprang to his mind: ‘immoderate.’ So he sat down at a typewriter and, on a 3 x 5 card, compose a formal weather prayer.”

A pleased Patton ordered 250,000 copies of the prayer — reproduced in this book —  to be distributed to every man in the Third Army. The author and Father O’Neill both reveal that, much to the surprise of both the Allies’ weathermen and the Germans, the weather took an unexpected dramatic turn that resulted in clear skies for air support. The tide turned, Patton was able to aid the soldiers trapped at the critical town of Bastogne and go on to win the Battle of the Bulge.

While conflicts from World War II to the present are the most familiar, Craughwell offers a chronological look at chaplains, beginning around the American Revolution and giving details of Civil War Catholic chaplains in both the Union and Confederate Armies. Chaplains played a necessary part in the military even back then. And, as the author highlights, hundreds of nuns worked as nurses during that tragic American conflict.

Surprises along the way fill in fascinating details of military chaplaincy: Who were the first Catholic military chaplains officially accompanying soldiers, and in which war? Which chaplains survived which battles? Who went on to found Boston College? Who died the oldest priest in the U.S. at the time? Which chaplain tended the wounded on the battlefield, gave last rites, was ever-present in hospitals and later went on to rebuild the struggling University of Notre Dame? Which World War I chaplain became nationally known through a movie?

These stories and remembrances are replete with historical details and descriptions of the events of the times, emphasizing the need for chaplains, especially in the earlier years of the Catholic military chaplaincy.

A number of the chaplains, including those from the early years, are pictured in the collection of photos that make the stories come even further to life.

Among the stories are the moving incidents of Father John Ireland, who survived the ordeals of the Civil War and later became an archbishop. In recounting details of this priest, Craughwell writes, “He recalled other men, lapsed Catholics, like the one who was reconciled to God on his deathbed, who came to Father Ireland for confession because he was there, because he made himself available, and because he made certain that every soldier in the camp knew he was a Catholic priest.”

Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.