V-E Day, 70 Years Later
Remembering the Chaplains of World War II’s European Theater
Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender to Allied forces on May 8, 1945, brought World War II to a close in Europe.
Seventy years later, Victory in Europe Day — V-E Day — will be commemorated, especially across North America and Europe.
Although the war was to rage on for another three months in the Pacific, tens of thousands of Allied forces were able to claim unquestionable victory in Europe.
During the Battle of Berlin, eight days before German Reichsprasident Karl Dönitz authorized the surrender, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler committed suicide.
The victory in Europe was not without great cost, however.
According to the statistical and accounting branch office of the U.S. adjutant general, there were 135,576 battle deaths of U.S. servicemen in Europe and more than 450,000 casualties. British military forces lost approximately 373,000, and Canada lost more than 45,000.
In his book Battlefield Chaplains: Catholic Priests in World War II (University Press of Kansas, 1994), Jesuit Father Donald Crosby reported that among the dead were 23 Army chaplains, a third of them Catholic priests.
The remaining chaplains were not sent to the Pacific. They remained in Europe before returning stateside.
“Few could have served there effectively, so deeply had their exhaustion overwhelmed them by the time V-E Day arrived,” explained Father Crosby. “They had suffered too much, worked too hard and seen too much war and bloodshed to be able to tolerate any more. For the men of God who had joined the men of war in Europe, combat had finally come to an end.”
One chaplain among those who died in action to make V-E Day possible was the first and only chaplain killed on D-Day that took place 11 months earlier.
Father Ignatius Maternowski of the Conventual Franciscan Friars parachuted into France as chaplain to the 82nd Airborne Division of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment. The 32-year-old friar landed in the village of Guettenville, and, though wearing his captain’s uniform and identified as a chaplain, a Nazi sniper shot him in the back as he negotiated with other Nazis about establishing a field hospital for the injured of both armies.
Another chaplain, Father Francis Sampson with the 101st Airborne Division, who was called “The Paratrooper Padre,” lived through that day, narrowly escaping being executed after German troops captured him.
Later, during the Battle of the Bulge, he was again captured by the Germans and imprisoned in a stalag in Neubrandenburg, near Berlin, four months before V-E Day.
According to Father Crosby, Father Sampson had the men build a simple chapel and then scheduled religious programs not only for Catholics, but for the Protestants and Jews, too. His actions were more than a morale builder because, with daily services, the chapel became, in his words, a “spiritual oasis” for the prisoners. He also tended to the sick among them.
Father Sampson and the men knew the day of victory was approaching because, by the end of April, they heard the Russian artillery in the east getting closer and closer. When an American officer arrived and took charge, he sent another officer and Father Sampson to convince the military command that the U.S. soldiers needed to be removed quickly and brought back to U.S.-held territory.
A few days later, both had to go through a Soviet checkpoint to cross to the American-held territory.
As in Father Sampson’s case, the chaplains sustained the faith of the men, whether on the battlefield or in the prisoner-of-war camps, bolstering them to that final victory.
“The biggest influence the priest has in the military is as a witness,” explained Msgr. Thaddeus Malanowski, who entered the Army as a chaplain at the end of 1949 and remained nearly 30 years in the military, serving the troops around the world.
Msgr. Malanowski, who is 92 and retired from the Army in 1979 as a brigadier general, told the Register that the chaplain “represents the Church, and he reflects the Church; and in turn, he is to share this reflection with the soldiers, especially the Catholic soldiers who seek his advice, and the Mass and the sacraments.”
Msgr. Malanowski recalled how the chaplains who followed those from World War II were reaping the benefits of their exceptional example.
“They were great heroes,” he said. “We still talk about the power and the influence of Catholic chaplains in World War II. That’s the caliber of priests we have in uniform. They were a tremendous credit to God and country.”
And another reason to give thanks on this V-E Day anniversary.
- May 3-16, 2015