“Angel of the Trenches”

soldier priest angel
soldier priest angel

Joao Baptista DeValles was born in 1879, in Saint Miquel in the Azores. At the age of 2 his family moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. His first name anglicized to John, he quickly proved himself a brilliant student, eventually becoming fluent in six languages. Ordained a priest in 1906, he served at Falls River, at Espirito Santo Church, founding the first Portuguese language parochial school in the United States while he was there. He later served at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in New Bedford, and was pastor at Saint John the Baptist Church, also in New Bedford.

Parish Pastor to Soldier Priest

After the entry of the U.S. into World War I, he joined the Army as a chaplain, serving with the 104th Regiment, a Massachusetts National Guard outfit. It was part of the Yankee (26th) Division, made up of National Guard units from New England. The Yankee Division arrived in France in September 1917, the second American division to arrive “Over There.”

The 104th was a hard fighting outfit, serving in all of the major campaigns of the American Expeditionary Force. For heroic fighting at Bois Brule in April, 1918, the French government awarded the regiment a collective Croix de Guerre, an unprecedented honor for an American military unit. There were quite a few very brave men in the 104th, and among the bravest of the brave was Chaplain DeValles. For his heroism in rescuing wounded, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest decoration for valor in the United States Army.  Here is the text of the citation:

104th Infantry Regiment, 26th Division, A.E.F. Date of Action: April 10 – 13, 1918 Citation: The Distinguished Service Cross is presented to John B. De Valles, Chaplain, U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in action near Apremont, Toul sector, France, April 10 to 13, 1918. Chaplain De Valles repeatedly exposed himself to heavy artillery and machine-gun fire in order to assist in the removal of the wounded from exposed points in advance of the lines. He worked for long periods of time with stretcher bearers in carrying wounded men to safety. Chaplain De Valles previously rendered gallant service in the Chemin des Dames sector, March 11, 1918, by remaining with a group of wounded during a heavy enemy bombardment. General Orders No. No. 35, W.D., 1920.

“Angel of the Trenches”

One of the many horrors of the trench warfare of World War I, was the plight of wounded soldiers trapped in “No Man’s Land.”  Night after night, Father DeValles would go out to rescue Allied and German wounded, risking his life to save theirs.  After one such mission he was found the next day wounded and unconscious, next to a dead soldier he had been trying to aid. The newspapers began to refer to him as the “Angel of the Trenches.” The French government recognized his heroism with the Croix de Guerre, and membership in the Legion of Honor.

He was known to the men of the 104th as “Father John.”  For his courage and good humor he was popular with his fellow soldiers. He would routinely make “loans” to the men of the 104th who needed assistance, after making certain that the money would not be used for immoral purposes. He recorded the “loans” meticulously, but when Pay Day rolled around, he would invariably tell his orderly to rip out the page of his journal containing the “loan” record.

Father DeValles’ life was brief after his service in World War I. His health had been wrecked by his wounds during the war, and especially by the mustard gas he had breathed in. He died on May 12, 1920 at age 41, a few hours before his Distinguished Service Cross arrived. All of New Bedford mourned his passing.

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