Heroic Priests: Lest We Forget

priest, ordination

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down
his life for his friends. (John 15:13)

Military Chaplains as Heroes

Military chaplains are a special breed who epitomize the notion of “service”. While in the Army, I recall asking a Catholic chaplain why he (as a noncombatant) would be willing to jump with us into harm’s way during the Cuban missile crisis. His answer was simple yet profound. “Where you go I go”. Every chaplain I knew felt that way.

When I  participated in Veterans Day ceremonies at a VA hospital and my American Legion Post,  many memories and war stories came to mind. This year one of my fellow Legionnaires told about his service with Father Vincent Capodanno, a Marine chaplain in Viet Nam. I had heard of Father Capodanno, who was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism. That discussion made me think of other heroic priests who served as military chaplains and what a contrast they provide to the stories told today about some priests involved in the clergy abuse scandal.

The Medals of Catholic Chaplains

Nine military chaplains have been awarded the Medal of Honor. Four were Protestant chaplains from the Civil War. The other five chaplains were in contemporary wars, World War II to Viet Nam, and were all Catholic priests. Unfortunately, their history is not well known. In light of the recent Veterans Day celebration, I summarize below  each chaplain’s medal citation.

Father Joseph Timothy O’Callahan; Lt. Commander, U.S. Navy – (World War II)

While serving as chaplain on board the U.S.S. Franklin, as it was attacked by enemy Japanese aircraft during offensive operations near Kobe, Japan, on 19 March 1945; Father O’Callahan demonstrated conspicuous gallantry. He calmly braved the perilous barriers of flame and twisted metal to aid his men and his ship. Lt. Comdr. O’Callahan ministered to the wounded and dying, comforting and encouraging men of all faiths. He organized and led firefighting crews into the blazing inferno on the flight deck, directed the jettisoning of live ammunition and the flooding of the magazine and he manned a hose to cool hot, armed bombs rolling dangerously on the listing deck.

Father Angelo J. Liteky; Captain, U.S. – Army (Viet Nam)

Chaplain Liteky distinguished himself by exceptional heroism while serving with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade on 6 and 7 December, 1967.  When the unit came under intense fire from a battalion size enemy force, Captain Liteky moved to within 15 meters of an enemy machine gun position to reach wounded soldiers, placing himself between the enemy and the wounded men and managed to drag them to the relative safety of the landing zone. In a magnificent display of courage and leadership, Chaplain Liteky began moving upright through the enemy fire, administering last rites to the dying and evacuating the wounded. Once more intense enemy fire was directed at him, but Chaplain Liteky stood his ground and calmly carried men to the landing zone for evacuation. On several occasions when the landing zone was under small arms and rocket fire, Chaplain Liteky stood up in the face of hostile fire and personally directed the medivac helicopters into and out of the area. Despite painful wounds in the neck and foot, Chaplain Liteky had personally carried over 20 men to the landing zone for evacuation during the savage fighting.

Father Charles Joseph Watters; Major, U.S. Army  – Posthumous (Viet Nam)

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty Chaplain Watters distinguished himself during an assault on 19 November, 1967 in the vicinity of Dak To while with the 173 Airborne Brigade. As the battle raged and the casualties mounted, Chaplain Watters, moved among in front of the advancing troops, giving aid to the wounded, assisting in their evacuation, giving words of encouragement, and administering the last rites to the dying.  Chaplain Watters ran through the intense enemy fire to the front of the entrenchment to aid a fallen comrade exposing himself to both friendly and enemy fire between the two forces in order to recover wounded soldiers. Later, when the battalion was forced to pull back into a perimeter, Chaplain Watters noticed that several wounded soldiers were lying outside the newly formed perimeter. Without hesitation and ignoring attempts to restrain him, Chaplain Watters left the perimeter three times in the face of heavy enemy fire to carry and to assist the injured troopers to safety.  During his ministering, he moved out to the perimeter from position to position redistributing food and water, and tending to the needs of his men. Chaplain Watters was giving aid to the wounded when he himself was mortally wounded.

Father Vincent Robert Capodanno ; Lieutenant, U.S. Navy – Posthumous (Viet Nam)

Lt. Capodanno demonstrated conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Chaplain with the U.S.Marines, in connection with operations against enemy forces on 4 September, 1967. In response to a massed enemy assaulting force, Lt. Capodanno left the relative safety of the company command post and ran through an open area raked with fire, directly to the beleaguered platoon. Disregarding the intense fire, he moved about the battlefield administering last rites to the dying and giving medical aid to the wounded. When an exploding mortar round inflicted painful multiple wounds to his arms and legs, and severed a portion of his right hand, he steadfastly refused all medical aid and with calm vigor, continued to move about the battlefield as he provided encouragement by voice and example to the valiant marines. Upon encountering a wounded corpsman in the direct line of fire of an enemy machine gunner positioned approximately 15 yards away, Lt. Capodanno rushed a daring attempt to aid and assist the mortally wounded corpsman. At that instant, only inches from his goal, he was struck down by a burst of machine gun fire and was killed.

Father Emil J. Kapaun; Captain, U.S. Army – Posthumous (Korea)

Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty while serving with the 1st Cavalry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy at Unsan, Korea,1-2 November, 1950. Chaplain Kapaun calmly walked through withering enemy fire in order to provide comfort and medical aid to his comrades and rescue friendly wounded from no-man’s land. Facing annihilation, the able-bodied men were ordered to evacuate. However, Chaplain Kapaun, fully aware of his certain capture, elected to stay behind with the wounded. He would die in captivity, but not before making himself a thorn in the flesh of his jailers, and an inspiration to his fellow prisoners.  Father Kapaun would sneak out of his own compound in order to minister to others and to scrounge for basic necessities to help them survive their hellish conditions.  He even got non-Catholic prisoners praying the Rosary, and also made himself irritating to the Communists by openly defying them in their daily forced indoctrination sessions.  When Father Kapaun came down with an eye infection and a blood clot in his leg, the Chinese seized the opportunity to carry him off to an isolated “hospital” and starve him to death.

Beatification causes have been opened for both Father Capodanno and Father Kapaun for their eventual canonization as saints.

Priestly service and self-sacrifice

In many respects those citations say it all. The  common denominator was their efforts to help their wounded comrades, at great personal sacrifice. Those chaplains are  examples of priestly dedication, self-sacrifice, devotion and service,  the same qualities that many of our clergy possess in this day and age that often go unnoticed. Unfortunately, the noise from the abuse scandal can drown out the work of those dedicated clergy among us. I would suggest that for next year’s Veterans Day, we celebrate, recognize and remember those heroic priests from past wars who serve as models for priests who heroically serve the Church with fidelity, day unto day.



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