Inside the Church during WWIINon-European Catholics and World War Two

For many, the Second World War was first and foremost a European conflict. However, from a US perspective, the war had a distinctly non-European element, much more so than the First World War. Pearl Harbor, and the reach of Britain’s and Holland’s Asian Empire ensured that this was a truly global conflict. Troops from the Dominions, but also from India, the Caribbean and Africa served on all fronts under the Union Jack.

France was deeply involved in Vietnam and North Africa, the Dutch in Indonesia, and the Italians in Ethiopia and Libya. Some of these theatres of the war have already had a brief mention, but it is frequently forgotten what a great flow of Catholic soldiers came from many of these non-European countries. In addition, local Catholics in the Far East, as well as European missionaries, became the victim of an anti-colonial reaction, fed by Japanese propaganda that identified Christians, including Catholics, as part of European dominance and exploitation. Finally, Japan had a small but prominent Catholic Church of its own, and these members of Christ’s Body were especially affected by the war.

The most immediate expression of Catholic involvement from outside Europe in the conflict was the corps of army chaplains in the various allied armies. This group is sometimes overlooked, but during the War they formed an invaluable spiritual comfort to the troops. They were also extremely brave men, facing enemy fire without being armed themselves. Chaplains, and not only Catholic chaplains, were found on every battlefield, from Dunkirk to El Alamein, and from Okinawa to the Omaha Beach in Normandy.

I do not wish to downplay the importance of chaplains in the Axis armies, or to ignore the chaplains of the British army. There cannot be a distinction between the Catholic priests, regardless of what army they served. But the focus today is firmly on those from outside Europe, and more particularly those of the USA. The largest contingent naturally served in the largest army: the Vicariate of the Military Services of the USA sent no fewer than 3,000 priests to battlefields in Europe, Africa and the Far East. Instigated in 1917 when a US army first went to Europe, it had been elevated to a vicariate by Pius XII in 1939 to give its bishop greater authority in time of war. As with so many of Pius’ actions, it was well-timed. It is on the chaplains from this service that I wish to concentrate today.

It is obviously impossible to relate all the stories of heroism and of devastation, so a few examples will have to suffice, examples chosen purely at random. The information is now readily available, ever since 1994 with the publication of Jesuit Father Donald Crosby’s book, Battlefield Chaplains: Chaplain Priests in World War II. That a Jesuit was interested in this topic was, perhaps, inevitable. The very first US chaplain to die in action, one of 25 to be killed, with another 90 wounded and 12 taken prisoner, was Fr. Aloysius Schmitt, S.J. He drowned when the battleship USS Oklahoma sank after being hit by Japanese bombers in Pearl Harbor, on 7 December 1941.  
The Jesuits provided more than one chaplain, and some of these stood out for their valor. One of these men was Fr. Joseph O’Callahan, S.J. He was an unlikely figure amongst the padres, having lectured as a professor of mathematics, philosophy and physics at a Jesuit university before war broke out. Yet this studious priest would become one of America’s most decorated chaplains. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor, one of America’s highest distinctions, for his great courage when a Japanese bomb fell on the aircraft carrier, USS Franklin.

I can do no better than to quote part of his citation, which eloquently expresses Fr. O’Callahan’s contribution:

“Lt. Comdr. O'Callahan groped his way through smoke-filled corridors to the open flight deck and into the midst of violently exploding bombs, shells, rockets, and other armament. With the ship rocked by incessant explosions, with debris and fragments raining down and fires raging in ever-increasing fury, he 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.”

None of the usual platitudes on heroism and sacrifice for country suffices to illustrate what these men felt as they accompanied the souls entrusted to their care on what was frequently their last journey. Sometimes, it was also the last journey of the chaplain. One of these was Fr. Anthony Conway. In his last letter to his parents, he made clear what gave him courage, what inspired him:   

"Courage is fear that has said its prayers and there is no greater prayer than squaring souls away for God."

His service of ‘squaring souls away for God’ gained its reward far too early; Fr. Conway died on the beaches of the Pacific island of Guam, alongside those marines to whom he had been giving spiritual comfort.
The war brought denominations and faiths together as never before, and nowhere was this more pronounced than in the chaplaincy service of that great multi-cultural army. As the US troops sailed the Atlantic to relieve under pressure Britain, they were accompanied by padres of all backgrounds. This was also the case on board the USAT Dorchester, which left port in the USA with 900 troops on 2 February 1943. En route, it was discovered by a German submarine, and torpedoed. On deck of the fast-sinking ship stood the 672 men for whom there were no lifejackets, no space in the lifeboats. Four of them were chaplains, who had given their jackets away, men who prayed together with the soldiers entrusted to their care. They were Fr. John Washington, Catholic, Rev. George Fox, Methodist, Rev. Clark Poling, Reformed, and Rabbi Alexander Goode.

If war brought men from different backgrounds from the same country together in prayer, it also united friend and foe through Faith. Priests realized that they were called for all, not just those in an American or Allied uniform. Some reached across barriers that would appear to be unbridgeable. The whole notion of an enemy was real to them only in so far that it mattered when being fired upon.

Few had such a track-record as the redoubtable Fr. Francis Sampson, later to become the Army Chief of Chaplains. Immediately after going ashore on the beach in Normandy, he set up a hospital service, in which US and German wounded were treated side by side. He was twice captured during the campaign in France, and twice escaped. When caught a third time, the Germans took no risks and sent him into eastern Germany. In the face of SS hostility to priests, he said Mass for all prisoners, many of whom were soldiers from the Red Army. Amazingly, he seems to have converted more than a few of the SS guards, who came to confession and attended Mass. He was finally liberated by the Soviets, also not known for their love of priests, who treated him with great respect and speedily repatriated him to the US army, fearful possibly of the spiritual influence he may have had on the Russian soldiers.

The above is a reminder that for so many Catholic men and boys, the War meant only these: uniforms, death and suffering. Sometimes, that suffering was mental; Fr. Philip Hannan, who experienced Fascist rule whilst in Rome during the 1930s, was chaplain to the 82nd Airborne, and experienced the German counter-offensive in the Ardennes in 1944. From there, he accompanied the unit as they crossed the Rhine. Having seen much brutality, he was always to comment that the worst experience of the whole war was the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp. After the War, US commander General Eisenhower would call it a Crusade. To those chaplains who accompanied the crusaders, it was more than that: it was the ultimate Catholic experience of the Second World War.  

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