Dec 5, 2011
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.