Memorial Day - Chaplains Remembered

As Memorial Day approaches, it’s appropriate we take a few minutes to remember our priest-veterans.  Memorial Day is set aside to honor all deceased veterans [Veteran’s Day honors living veterans]. 

There are two Catholic priests designated as Servants of God. The first is Fr. Emil Kapaun who served in the Korean conflict.  While attending men on the battlefield, he was taken prisoner and endured a 60-mile march to a prison camp.  While at the camp, Fr. Kapaun ignored his own wounds while tending to others.  He died of complications from his injuries in 1951. He is one of five priests awarded the Medal of Honor.

The second priest named Servant of God is Father Vincent Capodanno who was known as “the grunt padre” for always being with his troops, especially on the battlefield.  In September 1967 he was with a Marine force of 500 in a battle against 2,500 North Vietnamese.  Too many times to count, he crisscrossed the battlefield giving first aid and offer last rites.  After having his left arm shredded by a mortar and refusing to leave the battlefield, he gave last rites to a wounded Marine and then covered his body with his own.  Fr. Capodanno was killed.  He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Also awarded the Medal of Honor, Father Joseph O’Callaghan was a Navy Chaplain aboard the USS Franklin operating near Japan in March 1945.  A Japanese pilot struck the ship with two bombs, instantly killing over one thousand men.  For the next three days, Fr. O’Callaghan helped rescue injured and trapped sailors, worked as a firefighter, and performed last rites.  Father continued his Naval career retiring in 1953 as a Captain.

The fourth priest- to receive the Medal of Honor is Father Charles Watters. He was on his second Vietnam tour when his unit attacked hill 875 in Vietnam.  It was a fierce battle, and Fr. Watters went on to the battlefield retrieving the wounded and offering last rites. He was killed on 19 Nov 67 when a bomb struck the battlefield.

Fr. Angelo Liteky, the fifth priest Medal of Honor winner, was an Army chaplain serving in Vietnam. In December of 1967, his unit came under intense fire shortly arriving in the field.  Seeing two wounded men, he crawled to within 20 feet of an enemy machine gun position.  He placed himself between the gun placement and the two wounded men.  After two hours there was a lull in the fighting, and he drug both men to the landing zone.  For the next 24 hours, he moved along the battlefield offering first aid, helping the wounded to return to the landing zone and then helped put the wounded on the rescue helicopters.  He even helped direct the helicopter pilots to their landing space.

Father Tim Vakoc was an Army chaplain serving in Iraq in on 29 May 2004.  Returning to his home base after saying Mass at a field station, his vehicle struck a roadside bomb.  Father Vakoc was severely injured; he was paralyzed and sustained brain damage as well.  He was in a coma for six-months but began to show signs of improvement in 2005.  Using a computer for limited communication, he began to speak in 2007.  Father died as the result of his wounds in 2009.

Perhaps the most inspiring demonstration of the chaplaincy at its best is the story of the “Four Chaplains” – also called the “Immortal Chaplains”.  They were new chaplains, recent graduates in the same class at the Army Chaplain’s School, on board the USS Dorchester headed for Greenland.  On 3 Feb 1943, the ship was struck by a torpedo. The Chaplains – Methodist minister George Fox, Reform Rabbi Alexander Goode, Father John Washington, and Reformed Church in America minister Clark Poling – organized the orderly evacuation of the ship as well as helped calm the men.  They guided the wounded men to safety and helped load the lifeboats.  When there were no more life vests to hand out, the chaplains gave up their own.  Once they had helped as many men as possible into the lifeboats, they linked arms, sang, and prayed.  Survivors said they could hear the mixed languages of the chaplains including the Jewish prayers in Hebrew and the Catholic in Latin.  Out of the 904 men on the ship, only 230 survived.

[Originally published in Our Sunday Visitor, May 2018]

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