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12 Heroic U.S. Military Chaplains

After I posted 8 Heroic U.S. Military Chaplains last week, we heard from a Catholic writer, a chaplain who worked under Father Sampson (who was featured), and the pastor of the home church of one of the Four Chaplains, in comments and email. We appreciate everyone's input! Military chaplains are classified as non-combatants, but they still put their lives on the line to serve their country and its military members—and often civilians and enemy soldiers, too. Many went above and beyond the call of duty, and their stories should be remembered.

1. Joseph T. O'Callahan

Father Joseph O'Callahan was not only a priest, but a math and physics professor. He joined the Naval Reserve Chaplain Corps in 1940 and served in various combat and non-combat locations. O'Callahan was aboard the USS Franklin near Japan on March 2, 1945, when a Japanese pilot dropped two bombs on the ship, killing, injuring, or blowing overboard around 1,000 men instantly. O'Callahan immediately went to work to rescue those who were injured or trapped, put out fires, and direct survivors to wet down ammunition to prevent further explosions. He also administered Last Rites to those who did not survive. O'Callahan and the crew members who stayed aboard spent three days working to put out fires, evacuate the wounded, offload dangerous ordnance, and keep the ship afloat. His leadership and encouragement kept the other crew members going. For his service aboard the USS Franklin, O'Callahan was awarded the Medal of Honor. He remained in the Naval Reserve after the war, retiring in 1953 with the rank of Captain.

2. George S. Rentz

Rev. George S. Rentz was a Presyterian minister who served as a Navy chaplain during both World Wars. He was assigned to the USS Houston in 1940. Rentz served tirelessly during the Battle of Makassar Strait when the ship was attacked in February of 1942. Another attack by the Japanese sunk the Houston on March 1, 1942. Hanging onto an overcrowded piece of floating material, Rentz tried to relinquish his life jacket to a younger sailor, but no one wanted to take it. He ordered Seaman First Class Walter L. Beeson to take the life jacket, then Rentz prayed and quietly abandoned the float and disappeared before the other men knew what he was doing. He was one year away from retirement. Rentz was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, and the frigate USS Rentz was named in his honor.

3-6. The Four Chaplains

The U.S.A.T. Dorchester was an Army transport ship that was carrying 902 people, both military and civilian, from Newfoundland to Greenland in February of 1943. Four of those were Army chaplains of various faiths on their way to European theater assignments. There were also German U-boats in the water, and three Coast Guard ships assigned to protect the Dorchester. A German torpedo hit the ship, killed dozens of men, and knocked out all communications. The ship sank in 20 minutes. That's when the four chaplains went to work.

They were Methodist minister George L. Fox, Jewish rabbi Alexander D. Goode, Dutch Reformed minister Clark V. Poling, and Catholic priest John P. Washington, all with the rank of lieutenant. Each immediately went to tend the wounded, rescue those trapped, encourage the frightened, and pray for them all. The evacuation was chaotic; although the escort ships moved in, many men jumped into lifeboats or rafts. The chaplains all helped hand out life vests, but there weren't enough of them. When the supply ran out, each chaplain took off his vest and gave it to another man. As the overcrowded lifeboats moved away from the sinking ship, witnesses saw the four chaplains with their arms linked, saying prayers as the Dorchester went down into the icy water.

Reverend George L. Fox had already served in World War I as a medic, even though he had to lie about his age to sign up. For his service in Europe with the ambulance corps, he was awarded the Silver Star, the Purple Heart, and the French Croix de Guerre. After the war, he went home to finish high school, then college, and became a Methodist minister in 1934. He rejoined the military as a chaplain in 1942. His son, Wyatt, also signed up with the Marine Corps.

Rabbi Alexander D. Goode was the son of a rabbi and became one himself after graduating from college. He went on to earn a PhD from Johns Hopkins University. Goode also founded a mixed-race, mixed-faith Boy Scout Troop. He was turned down by the Navy, but then entered the Army as a chaplain in 1942.

Reverend Clark V. Poling was the son of an Evangelical minister who became a Baptist minister. Poling was ordained in the Reformed Church in America in 1936. He joined the Army soon after the U.S. entered World War II. Shortly after Poling died in the Dorchester incident, his wife gave birth to their second child.

Father John P. Washington felt called to the priesthood at an early age. He sang in the choir and served as altar boy before completing his education. He was ordained in 1935. Washington was appointed to serve in the military shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack.

Most of the Dorchester crew and passengers died of hypothermia in the cold water. There were 230 survivors. The Four Chaplains were all awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously. Since the four men were not eligible for the Medal of Honor under its strict requirements at the time, a new medal called the Chaplain's Medal for Heroism was introduced in 1960 and awarded to the Four Chaplains in 1961. They are the only recipients of the award to date. The Four Chaplains story is commemorated in foundations and organizations, chapels and sanctuaries, and various memorials such as scholarships, parks, sculptures, shrines, stamps, and stained glass, to illustrate how different faiths can work together for the greater good.

7. Herman G. Felhoelter

Father Herman Felhoelter was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1913 and was ordained in 1939. He served as an Army chaplain in World War II and received a Bronze Star for service under fire. After that war, Felhoelter became an assistant pastor in Cincinnati, but was re-commissioned in 1948. During the Battle of Taejon in July of 1950, North Korean troops cut off a supply line road, preventing evacuation of wounded U.S. troops. A group from the 19th Infantry tried to carry them over the hills, but became exhausted by the rough terrain and put down the litters of those who could not walk. One medic, Captain Linton J. Buttrey, and chaplain Felhoelter stayed behind with the wounded men. Both were unarmed, and both men wore the insignias of their vocations, clearly indicating they were non-combatants. A North Korean patrol approached them, and Felhoelter ordered Buttrey to flee. He did, but was shot in the ankle while running. The chaplain continued to give last rites to the wounded. The enemy patrol shot Felhoelter in the head, then proceeded to kill all thirty wounded men. The attack was witnessed from hills some distance away through binoculars by other members of the 19th Infantry. Felhoelter was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously. He would have turned 37 years old the next day. Felhoelter became the first of several military chaplains to lose their lives in the Korean conflict.

8. Emil Kapaun

Father Emil Kapaun was ordained in 1940 and served as an Army chaplain from 1944 to 1946 in Burma and India. He rejoined the Army in 1948 and was sent to Korea in 1950. Kapaun worked the battlefields, retrieving the wounded and the dead, often under fire, and earned the Bronze Star. On November 1, his dwindling unit was captured and marched north to a P.O.W. camp near the Chinese border. There, Kapaun earned the nickname "the Good Thief" by sneaking food supplies from their captors and giving it to starving prisoners. He also cared for sick compatriots, led Mass, heard confessions, and shared his rations with those who were weaker. But Kapaun himself became ill under camp conditions, suffering from malnutrition and a seriously inflamed blood clot. He was given no medical treatment, and after several weeks of suffering, Kaplaun died of pneumonia on May 23, 1951. Kapaun was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and other military decorations.

Decades later, the story of Kapaun's service became more widely recognized. The Catholic Church declared Kapaun a Servant of God in 1993, which is a step that signals a person is being investigated for possible sainthood. In 2000, a campaign began to award Kapaun the Medal of Honor. The case for Kapaun's sainthood was sent to the Vatican for consideration in the summer of 2011.

9. Charles J. Watters

Father Charles Watters was ordained in 1953, became a chaplain in the the New Jersey Air National Guard in 1962, and entered the Army in 1964. After his first year-long tour of Vietnam, during which he was awarded the Air Medal and a Bronze Star, he re-upped for another tour. On November 19, 1967, Watters was in the middle of the battle for Hill 875 at Dak To. He spent hours retrieving the wounded and giving last rites to the dead while exposing himself to heavy fire. Watters saved many wounded men, but was a victim of a bomb and died that day. Watters was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

10. Vincent R. Capodanno

Father Vincent R. Capodanno, nicknamed "the Grunt Padre," was a missionary to Taiwan and Hong Kong from 1958 until 1965, when he was commissioned as a chaplain in the Navy. He was assigned to Vietnam in 1966, where Capodanno served with the First Marine Division. On September 4, 1967, around 500 U.S. Marines were battling 2,500 North Vietnamese in the Que Son Valley. Capodanno ventured into the battlefield to retrieve the wounded and give Last Rites. He was shot in the right hand, but refused evacuation. Instead, a corpsman wrapped up his shattered hand. On another foray, his left arm was shredded by a mortar blast. Yet he still refused to leave the battlefield. Capodanno ventured ahead to give Last Rites and saw a Marine shot in the leg who couldn't move. The chaplain used his own body to shield the wounded man and was fatally shot. Capodanno was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor among a list of other medals. In 2006, Father Capodanno was declared a Servant of God and an inquiry was opened for the cause of canonization.

11. Charles Liteky

Father Angelo J. Liteky was a Catholic priest who joined the Army and was sent to Vietnam. In heavy fighting in Bien Hoa province on December 6, 1967, he personally carried twenty wounded men from the battlefront, despite being wounded himself. Liteky encountered one wounded man too heavy to carry, so he laid down, pulled the man onto his chest, and crawled back to safety. For his bravery, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

After the war, Liteky remained in the news. He left the priesthood in 1975 and married a former nun in 1983. He also changed his name to Charles Liteky and became an antiwar protestor. In 1986, Liteky renounced his Medal of Honor, leaving it at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In 2000, he was sent to prison for a year for protesting the activities of the School of the Americas. Liteky continued a life of civil disobedience with his opposition to the Iraq War in 2003.

12. Henry Timothy Vakoc

Father Tim Vakoc became an Army chaplain in 1996 and served in Germany and Bosnia before being sent to Iraq in 2003. He traveled widely in Iraq, as he was committed to celebrating mass for all military personnel wherever they were. On May 29, 2004, as he was returning to Mosul from a mass in the field, he was severely injured by a roadside bomb. The date was also the 12th anniversary of his ordination. Vakoc was evacuated to Baghdad, then to Germany, then to Walter Reed Hospital in the U.S. He was paralyzed and sustained brain damage. A Purple Heart was expedited and awarded to Vakoc. The priest was in a coma for six months and was transferred to an assisted living care facility, where he began to show signs of improvement in 2005. Vakoc was given a computer which he used for limited communication, and even began to speak in 2007. Father Vakoc died on June 20th, 2009. In addition to the Purple Heart, Vakoc was awarded the Bronze Star and the Combat Action Badge.

See also: 8 Heroic U.S. Military Chaplains

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The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
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In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

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8 Legendary Monsters of Christmas
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The customs of the holiday season, which include St. Nicholas Day, New Years Day, and Epiphany, as well as Christmas, often incorporate earlier pagan traditions that have been appropriated and adapted for contemporary use. Customs that encourage little children to be good so as to deserve their Christmas gifts often come with a dark side: the punishment you'll receive from a monster or evil being of some sort if you aren't good! These nefarious characters vary from place to place, and they go by many different names and images.

1. KRAMPUS

As a tool to encourage good behavior in children, Santa serves as the carrot, and Krampus is the stick. Krampus is the evil demon anti-Santa, or maybe his evil twin. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. Public celebrations that night have many Krampuses walking the streets, looking for people to beat. Alcohol is also involved. Injuries in recent years have led to some reforms, such as requiring all Krampuses to wear numbers so they may identified in case of overly violent behavior.

Krampus may look like a devil, or like a wild alpine beast, depending on what materials are available to make a Krampus costume. In modern times, people can spend as much as they like to become the best Krampus around—and the tradition is spreading beyond Europe. Many cities in America have their own Krampus Nights now.

2. JÓLAKÖTTURINN

Jólakötturinn is the Icelandic Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat. In fact, he might eat you. This character is tied to an Icelandic tradition in which those who finished all their work on time received new clothes for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not (although this is mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas—and these children would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores! A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It's no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.

3. FRAU PERCHTA


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Tales told in Germany and Austria sometimes feature a witch named Frau Perchta who hands out both rewards and punishments during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). She is best known for her gruesome punishment of the sinful: She will rip out your internal organs and replace them with garbage. The ugly image of Perchta may show up in Christmas processions in Austria, somewhat like Krampus.

Perchta's story is thought to have descended from a legendary Alpine goddess of nature, who tends the forest most of the year and deals with humans only during Christmas. In modern celebrations, Perchta or a close relation may show up in processions during Fastnacht, the Alpine festival just before Lent. There may be some connection between Frau Perchta and the Italian witch La Befana, but La Befana isn't really a monster: she's an ugly but good witch who leaves presents.

4. BELSNICKEL

A drawing of Belsnickel.
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Belsnickel is a male character from southwestern German lore who traveled to the United States and survives in Pennsylvania Dutch customs. He comes to children sometime before Christmas, wearing tattered old clothing and raggedy fur. Belsnickel carries a switch to frighten children and candy to reward them for good behavior. In modern visits, the switch is only used for noise, and to warn children they still have time to be good before Christmas. Then all the children get candy, if they are polite about it. The name Belsnickel is a portmanteau of the German belzen (meaning to wallop) and nickel for St. Nicholas. See a video of a Belsnickel visit here.

Knecht Ruprecht and Ru Klaas are similar characters from German folklore who dole out beatings to bad children, leaving St. Nicholas to reward good children with gifts.

5. HANS TRAPP

Hans Trapp is another "anti-Santa" who hands out punishment to bad children in the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France. The legend says that Trapp was a real man, a rich, greedy, and evil man, who worshiped Satan and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He was exiled into the forest where he preyed upon children, disguised as a scarecrow with straw jutting out from his clothing. He was about to eat one boy he captured when he was struck by lightning and killed—a punishment of his own from God. Still, he visits young children before Christmas, dressed as a scarecrow, to scare them into good behavior.

6. PÈRE FOUETTARD

The French legend of Père Fouettard, whose name translates to "Father Whipper," begins with an evil butcher who craved children to eat. He (or his wife) lured three boys into his butcher shop, where he killed, chopped, and salted them. St. Nicholas came to the rescue, resurrected the boys, and took custody of the butcher. The captive butcher became Père Fouettard, St. Nicholas' servant whose job it is to dispense punishment to bad children on St. Nicholas Day.

7. THE YULE LADS

The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are 13 Icelandic trolls, who each have a name and distinct personality. In ancient times, they stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime, so they were used to scare children into behaving, like the Yule Cat. However, the 20th century brought tales of the benevolent Norwegian figure Julenisse (Santa Claus), who brought gifts to good children. The traditions became mingled, until the formerly devilish Jólasveinar became kind enough to leave gifts in shoes that children leave out ... if they are good boys and girls. 

8. GRÝLA

All the Yule Lads answer to Grýla, their mother. She predates the Yule Lads in Icelandic legend as the ogress who kidnaps, cooks, and eats children who don't obey their parents. She only became associated with Christmas in the 17th century, when she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. According to legend, Grýla had three different husbands and 72 children, all who caused trouble ranging from harmless mischief to murder. As if the household wasn't crowded enough, the Yule Cat also lives with Grýla. This ogress is so much of a troublemaker that The Onion blamed her for the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

A version of this post originally ran in 2013. See also: more Legendary Monsters

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