12 Heroic U.S. Military Chaplains

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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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January 10, 2012 - 6:14am
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