Catholic Military Chaplains: America’s Forgotten Heroes

By: Major James Harvey III –

“War is Hell” General William Tecumseh Sherman once noted. Indeed, there is nothing to celebrate about warfare; however unfortunately it has been present with mankind in his fallen nature since departing from the Garden of Eden. War was a common affair throughout the Old Testament.

Saint Augustine understood the sometimes unfortunate necessity of war and as a result outlined the “Just War” clauses to allow moral principles to still be applied. Later in more modern periods Saint Joan of Arc was called to battle by Our Lord, and in the twentieth century Our Lady noted at Fatima that war was a “punishment for sin.” In other words, man’s own sinfulness often leads to war due to a lack of God in society.

This helps us in our current age understand that at certain times war is necessary to defeat evil; or in self-defense. While often it is hard to tell throughout history whether a war was just or not, in the end it is truly left to the judgment of God.

However, regardless Catholic chaplains have served throughout history on the battlefield to serve those who have fought wars whether from a sense of duty, or simply being caught up in the times and circumstances.

The Forgotten Heroes

In the U.S., military chaplains have also served since the Revolutionary War. The widespread use of Catholic chaplains did not begin until the Civil War after large populations of Catholic immigrants had changed the demographic of a previously Protestant dominated America.

Additionally, previous wars found Catholics still facing much prejudice in the military and their religious needs were not considered as much as those of Protestants.

However, since the Civil War, the Catholic chaplains of the U.S. military have provided comfort in war and peace.

Frequently many were and remain true Catholic heroes but, sadly are often forgotten. This article while not all-inclusive will re-introduce some of the many forgotten Catholic chaplains throughout American military history, and also recommend some additional references for further reading.

The Mexican American War

Even before the Civil War during the Mexican American War of 1846-1848, Father Anthony Rey served in the army of General Zackary Taylor. Father Rey administered to American troops with Last Rites and care of the wounded. He was present at the Battle of Monterey in which he earned admiration for his bravery. Father Rey also ministered to local Mexican Catholics. He was warned by U.S. Army officers against this practice due to guerilla and bandit activity outside U.S. camps. However, Father Rey accepted the risk nonetheless for the good of souls. He would die doing the work of his Master in 1847 in the Mexican countryside being found dead of multiple lance pierces. A quick internet search will reveal more details and background on the life and mission of Father Rey. 

Civil War Chaplains

During the U.S. Civil War from 1861-1865, Father William Corby became famous for his absolution of the Irish brigade at Gettysburg in 1863 as they went into battle. Shortly after this absolution many Irish soldiers would be cut down, but in the mercy of the Lord, they died with the sacramental comfort of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. This act is still commemorated by a statue of the absolution at Gettysburg National Battlefield. Father Corby later became president of Notre Dame and wrote a memoir of his three years in the Civil War which is still in print titled Memoirs of Chaplain Life: Three Years in the Irish Brigade with the Army of the Potomac. 

Also during the Civil War, Father Peter Whelan was a Confederate Army Catholic chaplain who ministered to the Union prisoners at the infamous Andersonville Prisoner of War (POW) camp in Georgia. At Andersonville Union prisoners were subject to exposure at all times and seasons. The stream that flowed through the camp was the water source and latrine. Father Whelan administered to the prisoners in the hot, disease ridden, and filthy camp where thousands would die. Prisoners also suffered from gang violence committed by fellow prisoners. From dawn to dusk Father Whelan heard confessions, cared for the sick, and provided comfort including the Last Rites to the numerous dying.

In this camp of horror, Father Whelan saved thousands of lives and souls through his zeal for charity. Father Whelan cared for those seen as the Union “enemy” as he, like his Lord, saw all mankind first: as his brother not an enemy. Father Whelan would contract a lung disease from the disease-ridden camp and die in 1871 going to his eternal reward after working in his Master’s vineyard. A work titled The Prison Ministry of Father Peter Whelan: Georgia Priest and Confederate Chaplain was written in 1987 by Peter J. Meany, OSB. The small book can sometimes be obtained at old book stores and is quite inspirational and more detailed. 

Later Wars

Following the Civil War, conflict was constant in the Western U.S. during the period known as the Indian Wars from 1865 to Wounded Knee in 1890. Father Eli Washington John Lindesmith ministered to the troops and families stationed on the lonely Western outposts. His readings are very interesting and well documented by author Monsignor James R. Kolp in his work The Amazing Father Lindesmith: Chaplain in Indian Country; and noted as “worthwhile reading” by Father Benedict Groeschel CFR. 

The Spanish American War of 1898 began with the explosion that destroyed the U.S.S. Maine in Cuba’s Havana harbor which was likely incorrectly thought to be the result of foul play from Spain.

Regardless, Father John P. Chidwick, Chaplain of the U.S.S. Maine, immediately gave a mass absolution, and then feverishly began rescuing and administering to the wounded. Last Rites were also given to the dying. Needless to say all these actions were done at great risk to his own life. One cadet noted that night Chaplain Chidwick was “everywhere.” Father Chidwick would also be one of the last to leave the stricken ship. 

World War I

During World War I, Father John B. DeValles would become known as the “Angel of the Trenches.” This was due to his charity in deliberately entering “No Man’s Land” to look for wounded and dying soldiers; Allied or German. The danger he risked in his zeal for souls made him a legend. Father DeValles was once even found unconscious due to breathing in mustard gas while trying to aid a wounded soldier. Father DeValles’ selfless charity would lead to early death from health problems connected to the war at age forty-one. 

Father Francis Patrick Duffy was also a legend and known for his chaplaincy to the 69th “Fighting Irish” New York National Guard in World War I. Today, while not well known, a statue of Father Duffy can be found in the middle of Times Square as this author has visited. 

World War II

The attack on Pearl Harbor brought about the first Catholic chaplain hero of World War II. Father Aloysius Schmitt was beginning preparations for Mass on the U.S.S. Oklahoma when Japanese torpedoes hit the battleship. The attack caused immediate flooding aboard the vessel. In one compartment, Father Schmitt helped push sailors through a small porthole to escape the incoming waters.

The last man to leave would have been Father Schmitt however, after realizing more sailors had arrived into the flooding compartment below him, he went back and gave up attempts to save himself. Father Schmitt pushed another twelve men through before he drowned. Later in the war a destroyer would bear his name as the U.S.S. Schmitt. 

In the following days, the Japanese attacks on the Philippines also brought out more Catholic priest heroes. Father William Cummings was one such chaplain who ministered to the victims of the attack on the Philippines. Eventually captured, Father Cummings would be one of the five priests who participated in the infamous Bataan Death March. Father Cummings would continue to minister to troops in the Prisoner of War (POW) camp and become known as the man “who never said no to anyone.” Father Cummings would go to his eternal award eight months before the war’s end dying on a Japanese POW ship.

Also on the Death March, the Japanese brutally murdered a Jesuit priest who until today is regarded as a martyr by the Filipino people. Father Juan Gaerlan, a chaplain to the Philippine Army (the Philippines was still an American colony) after he escaped with other Filipino soldiers was later recaptured. In retaliation all were fastened with baling wire and bayoneted to death. 

Additionally, Father John E. Duffy would survive the Death March, being left for dead after Japanese guards bayoneted him three times. Rescued by Filipino guerillas he was later recaptured and sent to Japanese POW camps where he ministered to the prisoners. During his imprisonment Father Duffy was tortured, beaten with a baseball bat and subjected to high water pressure, all of which failed to get the priest to collaborate with the enemy in any way. This information in greater detail is available in a great work on Father Duffy; But Deliver Us from Evil: Father Duffy and the Men of Bataan by Dan Murr in 2008.

Father Duffy was also with Father Matthias Zerfas who survived the Death March. While a prisoner he celebrated Mass and cared for the sick even though he was weak and himself literally starving to death. Father Zerfas even conducted convert classes and led night prayers and a daily rosary. He eventually died after being given Last Rites by Father Duffy when their POW ship moving them was mistakenly attacked by U.S. warplanes. 

Father Carl Hausmann also ministered to POWs after surviving the Death March. Father Hausmann entered the army following the attack on the Philippines as he was already present in the islands as a priest ministering to the lepers at the Colion Leper Colony. One survivor noted that they felt unclean around Father Hausmann as he was so holy. One example of this holiness was his giving of food to other prisoners although he himself was dying of starvation, and another was how he worked for others while barely able to stand himself.

Father Hausmann also suffered a ten-minute rifle butt beating by a Japanese guard for refusing to halt the consecration during Mass when an air raid began. Father Hausmann survived the beating and still completed the Holy Mass after the guard left.  Additionally, Father Duffy himself said Father Hausmann died partly because he gave his daily two spoonfuls of rice to other prisoners.  This author recommends the aforementioned book by Dan Murr for more detail on these great priests of Bataan and their resulting heroic charity in Japanese POW camps.

The Pacific Theater

As the war continued, many Catholic chaplains entered military service and began to bring the sacraments so needed to soldiers in danger or on the verge of death. Many would give their lives or make other heroic sacrifices. In the Pacific War, Father Thomas Reardon suffered with the troops on Guadalcanal so much that he lost fifty pounds. Father Reardon wore the same clothes for eighty-five days and despite dealing with malaria rarely rested in order to minister to his “parish” on the beach for 125 days. Father Reardon was later evacuated unconscious and close to death from his overwork. 

Author James Campbell in The Ghost Mountain Boys regarding the campaign in New Guinea discusses the role of Father Stephen Dzienis who accompanied the 32d Infantry Division as it crossed the Owen Stanley Mountains in a 130-mile march through thick jungle to attack the Japanese army at Buna. This march through the jungle decimated the 32d through disease and exhaustion, but they still went into immediate combat for two months with a determined Japanese enemy. Even in battle and despite jungle rot sores, Father Dzienis would provide Mass, comfort, and Last Rites. Soldiers of all faiths were known to shout “Chaplain Dzienis is here!” so important was his presence as he crawled to the front to visit “his parish.” 

At Iwo Jima, Marine Chaplain Father Charles Suver celebrated Holy Mass shortly before the raising of the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi by the Marines. Debate has been inconclusive whether it was the first less known or the second more well known raising of the flag that is now immortalized in history. Regardless of which flag raising it was Father Suver could still hear Japanese voices in the nearby caves as he said the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass! 

At sea, Navy Chaplain Father Joseph T. O’Callahan received the Medal of Honor due to his bravery administering to the dead and wounded when the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Franklin was severely damaged and turned into a blazing inferno by a kamikaze attack off Japan in March 1945. Father O’Callahan additionally was credited with inspiring the crew to fight the fires despite the danger of flames and exploding American bombs set off by the fire. Father O’Callahan set an example of bravery and spiritual calmness which in turn helped inspire the crew. 

The European Theater

In Europe, Catholic chaplains were no less brave and were present throughout the theater. Father Joseph Lacy spent much of D-Day in France providing Last Rites to Catholic soldiers and spiritual comfort to non-Catholic soldiers.  Father Francis L. Sampson became known as the “Parachute Padre” serving in the 501st parachute regiment. Father Sampson was captured at Normandy by the German SS and almost executed until saved by a German Catholic soldier. Father Sampson noted he was so nervous he kept repeating the Catholic grace prayer before a meal instead of an Act of Contrition.

Eventually freed by American troops and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Father Sampson would go on to survive the famous jump into the Arnhem pocket in Holland also known as “the bridge too far,” and was later recaptured by German troops during the Battle of the Bulge.

This time Father Samson would remain a POW in a Stalag until the end of the war, but remain busy aiding the sick and saying Mass. Father Sampson would survive to serve as a Chaplain in the Korean War and later become the U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains from 1967-1971.  Father Sampson also wrote a memoir of his World War II experiences appropriately titled Look Out Below in 1958.  This memoir also gives great insight to Soviet actions in occupied areas of Eastern Europe after German defeat. Father Sampson was in a POW camp “liberated” by the Soviet army and he offers a good firsthand account of the horrors of life in the Soviet sector. If it can be acquired through an old book store it is a worthwhile read.

At sea in the Battle for the Atlantic with German submarines, Father John Washington is remembered as one of the four chaplains that gave away their lives after the troopship Dorchester was torpedoed by a German U-Boat off Greenland in 1943. Father Washington and the other three chaplains a rabbi, a Methodist, and a Dutch Reformed minister all gave away their life preservers and were last seen sinking with the ship praying with arms linked for the men’s safety.  There is a stained glass memorial to these four chaplains in the Pentagon. In concluding the World War II part of this article, it must be mentioned that any reading about Catholic chaplains in World War II is not complete without Battlefield Chaplains: Catholic Priests in World War II by Donald F. Crosby, S.J.

In the post-World War II era, Father William Menster would accompany the U.S. exploration mission Operation HighJump to Antarctica. Father Menster would be the first clergy to set foot on Antarctica and also consecrated the continent through the Holy Mass. Father Menster wrote his memoirs in a work called Strong Men South in 1949. 

In 1950, the Korean War would bring forward more sacrifice on the part of Catholic chaplains. Father Emil J. Kapaun, who was declared a Servant of God in 1993, may one day be declared a saint. Father Kapaun worked tirelessly to aid and comfort POWs after he was captured and imprisoned by Chinese Communist troops. Father Kapaun despite abuse would also help the allied POWs refute communist propaganda with Catholic doctrine. Eventually, communist abuse would take its toll and Father Kapaun would die of sickness, the denial of medical care, and starvation before the end of the war. Giving away his food to other POWs exasperated the problem. A great work on Father Emil Kapaun is A Shepherd in Combat Boots by William L. Maher. 

Father Charles Joseph Watters left the Air National Guard in 1964 to join the Chaplain Corps, and embarked on his first tour in Vietnam with the Army, taking part in Operation Junction City and earning medals during the tour. On an extension of his tour in late 1967, during the Battle of Dak To, Watters rescued many wounded men from enemy fire but was killed by a friendly bomb strike from an American bomber.  He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery exhibited while rescuing and giving aid to men in the Dak To combat. 

During the war in Vietnam Father Vincent Robert Capodanno, a U.S. Navy Chaplain, ministered to U.S. troops and was killed while trying to rescue a wounded corpsman. Father Capodanno was in his second year after he volunteered to extend past a year in order to continue to administer to U.S. troops. This action would lead to the award of the Medal of Honor for Father Capodanno. Father Capodanno was named a Servant of God in 2002 and may likely become a saint. Grunt Padre by Father Daniel L. Mode is a great book on Father Capodanno. 

U.S. Army Chaplain Father Aloysius Paul McGonigal during the Tet Offensive of 1968 volunteered to minister to troops in the urban battle for Hue City. The urban battle for Hue ranks with other great urban battles like Stalingrad and Manila during World War II in its intensity. Despite an order to not go into the city, Father McGonigal’s zeal for souls in danger was too great.

Once he linked up with the Marines, they told him to leave as it was too dangerous. Father McGonigal refused and ministered aid and Last Rites to the wounded and dying. He was killed on February 17, 1968, trying to rescue a wounded Marine. The Marines later dedicated a chapel at Camp Pendleton in his honor for the service he gave to the Marines at Hue. 

In our own times, Father Tim Vakoc served in Bosnia where he told his sister he wanted to do God’s will even if it included being in the line of fire. Father Vakoc would eventually deploy to Iraq and drove in the dangerous convoys prone to Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks in order to minister to the troops. After returning from saying Holy Mass in the Mosul area in 2004, Father Vakoc was in a vehicle struck by an IED that caused him to lose an eye and suffer heavy brain damage. Father Vakoc suffered during his attempts at recovery and went to his eternal reward in June 2009 a true warrior of Christ.

While this brief article can only scratch the surface it is a reminder of the many Catholic heroes that have served as chaplains in our country’s history. The spiritual and physical benefits of the priest in service to the armed forces are incalculable. This author has seen firsthand the selfless service of priests in Iraq and hopes all who read this have a newfound appreciation for our wonderful Catholic chaplains past and present and will find the works mentioned beneficial for future reading and inspiration. Our Lord truly built his Holy Roman Catholic Church to bring us salvation and His comfort under the most trying of times in this world.

These 5 Catholic Priests Earned the Medal of Honor

The U.S. military’s most prestigious personal military decoration has been awarded to these heroic Catholic chaplains.

By: Theresa Civantos Barber –

The Archdiocese for the Military Services has been called “the biggest diocese with the fewest priests,” as the number of Catholics serving in the military far outstrips the proportion of Catholic chaplains. Yet this “diocese without borders” does vital work in ministering to Catholic military personnel and their families. As their website explains:  – The work of chaplains is not confined to the chapel. They go wherever their people are—in a tent in the desert, on the deck of an aircraft carrier, in the barracks on base, in a combat zone, in the halls of the Pentagon. Military service requires extraordinary sacrifices for those who serve and their families. Chaplains provide pastoral care through guidance, education, direction on Church doctrine, and spiritual counsel. Through their words and actions, they provide comfort and strength through the Word of God and the sacraments to those who serve to protect our Nation.

Serving as a military chaplain is a noble calling, but can be challenging work even in the best of times. Yet even in facing the worst of times, a number of military chaplains have shown extraordinary courage and strength of character—so much so that nine chaplains have been awarded the Medal of Honor over the decades. This medal is the nation’s highest and most prestigious military decoration for valor. Of those nine heroic chaplains, these five were Catholic priests.

1.) Lt. Cmdr Joseph Timothy O’Callahan

Father O’Callahan was a Jesuit priest who served as a United States Navy chaplain during World War II, and was both the first Catholic priest and the first naval chaplain to earn the Medal of Honor. Before the war, he worked as a college professor, teaching philosophy and mathematics at Boston College and College of the Holy Cross. When World War II began, O’Callahan was 36 and nearsighted, with a bad case of claustrophobia and high blood pressure—an unlikely candidate for military service, much less for heroic valor. But faith can give a man courage and perseverance beyond human understanding, so in 1940 he left the quiet halls and libraries of academic life for a bold new adventure in the Chaplain Corps of the U.S. Navy Reserve.

He would soon see more adventure than he could have imagined; O’Callahan was serving as chaplain on the USS Franklin in March of 1945 when an enemy aircraft dropped two bombs that badly damaged the ship. His Medal of Honor citation reads,

A valiant and forceful leader, calmly braving the perilous barriers of flame and twisted metal to aid his men and his ship, Lieutenant Commander 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 armaments. 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; he directed the jettisoning of live ammunition and the flooding of the magazine; he manned a hose to cool hot, armed bombs rolling dangerously on the listing deck, continuing his efforts, despite searing, suffocating smoke which forced men to fall back gasping and imperiled others who replaced them. Serving with courage, fortitude, and deep spiritual strength, Lieutenant Commander O’Callahan inspired the gallant officers and men of the FRANKLIN to fight heroically and with profound faith in the face of almost certain death and to return their stricken ship to port.

While leading the men through this inferno, he gave the Sacrament of Last Rites to the men dying around him, all while battling his claustrophobia. Against all odds, the USS Franklin made it back to the Brooklyn Navy Ship Yard, in large part thanks to Father O’Callahan’s quick thinking and fearless leadership in a crisis.

A few months later, when awards were presented on the battered flight deck of the USS Franklin, O’Callahan’s mother came aboard the ship, and The New England Historical Society reports this telling conversation:

The ship’s captain, Les Gehres, went over to his mother and said, “I’m not a religious man. But I watched your son that day and I thought if faith can do this for man, there must be something to it. Your son is the bravest man I have ever seen.”

Captain Emil J. Kapaun

Father Kapaun grew up on a farm in Kansas, the son of Czech immigrants. He was ordained in 1940 and served as a pastor at the parish where he grew up until 1944, when his bishop relented to his request of becoming a U.S. Army chaplain. He first served in the Burma Theater of World War II, then some years later, he was sent to Japan in 1949 to minister during the Korean War.

During the Battle of Unsan, Kapaun was serving with the 3rd Battalion of the 8th Cavalry Regiment when he was taken prisoner:

As Chinese Communist forces encircled the battalion, Kapaun moved fearlessly from foxhole to foxhole under direct enemy fire in order to provide comfort and reassurance to the outnumbered Soldiers. He repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to recover wounded men, dragging them to safety. When he couldn’t drag them, he dug shallow trenches to shield them from enemy fire. As Chinese forces closed in, Kapaun rejected several chances to escape, instead volunteering to stay behind and care for the wounded. He was taken as a prisoner of war by Chinese forces on Nov. 2, 1950.

“Father Kapaun had several chances to get out, but he wouldn’t take them,” Warrant Officer John Funston later recounted. After his capture at Unsan, Father Kapaun and the wounded men with him joined hundreds of other American prisoners on a forced march to a POW camp near Pyoktong.

The men suffered severe injuries and bitter cold; dozens fell behind and were left to freeze to death along the way. But throughout this torture, Father Kapaun did not lose his compassion and concern for his men: The BBC reports that “Survivors said that Kapaun, even as he was suffering frostbite on his feet, helped carry wounded men in litters hundreds of miles, shaming recalcitrant comrades into helping.”

When they reached the camp, the men were left freezing and near starving, with pitifully meager food and shelter. Kapaun sneaked around the camp stealing food from the Chinese stores, and even fed others from his own rations. He tended the sick and wounded, bathing them, washing their clothes, and picking off lice, all while ignoring his own ill health. When the prisoners were forced to endure indoctrination sessions, he patiently and politely rejected every false theory that the instructors presented. He even managed to lead a sunrise service on Easter. A survivor of the camp, Captain Robert Burke, later wrote,

“By February and March, the majority of us had turned into animals, were fighting for food, irritable, selfish, miserly. The good priest continued to keep a cool head, conduct himself as a human being, and maintain all his virtues and ideal characteristics. When the chips were down, Father proved himself to be the greatest example of manhood I’ve ever seen in my life.”

As Father Kapaun’s health grew worse, his captors took him to the “hospital,” a place in the camp where he was left to die of malnutrition and pneumonia. Yet his indomitable spirit and faith in God persisted to the last. Another survivor of the camp, Felix McCool, recalled Father Kapaun’s last words:

“In his last hour he heard my confession. Father Kapaun said: ‘As you see, I am crying too, not tears of pain but tears of joy, because I’ll be with my God in a short time.’”

The Diocese of Wichita is promoting his cause for canonization, and in 1993 St. John Paul II declared him a Servant of God.

3.) Major Charles Joseph Watters

Born and raised in New Jersey, Father Watters was ordained in 1953 and served in the Archdiocese of Newark until entering active duty as a U.S. Army chaplain in 1964. He served a 12-month tour of duty in Vietnam from July 1966 to July 1967, during which he was awarded the Air Medal and a Bronze Star for Valor. At the end of this time, he voluntarily extended his tour for another six months. It was during these additional months that he made the ultimate sacrifice. Part of his Medal of Honor citation describes the events of November 19, 1967:

Chaplain Watters was moving with one of the companies when it engaged a heavily armed enemy battalion. As the battle raged and the casualties mounted, Chaplain Watters, with complete disregard for his safety, rushed forward to the line of contact. Unarmed and completely exposed, he moved among, as well as in front of the advancing troops, giving aid to the wounded, assisting in their evacuation, giving words of encouragement, and administering the last rites to the dying.

When a wounded paratrooper was standing in shock in front of the assaulting forces, Chaplain Watters ran forward, picked the man up on his shoulders and carried him to safety. As the troopers battled to the first enemy entrenchment, Chaplain Watters ran through the intense enemy fire to the front of the entrenchment to aid a fallen comrade. A short time later, the paratroopers pulled back in preparation for a second assault. Chaplain Watters exposed himself to both friendly and enemy fire between the two forces in order to recover two wounded soldiers.

Later, when the battalion was forced to pull back into a perimeter, Chaplain Watters noticed that several wounded soldiers were lying outside the newly formed perimeter. Without hesitation and ignoring attempts to restrain him, Chaplain Watters left the perimeter three times in the face of small arms, automatic weapons, and mortar fire to carry and to assist the injured troopers to safety.

Satisfied that all of the wounded were inside the perimeter, he began aiding the medics — applying field bandages to open wounds, obtaining and serving food and water, giving spiritual and mental strength and comfort. During his ministering, he moved out to the perimeter from position to position redistributing food and water, and tending to the needs of his men. Chaplain Watters was giving aid to the wounded when he himself was mortally wounded.

4.) Lt. Vincent Robert Capodanno

Father Capodanno was the youngest of ten children born to Italian immigrants in New York, but he learned to grapple with hardship and suffering at a young age when his father died suddenly on his 10th birthday. He felt called to the priesthood from a young age, and after nine years of intense preparation, he was ordained a Maryknoll Missioner priest in 1958. His first assignment was in Taiwan, where he ministered to the Hakka-Chinese while working to learn and understand their language.

After 6 years of service there, he was on leave in the United States when he was assigned to a new mission in Hong Kong. But he felt drawn to service as a military chaplain, especially as three of his brothers had served in World War II when he was a child. He asked his superiors for permission to join the Navy Chaplain Corps, wanting to serve the increasing number of Marine troops in Vietnam. In December 1965, Father Capodanno received his commission as a lieutenant in the Navy Chaplain Corps, and in 1966 he reported to the 7th Marines in Vietnam.

Because of his focus on the young enlisted troops, or “grunts,” and his willingness to share in the same hardships as his men, Father Capodanno earned the nickname “the Grunt Padre.” As chaplain for the battalion, his ministry involved not just administering the sacraments, but also caring for the troops’ every spiritual need. His biography says,

He became a constant companion to the Marines: living, eating, and sleeping in the same conditions of the men. He established libraries, gathered and distributed gifts and organized outreach programs for the local villagers. He spent hours reassuring the weary and disillusioned, consoling the grieving, hearing confessions, instructing converts, and distributing St. Christopher medals. Such work “energized” him, and he requested an extension to remain with the Marines.

It was during that second tour that Father Capodanno made the ultimate sacrifice. His Medal of Honor citation describes his heroic death:

In response to reports that the [platoon] was in danger of being overrun by a massed enemy assaulting force, Lt. Capodanno left the relative safety of the company command post and ran through an open area raked with fire, directly to the beleaguered platoon. Disregarding the intense enemy small-arms, automatic-weapons, and mortar fire, he moved about the battlefield administering last rites to the dying and giving medical aid to the wounded. 

When an exploding mortar round inflicted painful multiple wounds to his arms and legs, and severed a portion of his right hand, he steadfastly refused all medical aid. Instead, he directed the corpsmen to help their wounded comrades and, with calm vigor, continued to move about the battlefield as he provided encouragement by voice and example to the valiant marines. Upon encountering a wounded corpsman in the direct line of fire of an enemy machine gunner positioned approximately 15 yards away, Lt. Capodanno rushed a daring attempt to aid and assist the mortally wounded corpsman. At that instant, only inches from his goal, he was struck down by a burst of machine gun fire.

Later on, Marine Cpl. Ray Harton, who was wounded at that battle but survived, recalled seeing Father Capodanno just before he died. Capodanno calmly told him, “Stay quiet, Marine. You will be okay. Someone will be here to help you soon. God is with us all this day.” 

Those may have been Father Capodanno’s last words. Surely God was with the holy priest that day, and one can imagine the greeting in Heaven: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” The Archdiocese for the Military Services is promoting his cause for canonization, and in 2006 he was declared a Servant of God.

5.) Captain Angelo J. Liteky

Captain Liteky was known later in life as Charles James Liteky, and his name was not the only thing that changed after he returned from the Vietnam War. Over the course of 20 years, he left the priesthood, married a former religious sister, became a peace activist, and returned his Medal of Honor to the government—the only recipient ever to renounce the Medal. Yet, in a way, his peace activism was not a philosophical rupture from his acts of valor during the Vietnam War; he was recognized not for any fighting he did, but for putting himself in danger to save the lives of 23 wounded men during an intense battle. His Medal of Honor citation describes his heroic actions:

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He was participating in a search and destroy operation when [his company] came under intense fire from a battalion size enemy force. Momentarily stunned from the immediate encounter that ensued, the men hugged the ground for cover. Observing 2 wounded men, Chaplain Liteky moved to within 15 meters of an enemy machine gun position to reach them, placing himself between the enemy and the wounded men. When there was a brief respite in the fighting, he managed to drag them to the relative safety of the landing zone.

Inspired by his courageous actions, the company rallied and began placing a heavy volume of fire upon the enemy’s positions. In a magnificent display of courage and leadership, Chaplain Liteky began moving upright through the enemy fire, administering last rites to the dying and evacuating the wounded. Noticing another trapped and seriously wounded man, Chaplain Liteky crawled to his aid. Realizing that the wounded man was too heavy to carry, he rolled on his back, placed the man on his chest and through sheer determination and fortitude crawled back to the landing zone using his elbows and heels to push himself along.

Pausing for breath momentarily, he returned to the action and came upon a man entangled in the dense, thorny underbrush. Once more intense enemy fire was directed at him, but Chaplain Liteky stood his ground and calmly broke the vines and carried the man to the landing zone for evacuation. On several occasions when the landing zone was under small arms and rocket fire, Chaplain Liteky stood up in the face of hostile fire and personally directed the medivac helicopters into and out of the area.

With the wounded safely evacuated, Chaplain Liteky returned to the perimeter, constantly encouraging and inspiring the men. Upon the unit’s relief on the morning of 7 December 1967, it was discovered that despite painful wounds in the neck and foot, Chaplain Liteky had personally carried over 20 men to the landing zone for evacuation during the savage fighting.

4 Heroic Stories of Military Chaplains Who Went Beyond Their Call of Duty

By: Fr. Brenton Cordeiro –

During patriotic holidays, we are intentional in remembering the men and women who have fought for our freedom from the beginning. 

In a special way, military chaplains carry out their duties displaying exemplary courage and faith. They reflect the love of Jesus to those around them, often in heartbreaking and difficult situations. In some cases, they even go to the point of laying down their lives for their companions.

Military chaplains are part of Military Ordinariates, a unique setup within the Catholic Church.  A military ordinariate is similar to a diocese, but it does not cover a geographical area like a typical diocese does. 

Headed by a bishop, it is responsible for the spiritual care of Catholics serving in the armed forces of a country, wherever they are assigned – be it on a military base at home or abroad, a naval ship, international peacekeeping missions, and so on. 

While most military chaplains are given basic military training, they are usually unarmed and their main goals are to keep the morale of the troops high, and to support the troops, and sometimes their loved ones, through tough times. 

Military chaplains don’t restrict their ministry just to Catholics but are available to whoever may need pastoral care or spiritual guidance. They often serve men and women who never go to Church, but are comforted merely by the fact that there is someone praying for them as they head out the door into an armed conflict. 

As one military chaplain put it to me, “You see the look on their faces and they know that someone’s looking out for them. They need to know there’s a sense of the sacred, even if things seem to make no sense.”

Undoubtedly, a military chaplain’s job can be quite challenging, as, on one hand, they are trying to facilitate worship in places where a variety of belief systems and levels of faith abound. On the other hand, they have to try to be a pillar of strength, hope, and light in situations that defy reason. In many instances, they have to dig deep as they stand by grieving family members and comrades of fallen soldiers. 

While the techniques for military combat have changed over the years, there are diaries of priests even from recent wars that speak of how they had to move through battlefields to comfort and anoint dying soldiers. 

Even today, a military chaplain’s role can put him in harm’s way, or at the very least, make him a target of enemy combatants. During the recent Iraq War, there were reports that Iraqi insurgent snipers were encouraged to target chaplains (along with medical personnel and engineers), under the assumption that their deaths would demoralize entire units. 

Yet, despite the risks, military chaplains all over the world continue to carry out their duties faithfully and bravely. 

Here is a very small list of American military chaplains who went beyond their call of duty:

  1. Fr. Emil Kapaun – What many of us may not know is that two American military chaplains, Fr. Emil Kapaun and Fr. Vincent Capodanno, are on the road to sainthood.  Fr. Kapaun, an Army chaplain from Kansas, died as a prisoner of war in Korea.  He is remembered for helping carry his injured companions as Chinese troops led them on a 60-mile journey to captivity. 
  2. Fr. Vincent Capodanno – Fr. Capodanno, a priest from Staten Island, New York, was killed during the Vietnam War after his unit was ambushed by North Vietnamese forces. Despite his injuries, Fr. Capodanno tended to injured Marines during the battle and continued to administer last rites to the dying soldiers.
  3. The U.S. Navy vessels Named After Them – The heroism of four Catholic military chaplains has been recognized with U.S. Navy vessels after them.  Three of them, Fr. John Francis Laboon, SJ, Fr. Aloysius H. Schmitt and Fr. Joseph T. O’Callahan were honored in particular for their service during the Second World War, while Fr. Capodanno, as mentioned above, served in the Vietnam War.
  4. The Bravery of the “Four Chaplains” – Perhaps one of the most famous stories involving the heroism and love of military chaplains is that of the Four Chaplains. 

Methodist minister Rev. George L. Fox, Reform Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, Catholic priest Fr. John P. Washington and Reformed Church in America minister Rev. Clark V. Poling died aboard the SS Dorchester during the Second World War. On Feb. 3, 1943, the ship was hit by a torpedo from a German U-boat. 

These four men helped other soldiers onto lifeboats and when the ship ran out of life jackets, they gave their life jackets to those around them. As the ship sank, the chaplains joined arms, and survivors recounted hearing prayers and hymns in different languages from the chaplains, including Jewish prayers in Hebrew and Catholic prayers in Latin.

Obviously, there are far more military chaplains from all over the world, who have sacrificed a great deal to serve their brothers and sisters in Christ, some to the point of shedding their blood. Many of them have been honored in their respective countries, though sometimes their actions are known only by those whom they loved by their deeds, and by God, who sees all. 

When we honor men and women from the armed forces, let’s also pray for military chaplains. They give up a lot to bring Jesus to those who fight in battle for our sake. May their witness inspire others to follow them in this unique calling that brings light, peace, and love into what are often dark and difficult moments.