8 Heroic U.S. Military Chaplains


While researching the post 10 Heroic Battlefield Medics, I came across a couple of fascinating stories about military chaplains and their wartime exploits. Those stories were filed away for later, and they grew into a list of stories that deserve to be told and remembered. They are presented here in more or less chronological order.

1. Anthony Rey

Some contemporaries wrote of the Mexican-American War as one of U.S. Protestants against Mexican Catholics. President Polk responded to such allegations by appointing two Catholic priests to serve as military chaplains. Father Anthony Rey, a Jesuit from Georgetown University with no military background or training, participated in the battle of Monterrey in September of 1846. He tended to the wounded on the battlefield and gave last rites to the dying. Afterward, serving in north Mexico, he ventured out of the U.S. garrison to minister to the locals, despite warnings of the danger. In 1847 he said a mass at the village of Ceralvo, and never made it back. His body was found a few days later, stabbed through by lances. He was mourned by both the U.S. troops and the Mexicans he served.

2. Horatio Stockton Howell

Presbyterian minister Horatio Howell was chaplain of the 90th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War. Most military chaplains at the time wore clerical black, but Howell preferred a regulation captain's uniform. On the first day of the battle of Gettysburg, July 1, 1863, Howell was serving at the infirmary set up at a church in Gettysburg when he went to the door and was confronted by a Confederate soldier demanding his surrender. The minister began to argue that he was a non-combatant and not subject to capture, but was shot and killed, probably due to the uniform.

3. John P. Chidwick

Father John P. Chidwick was the chaplain serving on the battleship USS Maine when it exploded in Havana Harbor in 1898. Tensions were already high, and this incident was the spark that began the Spanish-American War. Father Chadwick worked tirelessly through the night to rescue injured sailors and tend to their wounds. He was the last man to leave the ship. Two days later, Chadwick conducted the funeral rites in Havana for those who died.

4. John B. DeValles

Father John B. DeValles earned the nickname the "Angel of the Trenches" during World War I. He ventured into No Man's Land in France to search for wounded and dying soldiers, and ministered to both the Allies and the Germans. During one foray, he did not return and was found unconscious and wounded, next to a dead soldier he had tried to help. DeValles' wounds caused his health to suffer, but he continued to serve in France until 1919. He died a year later, never having completely recovered from his wartime attack. France awarded DeValles the

Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honor

. Only a half-hour before he died, DeValles was notified that he would be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. It was

pinned on him at his funeral

in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The funeral carried full military honors, and all town flags were flown at half-staff. A school in the town was named in his honor.

5. Colman O'Flaherty

Father Colman O'Flaherty was an Irish immigrant who was educated in Canada and then worked to establish several schools in South Dakota in the early 20th century. When World War I began, he joined up and was sent to France as a chaplain with the the 28th Infantry. O'Flaherty was shot and killed while helping the wounded on the front lines on October 1, 1918. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously for extraordinary heroism in action.

6. Francis P. Duffy

Canadian-born Father Francis Duffy served in the Spanish-American War, and returned to service in 1916 to accompany troops in Mexico. Then during World War I he ministered to soldiers on the front lines in France. During battle, Duffy administered first aid and last rites as well, often under heavy fire. For his service and bravery, the priest was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal. After the war, Duffy served as pastor of Holy Cross Church near Times Square in New York until his death in 1932. Duffy Square in the city's theater district is named after Father Duffy. He was portrayed by Pat O'Brien in the 1940 film The Fighting 69th. Father Duffy is pictured on the right.

7. John G. Burkhalter

Rev. John G. Burkhalter was a professional boxer who became a Southern Baptist minister in Florida in 1932. He then earned a degree in history and immediately joined the military when he graduated in 1942. Burkhalter was assigned as a chaplain with the First Infantry and landed in Normandy with Allied forces during the D-Day invasion on August June 6, 1944. In October, Burkhalter worked to recover the wounded and dead during the Battle of the Bulge. He went missing for several weeks and was discovered in a French hospital, having sustained several head wounds during the battle. Burkhalter was awarded the Silver Star and Bronze Star as well as a Purple Heart for his activities under fire. After the war, he stayed with the army, eventually serving in the Korean War. Burkhalter retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1969. In 1992, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

8. Francis L. Sampson

If you've seen the movie Saving Private Ryan, you might be surprised to learn that the real hero who reunited the soldier Private Ryan was based on with his remaining family was a chaplain. Father Francis L. Sampson was "The Paratrooper Padre" with the 101st Airborne Division who jumped into Normandy on D-Day, landing behind enemy lines in a river. He dove to the bottom to retrieve his equipment because he couldn't lose his Mass kit. Sampson was once captured but was saved from being shot by an enemy unit leader who was Catholic. He ministered to friend and enemy alike, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his activities in France. Sampson then went into action in Holland, where his parachute jump landed him again in water -a castle moat. He was captured by Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and imprisoned near Berlin for four months. That camp was liberated by the Russians in 1945. But that wasn't the end of Sampson's heroics -he went on to serve in Korea, then stayed with the army to train other chaplains and eventually became Chief of Chaplains. He retired with the rank of Major General and a slew of medals in 1971. But that's not all! Father Sampson was then appointed to head the USO, and he spent the rest of the Vietnam War visiting troops with entertainment tours. He died in 1996 at the age of 83.

We've only made it to World War II, and there are other heroic stories from the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and more recent conflicts. Those are found in the post 12 Heroic U.S. Military Chaplains.