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Army Chaplain Francis L. Sampson of Sioux Falls, S.D., gives absolution to American paratroopers killed in action, in Saint Marie Dumont, France, U.S. Army Photo, 7 June 1944 (Note that bodies are wrapped in parachutes)

by: Lawrence P. Grayson

At 1:15 am, on June 6, 1944, most people in German-occupied Normandy were asleep. Then, from the west, came the increasing drone of aircraft engines and of anti-aircraft fire. The largest air armada ever assembled was passing over — 882 U.S. planes, which now began to disgorge their contents: thirteen thousand paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. The Americans’ task was to secure a number of causeways and create safety zones where gliders could land at first light to bring in reinforcements. Offshore, five thousand ships carrying 200,000 men were assembling. Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Europe, had begun. It was D-Day!

Among those dropping in the dark sky was Fr. Francis L. Sampson, a young Catholic chaplain, making his first combat jump. Landing in a deep stream, he cut away his hundred-twenty-plus-pound pack and was dragged into shallower water before he could unbuckle his chute. He then repeatedly dove into the water to retrieve his weapons: a Mass kit and holy oils, items he soon would need.

Father joined other paratroopers and they made their way to a French farmhouse that was being used for those who were severely wounded or injured in the jump. A Protestant chaplain was already there and the two of them provided first aid for most of the day. When it was clear that some of the men needed a doctor’s care, Father Sampson left to find the regimental aid station. Shortly after locating it, a decision was made to pull out. The chaplain volunteered to remain with the men who could not walk.

Close to Death
At dawn, German troops overran the house. Two soldiers took the priest outside and raised their rifles to shoot him, when a German noncom, a Catholic, stopped them. After being interrogated, Father was allowed to return to the wounded. That night, the house was shelled and partially collapsed killing several men. Later that day, the Americans regained the position, and the priest accompanied the injured to the division hospital.
Fr. Francis L. Sampson giving Last Rites to paratroopers killed in action during the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

Here there were 500-600 wounded men. As the injured were continually coming in, Father assisted the division chaplain in spiritually administering to both American and German casualties. The next day, he went to the newly established division cemetery, where several hundred bodies lay wrapped in parachutes. He read the internment ritual and remained for the burials. Father Sampson was in combat for another three weeks, working with aid men to rescue the wounded, offering Mass, hearing confessions, anointing the dying, and praying for the dead.

A Small Town Boy
Father Sampson was born in Cherokee, Iowa, on February 29, 1912, but grew up in Dalles, Oregon, where his parents ran a small hotel. Ordained in 1941, he served briefly as a parish priest before enlisting in the Army, early the following year. While in Chaplains School, he volunteered for the paratroopers and was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division.

In September 1944, three months after his experiences in Normandy, Father Sampson took part in an airborne assault on Holland. When the men were moving to their planes, Father stood outside the hangar shaking hands and blessing the men. Upon jumping behind enemy lines, he and the regimental doctor set up an aid station in a castle. Father went to find the commanding officer to inform him of their position. While he was away, the Germans seized the castle and everyone inside.

Father Sampson, a POW at Stalag II-A.

As a POW
In December, the German forces began a massive offensive, known as the Battle of the Bulge. The 101st was ordered to hold a vital crossroads at Bastogne. Learning that a number of American paratroopers were machine-gunned and left on a nearby road, Father took a jeep to aid them. He ran into a German unit and was taken prisoner. In the ensuing days, he and a growing contingent of Allied prisoners were marched from Belgium through Luxembourg to Germany. On Christmas Eve, with the prisoners confined in a school auditorium, American planes bombed the area. Father led the men in prayer and song and spoke of the presence of Christ among them. Over a ten-day period, the prisoners had been marched 185 miles. Some 1,500 of them then were herded into overcrowded boxcars, where they remained for almost six days. Given neither food nor water, their only sustenance was snow scraped from the tops of the boxcars as they traveled to their destination, Stalag II-A Neubrandenburg, a prison camp in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, in northern Germany.
Guard tower and double row of fences at Stalag II-A.

Father Sampson was the only Catholic priest among the 950 Americans in a camp that held some 26,000 prisoners of various nationalities, only 21 of whom were officers. He had the men build a chapel in his barracks, where he held daily Mass and a non-denominational prayer service twice a week. As the war drew to a close, restrictions on the prisoners eased. On Good Friday, Father Sampson led the men in the Stations of the Cross, and gave an hour’s meditation on the life of Christ. On Easter Day, he joined with French, Dutch and Polish Catholic priests, who were imprisoned, to celebrate together a Solemn High Mass for several thousand prisoners. In April 1945, after four months in the Stalag, the Russians liberated the camp.

Fr. Francis L. Sampson, Major General, US Army, a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Continuing in the Military
After the war, Father Sampson briefly left the service before reenlisting at the request of the Military Ordinariate, Francis Cardinal Spellman. When the Korean War started, Father was with the 11th Airborne Division. Shortly after the Americans landed at Inchon, the North Koreans retreated across the 38th parallel, with the 1st Cavalry Division in pursuit. The 11th Airborne was ordered to cutoff the fleeing enemy and rescue some 2,000 American prisoners who were being marched north of Pyongyang.

The prisoners, however, had been moved farther north during the night before the paratroopers landed. Although they did not rescue the Americans, they were able to capture several thousand North Korean soldiers. As the Chinese had entered the war, the Americans were severely outnumbered and retreated south. Father was busy administering to the men, including saying five Masses on Christmas Day to accommodate the dispersed units.

Father Sampson remained in the Army, assuming increasing responsibilities. In 1967, he was appointed Chief of Chaplains of the Army, with the rank of major general. After he retired in 1971, he was appointed as head of the USO. During the Vietnam War, he made annual Christmas visits to the troops, and was untiring in visiting wounded soldiers in hospitals. He died in January 1996, having received many military honors, including the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism at Normandy and the Distinguished Service Medal.


About the Author: Lawrence P. Grayson is a Visiting Scholar in the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. He also serves as State Director for Pro-Life Activities, Knights of Columbus, Maryland.



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Written by Lawrence P. Grayson   

On Easter morning, March 25, 1951, the Catholic priest mounted the steps of a partially destroyed church, and turned to face his congregation, some 60 men–gaunt, foul-smelling, in tattered clothing. Fr. Emil Kapaun raised a small, homemade, wooden cross to begin a prayer service, led the men in the Rosary, heard the confessions of the Catholics, and performed a Baptism. Then, he wept because there was no bread or wine to consecrate so that the men could receive the Eucharist. The U.S. Army chaplain, with a patch covering his injured eye and supported by a crudely-made cane, may have been broken in body, but was strong in spirit.

The following Sunday, Father Kapaun collapsed. His condition was serious–a blood clot, severe vein inflammation, malnutrition–but the Chinese guards in the North Korean prison camp would allow no medical treatment, not even painkillers. After languishing for several weeks, he died on May 23 and was buried in a mass grave.

Emil Kapaun was born on April 16, 1916 to a poor, but faith-filled farm family on the prairies of eastern Kansas. Life was hard and even children had to learn to be resourceful as mechanics and carpenters and to care for the animals during bitter winters and brutally hot summers. With a strong desire to become a priest, he attended Benedictine Conception Abbey to complete high school and college, continued his studies at Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis, and was ordained in 1940.

Fr. Emil Kapaun celebrating a field Mass on the hood of a jeep.

Heroic Chaplain

When the United States entered World War II, he asked to become a military chaplain. His bishop initially refused, but later relented. Father Kapaun enlisted in 1944 in the Army, served for two years in Burma and India, then returned to civilian life. Two years later, he reenlisted and was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division in Japan.

In June 1950, a North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel, and advanced quickly toward Seoul, South Korea. The U.S. intervened militarily, with the 1st Cavalry Division executing an amphibious landing to block the advancing army. The enemy onslaught was severe and the U.S. units soon were in retreat. Fighting was intense. Father Kapaun, with his soldier-parishioners in danger, was tireless. He moved among the GIs, ignoring enemy fire, comforting the wounded, administering the last rites, burying the dead, and offering Mass whenever and wherever he could. On one occasion, he went in front of the U.S. lines, in spite of intense fire, to rescue a wounded soldier.

By August, the U.S. troops had been pushed to the southern end of Korea, near the port of Pusan. Then, on September 15, 1950, the war took a radical turn when U.S. troops landed at Inchon behind the invading army. The North Korean forces fled northward, with the Americans in pursuit. Within a few weeks, the 1st Cavalry Division had crossed the 38th parallel. Unknown to them, China, which had secretly moved a huge army into North Korea, was about to enter the war.

Fearless in Danger
The night of November 1 was quiet. Father Kapaun’s battalion, having suffered some 400 casualties among its roster of 700 soldiers, was placed in a reserve position. Chinese troops, however, had infiltrated to within a short distance of them. Suddenly, just before midnight, there was a cacophony of bugles, horns and whistles, as the enemy attacked from all sides.

Father Kapaun showing his pipe after it was shot out of his mouth by an enemy sniper.

Fr. Emil Kapaun scrambled among foxholes, sharing a prayer with one soldier, saying a comforting word to another. He assembled many wounded in an abandoned log dugout. All the next day, he scanned the battlefield and, some 15 times, when he spotted a wounded soldier would crawl out and drag the man back to the battalion’s position. By day’s end, the defensive perimeter was drawn so tightly that the log hut and the wounded it contained were outside of it. As evening came and another attack was imminent, the chaplain left the main force for the shelter so that he could be with the wounded. It was soon overrun, and Father Kapaun pleaded for the safety of the injured. Approximately three-quarters of the men in the battalion had been killed or captured.

Admirable Self-Sacrifice
Hundreds of U.S. prisoners were marched northward over snow-covered crests. Whenever the column paused, Father Kapaun hurried up and down the line, encouraging the men to pray, exhorting them not to give up. When a man had to be carried or be left to die, Father Kapaun, although suffering from frostbite himself, set the example by helping to carry a makeshift stretcher. Finally, they reached their destination, a frigid, mountainous area near the Chinese border. The poorly dressed prisoners were given so little to eat that they were starving to death.

For the men to survive they would have to steal food from their captors. So, praying to Saint Dismas, the “Good Thief,” Father Kapaun would sneak out of his hut in the middle of the night, often coming back with a sack of grain, potatoes or corn. He volunteered for details to gather wood because the route passed the compound where the enlisted men were kept, and he could encourage them with a prayer, and sometimes slip out of line to visit the sick and wounded. He also undertook tasks that repulsed others, such as cleaning latrines and washing the soiled clothing of men with dysentery.

Unwavering Faith
Father Kapaun’s faith never wavered. While he was willing to forgive the failings of prisoners toward their captors, he allowed no leeway in regard to the doctrines of the Church. He continually reminded prisoners to pray, assuring them that in spite of their difficulties, Our Lord would take care of them. As a result of his example, some 15 of his fellow prisoners converted to the Catholic Faith.

Fr. Emil Kapaun (second from right–note cross on helmet) helping a wounded soldier.

Fr. Emil Kapaun’s practice of sharing his meager rations with others who were weaker, lowered his resistance to disease, and eventually led to his death. For his heroic behavior, he received many posthumous honors, including the Distinguished Service Cross and Legion of Merit, had buildings, chapels, a high school, and several Knights of Columbus councils named in his honor, and is currently being considered for the Medal of Honor. In 1993, the Pope declared Father Kapaun a “Servant of God,” and his cause for canonization is pending.

About the Author: Lawrence P. Grayson is a Visiting Scholar in the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. He also serves as State Director for Pro-Life Activities, Knights of Columbus, Maryland.

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Fr. Charles Joseph Watters

by:  Lawrence P. Grayson

In the early morning hours of November 9, 1967, as American artillery and aircraft pounded an 875-meter-high hill near Dak To, Vietnam, Fr. Charles Watters offered Mass at its base. Many Protestants joined the Catholics for the well-attended service. Soon, the chaplain would accompany these paratroopers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade as they moved against a North Vietnam Army (NVA) unit occupying the hill. The commanding general of the 173rd thought the objective was held by a depleted enemy force that suffered heavy casualties in recent fighting. The occupiers, however, were a fresh NVA regiment of 2,000 soldiers.

At 9:43 am, 330 men in three companies moved out. Companies C and D advanced abreast, while CompVany A was behind to protect the rear. The weather was clear and warm. The advance was slow through the thick, tangled foliage of scrub brush, bamboo and tall trees. Unknown to the Americans, the enemy had been preparing the site for several months, constructing camouflaged bunkers interconnected with trenches and tunnels and storing extensive quantities of supplies. At 10:30 am, with the first troopers a few hundred meters from the crest of the hill, a well-concealed NVA force opened fire with recoilless rifles, automatic weapons, small arms, rockets and hand grenades.

Father Watters moved to the line of contact. When a wounded trooper was standing in shock in front of the assaulting forces, Father raced forward, picked the man up and carried him to safety. Soon after, he ran through intense enemy fire to aid a fallen soldier. The chaplain moved wherever he was needed.

When the fighting began, Company A, which was to the rear, began constructing a landing zone that could be used for resupply and evacuation of the wounded. The work was slow as the company was under occasional fire. Then, at 2:30 pm, enemy troops launched a massive assault from lower on the hill, driving the company upwards toward the other American units. The paratroopers had walked into a carefully prepared ambush, with enemy units above and below them.

With their advance halted, the Americans formed a defensive perimeter, bringing in their injured. As the men pulled back, the chaplain went into “no man’s land,” between the two forces, exposing himself to friendly as well as enemy fire to recover two wounded soldiers.

Celebrating Mass during the war in Vietnam. Father Watters believed his place was always with the fighting men — in the combat zone.

The NVA were now striking from all sides in a well-coordinated attack. The paratroopers were firing intensely, but the NVA continued to come. When the American defensive zone was forced to contract, Father Watters saw several wounded men lying outside of it. Ignoring attempts to restrain him, he left the perimeter three times in the face of automatic weapons and mortar fire to carry and assist injured troopers to safety. Then he moved about, aiding the medics, distributing food and water, speaking words of encouragement, and giving last rites to the dying.

With the three companies now in a common defensive area, the several command posts and the wounded were placed in the middle. For several hours, the Americans fought off the enemy. The high expenditure of ammunition and lack of water made resupply essential, but heavy enemy fire made it difficult. Six helicopters were hit and driven away before one finally dropped needed supplies at 5:50 pm.

As the enemy assault intensified, U.S. air strikes and artillery were called in, but they had little effect because of the dense foliage. Then, just after dark, at 6:58 pm, a Marine Corps fighter-bomber released two 500-pound bombs destined for the edge of the American perimeter. One of them struck the upper part of a tree located near the center of the American position and exploded. Fragments of the bomb were showered over the area which contained the combined command group, the wounded, and the medics. It killed 42 men, including the chaplain, and wounded 45 others. This was one of the worst friendly-fire incidents of the Vietnam War.

Charles Joseph Watters was born in Jersey City, N.J., on January 17, 1927. After attending Seton Hall University, he went to Immaculate Conception Seminary, and was ordained a priest in 1953. While serving in several parishes in New Jersey, he earned a commercial pilot’s license, and then in 1962 joined the Air Force National Guard. Three years later, Father enlisted in the Army as a chaplain, successfully completed airborne training and was assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade, nicknamed the Sky Soldiers.

In June 1966, Father Watters, now a major, began a twelve-month tour of duty in Vietnam. He believed his place was with the fighting men, and so when a unit he was attached to rotated to the rear, he would join another unit in combat. He was constantly in motion, saying Mass, tending the wounded, joking with the men and giving spiritual guidance. Fr. Charles Joseph Watters celebrating Mass in the combat zone during the Vietnam War, shortly before his death. Father Watters with his chaplain’s assistant saying Mass shortly before his death.

In February 1967, he took part in Operation Junction City, which included the only combat jump of the Vietnam War. This helped endear him to the men, who knew he would risk his life with them. During this tour of duty, he was awarded an Air Medal and a Bronze Star with a V for valor.

When his tour ended, he extended for another six months. After the friendly-fire incident in which Father Watters was killed, the Americans took Hill 875, and significantly crippled the fighting effectiveness of the North Vietnam units they fought. Fr. Charles Joseph Watters was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, and has had schools, a bridge, a Knights of Columbus council, and the Army Chaplain’s School named after him.



About the Author: Lawrence P. Grayson is a Visiting Scholar in the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. He also serves as State Director for Pro-Life Activities, Knights of Columbus, Maryland.

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