Each year on November 11, we observe Veterans Day and remember all those who have served our country in times of war. Among those veterans are our military chaplains. Five military chaplains, all of them Catholics, have received the Medal of Honor since the Civil War. Two of them are on the path to sainthood as their stories of bravery have touched people the world over. Their example inspires a new generation of men to be chaplains as well. Four Catholic military chaplains have also been recognized for bravery in the line of duty with United States Navy ships named in their honor.
One of the chaplains, Father Emil Kapaun, an Army chaplain from Kansas, died as a prisoner of war in Korea. Another, Father Vincent Capodanno, a Maryknoll priest from Staten Island, New York, died when, despite his own war injuries, he tended injured Marines during battle in Vietnam. The Navy named the USS Capodanno after him. The church has named both “Servants of God,” a step toward becoming an officially recognized saint.
The three other Medal of Honor winners have dramatic stories too. Father Joseph O’Callahan, a Jesuit priest and Navy chaplain in World War II, ministered to injured sailors on a ship hit by two bombs. He worked to jettison bombs close to exploding and led a group on a dangerous mission to water down other ammunition hot enough to explode. The Navy named the USS O’Callahan after him.
Father Charles J. Watters, from New Jersey, served in Vietnam. He rescued wounded men at the Battle of Dak To. He ran through intense gunfire to help wounded soldiers. He carried one man to safety. Once though injured himself, he moved about the war zone to apply bandages and give food and water to other wounded. He died in the worst “friendly-fire” incident in Vietnam when he and 41 others were hit by shrapnel when a 500-pound bomb dropped by a Marine fighter hit a tree over the U.S. command post.
Father Angelo Liteky, who later changed his first name to “Charles,” was awarded his medal for carrying 20 wounded soldiers to safety during intense fighting on a search and destroy mission in Vietnam. Afterwards he became a peace activist, left the priesthood in 1975, and renounced his medal in 1986. It’s on display at the National Museum of American History.
One of our friars gave his life in Korea. From a website: Born in Louisville, Kentucky on July 17, 1913, Herman G. Felhoelter was ordained a Franciscan priest in 1939. He served as an Army chaplain during War II and was awarded a Bronze Star.
Reenlisting in the Army after the war, on July 16th 1950 he was a Captain serving as a chaplain with the 19th Infantry in Korea. The 19th was in a tough spot that day. The North Koreans had established a road block in the rear of the regiment near the village of Tunam, South Korea. The regiment was in retreat, moving through mountains, trying to get around the roadblock, and slowed by the numerous wounded being carried due to the heavy fighting with the North Koreans during the battle for Taegu. It was obvious by 9:00 PM on the evening of July 16th that 30 of the most seriously wounded could go no farther due to their stretcher bearers being exhausted. Father Felhoelter and the chief medical officer Captain Linton J. Buttrey volunteered to stay with the wounded while the rest of the men escaped. Father Felhoelter was under no illusions of what would happen to the wounded and to him after the advancing North Koreans captured them, and swiftly gave them the Last Rites while he tended to them. Soon Father Felhoelter heard a North Korean patrol approaching. He told Buttrey to escape, which Buttrey reluctantly did, being severely wounded in the process. An American sergeant with binoculars watched in horror at what happened next. Ignoring the approaching North Koreans, Father Felhoelter knelt and prayed over the wounded. The North Koreans killed him by shooting him in the head and the back and then proceeded to murder the helpless wounded.
For his heroism that day Father Felhoelter posthumously was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest medal for valor in the US Army after the Medal of Honor. He was one day shy of his 37th birthday, and was the first US chaplain to die in the Korean War.