On this blog I have often criticized current follies of the Society of Jesus. However, I would never deny that the Jesuits in the past rendered brilliant service to the Church and were fearless in their determination to carry the Gospel of Christ into the World. The history of the Church has many a glorious page detailing the deeds of the sons of Saint Ignatius Loyola, and on one of those pages we will find the story of Aloysius McGonigal.
Born November 8, 1921, Aloysius McGonigal was the sixth of twelve children, his mother dying in childbirth with the twelfth. His family lived in the Tacony neighborhood of Philadelphia, where his father was a cop, and were members of Saint Leo’s Parish. Early in his life Al decided that he was going to be a Jesuit priest. He went to Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School in Philadelphia and went on to his Jesuit novitiate, earning degrees from Woodstock and Fordham. He was ordained a priest of the Society of Jesus on June 28, 1953. He celebrated his first mass at Saint Leo’s. He served as assistant prefect at Gonzaga High School in Washington DC and taught at Loyola High School in Baltimore.
Father McGonigal was physically not a tall man, only 5 foot, six inches, but he was muscular and powerfully built, and very much an athlete, playing tennis, baseball and basketball. He was also always ready for a game of football, even when wearing his collar. He enjoyed music and learning foreign languages. A man of unusual determination, he earned a master’s degree in physics from Georgetown after being advised that it was beyond his capabilities. He was working towards his doctorate at the time of his death.
He served in the Army as a chaplain in 1961-63, including a tour in South Korea. He reentered the Army as a chaplain in 1966 with the rank of Major, and went to Vietnam in December of that year where he served as a chaplain with the First Infantry Brigade of the Ninth Infantry Division. Signing up for a second one year tour he was assigned, much to his dismay, to a desk job. His desk didn’t see much of him. As a sergeant recalled, “Saying mass at headquarters two or three times a week didn’t seem much like a job to him.”
He became a fixture throughout I corp in northern South Vietnam, saying mass in the field for troops, hearing confessions, helping the wounded, almost always with a smile on his face. One of the troops who got to know him recalled that in one of his sermons he said that he was sure God had a special appreciation for soldiers because He understood how much they had to endure. In his letters home he would always end with this request: “Pray for the troops”.
In January 1968 South Vietnam was rocked by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong Tet Offensive. Although portrayed in the press at the time as a defeat for the US and the South Vietnamese, Tet was actually a devastating defeat for the Viet Cong. Attempting to fight a conventional war against American firepower the Cong sustained combat fatalities of approximately 30000 plus troops and by the end of the year were a broken force.
On January 31, 1968 Viet Cong units, making up a division in strength, seized areas of the city of Hue, the old imperial capital of Vietnam. An urban battle quickly ensued as South Vietnamese units and American soldiers and Marines began a grinding fight to oust the Viet Cong from the city. Before the battle of Hue began Chaplain McGonigal had been assigned to the advisory compound at Hue. Up in northern South Vietnam when the battle began, he hitched a ride with a South Vietnamese airborne unit to get back to Hue.
Finding himself south of the Perfume River during the initial stages of the battle, Father McGonigal learned that the First Battalion, Fifth Marines (1/5), heavily involved in the fighting north of the Perfume River to take back the Citadel in Hue, did not have a Catholic chaplain. How he got across the Perfume River to join the Marines is not clear. The troops guarding the crossings were under strict instructions not to allow unauthorized personnel to cross. Chaplain McGonigal, not being officially assigned to the 1/5, was clearly not authorized to cross. Actually his commander had ordered him to stay put and a replacement priest was on his way, with Chaplain McGonigal slated to go back to Da Nang, again ostensibly to a desk job. However, as one of the soldiers who knew him recalled, when Father McGonigal decided to do something it was impossible to deter him.
Linking up with the Marines, Father McGonigal was initially told by them that it was too dangerous and that he should go back. Undeterred, he began treating the wounded and giving last rites to the dying, and was quickly accepted by the Marines. In his short time with the Marines he made many friends. On the third day of intense fighting, February 17, 1968, he was killed as he was attempting to rescue a wounded Marine. He was awarded posthumously a Silver Star for the courage he amply displayed during the fighting in Hue. Hue eventually was re-taken from the Viet Cong. For its part in the fighting the 1/5 was ever after known as the Citadel Battalion. After the battle it was discovered that the Viet Cong had murdered thousands of civilians, including approximately 400 who had taken sanctuary in a Catholic Church.
The Marines never forgot this Army chaplain. In 1992 the Marines named the Chapel at Camp Pendleton, California in his honor. The Ancient Order of Hibernians Division 17 in Philadelphia is named after Father McGonigal, and they have undertaken efforts to have him awarded posthumously the Medal of Honor. Father McGonigal is remembered on the Vietnam Wall and here on the Virtual Wall. A fitting epitaph for him is in this brief story which appeared in the St. Petersburg Times on February 21, 1968: ” Chaplain stayed up front, died to be with his men.”