Great Jesuits 5: Medal of Honor




Number 5 in my series on Great Jesuits of American history.  A hallmark of the Jesuit Order has always been utter fearlessness.  The Order founded by that Basque soldier turned saint, Saint Ignatius Loyola, had as little use for fear as it did for doubt.  The “black robes” of the Jesuits in New France were typical of the Jesuit soldiers of Christ in their almost super-human courage in disdaining the torture and death they exposed themselves to as missionaries to warlike tribes.

Firmly in this tradition of courage is Joseph Timothy O’Callahan.  Born on May 14, 1905 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, he attended Boston College High School.  He joined the Jesuits in 1922  and obtained his BA from Saint Andrew’s College in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1925, and his Masters in Philosophy at Weston College in 1929.  Ordained in 1934, he served as a professor of Mathematics, Philosophy and Physics at Boston College until 1937.  He then spent a year as a professor of Philosophy at Weston Jesuit School of Theology, before becoming head of the Mathematics department at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

On August 7, 1940, Father O’Callahan was appointed a Lieutenant JG in the United States Navy.  His decision to join the Navy as a chaplain shocked some of his friends, one of them remarking, “Let someone younger help those boys.  You can’t even open your umbrella!”  Nothing daunted, Chaplain O’Callahan served at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola,  Florida from 1940-1942.  From 1942-1945 he served as chaplain at Naval Air Stations in Alameda, California and at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.   It was almost at the end of the war when he was assigned to sea duty and reported aboard the Franklin, an Essex Class Fleet Air-Craft Carrier on March 2, 1945.  The Franklin was the fifth ship in the United States Navy to be named after Benjamin Franklin, and had seen a lot of combat during the War.  It was about to see more.

On March 19, 1945, the feast of Saint Joseph, the Franklin was conducting air raids against Honshu, one of the Japanese Home Islands.  Only fifty miles off-shore, the Franklin was closer to Japan than any US aircraft carrier had come  before during the War.  At 7:08 AM a single Japanese dive bomber pierced the cloud cover and dove for the Franklin dropping two semi-armor piercing bombs.  One bomb struck the flight deck centerline, penetrating through to the hangar deck.  The other struck the aft of the carrier, penetrating through two decks.  The Franklin was immediately rocked by huge explosions as the bombs ignited ammunition and gasoline.  A series of explosions would rock the ship for hours as the crew of the Franklin fought to save her.

Approximately 2600 officers and men were aboard the Franklin.  724 would died that day and 265 were  wounded.  Many men would engage in heroic actions as the Franklin struggled to survive, but the deeds of Lieutenant Commander O’Callahan stood out.

After the bombs hit, Father O’Callahan said a quick prayer that God might forgive the sins of the crew of the Franklin.  He then ran to his quarters and put on his lifebelt and helmet which had a big white cross on it.  He and Protestant Chaplain Gatlin began to tend to the wounded brought forward to the Officer’s Quarters, with Chaplain O’Callahan giving the Last Rites many times. 

He then ran up to the flight deck which was engulfed in flames.  He helped the wounded and organized teams to fight the fires.  Captain Leslie E. Gehres, the skipper of the Franklin, observed Father Callahan from the bridge, where he was trapped by the fires.  Gehres was a stubborn and sometimes cantakerous mustang, an enlisted man who rose to be an officer.  His stubbornness served him in good stead this day.  He had already ignored the advice of the Admiral who had been aboard the Franklin, before he transferred his flag to another vessel, that the Franklin be abandoned.  Gehres was not about to abandon his ship, especially with hundreds of crewmen trapped below deck.  Recognizing Father O’Callahan from the white cross on his helmet, Gehres, using a bull horn, yelled at him to take command on the flight deck to fight the fire.  Captain Gehres later told Mrs. O’Callahan, the mother of the Chaplain, that Father O’Callahan was the bravest man he had ever seen.

Organizing teams of officers and men, Father O’Callahan led them in picking up ammunition near, or even in, the fires, to pitch overboard before the ammunition exploded.  It is hard to imagine anything more hazardous.  Evacuating ammunition from the main gun magazine, Father O’Callahan went himself into the magazine with a fire hose to extinguish the flames so that the ammunition could be pitched over the side.

The crew took courage from the calm example of the priest.  Many men began following him around to help.  He seemed to be everywhere, fighting fires, giving the last rites, helping the wounded, all the while outwardly showing no fear and proceeding calmly and deliberately about his many duties.  When the flight deck fires seemed to be under control, he went below deck several times to lead out trapped crewmen, personally leading to safety over 700 of them. Unbelievably, the Franklin stayed afloat and was towed back to port.  The crew of the Franklin won their fight to save their ship.

For his actions that day Captain Gehres recommended Father O’Callhan for the Medal of Honor.  He was the first Chaplain to be awarded that decoration.  His Medal of Honor citation reads as follows:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as chaplain on board the U.S.S. Franklin when that vessel was fiercely attacked by enemy Japanese aircraft during offensive operations near Kobe, Japan, on 19 March 1945.  A valiant and forceful leader, calmly braving the perilous barriers of flame and twisted metal to aid his men and his ship, Lt. 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 armament. 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, Lt. 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.

These videos describe the attack on the Franklin.  The second video has a section on the actions of Chaplain O’Callahan.

After the War Father O’Callahan returned to his academic duties with the Jesuits.  He also stayed in the Naval Reserve and retired as a Captain.  He died on March 16, 1964 and is buried in the Jesuit cemetary at Holy Cross.  A Destroyer Escort was named in his honor.  The O’Callahan Assembly of the Knights of Colombus in Sebring, Florida help keep his memory alive.  Holy Cross has the O’Callahan NROTC Committee to help train future naval officers.  The science library at Holy Cross is named after him.  The best memorials to Father O’Callahan are of course the lives of all the men he helped save on March 19, 1945, and the descendants of those men.

16 Responses to Great Jesuits 5: Medal of Honor

  1. Marie says:

    Thank you for this great feature and videos about Fr. O’Callahan. Absolutely amazing.

    I seem to remember that the Philippine government also honored Fr. O’Callahan for helping then Commonwealth President Manuel L. Quezon get to the U.S. for treatment for TB during the war. The award may have been post-humous, as it was received on his behalf by his sister, Sr. Rosemarie O’Callahan, a Maryknoll Sister in the Philippines.

    Sr. Rosemarie was my English professor at Maryknoll College. She was no intellectual slouch, either.

  2. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Thank you for the info Marie! In 1946, Father O’Callahan served as Escort Chaplain as the body of the late Philippines President Manuel Quezon was carried from the United States to Manila.

  3. Marie says:

    Thank you, Donald, for this precious bit of history.

    I’ve just done a search on Sr. Rose Marie O’Callahan, MM, and I’m saddened to know that she passed away on Dec. 24, 2004. She was a devoted Catholic religious, a no-nonsense teacher, and a great American.

    This article,

    written by their mother’s cousin’s son tells that Sr. Rose Marie was among the heroic Americans who (resisted the Japanese occupation of the Philippines and) were incarcerated for three years in the Los Banos (Laguna) concentration camp.

    (I was born in 1943, but know the story of the Los Banos prison camp as I came from the area and because my baptismal godfather was among those who fought side-by-side with U.S. troops in liberating Los Banos. It was on the same day that U.S. marines planted the American flag on Iwo Jima, so Los Banos didn’t get any press at all.)

    “During that time the O’Callahan family had not heard a word about her fate. While in the Pacific Father Joe had hoped to discover his sister’s circumstance first-hand. He was unable to do so.”

    Sadly, Sr. Rose Marie’s obituary (2004) has no mention of her famous brother:

    “Sister Rose Marie O¹Callahan, M.M.
    a missioner to the Philippines for 42 years, died Dec. 24 in the Residential Care Unit of the Maryknoll Sisters Center in Ossining. She was 96. She was assigned to the Philippines in 1930, first serving as an elementary school teacher and then as a hospital bookkeeper. During World War II she and other Maryknoll Sisters were kept under house arrest and then confined in the Los Banos internment camp before their liberation by U.S. forces in 1945. She then taught at a high school before serving as registrar and an English and theology teacher at Maryknoll College in Manila, 1947-1967. She was dean of La Salette College in Santiago, 1967-1972. After returning to the Maryknoll Sisters Center in 1972, she served as secretary to the Renewal Office and on the Senior Center Council. After study, she began a new career in nursing at age 71, serving on the staff of the Center Health Unit at the Sisters Center and as a nursing assistant at the Maryknoll Sisters Nursing Home. Born in Cambridge, Mass., she entered the Maryknoll Sisters in 1927 and made final vows in 1933. A Funeral Mass was offered Dec. 30 at the Maryknoll Sisters Center. Burial was in the sisters¹ cemetery.”

    Eternal rest grant unto Sister Rose Marie, O Lord.

  4. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Marie, once again thank you! I think Sister Rose will have her own post here on American Catholic eventually. What a truly remarkable brother and sister!

  5. Robert says:

    Thanks – great post – I needed to read it…

  6. Andy K says:

    Good stuff. Always glad to hear stories that demonstrate the Holy Spirit at work.

  7. gb says:

    Well, its a real pleasure to read this post and a real change from the Jebbie-bashing that Catholic blogs seem to enjoy. Thank you!

  8. cminor says:

    Though he didn’t say it himself, O’Callahan’s feat inspired the headline, “Praise God and pass the ammunition!”

    The story is included in Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation Speaks which is a worthwhile read, never mind the author’s politics.

  9. George says:

    Great story. I am so glad you are posting these inspiring accounts. I have a question. Do you know how many warships, destroyers or frigates were named in honor of Catholic chaplains? Your article names two. And I remember the other chaplain hero who died saving lives at Pearl Harbor. Don’t have his name before me, but you wrote a tribute to him some months ago.

  10. Donald R. McClarey says:

    George that would be be Lieutenant JG Aloysius Schmitt who died saving 12 men on the USS Oklahoma during the Pearl Harbor attack. He could have avoided death by drowning easily as the compartment he was in filled with water, but he thought it was more important to save the lives of the other men. The destroyer USS Schmitt was named in his honor. His actions warranted a Medal of Honor although he did not receive that decoration.

  11. Largebill says:

    Selfless religious like the O’Callahan siblings are a reminder of why it is so very important to financially support the vocations. Many who get a calling struggle with the economic burden of schooling. Giving towards vocations is truly a gift that keeps on giving.

  12. […] 6 in my series on great Jesuits of American history.  Pierre-Jean De Smet first saw the light of day in Dendermonde in Belgium on January 30, […]

  13. Lee says:

    It was nice to come across this site tonight and read all of your kind words about Sister Rose Marie Father Joe. They were my grandmother’s cousins (Katherine O’Callahan daughter of “handsome Jack” O’Callahan…their father and and my great grandfather were brothers). Growing up we always heard the stories, but we never realized how great they both were until getting older.

    In 2000 I received a Christmas card from Sister Rose Marie – her handwriting was very shaky, but her words flowed and her mind was still as sharp as a tack. I’ll always treasure it, along with a pair of Father Joe’s rosary beads.

    There is a room dedicated to Father Joe in SC at the USS Yorktown Museum if any of you are ever in the vacinity.

    You can also see that very famous original film clip of Father Joe praying over a wounded sailor in the Victory At Sea Series in the USS Ben Franklin section.

  14. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Lee, one of the joys of doing these posts on chaplains is hearing from relatives of these very brave men. We live in freedom only because of the dauntless courage shown by men like Father Joe. This reminds me too that I need to do a post on Sister Rose Marie who led a remarkable life in her own right.

  15. Lee says:

    Good morning Donald, you’re up with the birds this morning 🙂

    With yesterday being 9/11, I was doing some reading online about the brave first responder police and firefighters who lost their lives. Since “Handsome Jack” (we called him Pa) was a firefighter, at some point in my searching I keyed in his name and the Central Square Cambridge fire dept. I have a few pictures of Pa on the horse drawn fire wagon that I thought would be nice to donate to the station – and don’t you know, up popped Father Joe’s name…as it always does… which, in turn, led me here.

    It gives those of us in the family a very warm feeling to see all of you taking an interest in the story of his and Sister’s lives, no matter if it’s over the internet, in books, or wherever there is a gathering.

    By the way, the USS Ben Franklin Association had one of their reunions at a college in Franklin VA several years back. I believe it was one of the crew members who wrote a play about Father Joe and the students performed. The hat, gloves, Medal of Honor and a few other personal possessions of Father Joe were on display on a table at the front door to the small theatre. Of course I could not resist running my finger over that medal and thought the same thing you mentioned, how lucky we are today because of these brave men and women.

    Another cousin, Jay O’Callahan, has quite a lot of information on Father Joe. He’s a storyteller and is on NPR very often. He has published some books about Father Joe and various recordings if you haven’t already come across him in your research.

    I’m looking forward to your posts on Sister Rose Marie.


  16. Donald R. McClarey says:

    I came across Jay O’Callahan Lee when I was doing my initial research. As long as there is a US Navy, Father Joe’s memory will be honored. He was a Jesuit to remember!

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