The Archbishop and the Concentration Camp

Retired Archbishop Philip. M. Hannan of New Orleans, still alive at the age of 97, discusses his service in the video above, made in 2007, with the 505th parachute infantry regiment of the 82nd Airborne in World War II.  Ordained at the North American College in Rome on December 8, 1939, he served with the 82nd Airborne as a chaplain from 1942-46, and was known as the Jumping Padre.  He was assigned to be the chaplain of the 505th Regiment with the rank of Captain shortly after the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.  He had many adventures during his time with the 505th, but perhaps the most poignant was what happened to him on May 5th, 1945, in the final days of the War in Europe.

On May 5, 1945, the 505th overran a concentration camp near Wobbelin in Germany.  Captain Hannan and his assistant James Ospital hurried to the camp to see what they could do to help.  A scene of complete horror awaited them.  Corpses were sprawled everywhere.  Dying prisoners lay in filthy bunks crudely made out of branches.  All the prisoners looked like skeletons, both the dead and the living.  The camp reeked of the smells of a charnel house and a sewer.

He found a Belgian priest who had been in the camp since 1940.  He told the chaplain that another priest who had been arrested with him had just died.  Commandeering a truck, Hannan loaded as many prisoners into the truck as it could hold.   Here is a photograph of Hannan helping an inmate into the truck.

Since so many seemed on the verge of death he led them in an act of contrition and gave them a mass absolution.  He then had the truck driven to a nearby civilian hospital.  The Belgian priest refused to be helped until all the prisoners at the concentration camp had been aided.  The priest told him that throughout his captivity he had said mass every day, bribing the guards for a few crumbs of bread and a few drops of wine.  Even the non-Catholic prisoners took part in his masses, giving them something to live for.

Having done everything he could for the prisoners that could be accomplished in one day, Chaplain Hannan left and returned the next day.  When he arrived he met a funeral procession of weeping prisoners.  They were on their way to bury the Belgian priest who had died shortly before Hannan arrived back at the camp.

A funeral service was held by the 82nd Airborne for the 200 dead inmates of the concentration camp in the nearby town of  Ludwigslust on May 7.  Several hundred members of the division attended, along with the unwilling participation of captured German officers and the citizens of Ludwigslust.  Father Hannan participated in the funeral along with a Protestant and Jewish chaplain.  The Protestant Chaplain, Major Thomas B. Woods, minced no words in the funeral sermon:

We are assembled here today before God and in the sight of man to give a proper and reverent burial to the victims of atrocities committed by armed forces in the name and by the order of the German Government. These 200 bodies were found by the American Army in a concentration camp 4 miles north of the city of Ludwigslust.

The crimes here committed in the name of the German people and by their acquiescence were minor compared to those to be found in concentration camps elsewhere in Germany. Here there were no gas chambers, no crematories; these men of Holland, Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia and France were simply allowed to starve to death. Within 4 miles of your comfortable homes 4,000 men were forced to live like animals, deprived even of the food you would give to your dogs. In three weeks 1,000 of these men were starved to death; 800 of them were buried in pits in the nearby woods. These 200 who lie before us in these graves were found piled 4 and 5 feet high in one building and lying with the sick and dying in other buildings.

The world has long been horrified at the crimes of the German nation; these crimes were never clearly brought to light until the armies of the United Nations overran Germany. This is not war as conducted by the international rules of warfare. This is murder such as is not even known among savages.

Though you claim no knowledge of these acts you are still individually and collectively responsible for these atrocities, for they were committed by a government elected to office by yourselves in 1933 and continued in office by your indifference to organized brutality. It should be the firm resolve of the German people that never again should any leader or party bring them to such moral degradation as is exhibited here.

It is the custom of the United States Army through its Chaplain’s Corps to insure a proper and decent burial to any deceased person whether he is civilian, or soldier, friend, or foe, according to religious preference. The Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces has ordered that all atrocity victims be buried in a public place, and that the cemetery be given the same perpetual care that is given to all military cemeteries. Crosses will be placed at the heads of the graves; a stone monument will be set up in memory of these deceased. Protestant, Catholic and Jewish prayers will be said by Chaplains Wood, Hannan and Wall of the 82nd Airborne Division for these victims as we lay them to rest and commit them into the hands of our Heavenly Father in the hope that the world will not again be faced with such barbarity.

Per Eisenhower’s standing orders, all the dead were buried in a public place with crosses to mark the graves of the Christians, and Stars of David to mark the graves of the Jews, along with a stone memorial so that these dead would not be forgotten.  The citizens of Ludwigslust were forced to dig the graves.  Also per Eisenhower’s standing order, all adult citizens of Ludwigslust were required to take a tour of the concentration camp.

10 Responses to The Archbishop and the Concentration Camp

  1. TonyC says:

    Now this is a story worth posting! Thanks!

  2. familylife says:

    Stories such as these keep me returning to The American Catholic daily. Thanks so much for this many other posts!

  3. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Thanks for the kind remarks. The Church has a great story to tell and I like to do what I can to tell a minute portion of it.

  4. Kelso says:

    Thank you for writing this tribute to Archbishop Hannan. I did not know about this WWII experience. Archbishop in Combat Boots shares a similar title with the canonizable Father Emil Kapaun’s biography: Shepherd in Combat Boots. Interesting aside: I read in Michael Davies book on Pope John’s Council that the outspoken Hannan made a statement to the press during the Council to this effect — the best thing that could happen to Vatican II is that it ends.

  5. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “I read in Michael Davies book on Pope John’s Council that the outspoken Hannan made a statement to the press during the Council to this effect — the best thing that could happen to Vatican II is that it ends.”

    I could imagine him saying that. The main hallmark of the Archbishop’s career has been courage and an unclerical willingess to call a spade a bloody shovel.

  6. Hannan has had his memoir recently published, I think. Probably worth the read.

    The citizens of Ludwigslust were forced to dig the graves. Also per Eisenhower’s standing order, all adult citizens of Ludwigslust were required to take a tour of the concentration camp.

    An interesting punishment but I wonder if there aren’t some moral problems with “forcing” and requiring the citizens to do it. Is there anything in just war doctrine about this kind of stuff that anybody has?

  7. Christine says:

    It would be interesting if we as casual bystanders to the grave atrocity of abortion would be forced to dig graves for our dead and tour the grounds of the abortion mills

  8. Karl says:

    I wonder why Ike is not posthumously, indicted, prosecuted, convicted, disinterred and properly dishonored for his “crimes and lack of sensitivity”?

    God help us.

  9. Kevin in El Paso says:

    I think you are working “Just War”, just a bit too hard. Just war is primarily about the decision enter into or to accept combat and the limitations to be placed upon the subsequent use of force. I know you want to disapprove of a US General’s handling of an issue, but the corpses posed a public health risk, and that primarily to the German populace. Having permitted, even encouraged their government to inititiate a global war on humanity, the German population had seen their dreams of world conquest come to naught, and themselves abandoned to the control of their defeated government’s conquerers. The graves needed to be dug, the martial administrators were under no obligation to provide the labor force, or to pay for it.
    Eisenhower also ordered every Allied General officer (and all senior field grades who could be spared) in Europe to visit at least one concentration or death camp.
    this was necessary to ensure that once they started coming out of the woodwork, Holocaust Deniers like Mel Gibson’s father would be immediately and universally known for the psychopathic liars they are.

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