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Lieutenant Commander Joseph T. O'Callahan

Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient

Jesuit Society of Jesus

 

Compiled by Pastor John Hamel

 

For Thou hast girded me with strength unto the battle…” Psalm 18:39

 

Lieutenant Commander Joseph T. O'Callahan, my mother’s cousin, was a member of the Jesuit Society of Jesus and the first Chaplain in the history of the U.S. to win the Congressional Medal of Honor.  This was bestowed upon him at the White House, in Washington D.C., on January 23, 1946 by President Harry S. Truman, as pictured in this photograph. Chaplain O’Callahan also won the Purple Heart.

 

My mother’s reminders of “Father Joe’s” heroics in combat, his Congressional Medal of Honor and his family’s pride in his Ministry vocation sometimes made me wonder if I was called to the Catholic Priesthood as well.  Not too frequently, but wonder I did.

Although I was raised in a Catholic family, it was through the faith of my Grandmother “Grammy” Hamel that I was greatly influenced towards the type of Pentecostal Christian Ministry I have served in for over 25 years now.  But Father Joe’s obvious trust in Jesus Christ, his unwavering confidence in the Holy Bible as he understood it, his selfless sense of patriotic duty, love for humanity and sheer bravery in the face of death have impacted and inspired me.  Because of this I wanted Father Joe to have a special place on the JHM website.  After all, he is not only a member of my earthly family but of God’s Family as well.  Jesus Christ was his Lord & Savior.

I have compiled the following information to the Glory of the Most High God.  It was He alone Who strengthened Father Joe. He alone strengthens each one of us for the battle. 

Joseph Timothy O'Callahan was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, on May 14, 1905.  He attended Boston College High School.  He joined The Society of Jesus (The Jesuits) in 1922 at the Novitiate of St. Andrew-on-Hudson in Poughkeepsie, New York.  He completed philosophical studies at Weston College in 1929 and became a member of the Physics Department at Boston College.  He also taught at Weston College.  He was ordained in 1934, and became the Director of the Mathematics Department at Holy Cross College, Worcester, Massachusetts where he also founded the Mathematics Library.  In August 1940 he shocked his colleagues by joining the Naval Reserve Chaplain Corps.  He was already well above service age when World War Two began and someone even told him, “Let someone younger help those boys.  You can’t even open your umbrella.” 

Fr. O'Callahan was commissioned as a Lieutenant (Junior Grade) in the Chaplain Corps and was assigned to Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida, in 1940-42, to the aircraft carrier Ranger where he saw combat.  He was then assigned to the Naval Air Stations at Alameda, California, and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, into early 1945.

On March 2, 1945, he was assigned as Chaplain aboard CV-13, the USS Franklin. On the morning of March 19 O’Callahan was in the wardroom eating French toast when the sound of aircraft engines broke the silence of a beautiful Pacific dawn. The United States Navy, in the form of Task Force 58, was launching strikes from deck of the aircraft carrier Franklin against the Japanese coast under sunshine-filled skies.

A rainsquall was forming nearby and suddenly out of that squall came a twin-engine Japanese kamikaze bomber, carrying a bomb load destined for the officers and men of the USS Franklin. At 7:07 a.m., the bomber dropped two bombs on the Franklin’s flight deck, and a series of explosions began that nearly blew the ship apart. Of the ships crew of 3,000, approximately 1,000 were seriously burned, horribly injured or killed instantly. Close to 1,000 more were in the water. The USS Franklin was saved only through the actions of her remaining shocked men, led in great part by the fearless Chaplain.

The resulting deeds of Lieutenant Commander Joseph O’Callahan and his effect on the rescue effort earned him a Congressional Medal of Honor.  The first of only three to ever be awarded to a U.S. Chaplain.

As soon as the bomb hit, O’Callahan thought of the men of the ship. Stopping to pray, he asked the God of Love to forgive the sins of the Franklin’s crew. He then dashed to his quarters and picked up his helmet and lifebelt. The belt was damaged and useless.  However, the helmet with a Chaplain’s large white cross on it was essential and would play a part in his later efforts to save the Franklin. It allowed other crew members to readily recognize him from afar in the midst of the overwhelming smoke and flames.

Father O’Callahan and Chaplain Gatlin, the Protestant Chaplain aboard the Franklin, immediately began to tend to the spiritual needs and morale of the seriously wounded men that were brought forward to the Officers’ Quarters.

Then O’Callahan went topside to the flight deck which was engulfed in flames.  Here many more officers and men were seriously injured, either by fire or debris. He prayed with each one, assuring them of God’s love and mercy and made sure they were as comfortable as possible.  He arranged for blankets to prevent shock. He organized fire hose teams.

The Captain, high above the action and trapped on the Bridge, could recognize O’Callahan on the flight deck due to the white cross on his helmet. From his observation point and using the bridge bullhorn, he directed the “Padre” to take care of essential jobs down on the flame engulfed, body strewn deck.

O’Callahan seemed to be everywhere throughout the next three days. He checked over the wounded men before they were transferred to another ship; he organized the engineers so they would be available when the boilers came back online; he found men for hose crews and rescue teams; he stood by providing moral support and sharing the danger while bombs were defused and rolled over the side by the youthful, frightened crew members.

At one point a five hundred pound live bomb rolled across the hot, flame-covered deck.  Physically picking it up, the frightened crew members carried it away from the fire, standing it carefully on its nose to be defused.  As they stood there literally trembling in their boots for fear of it exploding, the Chaplain walked up to the bomb, stood beside it confidently with his arms crossed calmly looking at the trembling young men.  Something about his overwhelming confidence in the face of possible death seemed to calm them.  They were then able to successfully defuse the bomb, rolling it overboard.

USS Franklin on fireThe crowning achievement of Father Joe’s  efforts was the evacuation of main gun ammunition from an endangered magazine.  He personally led several men in clearing out the heavy, hot, and dangerous 5-inch shells, preventing a magazine explosion forward of the island. A similar magazine had blown up earlier in the day aft, and it was doubtful that the Franklin could have survived another magazine explosion.

Chaplain O’Callahan’s bravery was not unique aboard the Franklin, but he was one of the men that contributed the most to saving the ship and multitudes of lives. 

Also, the “Padre” was able to lead by moral, spiritual and personal example, raising the men required to accomplish the innumerable tasks involved in salvaging and repairing a heavily-damaged ship of such immense size.  Ranging from explosives and debris removal and manning hoses to leading rescue crews and burying the dead at sea, he seemed to be literally empowered with strength from Heaven as he led the rescue efforts over those danger filled days.

For his efforts, Lieutenant Commander O’Callahan was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty." His citation singled out his courage in leading the disposal of live ammunition, the cooling of hot bombs on the flight deck, and the care he gave the wounded and dying men of the USS Franklin.

Nearly twice the age of the other crew members, Lieutenant Commander Joseph O’Callahan was what I refer to as a true “Jesus man.”  He was a man of faith and a man of action. He volunteered for hazardous duty aboard aircraft carriers when he could have sat out the war at home. O’Callahan put his own fear aside and attended to his shipmates when that Japanese bomber attacked his ship. He carried out his spiritual and humanitarian duties, and then looked for more to do to save the ship.  He led the men from the front in the dangerous tasks of disposing ammunition, fighting fires and even diffusing bombs.

After the battle, O’Callahan’s tremendous example did not end. He, along with the other Officers aboard, gave their bunks to the enlisted men and slept on the hard deck. He personally led the corpse-retrieval parties, a gruesome task, and then conducted non-stop burials at sea.

Throughout the dreadful drama of life and death aboard the USS Franklin, Father O’Callahan acted with supernatural calm, vigor and a sense of duty and loyalty to his countrymen, his country and his ship. He was able to help tremendously and drew others to follow his amazing Godly example.  That Lieutenant Commander Joseph O’Callahan was instrumental in saving the USS Franklin on March 19, 1945 is an understatement. 

A dear friend of ours, Mr. Walter Sisson of Norman, Oklahoma, is a World War II Navy veteran.  He, along with his brother, Chuck, was stationed in the South Pacific on the island of Ulithi at the time the Franklin was towed there immediately after its bombing.  Walt recalls observing the behemoth vessel coming in “…listing 15 degrees, the superstructure blackened and charred by the fires.”  (Click photo to enlarge.)

The USS Franklin was later towed to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and patched up, enabling her to return to Brooklyn, New York, amazingly under her own power.

As a Christian, O’Callahan’s faith in Jesus Christ is truly inspiring. While he was fighting the fires, he was constantly praying for the souls of the men with him, unafraid of his own death. His sense of calm was transmitted to those he attended over that three day period and many wounded and tortured souls found peace in Christ with his help in their last moments.

The ship's Commanding Officer later told Mrs. O’Callahan “…your son is the bravest man I ever saw." 

Other eyewitnesses referred to the Chaplain as, “…a soul-stirring sight. He seemed to be everywhere…urging the men on…handling hoses, jettisoning ammunition…doing everything he could to help save our ship…he was so conspicuous, not only because of the cross daubed with white paint across his helmet, but because of his seemingly detached air as he went from place to place with head slightly bowed as if in meditation or prayer.”

Promoted to the rank of Commander in July 1945, O'Callahan served at the Navy Department and at the Naval Training Station, Newport, Rhode Island, until October 1945.  At that time he reported for duty as Chaplain on board the new aircraft carrier the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt.  This was on the very day President Truman placed the Congressional Medal of Honor around his neck.

Released from active duty in November 1946, Commander O'Callahan returned to Holy Cross College as Professor of Philosophy.

Upon his retirement from the Naval Reserve in November 1953, he was advanced to the rank of Captain on the basis of his combat awards.

Fr. Joseph T. O'Callahan, upon his retirement from Planet Earth, traveled on to the Planet Heaven from Worcester, Massachusetts, on March 18, 1964.  This was the evening of the nineteenth anniversary of the USS Franklin’s terrible ordeal.

On July 21, 1965, the USS O’Callahan, a Destroyer Escort vessel was christened in Bay City, Michigan.  Present at the ceremony was Sister Rose Marie O’Callahan, M.M., also known as Alice O’Callahan, Father Joe’s younger sister.  Sister Rose Marie, a Maryknoll nun and Missionary to the Philippines, had been imprisoned in a Japanese detention camp there for three years during the war.  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.

The Destroyer Escort ship USS O'Callahan (FF 1051) was named in honor of Fr. Joseph Timothy O’Callahan.  This vessel was in service in defense of the United States until 1988.  At that time it was given over to Pakistan before being returned to the US in 1994.

There were two movies made depicting Father Joe’s heroics aboard the USS Franklin.  “The Ship That Would Not Die” is a documentary released in 1945, narrated by Gene Kelly.  The other, a full feature-length movie narrated by James Cagny and released in 1956, is called “Battle Stations.”

Father Joe also published his best-selling memoir in 1956 called “I Was Chaplain on the Franklin.”

Although I am proud that Father Joe is a member of my family, it’s important to remember the following.  All veterans of the military should be held in high esteem, not just Congressional Medal of Honor recipients.  All veterans are national treasures.  Putting their lives in harm’s way, they do the hard things, fighting defensive warfare, so others can stay at home and do the easy things in peace.

I trust that Father Joe’s faith in Jesus Christ in the day of battle will inspire you as it has inspired me. JHM

                                                                                                       Chaplain O’Callahan

 

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