This Catholic Priest Became a War Hero (and Earned the Medal of Honor) in World War II

Key Point: Along with the ship that would not die, Chaplain O’Callahan was now part of U.S. Navy history.

On March 3, 1945, the 27,100-ton aircraft carrier USS Franklin churned out of Pearl Harbor and headed westward for the war zone. She was accompanied by the battlecruiser USSGuam. At the great U.S. naval base of Ulithi, the Franklin’s Task Group 58.2 merged with three other forces to form Task Force 58. Its mission was to launch the first carrier strike against the Japanese Home Islands since the Doolittle raid of April 1942.

The armada steamed northward, stretching for 50 miles across the Pacific Ocean. On the night of March 17, the fleet closed to a mere hundred miles from the Japanese coast. An hour before dawn the following morning, the flattops launched their fighters and dive-bombers against airfields on Kyushu.

Americans Draw First Blood

The raids continued all day long, and the Franklin’s air group alone downed 18 enemy aircraft and destroyed many others on the ground. The Japanese reacted with characteristic fanaticism, and a dozen suicide planes were shot down almost within sight of the American task force.

The fateful day of March 19, 1945, dawned coolly as the Franklin swung into the wind to launch her first flight—a fighter group armed with special heavy rockets to attack enemy naval units at Kure.

At 6:55 am that St. Joseph’s Day, another flight swept off the deck, bound for a strike at Kobe. A thousand yards away, the carrier USS Hancock was sending up her first planes of the day. Ahead and astern of the Franklin were the light carriers Bataan and San Jacinto.

A Quiet Breakfast Rudely Interrupted

Thirty more Helldivers warmed up on the Franklin’s flight deck, while in the wardroom a few officers were eating breakfast. Among them was gentle, scholarly Lt. Cmdr. Joseph T. O’Callahan of Massachusetts, the ship’s Roman Catholic chaplain.

Suddenly, at 7:07 am, a Japanese Yokosuka D4Y Judy bomber flashed out of a cloudbank and hurtled down toward the Franklin at 360 miles an hour. The carrier’s 5-inch and 40mm guns opened up on the plane as it released two 500-pound armor-piercing bombs, pulled up, and turned away only 50 feet above the flight deck.

The first bomb slammed into the forward hangar deck, ripping a great hole in the three-inch armor plate and setting fire to fueled and armed planes. The second bomb smashed through two after-decks and exploded on the third deck near the petty officers’ quarters.

The Franklin Becomes an Inferno

The flattop reeled as a column of black smoke poured from the forward elevator well and a sheet of flame shot up from the forward starboard edge of the hangar deck. Smoke and flame engulfed the planes on the flight and hangar decks, and violent explosions began to convulse the carrier.

Ready-ammunition lockers filled with rockets and shells detonated, and smoke billowed into the engine rooms below. Scores of men perished on the flight, hangar, and gallery decks. The proud Franklin was an inferno.

Chaplain O’Callahan hastily left his unfinished breakfast and made his way through the shambles of smoke, flames, and torn steel to do what he could to comfort the wounded and steady the able-bodied. He seemed to be everywhere—helping, cajoling, inspiring. His quiet courage heartened all who came in contact with him, and the big white cross on his helmet became a beacon of hope for the dazed crew of the stricken ship.

“Look at the old man [Captain Leslie E. Gehres on the bridge] up there,” O’Callahan told the sailors. “Don’t let him down.”

A Life Dedicated to Serving God and Man

During his few days aboard the Franklin, Chaplain O’Callahan had made many friends among crewmen of all faiths. To the Protestant sailors, he was “Padre Joe.” To the Jews, he was “Rabbi Tim.”

Born in the Roxbury section of Boston on May 14, 1905, Joseph Timothy O’Callahan attended St. Mary’s Parochial School in Cambridge, and then went on to Boston College High School. He was a solid student in the college preparatory course. He wrote for the class magazine, acted in the dramatic society, and ran on the relay team.

Deciding on a career in the service of God and man, young Joseph entered the Society of Jesus at the St. Andrew-on-Hudson Novitiate in Poughkeepsie, NY, in July 1922. Two years later, he pronounced his first vows as a Jesuit. After completing philosophical studies at Weston College, he joined the Boston College physics department as a teaching member in 1929.

Then it was back to Weston College in 1931 to begin formal theology studies. He was ordained on June 20, 1934. After tertianship at St. Robert’s Hall in Pomfret Center, Conn., and a year of special studies at Georgetown University, O’Callahan was appointed to teach cosmology to his brother Jesuits at Weston College. In 1938, he was transferred to Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., to teach mathematics and physics.

By 1940, the priest-scholar who loved both mathematics and poetry was head of the math department and had founded a math library. His students admired their energetic, friendly, and sometimes fiery instructor.

His Country Called him to Service

But much of the world was by now at war, and Joseph O’Callahan grew restless. He applied for a commission as a Navy chaplain.

His colleagues tried to dissuade him. They felt his talents could serve the war effort best at Holy Cross, soon to have one of the leading Naval ROTC units in the country. But logical argument was no match for O’Callahan’s quiet determination, and on August 7, 1940, he was commissioned a lieutenant in the Navy Chaplain Corps.

His first assignment was teaching calculus at the Pensacola, Fla., Naval Air Station. But he yearned for sea duty, preferably aboard a carrier. After 18 months of shore duty, Chaplain O’Callahan went to sea. In April 1942 he reported aboard the carrier USS Ranger.

The Ranger made few headlines but saw plenty of action from the Arctic to the Equator. She played a leading part in the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942, and in an October 1943 raid on German shipping in Norwegian waters.

Chief Morale Officer

With the rank of lieutenant commander, O’Callahan served as the Ranger’s chief morale officer. He made many friends, and at his funeral 20 years later officers and men from the carrier presented a crucifix in memory of their padre.

After two and a half years aboard the Ranger, O’Callahan was reassigned to shore duty—at naval air stations at Alameda, Calif., and Ford Island, Pearl Harbor. He was able to relax after the rigors of combat and spent his free evenings reading poetry.

But he also had time to worry. His youngest sister, Alice, now Sister Rose Marie, a Maryknoll nun, was imprisoned in a Japanese detention camp. For three years the family had not heard a word about her. Chaplain O’Callahan prayed that he would be assigned to the Philippines so that he could learn the fate of his sister.

Chaplain O’Callahan Sets Sail on Big Ben

The Navy had something else in store for him, however. He was ordered back to sea. At Pearl Harbor on the afternoon of March 2, 1945, amid piles of potatoes and ammunition, Chaplain O’Callahan reported for duty aboard the carrier USS Franklin (CV-13).

Known affectionately by her crew as the “Big Ben,” the Essex-class carrier was the fifth American warship to bear the name. The carrier’s keel had been laid at Newport News, Va., on July 12, 1942, and she had been completed on January 31, 1944. When O’Callahan went aboard her, she had already seen much action and had almost been sunk.

As part of Task Group 58.2 in the Pacific Theater, the Franklin had sent her planes against Japanese bases in the Bonin Islands, Iwo Jima, Chichi Jima, Ha Ha Jima, Guam, Palau, Yap, Peleliu, and Luzon. She had had several close calls, saved only by the skilled seamanship of her commanding officer, Captain James M. Shoemaker, and her crew.

Japanese Navy Threatens and Seventh Fleet Responds

As the flagship of Task Group 38.4, the Big Ben was present with the mighty Seventh Fleet on October 21, 1944, when troops of the U.S. Sixth Army poured ashore at Leyte. Three Japanese fleets threatened the Americans at Leyte, and Task Group 38.4 wheeled westward to engage the enemy.

The Japanese super battleships Musashi and Yamato staggered beneath bombs from Franklin’s planes. Two enemy cruisers were hard hit, one was left dead in the water, and another blew up. Off the entrance to Leyte Gulf, fighters from the Franklin sank the large enemy carrier Zuiho.

Early on the afternoon of October 29, 1944, a small group of well-camouflaged Japanese suicide planes approached the Franklin’s force. Cruisers and destroyers closed in tightly around the Big Ben and the carriers Enterprise, Belleau Wood, and San Jacinto. Every 5-inch gun in the formation opened up.