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Monday 10 June 2019

Chaplains at D-Day

This article was posted five years ago on the 70th anniversary of D-Day.  It is worth another look as the last of the greatest generation returned to Europe for one final commemoration.

With the troops on all of the landings of D-Day were Chaplains. Here are the stories of some US and Canadian Catholic Chaplains.

Father Joseph Lacy spent much of D-Day in France providing Last Rites to Catholic soldiers and spiritual comfort to non-Catholic soldiers. Father Francis L. Sampson became known as the “Parachute Padre” serving in the 501st parachute regiment. Father Sampson was captured at Normandy by the German SS and almost executed until saved by a German Catholic soldier.

Eventually freed by American troops and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Father Sampson would go on to survive the famous jump into the Arnhem pocket in Holland also known as “the bridge too far,” and was later recaptured by German troops during the Battle of the Bulge. This time Father Samson would remain a POW in a Stalag until the end of the war, but remain busy aiding the sick and saying Mass. Father Sampson would survive to serve as a Chaplain in the Korean War and later become the U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains from 1967-1971. Father Sampson also wrote a memoir of his World War II experiences appropriately titled Look Out Below in 1958.

Father Guy Laramee, a well-known Jesuit youth pastor from the Montreal region was appointed chaplain in October 1939. He took this time to prepare his soldiers for the hardships ahead. Some officers were continuously preoccupying themselves with the spiritual well-being of their soldiers, and were pleased with Laramee's ability to bond with these young men. 

In a sermon, Laramee implored officers and soldiers to "confide in the Virgin Mary for this war will be fatal for many among us. Never can we have too much love for the Virgin Mary and never can we have too much confidence in her protection." 

In May and June 1944, as Allied troops prepared for D-Day, chaplains were instructed to prepare their soldiers for combat by "furthering the comfort and general welfare of the men."  Despite the tragedy of the Dieppe Raid, the lessons learned proved useful. For example, for the first time, chaplains received explicit instructions on conducting mass burials. With such information in hand, the padres acknowledged the upcoming hardships, prepared their men spiritually as best as they could, and offered them the sacraments. A few weeks after D-Day other regiments joined the fighting in France, with a "great number going to communion" before leaving for the battlefield. 

The most intense battles against the Nazis took place from June 1944 to May 1945 in a war of constant movement. As the intensity of the fighting continued, soldiers and officers lived every hour knowing that their lives were in constant danger, and they turned to their padre in unprecedented numbers for the sacraments of communion and confession. 

Between June and December 1944, some Canadian regiments lost nearly one-third of their men. A telling example: in September 1944, the Second Canadian Infantry Division conducted 441 burial services, laying to rest thousands of its own soldiers -- this contrasts vividly to the less than 25 burial services per month conducted between January and May 1944. 

As for those who survived, they turned to the Church in greater number than ever before for comfort: September 1944 saw the number of communions quadruple and the number of confessions double compared to April of the same year. 

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