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This Day in History: Father Joe & His Medal of Honor

On this day in 1945, a Navy chaplain engages in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. Father Joseph T. O'Callahan was then stationed aboard USS Franklin, an aircraft carrier working just off the coast of Japan.

Franklin and others were working to neutralize the Japanese kamikaze threat before the invasion of Okinawa on April 1.

Trouble came early on March 19 when a Japanese Judy dive bomber dropped out of the clouds, mere yards in front of Franklin. Two semi-armor piercing bombs were launched, ripping through Franklin’s flight deck.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Dozens of planes were on the flight deck and in the hangar, many of them fully gassed and armed. Now they were simply fuel for a firestorm.

When the bombs hit, “Father Joe” was eating in the wardroom. He was soon on his feet, as his Medal citation describes, “braving the perilous barriers of flame and twisted metal” and “grop[ing] his way through smoke-filled corridors to the open flight deck and into the midst of violently exploding bombs, shells, rockets, and other armament.”

The scene on the flight deck must have been unimaginable. The ship was being “rocked by incessant explosions,” the Medal citation adds, “with debris and fragments raining down and fires raging in ever-increasing fury.”

Father Joe braved these explosions to minister to the wounded. He motivated men into action and got them manning hoses. He figured out which men knew how to disarm bombs so they could be rolled overboard.

Importantly, he led by example. “You shouldn’t ask lads to do what you yourself are not willing to do,” he would later explain. He was older than many of those around him, with “creaking bones,” but his presence kept the boys going.

“Father O’Callahan asked me to help with the hoses,” Corporal Mike Sansone admitted, “but the first couple times he asked I declined. I was part of the aviation group and I wasn’t trained in firefighting. He had a very calm presence about him and he insisted, and I finally agreed to go.”

“You couldn’t miss the white cross on his helmet,” WT3/c Sam Rhodes agreed, “and he was organizing fire crews like you wouldn’t believe.” At O’Callahan’s prompting, Rhodes was helping to roll a bomb off the flight deck and into the water. He was nervous, but then he thought: “Well . . . if I go up with the bomb at least I’ll go with a priest.

Father Joe would later write of the shock and disorientation of the men on deck. Thus, his task involved more than just asking people to help. He had to figure out who was capable.

“There were many who listened but did not hear, who looked you in the eye but did not see. They were conscious but they didn’t know it,” he wrote. “They were for the time stunned . . . . Later these boys would help, but for the moment their systems had to become readjusted to the mere fact of being alive.”

He learned to identify which men were ready to help “by their eyes.”

It would take hours and hours of work, but ultimately Franklin was saved. She would even travel all the way back to New York, cruising under her own power. On May 17, an awards ceremony was held on Franklin’s deck with family members in attendance.

Franklin’s Captain, Leslie Gehres found O’Callahan’s mother and approached her. “I’m not a religious man,” he said. “But I watched your son that day and I thought if faith can do this for a man, there must be something to it. Your son is the bravest man I have ever seen.”

Father Joe’s Medal of Honor wasn’t awarded that day, but he would receive it from President Harry Truman in early 1946.

Another hero from the Greatest Generation.

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