A leap year baby, Francis L. Sampson was born on February 29, 1912 in Cherokee Iowa.
A quarter of a century later he graduated from Notre Dame and made a bee-line for St. Paul’s Seminary at Saint Paul Minnesota. Ordained a priest for the Des Moines Iowa diocese on June 1, 1941, he served briefly as a parish priest at Neola, Iowa and taught at Dowling High School in Des Moines.
Eager to become a chaplain, as soon as he received permission from his Bishop Father Sampson enlisted in the United States Army in 1942. Always looking for a challenge, he became regimental chaplain of the 501st Parachute Regiment of the 101rst Airborne. In his memoirs, Look Out Below!, Father Sampson wrote about his joining a very tough branch of the service:
“Frankly, I did not know when I signed up for the airborne that chaplains would be expected to jump from an airplane in flight. Had I known this beforehand, and particularly had I known the tortures of mind and body prepared at Fort Benning for those who sought the coveted parachute wings, I am positive that I should have turned a deaf ear to the plea for airborne chaplains. However, once having signed up, I was too proud to back out. Besides, the airborne are the elite troops of the Army, and I already began to enjoy the prestige and glamour that goes with belonging to such an outfit.”
The newspapers during the war would call him the “Paratrooper Padre”.
With the rest of the 501st, Father Sampson landed behind enemy lines on D-Day. The story of Saving Private Ryan is based very loosely on one of Father Sampson’s many exploits during the Normandy campaign. Learning that two of Sergeant Frederick Niland’s brothers had been killed on D-Day and the day after, and that a third brother was reported missing in Burma, that brother mercifully was a Japanese POW and would survive the war, Father Sampson initiated the paperwork to get Sergeant Niland out of the fighting. He then escorted Niland back to Utah beach for eventual evacuation.
Father Sampson quickly gained a reputation for courage under fire, and a jolly spirit, and was regarded as one of the best loved and best respected officers of the regiment. He later wrote that “no pair of knees shook more than my own, nor any heart ever beat faster in time of danger”.
At one time during the fighting a medical station where Colonel Sampson was helping to tend the wounded was overrun by a unit of the Waffen SS, not noted for a readiness to take prisoners. Father Sampson was put up against a wall to be executed. He kept repeating to himself “Bless us, Our Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive through Thy bounty through Christ Our Lord, Amen”. Rescued by a Catholic German noncom, Sampson was interrogated and released. Eventually American troops retook the aid station. For his heroism during the fighting in Normandy Father Sampson was award the nation’s second highest military decoration, the Distinguished Service Cross. Here is his citation:
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Captain (Chaplain) Francis L. Sampson (ASN: 0-471891), United States Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving with the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, in action against enemy forces on 6 and 7 June 1944, at Balise Addeville, France. On the afternoon of D-Day a small force of parachute infantry was forced to evacuate its position to the enemy’s advance. Chaplain Sampson, though strongly urged otherwise, elected to remain behind with fourteen seriously wounded men. When the enemy seized the position Chaplain Sampson immediately made his presence known so that no attack would be made on the wounded men. Granted permission to remain with the wounded, he valiantly struggled in the face of the most hazardous and difficult conditions to keep the men alive. On the second night during an artillery barrage which lasted four hours and virtually demolished the house, he administered blood plasma and aid to the wounded. As three shells hit the building he threw his body across the wounded to protect them. He made numerous trips across a shell-swept courtyard to ascertain the condition of one of the most seriously wounded men. When a shell destroyed the adjacent room, fatally injuring the two men therein, he went immediately to their assistance and attempted to dig them out from the debris. He suffered a second-degree burn from a tracer bullet but continued to care for the wounded. In the morning, after the Germans left the vicinity, an evacuation party arrived. Assured that the living wounded were evacuated to the division hospital, Chaplain Sampson proceeded to the same hospital where he gave a seriously wounded man a liter of blood and spent the remainder of the day and night rendering physical and spiritual aid to the wounded. The courage, fortitude, and heroism displayed by Chaplain Sampson are worthy of emulation. His intrepid actions, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, the 101st Airborne Division, and the United States Army.