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.
After the fighting in Normandy Father Sampson and the 501st jumped behind enemy lines again in September 1944 in Operation Market-Garden in Holland. Parachuting on top of Heeswijk Castle, Colonel Sampson had the memorable experience of landing in the castle moat on top of another paratrooper. Father Sampson was nearly captured by the Germans a second time, but he and the 501st completed their mission of capturing the vital bridge at Veghel and were eventually sent back to France for some much needed rest.
Unfortunately the rest was cut short by the initiation of the massive German offensive known to history as the Battle of the Bulge. The 101st was thrown into the battle to hold the vital crossroads at the town of Bastogne. In a village near Bastogne on December 19, 1944, in desperate fighting, Father Sampson was captured by the Germans. He would not know freedom again until April 28, 1945.
After being marched through Belgium and Luxemburg, Father Sampson was thrown into boxcars with other American POWs, not fed or given water for six days, and shipped to Stalag II A, near the city of Neubrandenburg, northof Berlin. Officers were usually separated from enlisted men in POW camps. Colonel Sampson insisted on remaining with the enlisted men. In the camp Father Sampson kept busy saying mass, aiding the sick, and keeping up the spirits of his men with non-stop good humor. A child of one of his altar-boy POWs recalled on May 20 of this year: “My father is a Dowling alum and was a POW with General Sampson, my Dad would serve Mass for him in the POW camp. Dad has told me numerous stories about the General. One story I remember was that the General did not appreciate the boys swearing, he would impose a ‘swearing fine’ when he caught them in the act. The fine was a cigarette, then later he would distribute the confiscated smokes to any GI’s that were out of them.”
After the end of the war Father Sampson mustered out of the Army in October 1945 and returned briefly to his teaching duties at Dowling High School. At the suggestion of his Bishop he rejoined the Army in 1946 as regimental chaplain of the 505th parachute regiment of the 82nd Airborne, and then, from 1947-1951, chaplain of the 187th Airborne infantry regiment. In the Korean war, Father Sampson took part in a massive parachute drop behind enemy lines north of Pyongyang on October 20, 1950. Prior to takeoff Father Sampson went from plane to plane distributing the eucharist to the troops.
Father Sampson continued serving in the Army after the Korean War, and was promoted to Major General and Chief of Chaplains in 1967, serving until 1971. In trying times for the Army and the nation, General Sampson made annual tours of Vietnam each Christmas to serve mass for combat troops and was untiring in visiting wounded soldiers in hospitals. A few months before his retirement in 1971 Father Sampson gave a speech which summed up his view of the priesthood and military service:
“In civilian life many people misunderstand the military mission. I have spoken at various universities and have been challenged by this misunderstanding. I have been asked how I can wear the uniform which symbolizes war and also wear the cross upon it symbolizing peace. One would think that they should find the answer to the very question they proposed — for such questioners are of lofty academic standards, positions and responsibilities.
It is very easy for me to tell them that, by law and statute, the mission of the military of the United States is, first, to preserve peace. Second, to provide for the security of our country, its borders and internal security. And third, to implement national policy as it pertains to peace treaties with friendly nations which of themselves cannot repel the aggression of avaricious neighbors. I see nothing in this mission that does not appeal to the highest ideals of any man — regardless of his religion. Indeed, it was Cardinal O’Neal, the great Churchman, who once said if he had not been a priest he most certainly would have had to be a soldier, because they are both called to the identical things — that is — the preservation of peace, the establishment of justice when it has been lost, and the providing of security with protection for the weak and the innocent.”
Dying on January 28, 1996, the feast day of the Angelic Doctor, fitting for a paratrooper, Father Sampson had inscribed on his tombstone “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”.