Father and the Flag

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One of the most highly decorated chaplains of World War II, Father Elmer W. Heindl used to joke that his decorations were simply due to him being in the wrong place at the right time.  Born on June 14, 1910 in Rochester, New York, the oldest of six children, Heindl decided at an early age that he was meant to be a priest and was ordained on June 6, 1936.  He said that being born on Flag Day indicated to him that during his life he would do something to honor the Stars and Stripes.

In March of 1942 he joined the Army as a chaplain.  Assigned to the 2nd Battalion of th 148th infantry attached to the 37th Division, he served on Guadalcanal, New Georgia and in the Philippines.  He quickly gained a reputation for utter fearlessness under fire, giving the last Rites, tending the wounded and rescuing wounded under fire.    In regard to the Last Rites, Father Heindl noted that he did not have time to check dog tags to see if a dying soldier was a Catholic.  “Every situation was an instant decision.  You didn’t have time to check his dog tag to see whether he was Catholic or not. I’d say, in Latin, ‘If you’re able and willing to receive this sacrament, I give it to you.’ And then leave it up to the Lord.”

He earned a Bronze Star on New Georgia when on July  19 and July 23 he conducted burial services, although in constant danger from Japanese sniper fire.  The citation noted that his cheerful demeanor and courage inspired the troops who encountered him.

During the liberation of the Philippines, Captain Heindl participated in the bitter fighting in Manila.  He earned a Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award in the United States Army for valor, during the fighting at Bilibid prison to liberate American and Filipino POWs who had been through horrors at the hands of their Japanese captors that I truly hope the readers of this post would find literally unimaginable.  Here is the Distinguished Service Cross 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) Elmer W. Heindl, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as Chaplain with Company E, 2d Battalion, 148th Infantry Regiment, 37th Infantry Division, in action against enemy forces on 6, 8 and 11 February 1945, in the Philippine Islands. During the assault on the Bilibid Prison in Manila on 6 February, Chaplain Heindl learned that a soldier lay critically wounded on the top floor of a two-story watch tower under enemy fire. Accompanied by a medical aid-man he entered the tower and climbed to the wounded soldier, who was bleeding profusely and obviously had but a few moments to live. Fully aware that enemy machine guns were trained on the tower, Chaplain Heindl calmly knelt and offered prayers for the dying man. He then carried the body down the ladder and away from the tower. Entering the tower once more, he carried out a second man who lay wounded on the first floor, and under enemy fire helped to carry him to an aid station. On 8 February when his unit was under enemy mortar and rocket fire, Chaplain Heindl observed an officer who was seriously wounded. Without hesitation he left his foxhole, crawled to the officer and dragged him to an aid station. On 11 February when nine men were killed and others wounded during an engagement, he dragged the wounded under fire to comparative safety and administered last rites for the dying. Through his extraordinary heroism and firm faith in the face of all danger, Chaplain Heindl proved himself worthy of the highest tradition of his Church and his military service. 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 37th Infantry Division, and the United States Army.

General Orders: Headquarters, U.S. Army Forces in the Far East, General Orders No. 123 (1945)

Action Date: February 6, 8, & 11, 1945

In April in the Philippines Father Heindl earned a Silver Star, the third highest decoration for valor, for rescuing wounded under fire on April 17 and 25.  Although he received a decoration for these dates, Heindl would always do this as a matter of course.  If there were wounded on a battlefield, and if he could reach them, he would, his own danger never being a consideration for him.

Miraculously, Father Heindl came out of the War without a scratch.  In honor of this miracle, he received an honorary Purple Heart.  He remained in the Army Reserves after the War, retiring as a Colonel in 1970.  He served as a priest in the Rochester diocese for many years, dying at 96 in 2006.  On Flag Day June 14, 2010, his friend Bob Lonsberry wrote a column about him, which ended with the following:

I don’t know that some priests and Catholic leaders appreciated him as much as they should have. In a liberal diocese he was a little too red, white and blue for the prevailing sentiment.

But parishioners loved him, and veterans loved him, and I loved him, too.

In the hospital room where he would die, brought low by an equipment failure and some medical misadventures, we talked about Mother Angelica and Fulton Sheen. We talked about Jesus Christ and George Washington.

And he talked about veterans, a flock he ministered to for more than 50 years.

The best man I ever met would have been 100 today.

On Flag Day.

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  1. When I read stories likes this, I wonder what exactly Protestant preachers and minsters have to offer the dying on the battlefield. The answer of course is nothing. Oh, there were many brave Protestants on the battlefield. Desmond Doss of Hacksaw Ridge fame comes to mind – a subject of a previous post here. But he wasn’t a preacher. Dietrich Bonhoffer, a Lutheran pastor and an anti-Nazi spy in WW II also comes to mind, but did he give spiritual aid and comfort to the dying on the battlefield? I just wonder: what logic is there in a Protestant preacher being on the battlefield when he doesn’t believe in the power of the Sacraments for the dying?

  2. Am reading (started 2014 and going 100 years ago daily) Kipling’s The Irish Guards in the Great War, he writes how the chaplains were so important to troop morale/unit cohesion that the brass tried to order them to stay back. The priests’ response was “What is a wound when a soul is to be saved?”

    Born on Flag Day! The only better birthday would be the Independence Day.

  3. Thank you for another example of heroic faith and cheerfulness, always ready to give an explanation of why hope and optimism flow out from a wellspring that is the water never leaves one thirsty..a water the Samaritan woman heard about from the source itself. May we all have Fr. Heindl courage and Faith. God bless him!

    Thanks again.
    Great story.

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