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Father O'Callahan and the USS Franklin

Updated on June 2, 2013
LCMR Joseph O'Callahan, USNR
LCMR Joseph O'Callahan, USNR | Source

Over 1.2 million men have died in all our countries wars and many more have sacrificed their health, sanity and a few years of their young lives. Most of them were just normal men, “guys next door”, and a few of them rose to the occasion, and performed feats of greatness and heroism


One of them was Father Joseph O’Callahan who, as the Roman Catholic chaplain on the aircraft carrier USS Franklin , was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism under fire in March 1945.

Joseph O’Callahan was born in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston in 1905. He joined the Jesuit Order in 1922 and after receiving a BA and Masters Degree from St. Andrews College, he taught Math, philosophy and physics at Boston College. He came to Holy Cross College in Worcester, MA in 1938 as the Director of the Math Department. (ironically, while he was there one of his students was John V. Power, who himself would win the Medal of Honor, albeit posthumously, for heroism in the Battle of Kwajalein in 1944.) But as war approached he grew restless. He wanted to serve his country and take care of the men in battle. So, despite high blood pressure, bad eyes and the warnings of friends and family, in August 1940 he joined the Navy. By 1945 he had achieved the rank of Commander. Early that year he was ordered to report to the USS Franklin as the Roman Catholic chaplain.

A view of the listing, strickened USS Franklin taken from the cruiser USS Santa Fe.
A view of the listing, strickened USS Franklin taken from the cruiser USS Santa Fe. | Source

Seventeen days after O'Callahan reported aboard the ship (March 19, 1945), the Franklin found itself just 50 miles off the coast of Japan. No American Task Force had ever been closer to the Japanese homeland. In support of the landings at Okinawa, the ship, nicknamed the “Big Ben”, had earlier launched fighter strikes against Honshu and Kobe. At dawn on the 19th , thirty one airplanes were on the deck preparing for a third strike. Suddenly, a Japanese divebomber broke out of the low cloud cover and got two direct hits on the American ship. The first bomb hit the centerline of the flight deck and penetrated below to the hangar deck igniting the 31 fueled and armed planes on the deck as well as 16 more below. Most of the planes were armed with rockets and bombs which exploded turning the flight deck and hangar deck into infernos. The second bomb hit aft and tore through two decks creating more fires beneath deck and killing and trapping many men. In a few minutes, the Franklin was ablaze and dead in the water. Her flight deck was listing at 13°.

Fr. O'Callahan comforts a wounded sailor abourd the USS Franklin. The sailor would survive his injuries
Fr. O'Callahan comforts a wounded sailor abourd the USS Franklin. The sailor would survive his injuries | Source

It was in this hell that Father O’Callahan displayed the gallantry and bravery that would earn him the Medal of Honor. Although he had been wounded, O’Callahan, gave last rites to many dead and dying sailors, comforted the wounded, led the crew in firefighting efforts, and the disposal of bombs and ammunition by throwing them overboard. He personally led the efforts to bring a firefighting crew to a hot ammunition magazine below deck and sprayed it down and prevent it from exploding. The captain of the ship, Leslie Gehres, later told O’Callahan's mother that her son was “the bravest man he had ever seen.”

Within hours the heavy cruiser USS Santa Fe came alongside and removed many wounded men. Another heavy cruiser, the USS Pittsburgh, fastened a line to the carrier and began to tow it home. Within a few days it was running on its own power and after emergency repairs at Pearl Harbor, it was able to steam to New York for extensive repairs. She was repaired and put into mothballs in Bayonne New Jersey and sold for scrap in 1966.

That day took a heavy toll with 807 US sailors were killed and more than 487 wounded. This is the second highest death toll in a single battle for a US warship. The only ship that had more killed was the USS Arizona that was sunk at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The USS Pittsburgh comes alongside the burning carrier to fight the fires and assist in any way it can Source: Wikipedia (Public Domain)
The USS Pittsburgh comes alongside the burning carrier to fight the fires and assist in any way it can Source: Wikipedia (Public Domain)

That day also took it’s toll on Joseph O’Callahan. His lungs were singed by the smoke, fires and vapors that he inhaled on that day. His health was never the same. After receiving the Medal of Honor from Pres. Truman in 1946, he suffered a debilitating stroke. He recovered enough to resume teaching at Holy Cross in 1948 as a philosophy professor, but he was forced to retire from teaching several years later due to health issues. He died in 1964 at the age of 59.

Father O’Callahan’s heroism on March 19, 1945 was inspired by his faith. He had left a comfortable job as a college professor to help the young men who had gone off to battle. On that day, he saved lives, may have saved the ship and brought leadership to a chaotic situation. Of the 3475 recipients of the Medal of Honor since it was originated in the Civil War, he is only one of three chaplain to receive this award.

But what makes a man go above and beyond the call of duty? Being a priest and a professor, Father O’Callahan was already a leader of young men but that day he put his life on the line so that others may have a better chance to live. A look at the roster of Medal of Honor awardees reveals a common trait. They put themselves in harms way to save others, many times losing their lives in the process.

But what of the others who went off to war? Many were killed and wounded. Many were not physically harmed but they carried the awful memories with them for the rest of their life. All are heroes.

In my home of Worcester, MA, many older neighborhoods have small stone memorials on street corners honoring the men from that neighborhood who have died in the service of this country. The monuments honor men from the Spanish American War to Vietnam. I have always been fascinated by these memorials. I wondered who they were, what they left to go off to war and why they had to leave Worcester only to die in a nameless French town, a volcanic island or a Southeast Asian jungle. Worcester is not unique. All cities and towns in the US have sent sons off to fight for this country, never to return

So remember this weekend as you go off to your cookouts and ballgames there is a reason for this holiday. Think about the men who have sacrificed so much so that you can be free.


Fr. O'Callahan (far right) being presented the Medal of Honor with 3 others by President Truman. Next to O"Callaghan is LtJg Donald Gary who also won his Medal of Honor aboard the Franklin that day. He rescued more than 300 trapped men below deck.
Fr. O'Callahan (far right) being presented the Medal of Honor with 3 others by President Truman. Next to O"Callaghan is LtJg Donald Gary who also won his Medal of Honor aboard the Franklin that day. He rescued more than 300 trapped men below deck. | Source
Naval Medal of Honor Like the one that  that was awarded to O'Callahan
Naval Medal of Honor Like the one that that was awarded to O'Callahan | Source

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    • billd01603 profile image
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      billd01603 5 years ago from Worcester

      Hey thanks for reading Lee. Sorry for the misspelling. I'm a little embarrassed. I made the appropriate corrections.

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      Lee Craine 5 years ago

      Very nice article - thought though that I would point out his name is O'Callahan, no 'g' I know this to be true because Father Joe was my grandmother's (Katherine O'Callahan) cousin. Her father (John J. "handsome Jack" O'Callahan) and Father Joe's father were brothers.

    • billd01603 profile image
      Author

      billd01603 5 years ago from Worcester

      Thanks Steve

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      stevemacri 5 years ago

      Thanks for telling this story. We're losing our remaining WWII veterans every day. It's important that stories like these shared with everyone.

      Terrific hub!