Today marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy and the beginning of the end of World War II. In remembering that day, I thought it appropriate to choose this week’s Saint of the Week from among those who served on D-Day. Specifically, I wanted to find an example of a chaplain who served that day and stood as an example of God and the Church amongst the chaos, death and suffering. I recalled the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan where a chaplain is performing last rites over a dying soldier and wondered if there was an example of a chaplain like that. Surprisingly, I did not have to look to hard and found a great life for this week’s Saint of the Week.
This week’s saint is Francis L. Sampson, the “Paratrooper Padre”
Francis Sampson was born on February 29, 1912 in Cherokee, Iowa. He attended high school in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and later in Portland, Oregon. After graduating from Notre Dame university in 1937 he would began attending St. Paul’s Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1938. He was ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 1941 and began serving in a parish along with teaching classes at the local Catholic high school. In the following year, Francis was allowed to enlist in the military and became a first lieutenant in 1942 and trained to be a paratrooper for the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division.
When D-Day arrived on June 6th 1944, Francis was one of the first chaplains to cross into France as he parachuted behind enemy lines without any weapon. After surviving a hail of machine gun fire while parachuting, he landed in a large stream and was drug about 100 yards by his parachute. After cutting away his parachute Francis realized he had lost his kit for performing Mass services in the stream. He began to dive down to try and find it. Luckily on the fifth or sixth dive he found it. Francis would find his way to a local farmhouse where he began to help care for about 25 wounded American soldiers. The Germans launched an attack near the farmhouse most of the American soldiers retreated, leaving the wounded behind. Francis chose to remain with the wounded soldiers and tend to them. While there two German soldiers captured him and forced him to walk down a road at gunpoint. About the time they were probably going to kill him, another German solider arrived and demanded that his fellow soldiers let Francis go. The German solider who ordered his release, saluted Francis and showed him a pin identifying himself as a fellow Catholic. After being freed, Francis returned to the farmhouse he had been captured from. It was now a German aid station and Francis began tending to the wounded German soldiers there as well.
Shortly after D-Day, Francis would run into a soldier by the name of Fritz Nyland who had just heard one of his brothers had been killed. Francis drove Fritz 20 miles to the town where his brother had supposedly been buried. Once there they discovered that two of Fritz’s brothers had died and were buried in that town along with one having recently been killed in the Pacific. Francis would work to get Fritz Nyland sent back home so his mother would not lose all of her sons in World War II. If this sounds familiar, some think this story was the inspiration for the movie Saving Private Ryan.
Sampson would later parachute into Holland and end up in Belgium where he would be captured by German forces during the Battle of the Bulge. Francis was forced to march for 10 days with his fellow soldiers back to Germany during the frigid, northern European winter. Sampson was imprisoned north of Berlin for nearly four months losing nearly 35 pounds due to the poor conditions of the POW camp and meager rations provided for food. The camp was liberated by the Russians and Francis returned to civilian life.
Francis would later return to the military and serve as a chaplain in Korea as well. Later he became the Chief of Chaplains and even after retiring he was appointed head of the USO and would continue serving troops in Vietnam. Francis died on on Jan. 28, 1996. His grave stone quotes a prayer attributed to St. Francis that says, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.”
“Invectives, false philosophies, violence, and every diabolical scheme have been used to tear the Christ from the cross and the crucifix from the church. Nevertheless, like the bombs that were dropped on this chapel, they have only succeeded in making the cross stand out more and more in bold relief. The image we love grows greater in our understanding because of the vehemence of the hate it occasions in wicked men. Each of us has that sacred image stamped upon his soul. Like the chapel, we are Temples of God. And no matter how we are torn by the bombs of tragedy and trial and assault from without, the image of the crucified remains if we want it to. Now at the foot of this cross let us renew our baptismal vows. Let us promise to shield forever His image in our hearts.”
Part of a homily given by Francis Sampson in a bombed out chapel near Cherbourg that only had two walls and a crucifix left standing.
I pray that, like Francis Sampson, we would not be afraid to serve friend and foe even in unfriendly territory. I pray that, when necessary, we would not be afraid to get our feet wet and our hands dirty in the service of others. I pray that like Francis would realize that sometimes our best weapons of peace are not guns but being able to serve others in their woundedness and gather people around the Communion table.
More Information & References:
Wikipedia.com – Francis L. Sampson
Fishing in the Tiber – The Paratrooper Padre
The Des Moines Register – Sampson, Francis L.
Amazon.com – Look Out Below! A Story of the Airborne by a Paratrooper Padre
Mental Floss – 8 Heroic U.S. Military Chaplains
Cracked.com – The 5 Most Badass War Heroes Who Never Held a Weapon (Beware of some foul langage, but Francis Sampson is #1 on the list)