Faith Under Fire: Stories of Hope and Courage from World War II

Faith Under Fire: Stories of Hope and Courage from World War II

by Steve Rabey

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As World War II raged, millions of men and women confronted injury, destruction, separation from home and loved ones, chaos, and death. These challenges and traumas and many others forced an entire generation of everyday heroes to take stock of their lives. And in the process, many turned to God in ways they never had before.

In Faith Under Fire,


As World War II raged, millions of men and women confronted injury, destruction, separation from home and loved ones, chaos, and death. These challenges and traumas and many others forced an entire generation of everyday heroes to take stock of their lives. And in the process, many turned to God in ways they never had before.

In Faith Under Fire, you'll experience scenes of astonishing bravery, moments of heart-breaking loss, and a pervasive sense of love for God, neighbor, and country that was strong enough to transcend denominational and national differences, inspiring selfless acts of courage and compassion under the worst of circumstances.

From the Catholic chaplain who offered mercy among the carnage of Iwo Jima, to the Pentecostal boy who was saved from an incoming shell by the voice of God calling his name, to the young wife praying that her husband would survive life in a concentration camp, to the Tuskegee Airman who fought both totalitarianism and racism, these stories reveal the power of faith that sustained these heroes when there was nowhere else to turn.

Award-winning author Steve Rabey presents more than twenty firsthand accounts of faith under pressure, many of them illustrated with war-time photos, letters, and journal entries. At a time when many who lived through these trying times are dying, their stories live on, passing on a legacy of faith and fortitude to future generations.

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Stories of Hope and Courage from World War II

Nelson Books

Copyright © 2007 Steve Rabey
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-7852-8832-9

Chapter One

Monsignor Paul Bradley


The events of World War II were captured in thousands of photographs and hundreds of newsreels. But one image of the war stands out above all the others. It is a dramatic photograph showing six U.S. soldiers raising the American flag atop a rocky volcanic hilltop.

That hilltop was known as Mount Suribachi. For many people, Mount Suribachi isn't as familiar a name as Mount Everest or Mount Rushmore. But for historians of the war, the raising of the flag on this otherwise insignificant hill signifies the U.S. victory on Iwo Jima, which was one of the bloodiest battles in the entire conflict.

Iwo Jima, which is Japanese for "sulfur island," was a small speck of land that had immense strategic importance. Equipped with three airfields and located less than two hours' flying time from Japan, the island was a key part of the American battle plan.

The island was important to the Japanese, too, which is why they had invested in reinforcing its defenses. Though only eight square miles in size, Iwo Jima was fortified with nearly eight hundred concrete pillboxes, hundreds more caves dug into the volcanic landscape, large minefields and trench systems, and a network of underground tunnels that snaked through three miles of solid rock.

But it was more than physical fortifications that made Iwo Jima a hell on earth for American soldiers. More than twenty-two thousand dedicated Japanese fighting men defended the island.

The U.S. attack began with weeks of bombardment from the air. The next and most deadly phase began on February 19, 1945, with wave after wave of marine amphibious landings. Within a few days, the six American soldiers ascended Mount Suribachi and raised the Stars and Stripes for all on the island to see.

But this symbolic event didn't mean that the fighting was over. Instead, back on the beach, the carnage continued. It would be midMarch before organized resistance ceased. Most Japanese fought to the death, and only about two hundred surrendered.

Still, the raising of the flag was important, for it indicated not only that the battle on Iwo Jima was changing course, but also that the entire war in the Pacific was entering a new and decisive stage. Perhaps that's part of why the photograph of the six brave fighting men has become such a powerful part of the American psyche.

"Their collective image, blurred and indistinct yet unforgettable, became the most recognized, the most reproduced, in the history of photography," writes James Bradley in his bestselling book Flags of Our Fathers. Bradley's father, John, was one of the six men standing on top of Mount Suribachi that day. And as Bradley's book points out, the impromptu patriotic celebration atop the hill signaled the end of one of the most horrific battles in the history of modern warfare. In fact, Bradley calls the struggle on Iwo Jima "one of the great military slaughters of all history ... It ground on over thirty-six days. It claimed 25,851 U.S. casualties, including nearly 7,000 dead."

But Iwo Jima represented more than mere carnage. According to Bradley, it epitomized American heroism. "More medals for valor were awarded for action on Iwo Jima than in any battle in the history of the United States," he writes. Or as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, put it, "Uncommon valor was a common virtue."

One of the brave young men who received some of the awards handed out for bravery on Iwo Jima was Catholic Chaplain Paul F. Bradley (who is no relation to author James Bradley). Chaplain Bradley received a Bronze Star with a V for valor, as well as a Purple Heart for wounds he received on the island.

Armed with little more than holy water, some Communion hosts, and an immense faith in God, Chaplain Bradley made his way around the blood-soaked beaches of Iwo Jima, caring for and ministering to the many fallen men. The priest didn't wear a helmet. Rather, he wore a baseball-style cap with a gold cross stitched on the bill. "That way they could see me coming," he said.

Many of the men did see the priest making his rounds on the beach. And sometimes, between bursts of gunfire and mortar explosions, one could hear the men calling out to him: "Over here, Father."

Then, with bullets still flying, Bradley accompanied the men who ascended Mount Suribachi and, from a temporary table set up in a foxhole, offered Mass for the fighting men.

His sacrificial care for the men inspired the living, comforted the dying, and grabbed headlines around the world. But anybody who knows Bradley today knows that his life of courage and selfless service didn't end on that beach. Rather, it was just beginning.

Front-Page News

"Chaplain Fights Way to Top of Mountain on Iwo to Say Mass," screamed the headline in the March 9, 1945, issue of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

"A few minutes after the American flag went up over the shell-torn crest of Mount Suribachi-even though Japanese still lurked in caves on the battered hillside-Navy Lt. Paul Bradley of Brooklyn, New York, a chaplain, said mass on the summit," wrote Sergeant Larry Schulenberg, a reporter for the Globe-Democrat who was on military leave on Iwo Jima and witnessed Bradley's bravery firsthand. He continued,

The ceremony was offered in honor of those Marines of the twenty-eighth regiment who had died capturing the fortress peak.

Father Bradley was with assault troops as they commenced the final attack on the bitterly defended mountain. He went up with the Marines, administering last rites to those who fell on the way.

The padre landed on D-Day with early assault waves and after serving at the front lines for several hours came down to the mortar-blasted beach to attend casualties brought in for evacuation to waiting hospital ships.

He performed his duties for two days and two nights without rest, and in the words of a naval medical officer, "Father Bradley did more for the morale of the wounded than half of the stuff we could give them."

At this writing Father Bradley is back on the slopes of the crest, moving slowly upward with Marines who are flushing Japanese out of deep, complex caves. Suribachi is still claiming casualties.

The Globe-Democrat and other newspapers around the country heralded Bradley's bravery. Or was it insanity?

Months later, the story had made it across the Atlantic to the Ulster Examiner from Bradley's ancestral home in County Omagh, Northern Ireland. "Said Mass Under Hail of Bullets," proclaimed the headline, while the story provided additional details about Bradley's compassionate care for wounded soldiers:

On the beach in the areas where wounded men were arriving by dozens was complete chaos. No tents, no cover-even plasma dressings and brandy were low. The first two boats bringing in badly needed litters were blown out of the water.

In that aid station, where some wounded men were being hit a second time as they lay helplessly awaiting evacuation, a naval doctor told of the job Father Bradley had done.

"In some cases," the doctor said, "we couldn't even give the wounded morphine. I asked Father Bradley to talk to many men who could not get the medical attention they deserved. He went from man to man, regardless of faith, spoke to them and tried to console them.

"He was kneeling next to one man with shrapnel wounds when a bullet from a sniper entered the man's side. Father Bradley didn't move.

"It was hours before we got the supplies we needed. We depended on him in that critical period."

The Irish paper's article concluded with final words of praise for Bradley:

The regiment's job is done. With them was Father Bradley, a young Irishman with the prayers of a Brooklyn mother behind him. He has seen many young men entering the Valley of Death.

It is true that he was their chaplain, but that was almost secondary. He was their friend.

What would make a man risk his life in such ways? Thinking back on those days, Bradley admits that the line between faith and foolishness is a thin one.

"If I knew then what I know now, I might have been more careful," he says. "But when you're young, you feel you're indestructible. I remember feeling, 'Nothing can happen to me.'

"Also, my faith was strong. And I have always inherently felt that when your time comes, you've got to be ready, for you know not when you will die.

"I've seen the strongest, healthiest guys get picked off with a direct hit, so it's not something you can control."

Life in "the Meat Grinder"

As the assault on Iwo Jima dragged on for weeks of grisly, hand-to-hand combat, the marines created a morbid nickname for the Pacific island where they fought: "the meat grinder."

Bradley saw more than his share of human misery, some of it beginning almost before he had even left his landing craft. "Our group had come to Iwo Jima on a merchant ship," recalls Bradley. "Then we all went down rope ladders to smaller boats that would be our landing craft. As the landing craft went right up to the beach, you could see the guys who had already been picked off."

Once on the beach, the horrors of war grew more intense. Bradley describes the scene: "You could hear the thud of the bullets hitting guys in the guts. I would kneel next to them and anoint them, regardless of their religion. I was taking care of anybody who was dying.

"At times I was practically lying on the island's black sand. I could maneuver myself around by kind of worming my way across the sand. I would lie low, sort of moving forward a bit, until I came across guys who had already been hit.

"I had a backpack that carried a Mass kit, and I would offer Holy Communion for those who were conscious. I also had anointing oil for those who were not conscious. It seemed that most of the men I saw at first had already lost consciousness."

As the fighting moved beyond the beach and across the rest of the island, the carnage continued. One soldier sat calmly on the ground smoking a cigarette, a blanket wrapped around him. When the blanket was lifted up, one could see that his legs and one arm were in tatters. The marine had stepped on a land mine.

Another time Bradley came across a squad of three or four marines with flamethrowers who had been using them to clear out some underbrush. But there had been a horrible accident.

"There they were," says Bradley, "and they were really burned. As I anointed them, one right after another, it was hard to find a place on their faces that was solid, really. They were gasping for life. One died while I was there, but before he passed away, he said, 'Thank you, Father.'

"That was a big difference from my later civilian life as a priest. Often, people seem to take the sacraments for granted. But on that day, here was a man who was dying, and he was thanking me."

Throughout such situations, Bradley was too busy to be diverted from his priestly duties. "You're so distracted in warfare, and so overcome with a resolute determinism and the intention of trying to do the best you can, that all you can do is stretch yourself around," he explains.

But on at least two occasions, Bradley stretched himself almost too far.

"I was moving across a hillside when all of a sudden, I sensed someone coming out of what turned out to be a cave and heading toward me," he says.

"On account of the fact that Japan didn't recognize the Geneva Conference's rules regarding warfare, chaplains in the Pacific were allowed to carry side arms. I pulled my gun and aimed for his midsection, but hit his leg.

"A very short time later, a U.S. intelligence officer said there had been Japanese hand grenades nearby. I look back at that now all these years later and wonder how differently things might have turned out."

And on one other occasion, Bradley became separated from his own men.

"I was near the front line a short time after Mount Suribachi had been secured. I assumed that the front line would be a straight line between the A Company and the B Company platoons, but I was wrong, and I was in no-man's-land. I was being peppered by Japanese rifles.

"I just played dead and didn't move for quite a while. When things quieted down, I made a beeline for what I thought was my own outfit again, and it was.

"I always felt that God was with me and protected me during these times. But I remember looking back after that last episode and saying, 'Gee, while I was playing dead I never even thought to say a prayer to God.'

"But I was just too distracted to pray. I was too busy trying to figure out which way I was going to run."

Prayer and Death

For some people, it may seem odd to think of a priest being in the line of fire. After all, aren't priests supposed to be pacifists? And aren't they supposed to be quiet and reflective rather than the companion of marines?

Anyone who knows anything about Bradley, his upbringing, and his calling to the priesthood will know that he's not the shy, retiring type. His father was born near Belfast, Northern Ireland, and as a youngster, he moved to New York, which is where he met Bradley's mother. As one of three children in a devout Catholic household, Bradley learned respect for God and country.

"I came from a home where daily prayer was an important part of my life," he recalls. "Morning and night prayers in the family setting promoted a great spirit of reverence toward authority, and especially the supreme authority, almighty God.

"And a natural consequence of my upbringing was that I also developed a deep love of family and a love of country."

Bradley's father rode a horse for thirty-two years as a mounted policeman.

"He did that in all kinds of weather. And I would say that of all the men I have met-and I have met some great men-my father was one of the sturdiest characters of them all. He was a real straight shooter."

His parents didn't pressure Bradley to become a priest. In fact, his mother seemed to want him to pursue a more "normal" line of work. And that's what he was intending to do when the call to the priesthood came.

"I was working part-time and going to college," he says. "I had a job at Rockaway Beach. I worked for the parks department, which supplied workers to monitor the playground by the beach for five dollars a day.

"One morning as I got to work, I looked down at the beach and saw that a body had washed up on the sand. Later I learned that it was a male who was in his twenties.

"This experience made me think about the important things in life. After that, I thought I would try being a priest."

He was ordained into the priesthood on June 7, 1941, which was six months before Pearl Harbor.

"War had broken out within the first year after my ordination, and there was a big need for Catholic chaplains.

"I had always had a deep love for God and country, and a great patriotic awareness. I knew that there would be a need for priests. And I knew that casualties would be heavy because of the instruments of war used in World War II.

"So volunteering to be a chaplain seemed to be the natural thing to do. I was just happy to get into the war and do my part as an American, as all Americans were doing," Bradley notes.

A Life of Service

Bradley wasn't hit by shrapnel until a day or two before the island was secured. But the injury didn't interfere with his career as a chaplain.

He served at sea, at air bases, and at a marine academy during the Korean conflict and the Vietnam War. In 1967, Pope Paul VI bestowed on Bradley the rank of Domestic Prelate with the title of Right Reverend Monsignor.

He retired from the U.S. Navy in 1969 and was appointed pastor of St. Michael's Catholic Church in Long Branch, New Jersey, where he served for the next twenty years.

The transition to parish ministry wasn't an entirely easy one. For one thing, he missed the close friendships he developed in the military.

"People say marines are rough, but while they may be tough on the surface, I always found them to be good-hearted guys.

"And as an old confirmed bachelor and celibate priest, there are times when I can miss the camaraderie of being in the service. There was never a lonesome moment when I was serving in an outfit like the marines."

In 1989, when Bradley reached the ripe old age of seventy-five, he was required to retire. But you can bet he didn't give up the ministry. Instead, he transferred across town to St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, a primarily Spanish and Portuguese congregation, where he serves as assistant parish priest.

His two weekly English Masses fill the sanctuary, and some of the pews are filled by parishioners from St. Michael's who journey across town to be with their beloved priest.

In June 2001 the congregation of St. John's celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of Bradley's ordination. The guest speaker for the event was Flags of Our Fathers author James Bradley, and President George W. Bush sent a letter commemorating the occasion. "A strong spiritual foundation is central to the lives of Americans," read the letter. "Our nation is a better place because of your dedication to sharing your wisdom, guidance, and faith with others."

Even today, a nearly blind Bradley hasn't entirely laid down his backpack.

"I'm getting ready for another invasion," he says, "in the hereafter."


Excerpted from FAITH UNDER FIRE by STEVE RABEY Copyright © 2007 by Steve Rabey. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Steve Rabey is an award-winning author and speaker. He has written nearly twenty books and over 2,000 articles about religion and popular culture in the New York Times, Christian Retailing, and Publishers Weekly, among many others.

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