ON FLAG DAY
The best man I ever met would have been 100 today.
On Flag Day.
But he was called home to his Master four years ago. As the Chicago City Council noted in a resolution honoring his passing: “The Reverend Elmer Heindl has been called to eternal life by the wisdom of God at the age of ninety-six.”
Those words are true.
But he was called to faith, greatness and glory many long years before that. Father Heindl’s road to eternal life never detoured in mortality. He was a true Christian, a proud American, and a great gentleman.
We met more than 20 years ago.
I was a young newspaper reporter, just out of the Army, and I had asked that military and veterans stories get sent my way. One of those stories sent me to a veterans hall in the city of Rochester for a luncheon.
I got there late and quietly sat down in the first empty seat. A tall elderly man was speaking.
No, that’s the wrong word.
He was exhorting. He was preaching. He was robustly proclaiming his love for America and for the men who fight to keep her free. As I scribbled down notes, he said some of the purest, most enthusiastic and powerfully patriotic words I had ever heard.
I leaned to the man beside me, gestured to the speaker, and asked his name.
All I could make out of the response was, “Most decorated chaplain of World War 2.”
He was born on Flag Day in Rochester, New York, in 1910. He was the oldest child in a big Catholic family and studied for his ordination at St. Andrew’s and St. Bernard’s. He became a priest the week before his 26th birthday.
He became a commissioned chaplain in the United States Army three months after Pearl Harbor – the fastest he could get his paperwork processed.
Neither I nor anyone else still living is qualified to recount the nature of his service or the details of his valor. That’s because he never talked about it. Not that he was traumatized, but that he was humble. That he saw himself as a tool in the hand of the Lord, that he had a calling from God and a duty to his country, and he did what any man would do.
He loved to talk about the war. But only to praise the selflessness and courage of other men fighting in the cause of freedom. He celebrated the bravery of the men he served, and politely failed to mention the admiration they all had for his own courage.
As he told me about his war, he said that his job was to pray with the men and to be there beside them on behalf of their God. He gave them the sacraments and he gave them his love and as they soldiered across the Pacific, Father Heindl went where they went and faced what they faced.
Guadalcanal, New Britain, Bougainville, the Philippines. From nameless pieces of island to the streets of Manila, he was seldom out of harm’s way, seldom out of the sound and out of the reach of gun and cannon fire.
Time after time, in withering combat, Father Heindl crawled under hot lead to recover wounded soldiers or to shout Last Rites into the ears of dying men. In their last moments on earth, in a war thousands of miles from home, Father Heindl told them they were forgiven, and loved, and he sent them on their journey.
At the near-constant risk of his own life.
Writing about it after the war, an enlisted soldier described one piece of one battle, and Father Heindl’s role in it. A group of American soldiers came under direct assault from two Japanese tanks and a unit of infantry. The Americans were cut down, with a captain being decapitated and a colonel having his upper thigh and femoral artery blown apart.
“Miraculously,” the solder wrote, “and I do not use that word lightly, along with us was the regimental Catholic chaplain, Elmer Heindl – one of the most saintly men I ever met.
“While I lay there paralyzed with fear and ignorance, he proceeded to bind up the colonel’s leg.”
And saved his life.
Father Heindl earned medals for bravery under fire in 1943, 1944 and 1945. He received the Bronze Star, the Legion of Merit and the Silver Star.
And then came Manila.
The best record of what happened there is in his medal 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.”
The first incident could use a little elaboration. The taking of this prison from the Japanese was intensely important because it contained horrifically mistreated American POWs. The survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March were imprisoned at Bilibid under conditions similar to those in Nazi concentration camps. The fight to capture Bilibid was a fight to liberate these Americans and free them from certain death.
And the American soldier atop the guard tower had crept there unspotted by the Japanese. From his perch he was able to see most of the sprawling prison and call in artillery fire against the Japanese defenders. When the Japanese finally figured out where the observer was, they trained all their fire on the guard tower. It was the focus of the Japanese effort to hold the prison.
They shot it to ribbons.
And that is where Father Heindl ran, flying up the ladder with a young private first class. While Father Heindl prayed with the soldier, the medic treated his wounds the best he could, and then Father Heindl – the larger of the two rescuers – picked the bleeding man up and carried him, through the gunfire, down the ladder.
Then he went back for another man.
And that was just one incident.
That was the man I first heard speak at the luncheon at the veterans hall.
A man who came home from war and returned to being a parish priest.
All the years I knew him he was dedicated to the cause of veterans. Over and over and over again he told me how important it was to care for those who fought for us.
And over and over and over again he told me about his simple faith and how all he had ever wanted to do in life was serve the Master he loved.
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.
- by Bob Lonsberry © 2010