Thursday, October 05, 2006

Faith Under Fire

Fr. Albert Hoffman of Dubuque, Iowa, winner of the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and other medals was the most decorated chaplain in World War II. He had served in both the battlefields of North Africa and Naples before being grievously injured in the campaign for Volturno River. And the circumstances of this injury emphasize the admirable character of so many of the military chaplains in that war.

On November 4, 1943, Fr. Hoffman stepped on a German mine while walking over to help an injured German soldier. He had known the area was mined but he also knew the wounded enemy needed immediate help. The shock of the blast knocked him down and slashed his face but he managed to get to his feet and scramble again towards the man he intended to help. But before he arrived, another mine, a deadly Bouncing Betty, took his leg off.

Fr. Hoffman was then himself in dire need of medical help but he yelled back and ordered the soldiers trailing behind him away from the minefield. He refused help and lay there four hours until the area was cleared by minesweepers and help was finally able to reach him.

In a subsequent letter to Archbishop Spellman, Fifth Army Commander, General Mark Wayne Clark wrote of Fr. Hoffman that he had intensively studied the “art of the infantryman” so that he might be “better fitted to serve his men.” One found in him “skill, courage, and understanding of the splendid possibilities of spiritual work among our troops.” Clark added that the sheer volume of work Fr. Hoffman had accomplished had made a major contribution to the American victory in the Volturno River campaign.

Hoffman's own evaluation was less grand. He was proud, he remarked, just to be an infantrymen's chaplain. “In combat, no one stands out as doing anything heroic. Out there, acts of heroism are commonplace.”

Following his convalescence, Fr. Hoffman worked in army hospitals helping other amputees learn how to use their artificial limbs.

This compelling example of faith, courage and compassion under fire is just one of the many dramatic stories told in Battlefield Chaplains: Catholic Priests in World War II by Donald F. Crosby. It is a book I found of great interest and inspiration.