Joseph T. O’Callahan, A Claustrophobic Priest, Wins the Medal of Honor

Father Joseph T. O’Callahan left his classroom at Holy Cross College to enlist in the U.S. Naval Reserve as the United States prepared to enter World War II. He figured he would be more help as a Navy chaplain than as a mathematics professor.

Father Callahan helping the wounded aboard the USS Franklin.

Father Callahan helping the wounded aboard the USS Franklin.

Father O’Callahan ended up saving an aircraft carrier, for which he earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. His citation read:

Serving with courage, fortitude, and deep spiritual strength, Lt. Cmdr. O’Callahan inspired the gallant officers and men of the Franklin to fight heroically and with profound faith in the face of almost certain death and to return their stricken ship to port.

Comforting the Kids

Born May 14, 1905 in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, he joined the Jesuits in 1922 after graduating from Boston Latin High School. He was ordained while teaching mathematics, philosophy and physics at Boston College. In 1938, he became head of the Mathematics Department at Holy Cross.

Months before Pearl Harbor, Father O’Callahan enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserve as a lieutenant, J.g. He was 36, nearsighted, with a bad case of claustrophobia and high blood pressure. He wanted to comfort the kids who would be going to war.

By 1945 he’d been promoted to lieutenant commander. He reported aboard the USS Franklin, an aircraft carrier, on March 2, just 17 days before the ship was bombed by a Japanese plane off the coast of Kobe.

O’Callahan’s nephew, Jay O’Callahan, tells the story of what happened next. It goes something like this:

Shortly after dawn, two bombs struck the USS Franklin. One went through the flight deck, the fo’c’sle deck and exploded on the hangar deck, killing hundreds of men. The explosion freed bombs from the airplanes on the flight deck; they rolled around the hangar deck and exploded, igniting hundreds of thousands of gallons of aviation fuel.

Joseph T. O'Callahan, 1945

Joseph T. O’Callahan, 1945

Wounded men lay groaning on the flight deck amid the flames and the stench of burned flesh .O’Callahan heard a voice yell, “Padre! Padre! Flight deck forward!” He made his way through the smoke to give last rites to the dying and comfort the wounded. He took a sailor’s hand. The sailor said, “Padre, we’re dead.”

O’Callahan realized the ship was dead in the water, 40 miles off the coast of Japan, an air battle was going on above them and the men were confused and terrified.

He rushed toward the fo’c’sle where several dozen paralyzed sailors watch the ship blow itself apart.

O’Callahan yelled to get their attention: “Lads, lads! Wan to save our happy home?” They followed him as he organized them into firefighting parties.

Another explosion rocks the boat. Flames are licking the gun turrets. The ship would probably sink if the shells in the gun turrets exploded.

Lt. Cmdr. Joseph T. O’Callahan led a group of sailor through the flames to the first gun turret. He fought his claustrophobia and forced himself into the small, dark space. The sailors followed him in. He handed a five-inch shell and handed it to the sailor next to him, who passed it down the line, saying, “Padre, praise the Lord and dump the ammunition.”

The captain ordered the men to get a tow on the ship. The USS Pittsburgh came astern and handed over a 30-ton steel cable a quarter mile long. Frank Frasure, an African-American steward’s mate, started to sing,

“We’re gonna take this line, and make a tow. Heave ho. It’s time to get on home.” The other black sailors, then the white sailors joined the song, and they began to budge the line.

But the men were in danger. The ship was listing and a 500-pound bomb slid across the deck toward a hole right above them. If it went through the hole, they would all die.

Six sailors ran toward the rolling bomb and stopped it, shaking with fear as the bomb was hot and about to explode. Two officers ran over to try to defuse the bomb, but they were too nervous. Father O’Callahan strode over to the bomb, stood over it and folded his arms. The men calmed down and defused the bomb.

‘Bravest man I have ever seen’

President Harry Truman awards Father O'Callahan (far right) the Medal of Honor.

President Harry Truman awards Father O’Callahan (far right) the Medal of Honor.

The USS Franklin made it back to the Brooklyn Navy Ship Yard. On May 17, 1945, awards were presented on the battered flight deck of the USS Franklin. Father O’Callahan’s mother came aboard the ship. The ship’s captain, Les Gehres, went over to his mother and said, “I’m not a religious man. But I watched your son that day and I thought if faith can do this for man, there must be something to it. Your son is the bravest man I have ever seen.”

President Truman awarded Lt. Cmdr. Joseph T. O’Callahan the Medal of Honor on Jan. 23, 1946 at the White House.

He returned to Holy Cross in 1948 as head of the mathematics department. Father Joseph T. O’Callahan died March 18, 1964.

The USS O’Callahan, an escort destroyer, was named in his honor.

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