You could be forgiven if, like me, you’ve watched war movies over the past fifty years and got the impression that square-jawed, bullet-proof commandos were the only heroes on the battle front. Padres? Well, they were inoffensive chaps who kept well back from the action.
Michael Gladwin’s book ‘Captains of the Soul’ blows that myth to smithereens. His extensive research declares that the weapon-less chaplains were, more often than not, men admired by the troops for their calibre and courage.
Photographer George Silk remarked on the toughness of the padres. Of this photograph of a Catholic chaplain conducting mass prior to battle, he wrote, “You could almost see God Himself in the jungle.”
Digest this astonishing story Gladwin tells of a chaplain putting his life on the line to bury a young Digger.
It’s at Isurava on the Kokoda Track, high on the rugged Owen Stanley Range in New Guinea, in August 1942. Picture thick jungle alive with a swarm of Japanese troops making an onslaught on a battered and starving band of Australia’s 39th Division. A watching officer left this graphic account of padre ‘Nobby’ Earl arriving in the middle of a bloody gunfight.
‘There he found that Pte Hourigan had been killed at a listening post well forward of the main position; but the devoted and intrepid priest marched out alone through No Man’s Land, administered the last rites, dug a grave and buried the man…The enemy were still about but he returned unscathed just before the enemy re-opened fire…and showed themselves again within a hundred yards of the post.‘ (Gladwin, p. 126)
Author Peter Fitzsimons, better known for his scathing opinion of Christians, commented on the lack of gunfire from either side. ‘Yes, Father Nobby was clearly distinguishable as a man of God…Maybe it was his simple courage that stopped them; perhaps no man wanted to bring down a man who was clearly unarmed, taking no defensive or cowering action; or maybe the simple humanity of his action awakened an equal humanity on all those around -whatever the case, not one shot was fired.’ (Fitzsimons, Kokoda, p. 305)
This soldier/priest was not an exception, according to historian Michael Gladwin. In every theatre of the war, the chaplains’ untiring efforts to rescue the wounded, comfort the dying, write letters to their families, conduct impromptu worship services and bury the fallen in difficult places, won them undying thanks from the men , regardless of their backgrounds – religious or not.
Following victory over the Nazis at El Alamain in 1942, Field Marshal Montgomery had famously pronounced that “I would as soon think of going into battle without my artillery as without my chaplains.” Why? Because he reasoned that each soldier, “must have faith in God and they must think rightly on the moral issues involved.” (Gladwin, p. 119)
A mate of mine from Bourke recently set out to climb up the 7000 ft Kokoda Track. Like thousands of Australian pilgrims before him, at Isurava he’ll find four stones standing as testimony to the suffering and bravery of the men who fought there, as well as the tireless ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ - New Guinea tribesmen who carried supplies and the wounded. Each granite block bears a single word.
Courage Endurance Mateship Sacrifice
I like to think that those chaplains chose to serve alongside the troops and out into No Man’s Land, because they were doing exactly what Jesus had done. He embodied those virtues – that’s what we just celebrated at Easter. That’s why his famous words are etched on war memorials across Australia. ‘Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ #AnzacDay
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