Desert Storm, 50 Years Ago: Catholic Chaplains in North Africa

Fifty years ago, an American infantry force stormed the beaches of western Morocco, while a smaller British group landed 850 miles to the east on the coast of Algeria. For the first time since he had come to power nine years earlier, Adolf Hitler suddenly found his realm under siege. The Allies had cracked the walls of his empire, which he had grandiloquently labeled his “Third Reich,” and which he had boasted would endure for a thousand years. The allied campaign to retake German-held North Africa would last eight months and take 2,500 American lives, among them a Catholic chaplain. He would be the first Catholic priest to perish in the Mediterranean Theater, and the second since the war had begun at Pearl Harbor, II months earlier.

The Americans swept up the Moroccan shoreline on November 8, 1942, placing 35,000 troops on the shoreline in one day. In the fierce struggle with the enemy that followed, a mighty Anglo-American army would first rush halfway across the northern reaches of the desert continent; then the Americans would suffer a stunning setback at the hitherto-unknown Kasserine Pass. Soon, however, they would recover and regroup, and acting in close coordination with their British allies, would end the campaign by rounding up most of Adolf Hitler’s beloved and justly-vaunted Afrika Korps. Out of the desert maelstrom of war would emerge an allied battlefield force far more capable, resilient, and experienced than the troops that had earlier landed in Morocco and Algeria. Their chaplains, also untried in combat, would emerge equally well prepared for war on the continent against the Germans.

Why an allied invasion of North Africa? Because so long as the Germans (and their highly reluctant comrades-in-arms, the Italians), held power on the continent, the Allies would have to face the threat of a German attack from the south, no matter what they did in the north. Neither the North Atlantic sea lines, the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal, nor the allied trade routes to German-embattled Russia, would be safe until the British and Americans had wrested Hitler’s desert kingdom away from him. Nor could they undertake the liberation of Italy, or France, or Belgium, while the Germans still had the capacity to launch a surprise attack on their southern flank. North Africa had to fall, or the campaign to free Europe from the Nazi menace would fail irrevocably.

The convoy of 102. ships carrying the American landing force of 69,000 troops left Chesapeake Bay in the dark of night on October 23, 1942, observing the tightest possible secrecy. A Jesuit chaplain from New England described the monolithic fleet as it churned its way across the ocean: “As far as the eye can see, ships are still in Indian file. We make a hard turn to port, turn and count. Now in all there are 14 ships in our convoy—two battlewagons, and 11 others. We are growing!” Later that same evening, as the ships moved under cover of darkness, he leaned on the deck rail and silently admired the breathtaking majesty of the flotilla. He thought that the troopships looked like “greyhounds straining to cover the distance that separates us from our destination.” Off the starboard side he could see a “lane of hammered silver” running from his ship to “the little destroyer directly under the moon.” In the dim light of the winter sky, it looked to him like a “ghostly galleon.”

But like all the other chaplains in the convoy, he had little time for viewing the beauties of the scene around him. He would have to spend most of his time counseling the men, scheduling religious services, and conducting them whenever he could, all despite periods of violent weather, his own problems with seasickness, and warnings of submarine activity in the vicinity.

The fleet’s chaplains soon learned to take submarine alarms seriously. A few of the less fortunate even learned at firsthand the terrors of an attack from a German submarine in the open sea. Henry Ford of Denver (no relation to the Detroit industrialist) was sleeping fitfully in his bunk on a troop transport when suddenly he heard a mighty explosion from deep inside the ship. A torpedo had struck the vessel. He looked at his watch and saw that it was exactly 2:30 A.M. With lights out all over the ship, he threw on his clothes, and somehow managed to make his way in the unfathomable darkness to his assigned battle position, where he waited for the loudspeaker to deliver further instructions to the men aboard the ship.

None came, and the ship began listing alarmingly to one side. No more than two or three minutes after the detonation, it looked as if the vessel was beyond saving. Fortunately it was new, and the sailors living on the lower levels had succeeded in sealing off the damaged compartments, thus slowing the sinking of the transport and giving the men living higher up what they hoped would be enough time to evacuate, should they eventually have to abandon the ship. After a few minutes more, however, it seemed to stabilize itself, and it looked to Ford as if the danger had passed. The Captain spoke reassuringly over the intercom, announcing that the crew had managed to contain the damage from the torpedo, and that there was no need for panic. A destroyer soon appeared alongside the crippled transport, and took it under tow.

For the next eight hours, the ship seemed to remain in balance, but the improvement turned out to be little more than the calm before the storm. A junior officer, acting in a moment of panic and with high imprudence, suddenly yelled over the public address system: “This ship is on fire!” Amazingly, the men remained calm, though the ship did indeed begin to fill with smoke, then started to list precariously to one side. Since no instructions about abandoning ship followed, Ford decided to take matters into his own hands and calmly slid down a rope ladder to the destroyer moving alongside the transport. In his escape, he had left everything he had owned behind—all of his clothing, his Mass kit, and his personal papers. “All I had was what I had on and a few toilet articles in my hand,” he remembered later.

Once safely aboard the destroyer, he looked back sadly on the “black burning mass” that had brought him so close to the shores of Morocco. “It made me heartsick to see that magnificent ship,” which only a few days before had won a terrible battle with “an angry sea,” now swallowed up unmercifully by the same ocean. He felt lucky that the Atlantic had not taken him down as well.

Waiting for Death

As the fleet steered a circuitous course for North Africa, large numbers of Catholic troops began attending Mass and visiting the priests for confession. Doubtless frightened both by the ever-present danger of submarines and the looming threat of combat, many said that they wanted to settle their affairs with their Creator before the chaos of battle did it for them instead. Men waiting to receive the Sacrament of Penance sometimes stood in line for hours at a time, despite the constant heaving of the ships as they lunged first one way, then another. Nor could the bitter cold of the open ocean keep them from attending Masses held on the decks during the day. (Few transports had large rooms that were free long enough for Mass.)

On the day of the invasion, as the troops clambered down the sides of the ships, many chaplains stood next to the rails, shaking hands with them just before they hoisted their heavy packs and then shouting blessings after them as they lifted themselves over the railings alongside the decks. The chaplains must have wondered how many of their youthful charges they would ever see again, and how many they would have to inter in the cold, dry sands of Morocco.

They would land on the beaches of the northwestern coast of Morocco, not far from the fabled city of Casablanca. Their first goal would be the capture of that most sensuous garden of desert delights. After the fall of the city, the Allies expected to mount a massive drive on the enemy’s forces, pushing them out of Morocco and Algeria and into neighboring Tunisia. Eventually they hoped to force the German-Italian army up the length of the peninsula to the all-important cities of Tunis and Bizerte, where they would finally have to surrender. Such was the scenario for the coming war in the desert. No one, however, could predict the outcome, least of all the chaplains, whose men would occupy every minute of their waking lives.

At 5:15 in the morning of November 8, 1942., the first line of American landing craft rolled up the Moroccan beaches, followed at short intervals by the succeeding waves. The battle for North Africa, the first of a long series of massive struggles with the Axis Powers, had at last begun. By sunrise, the Americans had taken most of their principal objectives and had a large swath of the Moroccan coast well under control.

Death came to over 500 Americans in the first three days of the invasion, among them a much-admired Catholic priest from the Middle West. At exactly six A.M. on opening day, Father Clement Falter and the men of the 3rd Infantry Division climbed down the rope ladders hanging over the sides of their transports and jumped into their landing craft, then hung on tightly as they plowed their way through heavy seas toward the shore less than a mile away. Just as Falter’s vessel approached the halfway point between the line of transports and the shore, an enemy fort behind the beach suddenly unleashed a crushing bombardment on the American assault. Low-flying German bombers added to the chaos, greatly delaying the landing of the first waves of infantry. The closer Falter’s boat came to the land, the heavier the fort’s artillery seemed to grow.

At exactly eight A.M., a blast from an enemy cannon landed on top of Falter and a small band of men running up the beach alongside him. A sergeant standing nearby saw Falter and several others fall to the ground. He could see that enemy fire had hit the young chaplain across the head and the face, snuffing out his life at once.

A few hours later, when the fighting on the Pibeach had subsided a little, his fellow chaplains took Falter’s remains and placed them in a temporary cemetery nearby. The process of laying him to rest had begun earlier with an extraordinary act of ecumenism that demonstrated the remarkable level of interfaith cooperation that had become so common among chaplains in World War II.

A Protestant chaplain, Charles B. Brown of San Antonio, Texas, happened to be standing only a few yards away from Falter when he fell into the sand. He immediately put the dead priest’s body on his shoulders and carried him, under heavy fire the whole way, to the area where the men of the division had placed the bodies of the men who had fallen thus far. A few hours later, Brown and several other chaplains returned to the same spot and then proceeded to risk their lives as they tried to bury Falter. While digging a trench for his shattered remains, a squadron of German bombers began smashing up the beach where they were working. A chilling thought passed through Brown’s mind more than once: he might well be digging his own grave as well as Falter’s. Fortunately none of the bombs scored a direct hit on the cemetery, though Brown said later that some had struck close enough to cause him to think far more seriously about the next life than the present one.

A few days later, burial parties moved Falter’s body to a permanent American graveyard near the beach. American Army authorities had located it, ironically, at the foot of the fort that had earlier taken his life. The ranking Catholic chaplain for North Africa celebrated a Solemn Mass of Requiem on his behalf, after which both Catholic and Protestant chaplains joined in blessing his grave. A generous man who had made as many friends among Protestant chaplains as among his fellow Catholics, it seemed somehow appropriate that in death, just as in life, he had joined Catholics and Protestants together.

The Army awarded Falter the Purple Heart posthumously. His most voluble supporters, the soldiers of his regiment, enthusiastically seconded the tribute. “If any man ever deserved it, he did,” said a sergeant who had been the last person to speak to him. “It will be a long time before I shall forget him. He meant much to us Catholic boys, and also to the non-Catholic boys in the battalion.” Another GI, deeply upset at Falter’s passing, said that “he was a real friend to the boys at all times. He was always in good spirits. Just to have him around was invigorating and bracing in itself…. If any chaplain was a real father to the boys it was Father Falter.”

Christmas Present

In the first two months after the initial allied landings, British and American columns raced across the desert, seizing Morocco, then Algeria, and finally reaching the western edge of Tunisia, where the bulk of the German and Italian troops had gathered behind formidable defensive lines. Soon, Christmas was only two weeks away. The Allies fully expected that in just a week’s more time, they would be able to bottle up the German and Italian troops, bringing a quick conclusion to the campaign in the desert. Unfortunately, the Germans failed to cooperate, putting up stiff resistance to the American and British thrusts across the North African plains. In Algeria, massive squads of German tanks tore furiously into the ranks of the lighter American tanks, cutting them into helpless pockets totally incapable of defending themselves.

The stout German defense led to mounting casualties for both the Americans and the British. Day after day, allied wounded streamed slowly back from the front, their injuries giving bitter evidence of the intensity of the fighting. A chaplain riding a train across North Africa recalled the horror that he and his battalion experienced one day as they waited on a railroad siding for a hospital train filled with American wounded to pass by. The men had been joking happily as they told each other bawdy stories, played poker, and engaged in the usual horseplay and arm-wrestling.

All at once the smiles vanished and the kidding stopped. An American hospital train began rolling by, and the men gawked open-mouthed at the maimed and twisted bodies they could see lying on cots inside. The vast ugliness of war had suddenly thrust itself upon them: “sightless eyes stared emptily into ours, burned faces and bodies wrapped in smelly yellow bandages”—they could see it all. “No one spoke…. No one trusted himself to speak.” Finally the train passed on into the cold desert night. An eery silence fell over the men as they watched it shrink into the distance. The chaplain, Louis B. Kines, would suffer injury himself two months later, though unlike many on the train that had just gone by, he would survive his wounds.

Christmas would bring the American troops, growing progressively more rattled and discouraged in the seeming stalemate with the enemy, a brief respite from the horrors of the fighting. To some of the chaplains, it seemed almost an act of Divine Providence, a gift from the heavens, that this first Christmas for the Americans in Europe took place in a desert environment, just like the first Christmas 1,900 years before. Many chaplains noted an unmistakable similarity between their circumstances and those of the Holy Family at Bethlehem: stark poverty everywhere, an arid setting not unlike ancient Israel itself, the ever-present possibility of violent death, but also a few groups of Arabs and camels that seemed to add an authentic and comforting touch to the scene.

A priest from California set up camp 6n Christmas Eve in the middle of the rolling hills outside Casablanca. Ironically, he and his men could find no room in the city’s inns, and since no one had thought to throw their sleeping bags off the troopship, they had to sleep on bales of hay that the Army had lent them for that purpose. As he lay down to rest as best he could on a pile of hay, he wondered if perhaps it was the same kind of straw that the Christ Child and His family had used in Bethlehem.

When Christmas dawned, he held an impromptu Christmas Mass, making it as dignified as the straitened circumstances would allow. For an altar, he placed four bales of straw on top of each other. Then he invited his men to kneel around him for a Mass commemorating the birth of Christ. Quite by accident, a dozen Arabs wandered by during the liturgy and sat down with their camels on the edge of the group. They added what struck him as the perfect dimension to his Christmas Day liturgy in distant, war-ravaged Morocco.

As the African campaign progressed, it became increasingly clear not only that the American troops were fighting in a chaotic manner, but were severely hampered by poor leadership besides. General Erwin Rommel, in charge of the Afrika Korps, decided to take immediate advantage of their weaknesses. In late January 1943, he began plotting a dashing maneuver that, if successful, might well send the hapless Americans reeling back across the desert all the way to the coast. Thus was born the idea for the German counterattack at the Kasserine Pass, a most inglorious chapter in the history of American arms.

Rommel’s Revenge

A sweet lethargy had taken over the Americans at the Kasserine Pass, where the 34th Infantry Division stood guard. Neither the troops nor their commanders seemed alert to the unmistakable signs of a German buildup a few miles away. Some chaplains, too, gave every evidence of living in another world, worrying mostly about their own comfort in the cold desert nights, and like everyone else in the American lines, paying little attention to reports of a German rout of the French at nearby Faid Pass.

A priest from Rochester, for instance, had nothing more important on his mind than the wretched quality of the alcohol that the Army was issuing to its officers. “Sigh!” he told his family. “I guess we won’t get another shot of White Horse till the war is over.” He whined piteously at the total hopelessness of his situation: “There is lots of wine, but we are not getting the good wine.” Worst of all, “the cognac is pretty well gone too.”

Chaplain William J. O’Brien would not long remain so self-indulgent, however. When Rommel’s forces finally attacked his unit at Kasserine, he would distinguish himself with the selfless assistance he gave to the maimed, the shell-shocked, and the dying men in his tanker battalion. For all of them, he would become an indispensable support in a time of gravest need. Later, after the clearance of the Germans from North Africa, he would continue to excel as the division fought its way through Sicily, then up the Italian peninsula. O’Brien’s problem before the battle of Kasserine Pass was not so much an inborn habit of indulgence as the indolent spirit that had overtaken all of the American forces—and their commanders—in the days before the Germans crashed in upon them. They had somehow come to the fantastic conclusion that winter was a time to enjoy oneself in the desert, since serious fighting would surely wait for the spring. They would pay bitterly for their lack of alertness in the face of a brilliant and resourceful enemy.

At 6:30 A.M. on February 14, German infantry and armor suddenly smashed into the town of Zibi Bou Zig, the center of the American line in front of Kasserine Pass. Racing columns of German tanks carried the brunt of the charge, throwing the Americans’ forward lines into chaos. After 12 days of frantic, totally futile attempts to stop the Afrika Korps, the Americans finally took to open flight. Some soldiers simply turned and ran, while others looked around frantically for someone to whom they could surrender.

Fortunately only one chaplain fell wounded at Kasserine, a Jesuit from Maryland named L. Berkeley Kines. The embarrassing location of his wound would occasion amusement among his fellow chaplains for years to come. In later years, Kines himself would repeat the story of his injury, usually with a rueful smile on his face. It seems that during the struggle for the pass, he was crawling across a field covered by heavy enemy fire, while bullets flew low overhead. (He kept thinking of the line from the twenty-second psalm, “I am a worm and no man.”) He hugged the ground as close as he possibly could, but the stream of enemy bullets whizzed closer and closer. Finally his luck ran out: a German sniper spotted a rump-like object creeping stealthily across the ground, and hit it square in the middle.

A chaplain-friend described the incident in verse: “Poor Berk fell hard and wounded alas—/ For he got shot in the Kasserine Pass.” Or, as Kines himself put it: “I got shot in the ass/ In Kasserine Pass.”

While his frolicsome ditty would cause many a snicker in the years after the war, the ravages of the war also threw him into a state of exhaustion, bringing him heavy fevers and a severe eye infection as well. His combined illnesses would leave a heavy mark on him, and only the best of medical care, and the passage of time, would heal him completely. The beleaguered Americans, too, would at last come to a period of healing, first stabilizing their ranks against the Germans, then bringing in new commanders like General George S. Patton, who trained them in the ways of modern warfare. Eventually they would even succeed in pushing Rommel out of the areas he had just won at their expense. The zenith of German power in North Africa had passed.

Cardinal Spellman’s Visit

Two days later, a distinguished Catholic visitor arrived at the American lines in the city of Sfax. Archbishop Francis Spellman, the American Catholic Church’s “Military Ordinary” (the bishop who acted as liaison between the Church and the military chaplaincy) drove into the town. He had been touring American Army camps in North Africa, seeing both the troops and their. Catholic priests in the Army. An inveterate traveler, he had recently visited the troops in Alaska, the Aleutians, and in military installations across the nation.

He spent most of his day with a Bomber Group, where he spoke to the men, offered Mass for them, and wrote down the names of the soldiers who wanted him to write to their families at home when he returned to New York City. The Archbishop was as good as his word. Back soon at his office on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, he enlisted the help of his large staff to write to the family of every serviceman who had given him his family’s name and address. He would continue the same work for the rest of the war, writing tens of thousands of letters to the families of non-Catholic servicemen and women as well as to Catholics.

At the end of a hectic day in the desert with the airmen (he never seemed exhausted, no matter what he had done), he sat down with the local Catholic chaplains to a dinner of tea and Spam. “We ate the Spam as it came out of the can,” Spellman reported, probably not intending a rhyme. It was the Archbishop’s first experience with the infamous but nourishing GI rations. Ever the diplomat, he carefully refrained from either praising or criticizing the Army’s tinned victuals.

As Spellman was enjoying his trip to the front, the Americans and their British allies continued to batter their way against the Axis forces that they had squeezed into an ever-shrinking perimeter at the head of the Tunisian peninsula. The Germans fought back desperately, though grievously crippled by shortages of fuel and manpower.

The sealing of the fate of the Axis forces in North Africa came on May 7, 1943, when the Allies seized Bizerte and Tunis. Since they provided the only means of escape for the fleeing Germans and Italians, their doom was now certain. Escape was impossible. The Germans refused to yield the two cities without a spirited battle, however. The fighting was especially intense around Bizerte, leaving the once-beautiful coastal city a smoldering pile of wreckage.

“Bizerte is a shambles,” said a chaplain who rode with the first tank column into the city. “Nearly every building hit, roofs fallen in, rubble, debris. A handful of civilians left.” When the all-conquering Americans found snipers shooting at them from a building, “they didn’t bother to send infantry in—they just shelled it.” Anxious to record something of the catastrophe for posterity, he snapped a photo of the once-proud Bizerte town sign, now pock-marked and smashed almost beyond recognition.

By May 12, all Axis resistance had ended on the peninsula, and on the same day Colonel-General Jurgen von Arnim, in charge of Axis operations on the continent, formally accepted the Allies’ demand for an unconditional surrender. What followed was not only one of the greatest disasters in German military history, but an uplifting conclusion to an American effort that had bogged down halfway through. The remaining Germans and Italians now began to throw down their arms, first in hundreds, then in thousands, finally in tens of thousands. Some 275,000 troops capitulated rather than risk annihilation at the hands of the Allies.

As the Axis legions succumbed, one chaplain suddenly found himself put into a bizarre and unexpected position. Edward R. Martin of New York City happened to be present at American headquarters for the capitulation of Major General Willibald Borowiecz, commander of the 15th Panzer Division, on Sunday, May 9. He had just finished his morning Mass when Borowiecz and his aides arrived at the command post. They clicked their heels impressively (greatly amusing both the Americans), then smartly saluted the American commander, Major General Omar Bradley. Since Bradley needed an interpreter, he asked Martin to translate, knowing that the priest had fluency in French, Spanish, and German.

As the American general dictated the surrender terms, Martin translated: You will accept unconditional surrender immediately, he said to Borowiecz. That was all he had to say. There were no other terms to discuss. Sign the document or expect the worst, he added. Borowiecz indicated acceptance of the unyielding terms, then signed the surrender protocols. When the brief ceremony ended, Martin told an astounded Borowiecz and his aides that the Russians were now chasing the fleeing Germans on all three of the fronts in Russia. The news stunned them: Nazi propaganda had kept them completely ignorant of the growing debacle in the East.

Thus ended the desert war in North Africa. American participation in the campaign had lasted almost exactly seven months and had cost its forces a total of 18,000 dead, wounded, and missing. The prospect of more war to come weighed heavily, however, on the minds of the Catholic priests serving the American troops. One of them expressed the fears of all: “We all hope that this awful war will be over soon. At times we think it will soon be over. But when I look at the map of Europe I have different thoughts.” The fall of Berlin looked to him like many campaigns away. The Catholic Church’s men of the cloth would not enter the fray without hope, however. As always, they clung to their belief that the God who had walked with them in North Africa would do the same in Sicily, then in Italy, and finally to Berlin itself.

By

At the time this article was published, Donald F. Crosby, S.J., lived at the University of San Francisco. He was completing work on a book about the Catholic chaplains of World War II: Men of God, Men at War. He passed away in 2002.

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