The (Congressional) Medal of Honor was established in 1861, during the Civil War. The qualifications for being awarded the Medal have been tightened up and refined over the years, but it is currently awarded to a member of the U.S. military for acts of intrepidity and gallantry above and beyond the call of duty while involved in combat operations.
Since the Medal of Honor was established, it has been awarded to nine chaplains. Four Protestant chaplains were awarded the Medal for their service during the Civil War: John Milton Whitehead (Chaplain, U.S. Army, 15th Indiana Infantry); Francis Bloodgood Hall (Chaplain, U.S. Army, 16th New York Infantry); James Hill (1st Lieutenant, U.S. Army, Company I, 21st Iowa Infantry); and Milton Lorenzo Haney (Regimental Chaplain, U.S. Army, 55th Illinois Infantry). One Catholic priest serving the Confederate Army, Fr. Emmeran Bliemel, O.S.B., was killed at the Battle of Jonesboro while administering last rites -- the first American chaplain to die on the field of battle -- and is said to have been postumously awarded the Southern Cross of Honor.
Since the Civil War, five more American chaplains have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Every one of them was a Catholic priest, and two have causes for beatification. Herewith the five priests who have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor:
Lt. Comdr. Joseph Timothy O'Callahan, U.S. Navy (World War II)
Out of 464 Medal of Honor winners in World War II, Fr. O'Callahan was the only chaplain. Here he is, ministering to the wounded aboard the U.S.S. Franklin in 1945.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as chaplain on board the U.S.S. Franklin when that vessel was fiercely attacked by enemy Japanese aircraft during offensive operations near Kobe, Japan, on 19 March 1945. A valiant and forceful leader, calmly braving the perilous barriers of flame and twisted metal to aid his men and his ship, Lt. Comdr. O'Callahan groped his way through smoke-filled corridors to the open flight deck and into the midst of violently exploding bombs, shells, rockets, and other armament. With the ship rocked by incessant explosions, with debris and fragments raining down and fires raging in ever-increasing fury, he ministered to the wounded and dying, comforting and encouraging men of all faiths; he organized and led firefighting crews into the blazing inferno on the flight deck; he directed the jettisoning of live ammunition and the flooding of the magazine; he manned a hose to cool hot, armed bombs rolling dangerously on the listing deck, continuing his efforts, despite searing, suffocating smoke which forced men to fall back gasping and imperiled others who replaced them. Serving with courage, fortitude, and deep spiritual strength, Lt. Comdr. 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.
Capt. Angelo J. Liteky, U.S. Army (Vietnam War)
Chaplain Liteky distinguished himself by exceptional heroism while serving with Company A, 4th Battalion, 12th Infantry, 199th Light Infantry Brigade. He was participating in a search and destroy operation when Company A came under intense fire from a battalion size enemy force. Momentarily stunned from the immediate encounter that ensued, the men hugged the ground for cover. Observing 2 wounded men, Chaplain Liteky moved to within 15 meters of an enemy machine gun position to reach them, placing himself between the enemy and the wounded men. When there was a brief respite in the fighting, he managed to drag them to the relative safety of the landing zone. Inspired by his courageous actions, the company rallied and began placing a heavy volume of fire upon the enemy's positions. In a magnificent display of courage and leadership, Chaplain Liteky began moving upright through the enemy fire, administering last rites to the dying and evacuating the wounded. Noticing another trapped and seriously wounded man, Chaplain Liteky crawled to his aid. Realizing that the wounded man was too heavy to carry, he rolled on his back, placed the man on his chest and through sheer determination and fortitude crawled back to the landing zone using his elbows and heels to push himself along. pausing for breath momentarily, he returned to the action and came upon a man entangled in the dense, thorny underbrush. Once more intense enemy fire was directed at him, but Chaplain Liteky stood his ground and calmly broke the vines and carried the man to the landing zone for evacuation. On several occasions when the landing zone was under small arms and rocket fire, Chaplain Liteky stood up in the face of hostile fire and personally directed the medivac helicopters into and out of the area. With the wounded safely evacuated, Chaplain Liteky returned to the perimeter, constantly encouraging and inspiring the men. Upon the unit's relief on the morning of 7 December 1967, it was discovered that despite painful wounds in the neck and foot, Chaplain Liteky had personally carried over 20 men to the landing zone for evacuation during the savage fighting. Through his indomitable inspiration and heroic actions, Chaplain Liteky saved the lives of a number of his comrades and enabled the company to repulse the enemy. Chaplain Liteky's actions reflect great credit upon himself and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Army.
Unfortunately, Fr. Liteky went on to change his name to Charles, repudiate his Medal of Honor (making him the only Medal of Honor recipient to do so), abandon his priestly ministry, attempted marriage with a former nun and took up political activism. None of this changes his conspicuous valor under fire, or the fact that he deserved his Medal of Honor, or the indelible character of his priesthood. Pray for him.
Maj. Charles Joseph Watters, U.S. Army (Vietnam War)
This photograph of Fr. Watters offering Mass in the field was taken shortly before he was killed in action on November 19, 1967.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Chaplain Watters distinguished himself during an assault in the vicinity of Dak To. Chaplain Watters was moving with one of the companies when it engaged a heavily armed enemy battalion. As the battle raged and the casualties mounted, Chaplain Watters, with complete disregard for his safety, rushed forward to the line of contact. Unarmed and completely exposed, he moved among, as well as in front of the advancing troops, giving aid to the wounded, assisting in their evacuation, giving words of encouragement, and administering the last rites to the dying. When a wounded paratrooper was standing in shock in front of the assaulting forces, Chaplain Watters ran forward, picked the man up on his shoulders and carried him to safety. As the troopers battled to the first enemy entrenchment, Chaplain Watters ran through the intense enemy fire to the front of the entrenchment to aid a fallen comrade. A short time later, the paratroopers pulled back in preparation for a second assault. Chaplain Watters exposed himself to both friendly and enemy fire between the 2 forces in order to recover 2 wounded soldiers. Later, when the battalion was forced to pull back into a perimeter, Chaplain Watters noticed that several wounded soldiers were Lying outside the newly formed perimeter. Without hesitation and ignoring attempts to restrain him, Chaplain Watters left the perimeter three times in the face of small arms, automatic weapons, and mortar fire to carry and to assist the injured troopers to safety. Satisfied that all of the wounded were inside the perimeter, he began aiding the medics--applying field bandages to open wounds, obtaining and serving food and water, giving spiritual and mental strength and comfort. During his ministering, he moved out to the perimeter from position to position redistributing food and water, and tending to the needs of his men. Chaplain Watters was giving aid to the wounded when he himself was mortally wounded. Chaplain Watters' unyielding perseverance and selfless devotion to his comrades was in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Army.
Lt. Vincent Robert Capodanno, U.S. Navy (Vietnam War)
Known for his sanctity and his devotion to his Marines, Fr. Capodanno was killed in action in Vietnam on September 4, 1967. Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien of the Archdiocese for the Military Services officially opened his cause for beatification on May 21, 2006.
Prayer for the Canonization of Fr. Capodanno
Heavenly Father, source of all that is holy, in every age You raise up men and women who live lives of heroic love and service. You have blessed Your Church through the life of Vincent Capodanno, Vietnam War Navy chaplain, who had the "courage of a lion, and the faith of a martyr." He was killed in action offering medical assistance to the wounded and administering last rites to the dying on the battlefield. Through his prayer, his courage, his faith, and his pastoral care he is an example of laying down one's life for one’s friends: Jesus told us that there is no greater love than this. If it be Your will, may he be proclaimed a saint! We ask this through Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Chaplain of the 3d Battalion, in connection with operations against enemy forces. In response to reports that the 2d Platoon of M Company was in danger of being overrun by a massed enemy assaulting force, Lt. Capodanno left the relative safety of the company command post and ran through an open area raked with fire, directly to the beleaguered platoon. Disregarding the intense enemy small-arms, automatic-weapons, and mortar fire, he moved about the battlefield administering last rites to the dying and giving medical aid to the wounded. When an exploding mortar round inflicted painful multiple wounds to his arms and legs, and severed a portion of his right hand, he steadfastly refused all medical aid. Instead, he directed the corpsmen to help their wounded comrades and, with calm vigor, continued to move about the battlefield as he provided encouragement by voice and example to the valiant marines. Upon encountering a wounded corpsman in the direct line of fire of an enemy machine gunner positioned approximately 15 yards away, Lt. Capodanno rushed a daring attempt to aid and assist the mortally wounded corpsman. At that instant, only inches from his goal, he was struck down by a burst of machine gun fire. By his heroic conduct on the battlefield, and his inspiring example, Lt. Capodanno upheld the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the cause of freedom.
Capt. Emil J. Kapaun, U.S. Army (Korean War)
The newest Medal of Honor winner, Servant of God Kapaun, is shown here offering Mass in the field on the hood of a Jeep, less than a month before he was captured by the Communists. He would die in captivity, but not before making himself a thorn in the flesh of his jailers, and an inspiration to his fellow prisoners. Father Kapaun would sneak out of his own compound in order to minister to the other prisoners, and, by the intercession of St. Dismas, the Good Thief, to scrounge for basic necessities to help them survive their hellish conditions. He got even non-Catholic prisoners praying the Rosary, and also made himself irritating to the Communists by answering them back and openly defying them in their daily forced indoctrination sessions. For a long time, they did not dare retaliate, for fear of provoking the other prisoners to rebellion; but when Father Kapaun came down with an eye infection and a blood clot in his leg, they seized the opportunity to carry him off to an isolated "hospital" and starve him to death.
Father Kapaun's cause for beatification opened in 2008. We should pray for his intercession against North Korea and its itchy nuclear trigger finger.
Prayer for the Beatification of Emil Kapaun
Lord Jesus, in the midst of the folly of war, Your servant, Chaplain Emil Kapaun spent himself in total service to You on the battlefields and in the prison camps of Korea, until his death at the hands of his captors. We now ask You, Lord Jesus, if it be Your will, to make known to all the world the holiness of Chaplain Kapaun and the glory of his complete sacrifice for You by signs of miracles and peace. In Your Name, Lord, we ask, for You are the source of peace, the strength of our service to others, and our final hope. Amen. Chaplain Kapaun, pray for us.
Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty while serving with the 3d Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy at Unsan, Korea, from November 1-2, 1950. On November 1, as Chinese Communist Forces viciously attacked friendly elements, Chaplain Kapaun calmly walked through withering enemy fire in order to provide comfort and medical aid to his comrades and rescue friendly wounded from no-man's land. Though the Americans successfully repelled the assault, they found themselves surrounded by the enemy. Facing annihilation, the able-bodied men were ordered to evacuate. However, Chaplain Kapaun, fully aware of his certain capture, elected to stay behind with the wounded. After the enemy succeeded in breaking through the defense in the early morning hours of November 2, Chaplain Kapaun continually made rounds, as hand-to-hand combat ensued. As Chinese Communist Forces approached the American position, Chaplain Kapaun noticed an injured Chinese officer amongst the wounded and convinced him to negotiate the safe surrender of the American Forces. Shortly after his capture, Chaplain Kapaun, with complete disregard for his personal safety and unwavering resolve, bravely pushed aside an enemy soldier preparing to execute Sergeant First Class Herbert A. Miller. Not only did Chaplain Kapaun's gallantry save the life of Sergeant Miller, but also his unparalleled courage and leadership inspired all those present, including those who might have otherwise fled in panic, to remain and fight the enemy until captured. Chaplain Kapaun's extraordinary heroism and selflessness, above and beyond the call of duty, are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the 3d Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, the 1st Cavalry Division, and the United States Army.
Roman collars...iron men. It is no accident that the Roman collar is a military collar.