By Yolanda R. Arrington
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
This blog is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we’ll highlight one of the nearly 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the honor of wearing the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.
Born in 1904, Joseph T. O’Callahan was a Jesuit priest and a professor of math and physics before answering the call to serve his country during World War II. O’Callahan served as a lieutenant commander in the Chaplain Corps. His life would forever be changed one morning in 1945.
Lt. Cmdr. O’Callahan served as chaplain of the Navy vessel USS Franklin. On the morning of March 19, the ship was attacked by enemy Japanese aircraft near Kobe, Japan. The bomb attack occurred just 17 days after O’Callahan reported to duty aboard the ship.
O’Callahan faced flames and damaged metal to help his shipmates as the enemy attacked. Wounded himself, O’Callahan made his way through smoky hallways to the flight deck, all while bombs were exploding around him. As debris and fragments rained down and fires raged on, O’Callahan ministered to his wounded and dying shipmates. He provided comfort and assurance to sailors of all faiths as they perished.
In the midst of his duties as chaplain, O’Callahan also managed to organize and lead firefighting crews to the blaze on the flight deck. His efforts helped crewmen push hot bombs and shells off the ship. He gathered a crew to hose down an ammunition magazine so it would not explode on the vessel, causing further damage.
Facing suffocating conditions, O’Callahan served with courage, inspiring fellow service members to continue their fight against the enemy and, ultimately, return their stricken ship to port.
O’Callahan would go on to pen his account of what happened aboard the Franklin. “I Was Chaplain on the Franklin” details his leadership on that fateful day.
Shortly after the attack, O’Callahan rose to the rank of commander in July 1945. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. He was the first naval chaplain to receive the Medal of Honor.
The Navy named a Garcia-class destroyer escort vessel after O’Callahan. USS O’Callahan was commissioned July 13, 1968, in O’Callahan’s hometown of Boston. The vessel departed for its homeport in San Diego the following month. In 1975, USS O’Callahan was reclassified as a frigate. It served the Navy until its decommissioning in 1989.
O’Callahan’s heroism continues to inspire a generation of chaplains.
“Anybody who has ever been through combat knows the importance of having somebody by your side, to your right, on your left and behind you,” said Navy Chaplain (Rear Adm.) Mark L. Tidd, former chief of Navy chaplains, in 2014. “Those relationships that are forged in the crucible of battle are relationships that last long beyond the event itself and on into later life.”
When Navy Capt. Jerome Hinson took on the role of chaplain of USS Harry S. Truman, he noted that reading O’Callahan’s book changed his life.
“What struck me the most about the story was the way he provided ministry to his people and the way he supported the service members in their daily lives,” said Hinson in 2009.
After reading the book, Hinson said, he hoped to serve on an aircraft carrier.
Related link: USS Franklin Veterans Reunite, Reflect
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