Armistice Day commemorates the anniversary of the end of hostilities of World War I – the ”war to end all wars” – which formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 when the cease fire with Germany went into effect. “The Great War” (as WWI was then known), officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919. A Congressional act in 1938 made November 11th of each year a legal holiday dedicated to honoring those who fought in The Great War and to the cause of world peace. In 1954, after the Second World War and the Korean War, the 1938 act was amended by replacing the word “Armistice” with the word “Veterans”. Thus, beginning in 1954, November 11th became a day we honor American veterans (living and deceased) of all wars. Veterans Day should not be confused with Memorial Day, which is the day we remember the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice – dying in the line of duty – while in service to our country.
As Veterans Day occurs in November, the month dedicated to praying for the dead, it is an opportunity for Catholics to pray for all veterans – those still living, those killed in battle, and those who died later after their time of service had ended. For Catholics, we might also recall some forgotten heroes – the Catholic Military Chaplains.
Military chaplains have served in the American armed forces since the Revolutionary War; however, it wasn’t until the Civil War that the use of Catholic chaplains became widespread. Since then, Catholic chaplains have provided comfort during times of war and displayed extraordinary heroism, including making the ultimate sacrifice. Two such heroic Catholic chaplains were, Father John DeValles during World War I, and in more recent times, Father Vincent Capodanno, during the Vietnam War.
Father John DeValles was appointed a chaplain of the United States Infantry in 1917 with the rank of first lieutenant. Father DeValles became known as the “Angel of the Trenches” because he would deliberately and fearlessly enter “No Man’s Land” (the open ground between the trenches of opposing armies) to minister to wounded and dying soldiers regardless of the side for which the soldier fought. On one occasion when he didn’t return to the trenches, searchers found him unconscious next to a dead soldier he had been trying to help, having breathed noxious mustard gas. Although he sustained numerous injuries, he continued his mission of helping and comforting wounded and dying soldiers. His injuries eventually took their toll, leading to Father DeValles’ early death in 1920 at the age of 41. Among his awards for heroism and bravery: the U.S. Army’s Distinguished Service Cross and France’s Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honor.
During the Vietnam War, Father Vincent Capodanno, a Maryknoll missionary, served as a Navy Chaplain, with the rank of lieutenant, attached to the United States Marines. During a particularly fierce battle in 1967, Father Capodanno moved among the dying Marines giving last rites. Amidst the fighting, Father Capodanno was severely wounded in the face and hand but still attempted to rescue a wounded corpsman mere yards from enemy machine gun fire when he was killed. In recognition of his gallantry and heroic sacrifice, Father Capodanno was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. In 2002, Father Capodanno was named “Servant of God” and his Cause of Canonization has been opened with The Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
On this Veterans Day, as we recall the service of our American veterans, let us also remember with prayerful gratitude the many Catholic heroes who served this country alongside the marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen.