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50 states, 50 heroes: Father Joe

Born May 14, 1905, in Boston, Massachusetts, Joseph Timothy O’Callahan was ordained a Roman Catholic Priest and a Jesuit in 1934. Known as “Father Joe,” O’Callahan was the director of the Mathematics Department at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, when he joined the Navy Reserve’s Chaplain Corps as a lieutenant, junior grade.

At the outbreak of World War II, O’Callahan was assigned to the small aircraft carrier USS Ranger. While aboard the Ranger, O’Callahan witnessed Operation Torch, the U.S. invasion of North Africa. On Oct. 4, 1943, the Ranger participated in the Allied attack on German shipping near Bodø, Norway, dubbed Operation Leader.

As chaplain, O’Callahan performed religious services on board the ship and ministered to the wounded. After serving on the Ranger, Lt. Comm. O’Callahan reported to his next assignment aboard the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Franklin on March 2, 1945, at Pearl Harbor. The following day, the Franklin set out to join Task Group 58.2, attached to Vice Adm. Marc Mitscher’s Task Force 58, with the mission of launching aerial attacks against Japan in support of the Allied invasion of Okinawa.

In the early morning hours of March 19, the Franklin was within 50 miles of Japan. The Franklin launched air attacks against the island of Honshū and Japanese shipping at Kobe Harbor. Capt. Leslie Gehres, commander of the Franklin, downgraded the alert level, allowing crew members to eat and sleep while gun crews remained at their posts.

The Franklin was in the process of launching another airstrike when a lone Japanese bomber, following American planes as they returned to their carriers, dropped two 550-pound semi-armor-piercing bombs on the ship before gun crews could shoot it down. The ship was struck at the flight deck centerline and in the aft section, knocking out radio communication, starting fires in the second and third deck and igniting 31 armed and fueled aircraft on the hangar deck. Gasoline vapor from the aircraft fuel tanks caused another explosion. With no radio communication and the engineering spaces evacuated because of dense smoke, Franklin was dead in the water.

As fire and smoke engulfed the ship, O’Callahan felt his way through the corridors. Calm and collected, he comforted and ministered last rites to the wounded and dying, regardless of faith, as bombs and shells exploded around him and the ship listed back and forth. He personally led a firefighting crew into the main ammunition magazine to wet it down and prevent it from exploding. When he could, O’Callahan organized and led firefighting crews as they battled the flames on the deck. He also directed the jettisoning of live ammunition and personally manned hoses to cool down hot, armed bombs when their operators could not handle the suffocating smoke.

The Navy awarded O’Callahan the Navy Cross; however, O’Callahan publicly refused to accept it, the only World War II serviceman to do so. It was rumored that O’Callahan was denied the Medal of Honor because it would highlight perceived lapses in leadership by Gehres, which would reflect poorly on the Navy. After a public outcry, President Harry Truman awarded O’Callahan the Medal of Honor on Jan. 23, 1946. He was the first Naval chaplain to receive the medal.

O’Callahan rose to the rank of captain before retiring from the Navy in 1953. In 1948, he returned to his position at the College of the Holy Cross and later wrote an account of the incident titled “I was Chaplain on the Franklin” in 1956.

O’Callahan passed away on March 18, 1964, at the age of 58. He is buried in the College of the Holy Cross Cemetery in Worcester.

The Navy Garcia-class destroyer escort USS O’Callahan, which served the Navy from 1968-88, was named in his honor.