Friday, December 07, 2007
A Day That Will Live In Infamy: Catholic Edition
A plane suddenly spun out of the sky and shot across his right shoulder. It carried a thin, glistening torpedo. The plane leveled out about twenty feet above the water headed for a battleship. It "dropped the torpedo and pulled up sharply, nearly hitting the upper works of the ship. Following instantly came another plane." Looking carefully at its marking, the two men could see a round patch of red paint on the plane's fuselage -- these were Japanese aircraft, they realized with a start, not their own. Then came the sound of bombs exploding nearby, and moments later a hue geyser of water erupted near the battleship. The shock make him strangely sick. All he could say was, "We're in it. We're in it." He braced himself against the railing of the craft, which was now pitching wildly in the waves sweeping the harbor. "God help us, we're in it." He was Fr. William A. Maguire, Pacific Fleet Chaplain of the Chaplain Corps, United States Navy, in the Hawaiian Islands. The time was 7:55 A.M., December 7, 1941, and the place was Pearl Harbor.
Maguire had weathered the first of many close calls he would experience that Sunday morning. It suddenly occurred to him that if he left the shore only a minute earlier, the Japanese planes might well have blown him to pieces, but there really wasn't time to think about such possibilities now. Japanese airplanes continued to swarm over the harbor, torpedoes skimming only forty feet above the water, while still more aircraft streamed in from the west and northwest. Peering intently through the billowing haze, Maguire could see the dim outlines of an appalling scene: dozens, perhaps hundreds of men were swimming in the harbor trying frantically to escape the savage fires now gutting the California and her sister ships the West Virginia and the Arizona. A few sailors, the lucky ones, had climbed onto rafts, and motor launches had picked up a few others. Most, however, bobbed up and down like corks in the fire-swept waters, and there would be many who could not escape a terrible death in the lagoon. Maguire could do little for them except impart a general absolution.
Once he had managed to board the California, his home ship, Maguire headed toward the officers' wardroom, where a large number of seriously wounded men were waiting for treatment. As he looked at them, they seemed so courageous in the face of their suffering and uncertain fate: Most lay quietly on the floor, asking no favors, making no complaints. Navy corpsmen moved quickly among the injured, quietly administering morphine and blood plasma and bandaging open wounds. The priest first administered the Last Rites to the dying, then gave them to everyone else who asked for them.
Meanwhile, the grim business of war went on. From the ammunition rooms below the deck, a steady stream of sailors, black with oil, carried boxes of ammunition up the ladders to the anti-aircraft guns. At the same time, motor launches from the ship ferried wounded personnel to the shore, where waiting trucks sped them to the dispensary at nearby Hickam Field. No one doubted that the California was in deep trouble. Four torpedoes had slammed into the side of the ship, causing it to list sharply. Sensing that the end was near for the dying vessel, Maguire moved as rapidly as he could among the wounded men lying on the deck and in the corridors, and he could not keep up with the growing tide of burned, lacerated, and dying sailors. They made a "grim tableau," he would recall years later; still, none would complain. He heard as many confessions as he thought there was time for and then imparted a second general absolution, this time to the ship's entire company.
All too soon, he heard a grim-faced young officer give the dreaded command, "Abandon Ship."
Excerpt from: Battlefield Chaplains: Catholic Priests in World War II, by Donald F. Crosby