Refusing the Navy Cross, Chaplain O’Callahan was Forced to Accept the Medal of Honor

 
 

World War Two saw acts of inexplicable gallantry which have lived on in posterity through the chapters of military history. Whereas there are likely acts of unimaginable bravery that have been lost to history as that generation has passed, those who have been awarded the nation’s highest military honor have had a bookmark placed next to their name.

Their stories will not be lost and future generations will be able to measure the stature of the men who answered the call when their nation needed them most. Were it not for a little extra pressure from the President of the United States, the actions of Medal of Honor recipient and Chaplain Joseph T. O’Callahan may very well have been lost to time as well.

O’Callahan (right) with President Harry S. Truman (center) and other Medal of Honor recipients at their medal presentation ceremony in 1946.

Originally awarded the Navy Cross for heroism aboard the USS Franklin as it burned around him, O’Callahan publicly refused to accept the honor. However, when the public got wind that O’Callahan was perhaps only awarded the Navy Cross to cover up poor leadership by the ship’s Captain and fellow Navy Cross recipient the President got involved.

In 1946, Chaplain Joseph T. O’Callahan was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman whether he wanted it or not. What is beyond contestation is that the man’s actions were certainly worthy of the nation’s highest military honor.

Born with a Heart to Serve

Joseph T. O’Callahan was born in 1905 in Boston, Massachusetts. It didn’t take long for O’Callahan to decide that a life of service was his calling and in 1922 he joined the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) after graduating from high school. He would then go on to undergo years of his required training that would eventually see him given the position of Professor of Philosophy at Weston Jesuit School of Theology by 1938.  

Chaplain Joseph O’Callahan ministers to an injured man aboard USS Franklin, 1945.

He would carry on to serve at the College of the Holy Cross. One of his students, John V. Power, would himself go on to receive the Medal of Honor.

As the clouds of war began to gather over the world, O’Callahan would find a calling in military service. In August of 1940, he was appointed a Lieutenant J.G. in the U.S. Navy Reserve Chaplain Corps. As war broke out and the needs for men of faith increased, O’Callahan’s actions and abilities would see him promoted to Commander before the war was out.

However, it was an assignment in March of 1945 aboard the USS Franklin that would earn him his unique place in military history.

The Franklin approaching New York, 26 April 1945.

On March 2, 1945, O’Callahan reported for duty on a ship that just 17 days later would find itself engulfed in flames. On March 19, 1945, the USS Franklin was conducting operations near Kobe, Japan. The ship’s Captain, Leslie E. Gehres, would receive not only a Navy Cross for the action to come but a hefty dose of criticism for the predicament his men found themselves in.

After seeing his men called to battle stations 12 times in six hours, Gehres downgraded the ship’s alert status to let his men eat and sleep despite their close proximity to Japan. It was a decision that in hindsight would prove questionable.

Captain Leslie E. Gehres

Fire From Above

After the downgrade, a single Japanese aircraft emerged through the clouds and made a devastating low level run over the ship. Two semi-armor piercing bombs found their mark and set into motion the events that would see O’Callahan receive his honor.

The hanger deck immediately became wrought with explosions from ammunition, gas tanks, and planes. Filled with smoke and with men laid out across the deck, the ship was suffering a chain reaction of continued explosions.

Attack on carrier USS Franklin 19 March 1945

O’Callahan himself was wounded in the initial explosion and yet clawed his way through the smoke to serve the men. Moving about the deck through one explosion after another, O’Callahan offered aid to the wounded and administered the last rites to the dying.

However, to save more of them he would have to get into the action himself. O’Callahan could then be seen leading men into the flames to put out fires on the magazines and personally ferry hot bombs and shells off the ship before they exploded.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Franklin (CV-13) afire and listing after a Japanese air attack, off the coast of Japan, 19 March 1945.

After hours of heroic actions from many of the men on board that day, the USS Franklin was somehow saved. However, 807 men had been killed and more than 487 wounded. For actions to save the USS Franklin, O’Callahan, along with 11 other men to include the ship’s Captain, were awarded the Navy Cross. O’Callahan would then become the only Navy Cross recipient of World War Two to refuse the honor.

A Scandal to Explore

As news of the USS Franklin broke and after subsequent investigations after the war, the public began to learn of the details of one of the most devastating attacks on a US carrier.

Captain Gehres came under intense scrutiny for his leadership and it was believed that Chaplain O’Callahan’s actions warranted the Medal of Honor but was kept at a Navy Cross so as not to embarrass the Captain. Word got back to President Truman and he personally intervened to right the wrong.

In February of 1946, the man who refused the Navy Cross was now receiving the Medal of Honor from President Truman. One of only nine Chaplains to be awarded the nation’s highest military honor in history, Joseph T. O’Callahan got his unique place in military history – whether he wanted it or not.