The Diocese of Lafayette recently opened the cause for canonization for three Louisiana Catholics, including Lieutenant Father Joseph Verbis Lafleur — a World War II military chaplain, prisoner of war and a Knight of Columbus.
Father Lafleur, a member of Council 2281 in Abbeville, La., joins other Knights who are either canonized or on the path to sainthood. He was in the Pacific Theater of the war and received the Distinguished Service Medal, a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his service during the Japanese attack on Clark Field in the Philippines and in the prisoner of war camps.
When offered a chance to escape during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, Father Lafleur asked if the rest of the men of the 19th Bombardment Group would be leaving too. The answer was no. Father Lafleur firmly replied, “Then I shall stay here. My place is with the men.”
He was a man committed to his duty as a chaplain. As he said in a letter to his sister, “These fellows here are swell, the best soldiers in the world, and I want to try to be one of the best Chaplains. I want to do my duty as one sees fit to do it.”
In the end, Father Lafleur died helping his fellow POWs evacuate a Japanese prison boat when it was sinking after being struck by a torpedo.
Joseph Verbis Lafleur, was ordained a priest on April 2, 1938 at 26 years old and celebrated his first Solemn Mass a few days later.
In April 1941 he answered the call to join the military as a chaplain. While stationed in Albuquerque, N.M., Father Lafleur’s commander noticed his “exceptional” performance at his duties. The young military chaplain next posting was to Clark Field, a U.S. Army airfield in the Philippines.
Eight hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese planes bombed Clark Field, destroying almost every American plane parked wingtip to wingtip on the strip. Ninety-three men were killed and another 143 wounded from the attack.
But as Japanese bombers attacked Clark Field, Father Lafleur ministered to the wounded and dying American soldiers giving absolution and spiritual comfort. He was exposed the entire time, dodging bullets and shrapnel, moving from bomb shelter to bomb shelter checking on the men’s safety and helping doctors administer medical care.
Colonel E.L. Eubank of the Army Air Force witnessed Father LaFleur’s actions and recommended him to receive the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest military honor. He marveled at the chaplain’s courage in his citation stating that Father Lafleur acted “without regard to his personal safety.”
In another incident, as the 19th Bombardment Group was attacked by Japanese planes while evacuating to another island by ship, Father Lafleur crawled through a hail of bullets to rescue a wounded officer on deck. He was the last man on the boat after he assisted evacuating the other soldiers.
Father Lafleur and the rest of the 19th Bombardment Group were captured after American-Filipino forces surrendered to the Japanese following the Fall of Bataan. The military chaplain spent the rest of his life as a POW.
Father Lafleur bounced from prison camp to prison camp until arriving at the Davao Penal Colony in October 1942. He kept his duties as a spiritual leader of Americans POWs, personally constructing a chapel out of bamboo and wood named The Chapel of St. Peter in Chains.
He celebrated daily Mass each morning before the men headed out for work. One soldier noted that Father Lafleur conserved wine by using a medicine dropper. Another soldier said the chaplain’s actions was the greatest factor in keeping up the spirits of the prisoners.
Father Lafleur not only worked beside the POWs in the rice fields outside the camp, but he snuck into the compound hospital to tend to sick prisoners. He shared his food with the sick and wounded, vowing not to eat anything that did not come to everyone else, and even traded his watch and eyeglasses to Filipino natives for food and medicine. But he refused medicine for himself, even during bouts with malaria, saying someone else needed it more.
He never missed Mass. And it made an impact: nearly 200 American prisoners converted to Catholicism because of Father Lafleur’s dedication to the men.
Bill Lowe was one of those men who converted. His interest in Catholicism began after Father Lafleur helped evacuate others into lifeboats before the American-Filipino surrender. He saw in the military chaplain “something that I wished I had” adding that “his demeanor was so convincing that this led me to pursue to become a Catholic.”
“If there ever was a saint, Father Lafleur was one,” Lowe said in a letter dated May 2, 2006.
Father Lafleur’s sense of duty led him to volunteer to take the place of man bound to work on a Japanese airstrip in Lasang, even though he was physically weakened due to lack of food.
Before he left for Lasang in March 1944, Father Lafleur wrote on the label of a can of milk a final message to his family, which read in part, “I do not have to go, but if I didn’t and something would happen, I would never go back to the States as I could never face any of you again. I would feel as though I had not done my duty.”
While at Lasang, Father Lafleur continued to inspire the prisoners with his acts of courage. In one instance, Japanese guards with fixed bayonets surrounded POWs and Father Lafleur during his daily rosary service. A guard kept the bayonet at the military chaplain’s stomach. Father Lafleur didn’t move. Instead, he stood there making the Sign of the Cross. Eventually, tensions subsided and the guards left.
His time at Lasang didn’t last long, as the Japanese decided to move the prisoners to mainland Japan due to the advance of American forces. Father Lafleur and hundreds of POWs were loaded into a ship —the Shinyo Maru. — which had no white flag to denote it was carrying prisoners.
With no markings denoting the ship was carrying prisoners, it became a target for Allied forces. On September 7, 1944, the Shinyo Maru was torpedoed by the USS Paddle. During the attack, Father Lafleur was leading prisoners in the rosary and the Lord’s Prayer as they were trapped in the ship’s hold. Suddenly, the hatch was opened. Father Lafleur began evacuating the prisoners as the Japanese threw grenades into the hold. Other prisoners were shot on deck as they tried to dive into the water. Only 82 prisoners out of hundreds survived.
Father Lafleur was not one of them. He was last seen standing near the ladder trying to help others escape.
As he wrote in his final message, “If I am not [here], I will be with you anyway and I will have a reserve seat up in Heaven. I am sure Our Lord will let me roll back just one little cloud so I can look down. And from up there I will have a more beautiful view and a more perfect understanding of what is going on.
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