The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted June 17 to advance the cause of canonization for 1st Lt. Father Joseph Verbis Lafleur, a World War II military chaplain, prisoner of war and a Knight of Columbus whose courageous witness in the Pacific theater of the war brought many souls to Christ.
Stationed in the Philippines, Father Lafleur was offered a chance to escape when the Japanese invaded in 1941. When he found out his unit, the 19th Bombardment Group, would not be leaving too, he replied firmly, “Then I shall stay here. My place is with the men.”
Father Lafleur would spend more than two years as a prisoner of war; he died in 1944 helping his fellow POWs evacuate a torpedoed Japanese prison boat. For his service throughout the war, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
Joseph Verbis Lafleur was ordained a priest April 2, 1938, at 26 years old, and in 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. The young chaplain’s next posting was to Clark Field, a U.S. Army airfield in the Philippines.
Eight hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese planes bombed Clark Field, destroying almost every American plane parked wingtip-to-wingtip on the strip. Ninety-three men were killed and 143 wounded.
Father Lafleur ministered to the wounded and dying, exposing himself to bullets and shrapnel to give absolution and help doctors administer medical care.
Col. 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. The citation reads, “First Lieutenant LaFleur's intrepid actions, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, the 5th Air Force and the United States Army Air Forces.”
The 19th Bombardment Group was later 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 assisting with the evacuation of the other soldiers.
After U.S. and Philippine forces surrendered to the Japanese following the Battle of Bataan, Father Lafleur and the rest of the 19th Bombardment Group were captured. 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, where he worked beside his fellow POWs in the rice fields and helped them in any way he could.
He sneaked into the compound hospital to tend to sick prisoners. He shared his food with the sick and wounded, and even traded his watch and eyeglasses for food and medicine. He refused medicine for himself, even during bouts with malaria, saying someone else needed it more.
Even more important, Father Lafleur continued to be a spiritual leader. He personally constructed a chapel out of bamboo and wood named The Chapel of St. Peter in Chains and celebrated Mass each morning before the men headed out to work. One soldier recalled that Father Lafleur conserved the wine for consecration by using a medicine dropper.
Father Lafleur’s witness had a tremendous impact: Nearly 200 American prisoners converted to Catholicism because of his influence.
Bill Lowe was one of the men who converted. His interest in Catholicism began after Father Lafleur helped evacuate others into lifeboats before the American-Philippine 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 would later write.
Father Lafleur’s sense of duty led him to volunteer to take the place of a POW bound for a Japanese airstrip in Lasang, Philippines. He did this despite being physically weak due to lack of food.
Before he left for Lasang in March 1944, Father Lafleur wrote a final message to his family on the label of a can of milk. It 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 bayonets surrounded Father Lafleur and other POWs during his daily rosary service. A guard kept the bayonet at the military chaplain’s stomach. Father Lafleur didn’t move except to make the sign of the cross. Eventually, tensions subsided and the guards left.
As American forces advanced, the Japanese decided to move the prisoners to mainland Japan. 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.
Without that signal, it became a target for Allied forces. On Sept. 7, 1944, the Shinyo Maru was torpedoed by the USS Paddle. During the attack, Father Lafleur led his fellow prisoners in the ship’s hold in praying the rosary.
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.”
Father Lafleur, a member of Council 2281 in Abbeville, La., is one of many Knights who are either canonized or on the path to sainthood.
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