At the outbreak of World War II, every person had a role to play in the war effort. Whether as a member of the Allied Armed Forces — of which there were more than 75,000 Knights in uniform — or as civilians, people rallied together.
Reminiscent of the “Leave No Neighbor Behind” campaign during the COVID-19 pandemic, Columbia ran ads saying, “Every Citizen a Fighter” and “Finish YOUR Job for Our Fighting Men” to inspire Knights to continue serving their communities.
This wasn’t the first great worldwide crisis that they faced. World War I, the Spanish flu pandemic and the Great Depression had already spanned more than 25 years of the early 20th century. Then Nazi Germany catapulted the world once more into conflict when they invaded Poland in 1939.
When the war began, many Knights joined the military and were sent overseas. Others, due to age or other factors, could not serve on the frontlines. These Knights at home still bore a heavy burden: the responsibility of creating a sense of normalcy at home, as well as providing resources the troops needed.
The odds were immense, but the Knights weren’t going to abandon anyone who needed their support. From conducting large scale war bond drives to praying for the spiritual and physical well-being of the members of the military, the Knights carried on with their mission.
Everybody Welcome, Everything Free … Again
Before the United States entered the war following the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the Canadian Knights had already mobilized to provide relief for members of their armed forces in the form of Army huts, similar to the ones run by the Order during WWI. They were built in not only Canadian cities but across the globe, including England, Iceland, Italy, Hong Kong and the Middle East. The huts provided for the physical and spiritual welfare of the servicemen, offering entertainment and recreation — such as a “toboggan party” in Brandon, Manitoba — as well as Mass and other religious services.
The K of C huts were not “huts” as we think of them today, but large-scale facilities with the ability of serving thousands at a time, like those in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Sydney Fortress Area, Nova Scotia, which provided the troops meals, cigarettes, magazines and live shows. Meanwhile, in other areas such as Aldershot, Nova Scotia, weekly attendance at the K of C chapel was well over 1,100. In 1941 in Nova Scotia alone, more than one million men in the armed forces were served by huts and hostels organized by the Knights.
In 1943, then-Supreme Knight Francis Matthews — who also served as chairman of the National Catholic Community Service (NCCS) and as one of three vice presidents of the United States Organization (USO) — toured Canadian K of C Army Huts. He was astonished by their work.
“They are really a part of the auxiliary service of the Canadian Army,” Supreme Knight Matthews wrote in Columbia (April 1943). “Everybody says that the work of the Knights of Columbus is indispensable to the Canadian forces.”
The Knights in Full Force
While the Canadian troops found morale-boosting relief in the Knights of Columbus facilities, the U.S. Army found support through the USO. Because of the USO, there would be no K of C huts sponsored by Americans overseas.
Instead, hundreds of councils, including St. Anne’s Council 2429 on Long Island, N.Y., and San Felipe Council 2687 in Del Rio, Texas, participated in blood drives and donated to the American Red Cross Blood Bank to help soldiers and air raid victims. They were able to turnaround these drives quickly because an Orderwide blood drive system was put in place several years prior to WWII, preceding the Red Cross’ wartime blood drive. Today the Knights continue their support for blood drives during times of crisis, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.
Other councils converted their halls into clubs for the troops, like Jamaica Plain Council 120 in Roslindale, Mass., which displayed a large sign in front of their facility with bold letters “Service Men Welcome.” This spirit embodied many Knights, including St. Joseph Council 2505 in Lakeland, Fla. The council converted its facility to include showers, pool tables, table tennis, music and a writing room, as well as entertainment and even barbecues. And Bronx Council 266 funded their own canteen with the popular K of C slogan “Everybody Welcome, Everything Free” hanging over the door.
Knights across the country stepped up in full force. In Nashville, Tenn., Knights held an “Army Day Dance” for two hundred and fifty men. In Honolulu, Hawaii, Knights arranged a picnic for troops stationed on the island.
Meanwhile, Knights from Hoboken (N.J.) Council 159, sent troops Christmas packages filled with fruit cake, candy, cookies, gum and other treats, while Brookline (Mass.) Council 110, sent sweaters, socks and helmets “for boys in Iceland, Alaska and other frigid outposts” with the help from members’ wives, sisters and mothers. Other councils such as Winchester (Mass.) Council 210, sponsored “Victory Gardens” to supplement community food rations and boost morale.
Knights in Cincinnati wrote letters to Catholic service men, letting them know they were remembered and being prayed for back home. California Knights of Columbus, working with other agencies, ministered to several hundred wounded and injured U.S. sailors, soldiers and evacuees from Pearl Harbor. And Knights even assisted and manned USO stations, like the facility in Newport, R.I.
War Bond Drives
On a national scale, the Supreme Council issued a “War Bond Drive” in 1943, with the goal of selling or purchasing of $25 million worth in bonds within one month. Spanning from Founder’s Day, March 29 to April 28, the Knights called the drive “one of the greatest undertakings in the history of the Order.”
By that point in the war, individual councils had already participated in their own war bond initiatives. This included the efforts of the Massachusetts State Council, which organized a “million-dollar blitz” among its 153 councils in order to “Buy Bonds for Massachusetts Bombers.”
On the other side of the country, Knights in Seattle, Wash., organized a “War Bond Rally” in Victory Square attended by more than 15,000 people and headlined by movie star and singer Bing Crosby. The event raised $177,039.
And in Port Arthur, Texas, members of Santa Maria Council 1304 bought $332,756.50 worth of bonds, which was the largest raised among every U.S. council prior to 1943.
This fervor carried over into the national campaign with Knights purchasing or selling a total of more than $90 million war bonds and stamps — equivalent to more than one billion dollars today. The money was used to fund military projects such as the construction of the Liberty ship the SS William Tyler.
Meanwhile, local councils focused their efforts helping with the purchase of military equipment and other items, such as Gabriel Richard Council 2463 in Detroit, Mich. That council sold more than $4 million in both war bonds and stamps, which went to the purchase of five Boeing B-17F Flying Fortresses.
Peace of Mind
Throughout the war years, Knights not only offered solace to others, but also envisioned a roadmap for Catholics after the war’s end.
This was evident in the Canadian K of C Huts. By the war’s end, they gave out 366,101 rosaries, 4,000 missals and 713,415 prayer books to troops. The huts were a spiritual refuge for the soldiers heading towards and returning from the frontlines.
And in the U.S., Knights knew it was vital to bring the Mass to troops. The Knights supported the Chaplains’ Aid Associations, which assembled and distributed a total of 1,355 Mass kits to chaplains serving troops on the frontlines during 1943. Individual councils felt compelled to do the same, like Coronation Council 1863 in Fort Lee, N.J., which vestments as well.
Other councils had collection drives, which included gathering rosaries, missals and spiritual literature for servicemen. Council 710 in Manitowoc, Wisc., placed Bibles, Faith of Our Fathers and missals on submarines. Army personnel, including Lieutenant Commander J.J. Flachsenhar, thanked the Knights for these gifts.
More important than any of this were the Knights’ prayers. As Rev. Msgr. Francis Phelan said during a Knights-sponsored Mass for peace, the Knights “storm heaven with prayers for victory.”
Around the country, Knights held holy hours, Masses for peace and requiems for the “repose of the souls of all Knights of Columbus who have lost their lives in the defense of their country and for Our Blessed Mother’s protection over other members and friends at the battlefronts.” Council 1556 in Waverly, Minn., sponsored a “V for Victory” shrine in parishes in the surrounding community, while more than 1,000 Knights, war veterans and members of the community attended the Armistice Memorial Holy Hour sponsored by the Knights at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn., on Nov. 8, 1942.
Throughout the war, the Order was committed to supporting those fighting overseas. In Columbia, a war bond ad read, “It is now our obligation to bring our armed forces home, care for our wounded, maintain our occupation troops, provide veteran rehabilitation, care for the dependents of those who made the supreme sacrifice.”
That is why the Knights established a $1 million educational fund to provide scholarships for sons and daughters of Knights killed or totally disabled in war. Although it was initially created for WWII specifically, the fund was extended several times throughout the 20th and 21st century following other conflicts.
The Order also created the Peace Program, which was to serve as a blueprint to build a lasting peace based on Catholic principles. The program fought against secularism, Nazism, fascism and communism through prayer and radio broadcasts stating that a peace without God would not be a real peace. As the full extent of the Holocaust became known, and with half of Europe suffering behind the Iron Curtain, the proposed program for peace proved prophetic.
Their work did not go unnoticed. By the end of the war in the summer of 1945, the Knights had the largest net gain in membership since 1921.
This core characteristic of the Knights — of rising to the challenge during difficult times — has resurfaced time and time again, even today during the coronavirus outbreak. During the pandemic, Knights have taken action such as promoting the Prayer for Protection in Time of Pandemic, establishing a $100 million line of credit to U.S. diocese to withstand the economic fallouts and stocking up food banks.
Through programs like these, which are all a part of the Leave No Neighbor Behind initiative, Knights continue to support those in need in a way that harkens back to the mettle and initiatives of Knights on the homefront during WWII.
More from the Knights of Columbus history can be found in The Knights of Columbus: An Illustrated History. The book is available online and at local bookstores. It can be ordered at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and more.
Share your story of how your council is helping strengthen people’s faith and offering support during this time. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in a weekly edition of Knightline, a resource for K of C leaders and members. To access Knightline’s monthly archives, click here.
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