Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Paratrooper Padre

Fr. Francis L. Sampson
In the book, "Look Out Below! A Story of the Airborne by a Paratrooper Padre" Fr. Francis L. Sampson writes about his experiences serving as a U.S. Army Chaplain during both WW2 and the Korean War and even visited troops in Vietnam after his military retirement. Fr. Sampson was a member of the 101st Airborne Division during WW2 and parachuted into Normandy on D-Day with the Allied invasion force and later spent 6 months in a German Prisoner of War Camp.

He recalls that his first action on D-Day, after parachuting through heavy machine gun fire courtesy of German soldiers below, was to recover his lost Mass Kit. He was forced to cut away from his equipment after landing in a stream that was over his head. He was then dragged approximately 100 yards by his parachute before being able to free himself. Fr. Sampson then braved incoming bullets and mortars and carefully crawled back to the edge of the stream where he originally landed and started diving to find his Mass Kit. He was somehow able to find it on the sixth dive despite being in total darkness. His actions after he landed were also highlighted in the popular book by Cornelius Ryan, "The Longest Day" and the classic film of the same title based on the book.

Later in the day, Fr. Sampson found himself in a small French farmhouse caring for the wounded where he was confronted by two German soldiers. They forced him down the road at gun point and were apparently about to execute him when a German noncom arrived to put a stop to it. The noncom saluted Fr. Sampson and then revealed to him a religious medal pinned to the inside of his uniform. Fr. Sampson explains that he "was so glad of the universality of the Church." This would not be his only brush with death. Each time he was in imminent danger on D-Day he would say a quick act of contrition. Although he later realized that instead of saying an act of contrition in the surreal moments when his life was threatened, he had been saying the grace before meals prayer.

Days later, Fr. Sampson's regiment was camped outside a hospital attached to a convent and school a few miles from Cherbourg. Almost all of the buildings had been completely destroyed by bombers, but there were still over 50 nuns that remained and assisted the wounded. Fr. Sampson decided to say mass in their chapel which had only two walls standing and the roof was caved-in. The only part of the chapel left undamaged was the life-sized crucifix that hung on the wall and the large statues of Saints Peter and Paul. Fr. Sampson and the nuns were convinced this was a miracle. There was no other explanation for it.

It was in that bombed-out chapel, after days of grueling combat, Fr. Sampson delivered the following homily to a large group of battle-weary men:

"The image of the naked Galilean hanging from the cross has always inspired great love and fierce hate. Nero sought to make the cross a hateful image by putting Christians to death upon it, pouring pitch upon them, and lighting Rome with these flaming human crosses. Julian the Apostate said that he would make the world forget the Man on the cross, but in his final agony he had to acknowledge, 'Thou has conquered, Galilean.' Communists forbid its presence because they fear its power against their evil designs. Hitler has tried to replace the image of our Blessed Lord on the cross with a stupid swastika. Invectives, false philosophies, violence, and every diabolical scheme have been used to tear the Christ from the cross and the crucifix from the church. Nevertheless, like the bombs that were dropped on this chapel, they have only succeeded in making the cross stand out more and more in bold relief. The image we love grows greater in our understanding because of the vehemence of the hate it occasions in wicked men. Each of us has that sacred image stamped upon his soul. Like the chapel, we are Temples of God. And no matter how we are torn by the bombs of tragedy and trial and assault from without, the image of the crucified remains if we want it to. Now at the foot of this cross let us renew our baptismal vows. Let us promise to shield forever His image in our hearts." (p. 77)

Fr. Sampson said that he would never forget that mass. After reading his book, I will never forget him.

Francis L. Sampson, Look Out Below: A Story of the Airborne by a Paratrooper Padre, Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1958.


  1. My wife gave me Fr. Sampson's book for Christmas 3 years ago. I have only one complaint, it was too short! It really is a page turner and hard to put down. Thanks for the review!

  2. Thanks for the comment. I learned of Fr. Sampson recently while reading "The Longest Day" for the first time. I feel the same way about the book as you do.

  3. I haven't read this book but I would certainly like to! One of our retired Archbishops in New Orleans, Archbishop Philip Hannan, was also a paratrooper in WWII. He wrote a book called "The Archbishop wore Combat Boots" if you would be interested in reading it.

  4. Thanks for the tip! I just found it on Amazon and it looks like a great book.

  5. I was a Catholic Chaplains Assistant in Augsberg,Germany in 1964/65. Msgr. Sampson use to visit and I served Mass for him several times. He was a quiet man and looked very impressive in Class A uniform wearing the Master Jumper's badge with three small gold stars . .each one representing a combat jump.