By Dave Jolivet
Some see her as an instrument of war and killing; others as a piece of ancient history; and others, when they gaze upon her, remember the sacrifices of men and women who gave their all, some their lives, to protect the United States and the world as a whole, from tyranny.
Last weekend, the U.S.S. Massachusetts, “Big Mamie” as she was known to those who walked her decks in the 1940s, celebrated an anniversary at her home at Battleship Cove on the Fall River waterfront.
In June of 1965, the BB-59 battleship, with a little help from a fleet of tugboats, sailed north up the Taunton River to her new home in the shadows of the Braga Bridge; a bridge named after Charles M. Braga, a Fall River native killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941, that spawned America’s involvement in the war in the Pacific Ocean, where BB-59 played such an important role, as well as in the Atlantic near northern Africa.
On Aug. 14, 1965, a few months after her arrival in Fall River, the U.S.S. Massachusetts was commemorated as an official World War II memorial site in the Commonwealth.
Commissioned in May of 1942, she sailed to Northern Africa in the Atlantic Ocean where she fought in battle off Casablanca, then churned to the south Pacific Ocean where she engaged in battles there, firing the last 16-inch shell of World War II.
Yet, perhaps the most powerful weapon aboard wasn’t the massive guns that fired that 16-inch ammo, it may have been her first Catholic chaplain, Father Joseph N. Moody, who, according to “U.S.S. Massachusetts,” by Turner Publishing Staff, served aboard Big Mamie in 1942 and ’43.
The publication said that Father Moody went on to become a monsignor and later in life was a professor at Boston College and also taught at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton.
In the book’s dedication in 1997, it said of the ship’s first Catholic chaplain, “Throughout his clerical career, Msgr. Moody was recognized by the Church as an extraordinary combination of parish priest and professional instructor. He demonstrated both facets of his character as naval chaplain.
“He was always available to help a shipmate over a tough time — a death in the family, receipt of a ‘Dear John’ letter or just the despondency of homesickness. His battle station was everywhere, as he made the rounds of the ship providing good cheer, and a sense of shared apprehension wherever he went.”
What then-Father Moody also provided was a Spiritual strength, bringing the Sacraments to the crew in an environment where peace and tranquility was but a dream.
There’s a saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” The same can be said aboard tons of floating or driven metal; fighting an enemy on land, in the air, and on and below the sea.
Father Moody was just one of many Catholic priests who brought the presence of God to soldiers in the heat of battle in World War II.
One was Fall River native, Army chaplain Father Arthur C. Leneghan, who was killed in action in Italy in 1944. Father Leneghan is buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Fall River.
On The-American-Catholic.com, Donald R. McClarey tells of Father Aloysius Schmitt, the first Catholic chaplain hero of World War II, who gave his life saving his fellow shipmates aboard the U.S.S. Oklahoma after it was struck by Japanese torpedoes at Pearl Harbor. Father Schmitt was the first chaplain of any faith to lose his life in World War II.
The website tells the story of Father William Cummings who, “was always with the troops near or on the front line. He said innumerable Masses, administered the Last Rites to the dying and helped with the wounded.”
Father Cummings died aboard a Japanese prisoner of war ship, where he ministered to his fellow prisoners until his death.
Also mentioned is Marine chaplain Father Charles Suver, who was among the soldiers who stormed Green Beach near Mount Surabhuci on Iwo Jima where a hellacious battle took place. Father Suver tended to the wounded and gave last rites to many of his fellow soldiers.
Yet another Catholic chaplain hero in the Pacific was Father Joseph T. O’Callahan, S.J., a Boston native who ministered to his shipmates following a kamikaze attack on the U.S.S. Franklin in 1945. Father O’Callahan received the Medal of Honor for his actions.
Many other priests served aboard ships in the Pacific and in the trenches in Europe and Africa during World War II, all risking their lives to bring temporal and corporal aid and comfort to their comrades.
Two Catholic priest chaplains are now Servants of God, in the sainthood cause process: Father Emil Kapaun, an Army chaplain during the Korean conflict, who died ministering to his comrades in a prisoner of war camp; and Father Vincent Capodanno, a Navy chaplain who died in Vietnam aiding a wounded soldier.
Even as U.S. soldiers toil to keep America and the world free of the forces of evil, Catholic priest chaplains are there to bring at least a few moments of normalcy to an otherwise surreal environment, something they’ve been doing since before the Civil War.
The Turner Publications history of the U.S.S. Massachusetts says that after serving aboard the Big Mamie, Father Moody ministered aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown and was discharged in 1946.
In the book’s dedication it reads, “To a beloved friend and shipmate, we express our profound thanks and say: Requiescat in Pace.”
The U.S.S. Massachusetts, and every other war ship in World War II, and all of America’s conflicts, carried aboard her hundreds of simple, normal individuals who were called to lives that were far from normal — to preserve and protect the freedoms so often taken for granted.
Some see BB-59 as a weapon of war, and others look beyond the guns and stark gray countenance and see men and women who sacrificed to keep our freedoms, including freedom of religion, alive. Men and women who relied on the comfort of a set of Rosary beads or a blessed holy medal to get them through the hell of war. And some can see the special men, the Catholic priests who chose to risk their lives to bring Christ to those looking for Him.