by lyle e davis
He was a skinny little guy. Standing only 5-feet-8-inches tall, in his wire-rim glasses and steel helmet. Yet through his actions and example, he became larger than life to all who met him. Seemed to always have a grin on his face and a joke ready to make you smile, if not laugh out loud. Even in the most trying of circumstances.
That’s why, to an outsider, it was hard to fathom when a bunch of big ol’ battle-hardened Southern boys, most of whom were Baptists, were told that a Catholic priest died while trying to save one of their medics, that a lot of them would break down and weep openly.
But that’s just what happened when members of the 31st (“Dixie”) Division of the United States Army heard that Father Aquinas Thomas Colgan, from Chicago, had been killed by a Japanese sniper as he sought to rescue a badly wounded medic on Mindanao, in the Phillipines.
There were a lot of heroes that came out of WWII; a lot of heroes coming out of our current conflicts today, in Iraq and Afghanistan . . . and other places we don’t hear about. But this hero was a bit different.
What was particularly unusual about this hero was that he was a chaplain. Chaplains don’t carry weapons. They are non-combatants. They are not required to go into the thick of battle. They aren’t required to take risks. They were even exempt from the Selective Service Draft. They can, if they choose, remain in a rear area, well away from combat . . . conduct religious services, counsel men in need of counseling . . . and to generally take life a bit easier.
Father Colgan thought about things a bit differently. He willingly gave up the creature comforts he was entitled to and spent his time with his men. In the jungle, on long, forced marches, in the foxholes, at sea with the Navy troops, wherever “his boys” were . . . that’s where he belonged. And went.
It’s almost 65 years ago that Father Colgan’s last heroic action took place. Not all that many men are still alive that were there that day, and we are losing more each day; but those that are still with us remember it as though it were yesterday.
His final, heroic act took place on 6 May 1945, as the 31st ("Dixie") Division of the United States Army was attempting to dislodge the Japanese from the Philippines in the closing days of World War II. It also won for Padre Colgan, posthumously, the Distinguished Service Cross for valor. He is one of only seven chaplains so honored in World War II. In addition, he had already won the Purple Heart with an Oak Leaf Cluster for heroism and two previous wounds. His family, however, did not learn about these other wounds and awards until long after his death.
It seemed that this was to be Father Colgan’s destiny. He once told a fellow seminarian, "Every man is a thought of God and had his particular destiny to fill." Father Colgan had embarked on his journey that would lead to his destiny and alter the lives of his men forever.
This skinny little guy was a joy to behold.
Born in Chicago¹s tough south side, Father Colgan spent the first five years after his ordination into the Carmelite Order in 1936 teaching Spanish and English at Mt. Carmel High School. Endowed with street-smart wit and humor, he displayed a spiritual magic as he worked with the oppressed, poor and friendless Mexican workers. A licensed pilot, he used his skills to give pre-flight
training to young men at a local aeronautical school near Romeoville/Lockport, Illinois.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Father Colgan immediately applied for permission to enter the service. Two of his three brothers would also serve, one in the Marine Corps and the other in the Army with Merrill¹s Marauders in Burma.
His superior, the Rev. Ambrose Casey, O. Carm., later said that, "Never have I seen any man wish for anything in his life as much as Father Aquinas wished to be commissioned a chaplain in the United States Army!"
After completing training at the Harvard University Chaplain School, Chaplain Colgan trained with the troops during mountain maneuvers in West Virginia and amphibious training in Norfolk, Va. Father Colgan was assigned to the 31st (“Dixie”) Division, for final training and staging in preparation for embarkation overseas. In a letter home, Staff Sgt. Charles T. Morgan wrote, "No matter how long the hikes, or how tired and disgusted the men were, he always had a story that kept them smiling. Whatever the men had to do, he did it too, and made a joke of it."
He landed with the group in Buna, New Guinea, in 1942.
Later, when the division landed in Dobadura, New Guinea, in March of 1944, Father Colgan marched with the men in jungle training and day and night practice of amphibious landings. Despite the extreme conditions, he managed to hold regular religious services. To help with morale, he drove from campsite to campsite, and often visited ships offshore, to attend to the spiritual needs of the United States Forces. His jeep was easily distinguished with the lettering "Chicago Street Fighter" painted beneath the windshield.
It was his charm and ability to poke fun at life that would endear him to the rugged Southerners of the "Dixie" Division who would become his new flock. But Father Colgan had a serious side he did not often show.
In July 1944, the 124th Infantry Regiment was ordered to Aitape, New Guinea, to reinforce the 32nd Division against an anticipated counterattack by elements of the Japanese 18th Army. In its first combat engagement, the soldiers of the 124th engaged in fierce fighting in dense jungle for more than a month, from July 13 to August 15. Daily rain and fog hindered supply air drops and the wounded were carried as litter cases, as it was impossible to evacuate them. Comforting the men, he would tell them, "Every night¹s a New Year¹s Eve; every day¹s a payday."
Chaplain Colgan was always up on the line chatting with the men, noted Dr. Thomas Deas, regimental surgeon with the 124th Medical Detachment. "He talked all of the time," said Deas.
Writing in the 1st Battalion Unit Journal, Capt. Edward S. Becker, S-3, noted, "Chaplain Colgan should be commended for the
part he played in keeping up the morale and spirits of the men who were in an exhausted state. There was never an opportunity that passed when ŒChappie¹ didn¹t insist on holding a service. He was here today, at 3rd Battalion the next, then Regimental Headquarters, the 149th Field Artillery and next at 2nd Battalion. This sounds like his normal duties, but this could only be said by one who did not know that the distances between units were sometimes five miles apart and in those days we walked. His jokes and cheerfulness smoothed many men's brows."
Father Colgan wrote often to his fellow priests back in Chicago. In his letters he described the challenges faced in conducting services in the jungle with makeshift altars of ration boxes and always in fear of snipers.
The 124th Infantry Regiment sustained 380 casualties at Aitape. Protestant Chaplain Roger Melton and Chaplain Colgan buried 87 men killed in action.
Eight days after the conclusion of the Aitape action, Field Order No. 1, Tradewind Task Force, was received on Aug. 23 outlining plans for the invasion of Morotai, Netherlands East Indies. The 124th Regiment rejoined the 31st Division and on Sept. 11 sailed on the Australian troop ship S.S. Knimbala to join a 150-ship convoy. The three-day trip was uneventful and as was common, the men spent some time below decks playing cards and shooting craps. It¹s been told that Chaplain Colgan occasionally joined in the games and when lady luck was not at his side, he would retire to a corner, take out his Rosary and pray before returning to the game.
Father Colgan, right, with undidentified GI, on a break
With the objective of establishing airfields and communications bases in support of the eventual liberation of the Philippines, the task force secured Morotai and in November the Air Force and Navy arrived to begin construction. The division settled into a routine of mountain patrols and securing the surrounding islands. During this time Chaplain Colgan had two thatched chapels built on Morotai, and in addition to administering to his own troops, made many visits to Navy ships which did not have chaplains aboard. In his letters home, he wrote of conducting three-hour masses due to the constant air raids interrupting the services.
On the panel beneath the windshield of Father Colgan's jeep were painted the words "Chicago Streetfighter." Many of the men belonged to the mythical Chicago Streetfighters Club, which he presided over. All club members were issued a card inscribed with names of the Chicago mayor, police commissioner and the superintendant of the House of Corrections. The card entitled the holder to a daylight stopover in Chicago and was signed by Aquinas T. Colgan, Supreme Brawler. Even today, many of the few remaining veterans still carry their cards as treasured possessions.
Life on Morotai had, by this time, settled down to semi-garrison living. Enemy ground activity practically ceased. Father Colgan was never one to pass up an occasion to lighten the spirits of the men. In March, when St. Patrick¹s Day arrived, he felt that a celebration was in order. Although sacramental wine was plentiful, whiskey was not. To remedy the situation, Father Colgan talked a member of the Medical Detachment into providing a canteen full of 190 proof ethyl alcohol, enough to make three quarters of a gallon of 80 proof liquor. St. Patrick¹s Day was celebrated in style.
Their stay on Morotai came to a close in April 1945 when the 31st Division was ordered into Mindanao. When Padre Colgan landed in the Philippines, he had been on front line duty for almost 12 months. Landing at Cotabata on the southwest coast of the island, the 124th Regiment was ordered to Kabacan and then to advance north on the Sayre Highway No. 3. Getting to Kabacan involved a 50-mile trip in landing craft up the crocodile infested Mindana and Pulangi Rivers to Fort Pikit.
With the 2nd Battalion in the lead, the 124th advanced for four hours when they encountered a reinforced battalion of Japanese troops marching south. Here followed one of the few head-on engagements in the entire war in the Pacific. The 124th completed its first mission when it reached Kibawe after a 45-mile, five-day push up the Sayre Highway, despite determined resistance, banzai attacks, blown bridges and three treacherous mountain gorges. Well beyond normal supply lines they were dependent on air drops and beyond the range of their heavy supporting weapons, which had to be winched across the gorges on cables.
On May 6, the 124th resumed its advance. Father William V. O¹Connor, Chaplain of the 155th Infantry Regiment, visited with Chaplain Colgan. "His march had been very long and hard and he was tired," said O¹Connor. "I urged him to drop back and take a rest, but he said he wanted to be where his men needed him."
With no heavy artillery in place, the regiment advanced with the support of a company of 4.2-inch mortars. After only a few hundred yards the regiment encountered the enemy in strength and began the hardest, bloodiest, most costly action during its entire service.
The Japanese troops had entrenched themselves in well-prepared and completely camouflaged spider-type pillboxes with connecting tunnels. These lined both sides of Sayre Highway, which was little more than a dirt road. The advancing American soldiers could pass within a few feet of the pillboxes and not see them. The Japanese occupants would let the troops pass and then rise up and shoot the unsuspecting soldiers from behind. An entire morning¹s fighting by the 1st Battalion gained 300 yards.
On the same day, the 3rd Battalion was ordered to bypass the bogged down 1st Battalion and secure the Maramag airstrip No. 1 less than two miles to the north. They were caught in the flank by a banzai attack which inflicted heavy casualties. Cries for medics could be heard and the corpsmen of the 124th Medical Detachment dashed into the woods to evacuate the wounded. They, too, were shot down.
Chaplain Colgan walked up to the battalion command post, calmly surveyed the situation and said to the command post personnel, "Those are my boys in there. They need me. I should be with them." Staff Sgt. Charles Morgan, who often assisted the priest in his duties, said Father Colgan disregarded a warning from a senior officer that he should not attempt to go into the woods because of snipers. "He just went down the road and walked right into the woods," Morgan recalled. "He must have known that he had little hope of coming out alive."
Father Colgan encountered Staff Sgt. Edgar Beatty, C Company, 1st Battalion, on the scene. Beatty also admonished the chaplain not to go into the woods. "He just told me a joke and said that¹s where he belonged," said Beatty.
Father Colgan entered the woods amid the fighting. Spotting a wounded man, he began to make his way ducking automatic fire. Suddenly he was hit in the shoulder, but he still continued to crawl through the underbrush until he reached the wounded medic laying in a shell hole. A moment later, a quick burst of machine gun fire killed Chaplain Colgan instantly, and in the minds and hearts of those who were there, the site became known as "Colgan Woods."
The woods were finally taken after six days of mortar fire, dive bombing by Marine SBD dive bombers dropping high explosive and fire bombs, and daily infantry assaults. The 149th Field Artillery managed to get within range on May 12 and after an intense barrage, the 2nd Battalion plus L Company finally pushed through the shrapnel-shredded woods. An area the size of a city block had cost the 124th Infantry Regiment 60 men killed and 120 wounded.
The casualties could now be retrieved, and Father Colgan was found, his arms still embracing the man he had tried to save. He was identified by the marks on his uniform. Nine months had passed since Chaplains Melton and Colgan had buried the dead on Aitape. Now, Chaplain Melton would bury Father Colgan on Mindanao.
Chaplain O¹Connor, who moved up the lines to fill in the gap left by Father Colgan¹s death, said scores of men of all denominations came to him to tell him how they "loved the little guy." Many of them rugged, combat-wise Southerners, had tears in their eyes as they spoke of him. Staff Sgt. Joseph Wall, Service Company, says, "The news traveled like wildfire." None of the casualties incurred affected the men of the 124th as did the death of Chaplain Colgan.
Aquinas T. Colgan was one of seven World War II chaplains to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for valor posthumously.
Approximately nine thousand U.S. Army chaplains ministered to servicemen’s religious and morale needs during World War II.
Many of these chaplains served in the South Pacific theater, tending to the unique interests and problems of soldiers stationed there—particularly cultural differences and extreme climates and conditions. Army chaplains all volunteered to serve in the Pacific; such service was not compulsory, for the Selective Service Act exempted ordained ministers.
Father Colgan’s final grave site, in the Mt. Olivet Cemetery on the outskirts of Chicago, is marked with a humble marble slab which tells almost nothing of the life of this great priest who spent his life for others, and culminated his time on earth by giving his life to rescue a wounded corpsman cut down by enemy fire.
The gray marker simply reads:
The Rev. Aquinas Colgan
Order of Mount Carmel
Died 6 May 1945
Sadly, Father Colgan wasn’t around to see the eventual total liberation of the Philippines. Some 10,000 Japanese troops were killed, some 7,000 were wounded and another 8,000 succumbed to starvation and disease. The Americans lost only 820 men and 2,880 wounded for the entire campaign.
This was one battleground that never made the news. After almost 65 years, the jungle has reclaimed jurisdiction of the battle site, a patch of rain forest in the central area of Mindanao, the Philippine Islands. But for the soldiers who fought there, the area will forever be known as Colgan Woods.
A painting commissioned by veterans of the 124th hangs in the 124th Armory in Orlando, Fla. Its title is "Battle of Colgan
A Catholic War Veterans Post in Joliet, Ill., was named in his honor. In the basement of a chapel in Chicago, a bronze plaque lists him among the Mt. Carmel alumni who died in World War II.
Father Colgan's only surviving brother, Father Myles Colgan, O.Carm., recently said, "No one is dead if they are remembered."
The aging veterans of the 124th Infantry Regiment remember.
Abstract History, 31st Division, World War II, Fla. Dept.
124th Infantry Regiment, 31st Division, World War II, Fla. Dept.
Columbia magazine, May 1955
War in the Pacific, Triumph in the Philippines by Robert Ross
Smith, Office of the Chief of Military History, Dept of the Army.
Kevin Shanley, O. Carm.
St. Simon Stock Priory
Downloaded 9 January 2002
By Marion Hess, c 1998.