by Kelsey Blois
I’ve always had this fascination with the intersection of local and global history, with hearing how international events affected my local community. It provides the kind of personal perspective that just isn’t available in a textbook, making even the most faraway events seem real. Some of my favorite documents in the Archive include these kinds of personal testimonies into well-known historical events. So when I came across a document that mentioned friars from Santa Barbara who served as chaplains during WWII, I couldn’t help but dig deeper, looking for their stories.
At least eleven Franciscan friars from the Santa Barbara Province served as chaplains during World War II. In a circular written in 1942, Minister Provincial of the St. Barbara Province, Fr. Martin Knauff, OFM, commended those friars for their loyalty and dedication, encouraging others to follow in their footsteps. He emphasized the fact that, much like the lay people around them, the Franciscan brothers were compelled to use their time and skills for the cause of the Allied Forces. While their vows prevented them from acting as soldiers, they could and did serve their country through prayer and ministry.
Many of the friars felt compelled to serve after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Fr. Eric O’Brien, OFM, who had family living in Hawaii, applied to become a chaplain just days after the attack, and his appeal was followed by many others. It often took a few months for the chaplains to receive their first assignment, which is why Fr. Benedict Henderson, OFM—who would later go on to earn a Distinguished Service Medal in France for extraordinary heroism—wasn’t ordered to Ft. Sam Houston in Texas until April 1942. Fr. Richard Hodge, OFM, was ordered to the San Diego Naval Base around the same time, on April 18, 1942.
While overseas, chaplains often faced the same dangers as the soldiers they ministered to, but were also challenged to maintain a sense of faith and hope, cultivating positivity while surrounded by darkness. Few did this better than Fr. Albert Braun, OFM, who continued to minister throughout his three years in a Japanese prison camp. Braun served as a chaplain during both World Wars, continuing on in the service after WWI as a reserve officer. He was called to duty again in 1940, spending some time at Ft. Houston before leaving for the Philippines in April 1941. In 1942, during the Allied surrender of Corregidor, Braun was taken prisoner by the Japanese, eventually moving from the Philippines to Camp Omori in Tokyo. He risked his life in order to provide the Mass to the soldiers in the camp, receiving wine and bread from sources like Lulu Reyes, the head of Chaplains’ Aid in the Philippines, and Fr. Buttenbruch, who was caught aiding Braun and was subsequently imprisoned. Braun was also occasionally aided by Catholic Japanese officers. Camp Omori was liberated August 29, 1945, and Braun returned home to California shortly after.
Unfortunately, not every friar was able to return home. Fr. Fidelis M. Wieland, OFM, originally from San Francisco, lost his life in service. He had been serving on the USS Comfort, a hospital ship that was evacuating wounded soldiers from Okinawa, when it was hit by a Japanese plane. He later died in the hospital as a result of burns. Mass was held in honor of Wieland at St. Boniface Church in San Francisco on May 14, 1945, a few days after the news of his death reached the US.
These friars exemplified Franciscan values through their service, aiding society while fostering peace and justice. To this day, they serve as examples of loyalty and faith to us all, an integral part of Santa Barbara history.