When a couple of German soldiers raised their rifles to shoot American Army chaplain Fr. Francis Sampson, he was trying to say the Act of Contrition. But the only words he could manage to say were:
“Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts…”
These words would not be his last. They were interrupted, perhaps, by a stern “Halt! Schiess nicht!”
A Catholic German non-commissioned officer stopped the execution, recognizing Fr. Sampson as a priest. This German officer showed the priest a Catholic medal he wore and pictures of his infant child. Fr. Sampson would later recall that moment, noting the momentary brotherhood he had with an “enemy” who shared his faith.
Fr. Sampson was able to return to the wounded he had been tending: soldiers who had taken bullets when fighting their way up the beaches of Normandy. Fr. Sampson had jumped in with the 101st Airborne, and—after determinedly recovering his Mass kit which had fallen into a stream—had set about caring for the suffering soldiers.
The courageous Padre stayed with the wounded, even when the rest of the force had to pull out. After they were all evacuated to a division hospital, he continued his tireless care for them. He received the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism on those days.
The inspiration for the film “Saving Private Ryan”—a 1998 film that portrays the search for a lone private whose three brothers had been killed in combat—came from an incident around this time.
Chaplain Sampson was approached by another paratrooper, Fritz Niland, who learned that his brother, Robert, had been killed on D-Day and buried nearby. Another brother, Edward, had been shot down over Burma a few weeks prior, presumed dead.
The compassionate chaplain drove Niland around nearby cemeteries in order to locate Robert’s grave. But they made a terrible discovery during their search. They found the grave not of Robert at first, but of Preston—another brother whose death Fritz hadn’t heard about. One can only imagine the young paratrooper’s distress. Thankfully, he had Fr. Sampson with him.
The Chaplain knew that this soldier had seen enough, and that his family deserved to have at least one of their four sons back. So he began the paperwork to have Fritz sent home (which Fritz strongly objected to—to no avail).
The 1998 film takes its inspiration from this incident, but the connection is otherwise loose. Fritz wasn’t lost (he did have to jump early from his plane and ended up behind enemy lines for nine days, but he made it back).
And as God’s good providence would have it, he wasn’t the only Niland brother to come home. Edward also survived, freed after a year’s internment in a Japanese POW camp.
Fritz’s service was over, but Fr. Sampson’s was not. He later jumped into Holland and was captured trying to rescue trapped American troops during the Battle of the Bulge.
Over the following four months, Fr. Sampson continued his lifesaving work, caring for the imprisoned soldiers physically and spiritually. He chose to stay in the enlisted men’s barracks instead of the officers’ quarters. On Easter, he celebrated Mass alongside Dutch, Polish, and French Catholic chaplains for thousands of prisoners.
When the camp was liberated and the war ended, he still wasn’t done. He went on to serve in Korea, and, after being appointed Chief of Chaplains of the Army, spent Christmases visiting troops in Vietnam.
The Cherokee, Iowa native—who had spent nearly his whole priestly career as a chaplain—died on January 28, 1996. He wrote about his incredible experiences in “Look Out Below!” and “Paratrooper Padre” which chronicled his experiences as a chaplain in jump boots.
Whether you’re jumping into enemy territory or just fighting the daily battles of life, be sure to keep your prayer life in top shape with the timeless Wartime Prayer Book. Written by the great Fulton Sheen for soldiers in World War II, this compilation offers spiritual strength for both professional servicemembers and for the everyday spiritual warrior inside all of us. Pocket-sized for use on all your adventures! Order yours today at The Catholic Company!