“I did what I could for each regardless of his faith.”
Veterans Day on November 11 is an opportunity to remember those military men and women who sacrificed so that we can enjoy the freedoms promised to us in the Constitution. This month we recall the service of Colonel Chaplain John E. Duffy, a priest of the Diocese of Toledo, and a member of the Greatest Generation.
John Edward Duffy was born on June 28, 1899 in Lafayette, Indiana. He attended St. Mary’s Elementary School and Notre Dame Preparatory High School in Lafayette. After graduation he joined the army and served as a soldier in World War I with the 42nd Rainbow Division, where he experienced eleven months of frontline duty in France.
Following World War I, he attended Notre Dame University. He graduated in 1923 with a bachelor’s degree and afterward spent one year teaching and coaching at a high school in Indianapolis. But John Duffy heard a calling to become a priest and enrolled in Mount St. Mary’s of the West Seminary in Norwood, Ohio.
Father Duffy was ordained to the priesthood June 8, 1928, in Toledo, and was sent to St. Wendelin’s Parish in Fostoria, Ohio (Seneca County). On May 15, 1930, after two years at St. Wendelin, he was transferred to St. Ann’s Parish, Fremont, Ohio (Sandusky County).
U.S. Army Chaplain
In October 1933, the Bishop of Toledo approved Father Duffy’s request for a ten-year leave of absence to become a US Army chaplain. After completing his initial training in May 1934, Father Duffy was sent to serve as post chaplain at Fort Stotsenburg, in the Philippine Islands. After three years, he returned to the US, then in April 1940, he returned to Fort Stotsenburg. Captain Chaplain Father Duffy was Northern Luzon Force chaplain and later became chaplain of the First Philippine Corps.
The invasion of the Philippines by Japanese air and naval forces began on December 8, 1941, only ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The first wave of Japanese bombers approached Clark Field undetected. By the time everyone realized they were under attack, the bombs were already falling, and causalities were mounting.
Father Duffy rushed to the camp hospital, where he administered the Last Rites to any dying serviceman he came across. He said, “There wasn’t sufficient time for inquiry about religious tenants of the wounded.” During the next four days Father Duffy buried 112 soldiers and Pilipino civilians.
The American and Pilipino forces were able to hold the islands for three months. Stories of Father Duffy’s courage in accompanying his men in front line action were widely used in newspapers throughout the country. He wrote, “I did what I could for each regardless of his faith.” The Japanese eventually overran the Philippines and the Americans surrendered on April 9, 1942.
Bataan Death March
After the surrender, approximately 75,000 Filipino and American prisoners of war on Bataan were forced to make a horrific 65-mile march to prison camps in northern Luzon. This was known as the Bataan Death March. The already weakened and ill soldiers, many suffering from malaria and other tropical disease, were forced to march through tropical conditions, enduring heat and humidity without adequate medical care.
The prisoners unable to make it through the march were beaten, killed, and sometimes beheaded. Approximately 600 American soldiers died during the ordeal. A large number of those who made it to the prison camp later died of starvation and disease.
Father Duffy was forced to surrender and join the Bataan Death March. While taking a drink of water offered by a Pilipino woman he was bayoneted twice by a Japanese guard and left for dead. He was rescued by Philippine guerrillas. After recovering from his wounds, Father Duffy took command of the guerrilla unit and spent nearly a year secretly directing rebel operations against the Japanese.
In early 1943, he was recaptured and sent to Bilibid Prison in Manila, another prison noted for its filthy conditions and the cruelty of the guards. Then, in December 1944, Duffy was transferred to a “Hell Ship.” The Hell Ships were appropriately named civilian ships, converted to move prisoners of war to work camps in Japan. The Japanese military loaded the cargo holds full of prisoners, without food, water, sanitation or ventilation, and sailed them unmarked among convoys of military supply ships.
The second night of Father Duffy’s confinement on a Hell Ship, it was bombed by American warplanes and sunk. The priest miraculously escaped drowning by swimming one mile to shore.
About a month later he was put aboard another Hell Ship. This ship was also torpedoed. Again, Father Duffy survived the ordeal. Of seventeen chaplains imprisoned on the Hell Ships, Father Duffy was one of only two who survived the ordeal.
Father Duffy eventually was taken to Japan, and later transferred to the notorious Hoten Prisoner of War Camp near Mukden, Manchuria, China. Records indicate 1,420 Allied prisoners were held here, 1,193 were liberated; 224 did not survive.
Hoten POW camp was liberated on August 16, 1945 by a six man US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) team that parachuted into Mukden. They were later assisted by Soviet troops.
Father Duffy was flown out of Manchuria on the first available plane because he was the most seriously ill patient. He was at the Calcutta General Hospital three days and Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington D.C. for over a year, until he officially retired from the Army with the rank of Colonel on October 31, 1946.
Bronze Star Purple Heart
For his service, he was awarded: the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star; Purple Heart with five oak leaf clusters (he was wounded five times); American Defense Medal; Pacific Theater Medal with two battle stars; American Theatre ribbon; World War II Victory Medal; Philippine Defense Medal with one battle star; Philippine Liberation Ribbon.
In January 1947, Father Duffy returned to the Toledo Diocese. He was assigned as pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, New London, Ohio (Huron County). There he remodeled the church and dedicated the remodeling to the “Men of Bataan.” A member of the American Legion, Father Duffy was appointed its National Chaplain in 1952.
During his tenure at Our Lady of Lourdes, Father Duffy was diagnosed with cancer. He was forced to retire on March 27, 1958, due to his illness. Shortly after he had taken up residence at a retirement home near San Francisco, he was admitted to Letterman Army Hospital.
Father Duffy passed away on June 4, 1958, at the age of 58. Funeral services for Father Duffy were held at the Chapel of Our Lady on the Presidio Army Base. He is buried at the San Francisco National Cemetery.
If you would like to learn more about Father Duffy’s extraordinary service in the Philippines, read But Deliver Us From Evil: Father Duffy and the Men of Bataan, by Dan Murr (Murr Publishing, 2008).
*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at FCoolavin@aol.com.