It was at Harvard University, strangely enough, that he really began his odyssey; for it was at Harvard that new Army chaplains received their initial entry training into the U.S. Army chaplaincy during most of World War II. After finishing the month-long course, Chaplain Sampson volunteered for an airborne assignment. It was a decision that would define the rest of his life.
It was also a decision, he wrote later, that was made out of ignorance. “Like a zealous young business man, starting out in a strange town,” he admitted, ” I was ready to join anything out of a sheer sense of civic duty.”1 Had he known previously what being a paratroop chaplain entailed, he confessed, he would have made a different choice.
Frankly, I did not know when I signed up for the airborne that chaplains would be expected to jump from an airplane in flight. Had I known this beforehand, and particularly had I known the tortures of mind and body prepared at Fort Benning for those who sought the coveted parachute wings, I am positive that I should have turned a deaf ear to the plea for airborne chaplains. However, once having signed up, I was too proud to back out. Besides, the airborne are the elite troops of the Army, and I already began to enjoy the prestige and glamour that goes with belonging to such an outfit.2
Francis L. Sampson was born on 29 February 1912, in Cherokee, Iowa. He attended Notre Dame University, graduating in 1937, and then entered St. Paul’s Seminary at Saint Paul, Minnesota. He was ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood for the Des Moines, Iowa, diocese on 1 June 1941. Following his ordination, Father Sampson served briefly as a parish priest in Neola, Iowa, and also taught at Dowling High School in Des Moines. He entered the Army in early 1942, was commissioned as a first Lieutenant, and began his Army career at Camp Barkley, Texas. The month of January 1943, was spent in training at the Chaplain School. He then joined the 501st Parachute Regiment, of the 101st Airborne Division, as its regimental chaplain. He would be its chaplain for the rest of the war.3
It was during the invasion of France, in the summer of 1944, that the story of Chaplain Sampson began to take on its legendary quality. Lawrence Critchell, in his book Four Stars of Hell, described him as “one of the most respected and best-loved officers in the Regiment,” while S.L.A. Marshall in Night Drop, portrays Sampson as “a jolly man, deeply loved by the Regiment.” His exploits were recorded by John Eisenhower in The Bitter Woods, and also by John Toland in Battle and The Last Hundred Days.4
It all began on D-Day, 6 June 1944. While the soldiers of the 501st may have looked at their chaplain as a cool and heroic figure, Chaplain Sampson remembered that in those initial days among the hedgerows of Normandy, “[n]o pair of knees shook more than my own, nor any heart ever beat faster in time of danger.”5
The medics stayed with the wounded who could not be moved, and so did Chaplain Sampson. At one point the area was taken over by units of the Waffen SS. Chaplain Sampson was taken prisoner by two soldiers, and put up against a wall to be shot. He recalled that he was so frightened that instead of reciting an Act of Contrition, the usual prayer for the forgiveness of sins, he kept repeating to himself the Catholic blessing before meals: “Bless us, Our Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive through Thy bounty through Christ Our Lord, Amen.” Rescued at the last minute by a German noncommissioned officer who turned out to be a Catholic, Chaplain Sampson was escorted to a nearby German intelligence post where he was interrogated, found harmless and then released.
He returned to the aid station, and after experiencing a number of close calls, Sampson and the aid station were liberated by American troops. At this point Sampson found himself ministering not only to wounded U.S. soldiers, but also to German troops who had been brought to the station. Chaplain Sampson was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest American military award, for his actions during these days.6
Chaplain Sampson went with his regiment as it jumped into Holland, where he was nearly captured for a second time. By early December 1944, the 101st was taking a well-deserved rest from the fighting in a small French town just outside of Paris. The rest was to be brief, for the surprise assault by German forces through the Ardennes that month began what was to be called the Battle of the Bulge.
General Eisenhower ordered both the 82nd and the 101st Airborne Divisions to the front. Their destination was a small village near Bastogne. In the confusion of the fighting, Sampson was taken prisoner on 19 December. This time there would be no quick resolution to his predicament. He was sealed in a train for six days without food or water, and the train was also attacked at intervals by American aircraft. Imprisoned in Stalag II A, which was located north of Berlin near the city of Neubrandenburg, Chaplain Sampson at his request was allowed to remain in the enlisted men’s prison, rather than the officer’s prison.
At midnight on 28 April 1945, Russian tanks belonging to the forces of Marshall Konstantin Rokossovsky’s Second Belorussian Front freed the camp, ending Sampson’s four months of bitter winter imprisonment.7
The following years saw him serve a number of important posts. He was regimental chaplain with the 187th Airborne Infantry Regiment, from 1947 to 1951.8 While chaplain with the 187th, Sampson found himself part of a massive airborne drop in Korea, near Sukch’on and Such’on, north of the North Korean capital of P’yongyang. General MacArthur hoped that this force could rescue American prisoners of war who it was assumed would be moved northward in the Communist retreat, while also cutting off North Korean officials and troops.9
Sent home to the United States in 1951, Sampson served as an instructor at the U.S. Army Chaplain School at Fort Slocum, New York, until 1954. He then served as the 11th Airborne Division chaplain, between 1955 and 1958. More important assignments followed as he rose up the ladder in the chaplaincy.
Promoted to full colonel in 1961, he served as Seventh Army Chaplain from 1962 to 1965, and then as the USCONARC Staff Chaplain in 1965. The next year he was appointed as the Deputy Chief of Chaplains of the United States Army and promoted to the rank of Brigadier General.10
Chaplain Sampson now found himself in a role far removed from his previous experience as a field chaplain. He was now at the center of power and responsibility, in the midst of an increasingly controversial and unpopular war in Vietnam. With the retirement of Chaplain (MG) Charles E. Brown as Chief of Chaplains in July 1967, Sampson succeeded him in that office. Now 55 years old and a veteran of 25 years of Army experience, Sampson was a popular choice.11
The appointment of Francis L. Sampson … may have appeared to some as a public-relations’ attempt to rescue the image of the chaplaincy. Sampson was, after all, a highly-decorated airborne hero of both World War II and the Korean conflict. He wore the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery in Europe and his exploits had been featured in three national television programs. Besides that, he had authored two books, numerous articles for periodicals, and was an outstanding athlete who had won seven Army regional tennis championships during his career.12
His service as Chief of Chaplains from 1967 to 1971, “was characterized by a genuinely personal esteem for the chaplain’s calling and a deep respect for the soldier’s profession.”13 His tenure as Chief, in the midst of these trying times, was filled with solid accomplishments. His management style was an open one.
To insure that his decisions and guidance were based on the real issues being encountered by chaplains, he maintained a continuing open dialogue with officers and enlisted men alike at every echelon through a vigorous schedule of personal staff visits to every major army command throughout the world. As a result of these person-to-person observations, he maintained a realistic awareness of Army-wide activities and provided a continuing professional appraisal for the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, the Chief of Staff, and other interested members of the Department of the Army Staff.14
But this was a far different war than World War II, and Chaplain Sampson found himself dealing with such Army-wide problems as drug abuse, racial tension, and changing life styles. As Chief of Chaplains, he gave a speech in 1970, in which he said that he was “proud of the soldiers of today — frankly, they are even better soldiers in most ways than their dads were. But just as 1775 and 1941-45 were times ‘that tried men’s souls,’ so too we move into 1971 with the sobering awareness that never before in our history have we faced a more critical phase in our national existence.”15
A few months before his retirement as Chief of Chaplains on 31 July 1971, Chaplain Sampson gave a speech, part of which captures the philosophy he operated under both as a field chaplain and as Chief of Chaplains.
In civilian life many people misunderstand the military mission. I have spoken at various universities and have been challenged by this misunderstanding. I have been asked how I can wear the uniform which symbolizes war and also wear the cross upon it symbolizing peace. One would think that they should find the answer to the very question they proposed — for such questioners are of lofty academic standards, positions and responsibilities.
It is very easy for me to tell them that, by law and statute, the mission of the military of the United States is, first, to preserve peace. Second, to provide for the security of our country, its borders and internal security. And third, to implement national policy as it pertains to peace treaties with friendly nations which of themselves cannot repel the aggression of avaricious neighbors.
I see nothing in this mission that does not appeal to the highest ideals of any man — regardless of his religion. Indeed, it was Cardinal O’Neal, the great Churchman, who once said if he had not been a priest he most certainly would have had to be a soldier, because they are both called to the identical things — that is — the preservation of peace, the establishment of justice when it has been lost, and the providing of security with protection for the weak and the innocent.16
His words are a fitting testimonial to a memorable thirty-year career as both soldier and chaplain.
1 Francis L. Sampson, Look Out Below: A Story of the Airborne by a Paratrooper Padre, Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1958, p. 3.
3 Francis L. Sampson Biographical File, USACHCS Archives, Fort Jackson, SC.
5 As quoted in, Donald F. Crosby, Jr., Battlefield Chaplains: Catholic Priests in World War II, Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1994, 122.
6 Sampson, op. cit., 55-80.
7 Ibid., 98-108; 111-165.
8 Sampson Biographical File.
9 Roger R. Venzke, Confidence In Battle, Inspiration In Peace: The United States Army Chaplaincy, 1945-1975, Washington, DC: Department of the Army, Office of the Chief of Chaplains, 1977, pp. 80-81.
10 Sampson Biographical File.
12 Ventzke, op cit. p.128.
13 Sampson Biographical File.
16 Ventzke, loc. cit. (quoted in).
Photos courtesy of the Army Chaplain Museum and the Chief of Chaplains’ Office.
William J. Hourihan, Ph.D. serves as the Army Chaplain Branch historian. He is located at the U. S. Army Chaplain Center and School, Fort Jackson, S.C.