Seventy-five years ago this month, American troops all over England were in a state of feverish preparation.
After unfavorable weather caused several delays, finally the big day came on June 6th. Landing on Omaha and Utah beaches, Americans and their British and Canadian counterparts soon established a beachhead from which the conquest of mainland Europe could begin.
Less well-known was the smaller group of soldiers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions who parachuted behind enemy lines on the night of June 5th to cut communication lines and prevent reinforcement of the embattled enemy beach defenses.
The nature of airborne operations dictated that most of these men were lightly armed and lacked reinforcements and fire support.
Of them all, though, none were more lightly armed than one Chaplain Francis Sampson, who (like all chaplains) carried nary a weapon at all. Despite his tactical uselessness, Father Sampson knew that his place was on the front where his men were fighting and dying.
In the early gray dawn of June 6th, he found himself trying to find the scattered troopers of his unit. Within the first few days of fighting in Normandy, he was under fire many times, and once captured and again liberated. He administered last rites on many occasions, to American and German soldiers alike.
Father Sampson went on to serve alongside American troops as they continued their advance across France and Belgium into Germany.
On one occasion, he began to say Mass for a group of soldiers during a lull in the fighting.
When bullets started snapping around his ears, he paused from his attention to the sacred mysteries to tell his small congregation to scatter for cover – only to find they had already done so and left him to finish Mass by himself. It was the shortest Mass of his priestly career!
In the fighting around the Battle of the Bulge, Father Sampson was captured. Detained in a prison camp in freezing northern Germany, he kept the spirits of the men strong through a winter of hunger and bitter cold.
Finally liberated by Russian troops driving west, Father Sampson and his men had survived the war.
Throughout his description of the war years, Father Sampson emphasizes the soldiers’ hunger for God. The sacraments, he insisted over and over again, were the greatest comforts available to soldiers on the front lines: he could read the truth of his claim in their haggard faces.
Men who barely had bread to satisfy the needs of the body longed for that food which nourishes the soul.
In the complacency of peacetime we often take our most basic needs for granted. With plenty of clean water, good food, a warm bed, and a secure life, it is easy to for us to miss what many soldiers see so clearly: that above all these other fundamental human needs is the longing for our God.
Man shall not live by bread alone, our Lord insisted, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
As we prepare to remember the 75th anniversary of the blustery June night when Father Sampson and thousands of other paratroopers said a quick prayer before they leapt into the dark sky over France, let’s honor their sacrifice by returning to the source of their strength.
There is no better way to celebrate D-Day than to seek deliverance from our sins.
That’s liberation indeed.
Eddie Hoffmann is a Catholic seminarian studying to serve the Church in southwestern Ohio and an intern at St. Columbkille in Wilmington. He is also a future Army Chaplain.