Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day: Father LaFleur

I have posted about Father LaFleur before, but today is a fitting day to bring his story forward again. (Granted, I was inspired by the priest at Mass this morning, since his homily retold the stories of heroic military chaplains.) I first heard of Father La Fleur from his sister, Edna (my grandmother's neighbor). Several years ago, I also put a bit of the story on the blog. Here it is again, with a few additions:

Father Joseph Verbis LaFleur
Born in Ville Platte, Louisiana  Verbis LaFleur was drawn to the priesthood while still a boy. Now in Opelousas, he approached the pastor of St Landry parish (the church, not the Louisiana "county" by that name) and was able to enroll in the St Joseph's Seminary in St Benedict, LA. (My dad did his freshman year of high school at "St Ben's," where the seminary library was recently flooded.) From St Ben's, "Frenchy" (as he was called because of his Cajun accent) moved on to Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. He was ordained April 2, 1938 and assigned to St Mary Magdalen Church in Abbeville. He didn't stay long.
He volunteered for the Army Air Corps in 1941 (before the US entered World War II) out of concern for draftees who didn't have a choice about military service, and when he was assigned to the 19th Bombardment Group, it turned out that he was the first chaplain they had ever had. When their base (Clark Field in the Philippines) was hit (an attack connected to the bombing of Pearl Harbor), Col. E. L. Eubanks wrote, "he went among the wounded soldiers...never once did he take cover."
When the 19th Bombardment Group was ordered away from Clark Field, their ship was hit by machine gun fire from Japanese planes. Fr. LaFleur crawled on deck, somehow dodging the bullets to pull a wounded officer to safety. As the ship sank near a small island, Fr. LaFleur stayed on board helping the others shove off. He was the last man off, diving into the ocean and catching a ride on one of the small boats. It was on that island that he was eventually taken prisoner of war by the Japanese (he had earlier refused the chance to leave the island, saying that the men needed him there).

 As a parish priest, Fr. LaFleur had hocked his watch to buy sports equipment for his kids. As a P.O.W., he traded his glasses to get food and supplies for the sick and wounded. On Davao (Philippines) he built a chapel with his own hands. He called it "St. Peter in Chains." He used an eye dropper to measure out the wine for his daily Mass.
At a certain point, the prisoners were being transported when their Japanese ship, the Shinyo Maru, was torpedoed by US forces. Father LaFleur stood near the ladder, helping men escape the stifling hold. Of the 750 prisoners on board, only eighty survived, and it was they who told the story of their chaplain.
It was only in character for him to die as he did: helping men out of the hold of a burning ship. 
St Landry parish dedicated a monument to their heroic native son and every year celebrates a memorial Mass on the anniversary of his death. September 7.

No comments: