Even when you do not fight, being a chaplain was no easy job. They were usually the ones that the dying soldiers would see and hear last as they administered the last rites of their dying comrades. Most of the time, the chaplains would also die while performing their duties on the battlefield. Chaplain Father Lawrence Edward Lynch was one of those who lived and died while fulfilling his duties in the chaotic warzone.
The title of “chaplain,” although referring to the representatives of the Christian faith, was no longer exclusive to that religion. Many other religions or philosophical traditions also apply, like Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. Then there is also Magick and Spiritualist, Wicca, and Unitarian Universalist, to name a few.
The very first appearance of chaplains in the military could be traced back to the 8th century when the English military-oriented chaplains boarded proto-naval vessels. On the other hand, the land chaplains were first known during the reign of King Edward I. For the military chaplains that we now know, they were first used in World War I so that the soldiers dying in the field could still receive their rites and boost the morale of the living. War is a terrible business of death and killing often attenuated by atrocities as well. The role of the chaplains in military services was to remind soldiers of their religious beliefs and morals to guide their personal conduct in doing their duty.
Depending on which country they were from, chaplains could be army-trained soldiers with theological training or nominated and ordained by the religious authorities of the army.
Lawrence Edward Lynch was of Irish descent. His parents emigrated to America, and he grew up in Brooklyn, New York. He was one of twelve children born to a firefighter and his wife. His journey to being a priest began when he served as an altar boy in St. Sylvester’s Church in Brooklyn.
When World War II broke out, Father Lynch joined the Army and become part of the 69th Infantry Division, known as “The Fighting 69th.”
Father Lynch would soon earn the nickname Father Cyclone “because he was a whirlwind of activity.” He had his unrelenting efforts in serving not only the troops of the 69th but also the civilians nearby who might need his service. One of the things that Father Cyclone was remembered for was the poker matches that he would usually join not to pass the time but to make money to provide for a leper colony nearby. He was so good at poker that the men he was playing with began to set aside a certain amount of money in the pot for the lepers so that he would not win all of it.
Fighting a Different Battle
Chaplains do not engage in combat, but that did not stop Father Lawrence from fighting his own battles against religious discrimination. As Brigadier General Julius Klein, the priest’s commanding officer in the Pacific, Father Cyclone fought for the right of a Jewish soldier who he felt was discriminated against in getting a promotion.
At one time, they were aboard a rescue ship to aid the transport ship “Elihu Thomson” that hit a mine. As he was directing the rescue operation, Father Lawrence was there and comforting the dying, staying beside them and holding their hands so that they would not die alone. He treated everyone fairly and even recited the Hebrew words of forgiveness to a dying Jewish soldier.
Lt Col Julius Klein who served in the 69th and marveled at the ability of Father Lawrence to minister to troops of various faiths after witnessing him give funeral rights to a Jewish soldier in Hebrew wrote in a book about him,
“It never mattered to him whether a soul was white or black, Jew or Christian, or unbeliever. To him, each human being was simply a child of God.”
Multiple times, Father Lawrence would disregard his own safety to save the lives of those in need, so it was no surprise that he received five citations for bravery.
Saddest Day for the 69th
April 25, 1945, was the saddest day for the 69th. Father Lawrence was doing what he usually did: rushing to the side of the soldiers who were wounded. That day, it was a soldier who was hit by a shell. Father Lawrence rushed to him and administered the last rites when another shell hit. This time, it killed the wounded soldier and Father Lawrence, who was 38 years old at that time. His final words were, “Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custo.” With these words, Father Lawrence who had performed the Last Rites on so many soldiers in the 69th was giving Last Rites to himself as he died.
In June, after the American victory on Okinawa, some 4,000 servicemen gathered and attended a Catholic mass at his grave on the island. Following the war, many of them also paid a visit to Father Cyclone’s mother to express their admiration for the chaplain and pay their respects. He was then posthumously awarded the Silver Star. His body was exhumed and buried in the Redemptorist Cemetery, Mount Saint Alphonsus, Esopus, New York. A triangle of turf was dedicated in honor of him at Atlantic Avenue and Rockaway Boulevard in Echo Park, near the place where he grew up in a parade and celebration in 1949. On March 9, 2019, the triangle was rededicated to him in a ceremony.