Valor Friday

| December 3, 2021

Father Augustus Gearhard

This week’s subject is another on which I could initially find very little. The more I dug into his story, the more amazing it became. I’ve made no secret of my admiration and respect for military chaplains, and today’s subject is another reason to be grateful that such men lived.

A native of Milwaukee, Augustus Gearhard joined the Catholic seminary after graduating high school in 1911. He was ordained in the Catholic Church in 1917. When the US went to war, as many young men did, Gearhard joined up to serve his country.

As a military chaplain with the US Army, now-First Lieutenant Gearhard, was assigned to the 82nd Infantry Division. Known as the “All American Division”, it was composed entirely of conscripted soldiers and had just been formed in August 1917. The division mobilized for Europe in April and arrived fully in France in May of 1918. Gearhard, enlisting in early 1918, joined just in time to accompany the division as it marched off to war.

Gearhard would be assigned as the chaplain for the 328th Infantry Regiment, a part of the 82nd Division. The 328th had another famous man serving in it, then-Corporal Alvin York. He’d initially declared himself a conscientious objector, but after speaking with his company and battalion commanders (both also devout Christians) he came to realize his role in the war was to carry a rifle. It’s likely York heard some of Chaplain Gearhard’s sermons.

Lieutenant Gearhard and his division first saw combat when they relieved the 26th Infantry Division in the Toul sector, where they remained for some time going on and off the front lines and then as part of the St. Mihiel Offensive in mid-September.

St. Mihiel would be the first major American-led offensive of the war. Consisting of 14 American divisions, four French divisions, more than 400 tanks, 1,400 aircraft, and nearly 3,000 artillery pieces, General John Pershing was placed in command. The three day battle, in which the Allied forces had significant numerical superiority against their battle weary German foes, was an Allied victory. Despite not achieving their objective of occupying the German fortress city of Metz, the Americans proved their combat mettle to their French and British allies.

Immediately after that the division was moved to Clermont-en-Argonne, France. As the name implies, the village is in the Argonne Forest. Any student of either World War will be familiar with the Argonne forest. It was the site of the massive World War I Meuse-Argonne Offensive, started on 26 September 1918, and the fateful last gasp of the Third Reich in the Battle of the Bulge during next World War.

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive involved more than one and a half million men in total on both sides and casualties that saw nearly 200,000 Allied men dead or wounded and more than 125,000 German dead, wounded, or captured. The overall Allied success of the offensive would result in German capitulation and the end of the war. The offensive continued right up to the literal final minute of the war.

Chaplain Gearhard earned the respect of his flock the hard way. During these months of fighting he witnessed during both St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne Offensives, he repeatedly served at the front. As many chaplains do in combat, he served as an aidman, since chaplains are forbidden to carry arms. As an ad-hoc aidman, he would help get injured men to aid stations, minister to the sick and wounded, and provide last rites to the dying.

Now in combat, nobody would fault an unarmed chaplain from remaining in the relative safety of the command post. Nor would anyone fault, once at the very front edge of the Allied lines, the padre for staying in the trench and keeping his head down. Gearhard however, felt the Lord calling him to help the neediest among them in their greatest time of need.

Gearhard repeatedly, and tirelessly, left the “safety” of the trenches to head into the notoriously brutal no-man’s-land. Here was a place where the muddied, rodent-infested, frequently shelled and gassed trenches were made to look like placid retreats. In no-man’s-land, one would find that both sides not only had perfectly zeroed in artillery and machine guns, they had laid landmines, and for good measure had strung up barbed and razor wire to slow down anything that made it past the bursting shells and direct fire. It was a place where men were sent to suffer the most brutal of hell in their final moments.

Father Gearhard was undeterred by this. With uncompromising bravery that only comes from a man whose faith in God is absolute, he went out again and again. On more than one occasion the unstoppable chaplain worked for two days or more without food or sleep, in his crusade to help those in need and minister to the dying. Pulling the dead and wounded back from under the constant shell fire again and again.

Gearhard was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism under fire during these two offensives. His award citation notes he “distinguished himself by remaining constantly at the advanced aid station assisting the surgeon, administering aid to the wounded, cheering and comforting them.”

According to a 1942 news account, Gearhard was present and a witness to the heroics of Sergeant York, the only Medal of Honor recipient for the 328th Infantry during the war. During his action York single-handedly charged an enemy position after nearly all of his men were killed or wounded. Killing 20 or more Germans, including a half dozen who charged him with bayonets that he killed one by one with his pistol (shooting the last man in line first and working his way forward), he then secured the surrender of nearly 100 Germans. While crossing back to American lines, he secured the capture of still more enemy. In total, York returned with 132 Germans.

While the article said he was a witness, it’s highly unlikely that the chaplain would be in a position to have seen York’s battle first-hand. The mission York and his cohorts were sent on involved no officers by any record I can find. It was a flanking maneuver behind enemy lines, and so would not be a place for a minister.

It is much more likely that Gearhard was present and witnessed the return of then-Corporal York returning with his haul of captured Germans (who he had ordered to carry out the dead and wounded Americans lost on the attack). York’s heroism helped break the German siege of the Lost Battalion, which we discussed before.

Returning with his division to the USin June 19191, after post-war occupation duty, Gearhard was honorably discharged from federal service. He returned to Milwaukee to his pre-war post at St. Michael’s Parish. The following year, he moved to become curate at St. Mary’s Parish, Milwaukee. Then in 1924 he became rector of the Fenwick Home for Boys, also in Milwaukee. He remained here through the inter-war years.

In 1924, Gearhard rejoined the military. He was commissioned an Army Reserve captain in the Chaplain Corps on Nov. 26, 1924. He served in the Army Reserve for the next 17 years, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

As the world once again descended into war, Gearhard was recalled to active duty as a lieutenant colonel on 2 January 1942, less than a month after the Attack on Pearl Harbor. The former chaplain to the dogfaces of the infantry was now assigned to a different group of fighting men, the Army Air Forces.

Colonel Gearhard was initially made the chaplain of the Fourth Air Force, headquartered in San Francisco. He was then moved to the V Fighter Command in September. Initially in Washington State, the command was moved to Australia for fighting in the South Pacific.

Once in Australia, Gearhard was moved to chaplain of the Fifth Air Force, the parent organization for the V Fighter Command. The Fifth Air Force spent the remainder of the war in the South Pacific Theater. Through the next two years he moved between a few different chaplaincies in the Fifth Air Force before being moved up to be chaplain of the Far East Air Forces in Queensland, Australia in August 1944.

Father Gearhard (center)

In what was described as “One of the most unusual funeral services of the war”, Gearhard and a fellow chaplain showed how unorthodox a chaplain need be in times of war. On 26 May 1945 they conducted an airborne funeral. On 13 May 1945, an American C-47 Skytrain transport aircraft crashed at Hidden Valley, New Guinea with 25 souls aboard. The aircraft, the “Gremlin Special”, was flying several people (including some Women’s Army Corps soldiers) on a sightseeing tour of the valley, also known as Shangri-La Valley, when it crashed into the side of the mountain. Five people survived the crash, but two of them succumbed to their injuries in the next few days.

After the crash, an air search of the area was conducted. On the 17th, the crash was located and three survivors were seen. Two paratrooper medics, 10 support personnel, and a journalist (to document the rescue) were sent in.

As the name “Hidden Valley” suggests, the area was remote and unpassable. It was decided that the rescue would be conducted via glider. Three separate rescues were conducted in which a Waco CG-4 glider would be towed into the crash site by a Skytrain. With only a pilot aboard the wood and canvas glider, he would land and the aircraft would be rigged for a live capture. A live capture is when a static item on the ground is snatched by a hook on a passing airplane, which then tows it into the air.

The 22 people on the plane killed represented those from all the major faiths (Protestants, Catholics, and one Jewish). Due to the treacherous location, getting the chaplains in to properly lay them to rest was out of the question. Therefore the plane carrying Gearhard and fellow chaplain Lieutenant Colonel Carl Mellberg was merely flown over the site of the crash. Orbiting the area at 11,000 feet the two ministers read the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish services over the radio.

“Out of the depth I have cried unto thee, O Lord,” prayed Father Gearhard, as the service was broadcast over the walkie-talkie to the cemetery area and the survivors’ campsite. The only survivor to have not suffered any injuries was First Lieutenant John McColom. However his twin brother, First Lieutenant Robert McColom, had perished in the wreck. Of the funeral service, one of the other survivors, Corporal Margaret Hastings wrote in her diary;

From that plane, over the radio, came the saddest and most impressive funeral service I have ever heard. We sat around the camp radio, silent and very humble as a Catholic, a Protestant and a Jewish chaplain in the plane read burial services for the dead on the mountaintop. We were very humble because we have been saved where so many had perished. Lieutenant McCollom sat with his head bowed, his usual controlled self. But Sergeant [Kenneth (Walker)] Decker’s and my hearts ached for him. On one of those white crosses up that cruel mountain hung the dog tag of his twin brother, Lieutenant Robert E. McCollom, from whom only death could separate him.

The Chaplains then dropped crosses and one Star of David onto the crash site, where they were erected at the graves dug by the paratroopers.

After loading survivors and their rescuers, the Waco gliders would wait for a passing Skytrain to literally hook a rope hanging off the top of the glider. The towing aircraft had the hook attached at the end of a 1,000 foot winch. After hooking the glider, the winch played out, with a brake on the winch slowly applying, causing the glider to roll forward. This prevented the flimsy glider from being torn apart by the shock of the capture. In total, it had taken 47 days to fully rescue the survivors of Gremlin Special.

As the war had moved towards the Japanese home islands, the Headquarters Far East Air Forces, with Gearhard, had moved north. They relocated first to Hollandia, New Guinea, in September 1944, then to Leyte, Philippine Islands, in January 1945, and finally to Manila, Philippine Islands, in March 1945.

Gearhard remained chaplain for the Far East Air Forces until after the war’s end, when he was sent as a patient to Bolling Field Station Hospital in Washington D.C. in January 1946. He spent several months there. I can find no record of any Purple Heart award for the Father, so I’m inclined to think he came down with one of the many tropical diseases that afflicted so many of our troops during the war.

During the Second World War, having been promoted to full colonel Gearhard was awarded the Legion of Merit “for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services” and received another combat bravery decoration, the Silver Star. The latter was awarded “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action” in the Pacific Theater. It is the third highest award for combat bravery in the American awards system.

Electing to remain in active service, the colonel’s first post-war assignment was chaplain of the Air Defense Command at Mitchel Field, N.Y. from June 1946. In September 1947 the US Army Air Forces were split off into their own branch of service, the US Air Force. His assignment being to the new branch, Gearhard crossed into the blue as it were and became an Air Force officer.

In April 1949, Gearhard was appointed chaplain of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe at Wiesbaden, Germany. Chaplain Gearhard returned to the United States in August 1950, and the following month became deputy chief of Air Force Chaplains at U.S. Air Force Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

This final assignment came with the rank of brigadier general. Gearhard became one of the few chaplains who attain the flag ranks. Gearhard remained in this post until his retirement in 1953.

After retiring from his combined 30 years of military service, General Gearhard returned to Milwaukee. He was pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish in Waukesha, Wisconsin, for 18 years. He fully retired in 1971 and passed away of unknown causes at age 80 in 1974.

Gearhard is buried in a modest grave at Holy Cross Cemetery and Mausoleum in Milwaukee. His gravestone lists his military rank, but does not boast of his incredibly heroic exploits. It doesn’t even list the conflicts he was involved in. This is somehow fitting for a man of God, who lived under a vow of poverty.

In 2019, Gearhard was inducted into the 82nd Airborne Division Hall of Fame. As part of the second group of inductees, he was the first chaplain so honored. Twenty-one 82nd All-American veterans were honored in 2018, the first year of the Hall of Fame. Gearhard was one of 16 inducted in 2019.

Category: Air Force, Army, Distinguished Service Cross, Historical, Valor, We Remember

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Old tanker

May he rest in peace and perpetual light shine upon him.


Reassigned to the Highest Ground. “Well done, ye Good and Faithful Servant…” Went thru Hell to serve with the Heavenly Host.

Great story Mason! Thanks!


Thanks and quite a coincidence as well. Last weekend History or Discovery networks had a piece on about the rescue of the folks in the valley.


Hand Salute. Ready, Two!

Thanks again, Mason.


Father Gearhard, ‘thank you’ ain’t enough…
Rest In Peace, Dearest Sir.


‘The Good Book as His Sword and God as his Shield’. No doubt, now continuing his much-loved Ministrations but now with a much Higher Authority. Wow. Truly, that such Men lived.’

Rest gently Father Gearhard, you’ve more than earned your eternal rest and the eternal gratitude your Flock.

*slow salute*

Thank you, Mason.
One your best posts.

Steve 1371

I have the greatest respect for the Chaplains of the military. The ones I have encountered in my brief three years of active duty always seemed to know just what to say and how to say it to put your mind at ease.
Bless you Father Gearhard and thank you for being there when you were needed so much.

Prior Service

Nice. Thanks for the post.