The famous historian of the “citizen soldiers” of the Second World War, Stephen Ambrose, described Omaha Beach on the morning of June 6, 1944 as possibly the most dangerous place in the entire world on that moment. Spearheading the assault on Omaha Beach, one of the five beaches designated for the landing of the Allied Expeditionary Force at Normandy, France, was the most battle-hardened of the divisions of the American Army, the “Big Red One,” the First Infantry Division. Despite the fact that the soldiers of the First Infantry Division fought at the front lines throughout the Second World War, June 6, 1944 was perhaps their most difficult day. Due to the facts that an Allied bombing run completely missed the German positions the night before the invasion and that the German defenders were conducting a training assignment with live ammunition when the American soldiers arrived, the soldiers of the First Infantry Division encountered, in the words of one of their Catholic chaplains, Father Fabian Flynn, “Hell let loose!”
One might ask what kind of religious experience could exist on a beach filled with dead American soldiers, the survivors clinging to life with what little shelter they could find, as increasingly desperate German defenders rained down machine gun fire and artillery on top of them. Yet looking after the spiritual life of the soldiers under fire was the task of the various Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic Army chaplains on the beaches of Normandy. One of these men was Fabian Flynn, a member of the Roman Catholic order of the Passionists, who had been with the First Infantry Division (or more specifically, the 26th Infantry Regiment, which comprised a substantial part of the Big Red One) since the summer of 1943. By his own admission, Flynn gave last rites to many of the dead while German fire echoed over him and tried to provide spiritual comfort to those who feared the end had come. This duty continued throughout the next sixty four hours until the First Infantry Division could establish a narrow beachhead.
Flynn would describe the assault on the Normandy beaches in vivid detail in an article in September 1944 in The Sign magazine. The Sign was the official magazine of Flynn’s religious order and one of the most popular Catholic newsmagazines in the United States. He wrote:
The frantic cry of “Medics!” heard through and above the din and roar. The whistle and ping of small arms and snipers’ bullets, the unmistakable brrup of a German machine gun; the shouts and curses and commands of officers; the vehicles and equipment hit and abandoned half in and half out of the water: the smoldering trucks and jeeps, the silent battered tanks, the powerful bulldozers twisted and torn; the baggage and bedding strewn about among the dead bodies and stalled vehicles; assault boats impaled on cruel spikes, high and dripping in the falling tide; the earthshaking detonation of mines touched off or stepped on. But always the ranks and lines of men pouring ahead. All day it lasted and through the unendurably long twilight. Then the night with flares making daylight out of darkness, planes purring and droning, diving and bombing to harry and annoy and impede us. Around and around, up and down and over in maddening rout.
|Father Flynn in his chaplain's jeep, 1944|
For someone like Flynn of course, the increasing role of the United States, especially American Catholics, in a Europe struggling to preserve Western Civilization against the twin evils of Fascism and Communism, this was an immensely positive development. During the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, Flynn as an assistant editor of the Passionist newsmagazine, The Sign, specialized in columns on foreign affairs and totalitarianism of the right and left. Flynn urged his Catholic readers that both the Church as a whole and American Catholics had to reject the allure of Fascism or Communism and actively fight against them.
To his credit Flynn followed through his written words of the 1930s with action from the early 1940s to the early 1960s. After the end of the Second World War, which Flynn considered a Holy Crusade to liberate Europe from the pagan evils of Fascism, he spent the next sixteen years at the front lines of the Cold War in Central Europe. For Flynn, the task in front of War Relief Services (later to be renamed Catholic Relief Services) was of immense importance, as the Church had to fight against the atheistic evil of Communism, not merely by denouncing it, but by demonstrating the Church could do a better job of rebuilding a shattered European continent than the Soviets could. Upon his return to the United States in 1962, eleven years before his own death, Flynn wrote that the struggle to maintain a free and spiritually vibrant Europe was not over, but at the very least American Catholics had played a crucial role in working towards an ultimate victory. And one of the most crucial days of this struggle had been that fateful day on the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944.