Father Fabian Flynn, Omaha Beach on D-Day

For the 70th anniversary of D-Day, I thought it would be appropriate to bring in another voice to honor the event. Today’s guest post comes from Sean Brennan, associate professor of history at the University of Scranton.  He specializes in the history of 20th Century Europe, especially in the 1940s and 1950s.  His first book was The Politics of Religion in Soviet-Occupied Germany: The Case of Berlin-Brandenburg 1945-1949.  He is currently working on a biography of Father Fabian Flynn, an American priest from the Passionist order who spent the years of 1943 to 1962 in Europe. The book will be entitled The Life of Father Fabian Flynn: A Catholic Warrior of the Second World War and the Cold War, to be published in 2016. On top of that, Sean is a dynamic academic and a great guy. -Jonathan Den Hartog

Sean Brennan

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
Flynn survived D-Day without injury, although he had not been as lucky nine months before in September 1943 during Operation Avalanche, the Allied invasion of Italy, as shrapnel from an exploding grenade nearly killed him. The fact that he was even at Normandy on June 6, 1944 was a remarkable achievement, as he had developed stomach cancer in 1938 and had 2/5th of his stomach removed to prevent the cancer from spreading.  Born in Boston Massachusetts in 1905 and ordained a Passionist priest in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1931, Flynn led a remarkably diverse career as a Catholic cleric; serving as a chaplain for the US Army was just one of the many diverse roles he pursued throughout his career.  His career both as an American and a Catholic priest provides a fascinating microcosm of the roles played by the Catholic Church and by the United States during the tumultuous events of the 20th century in Europe.  Flynn’s nineteen years serving in Europe from 1943 to 1962, first as an Army chaplain and then as a director of Catholic Relief Services in Germany, Austria, and Hungary came during a time when the United States, for better or for worse, became permanently involved in European political, diplomatic, and military life.

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.


Chris said…
Father Fabian deserves honor for his service. As a Chaplain I can appreciate his devotion to duty. On the other hand, I would suggest that a "Catholic Warrior" just as a Jewish, Muslim or Atheist Warrior, is not exactly the best model for Chaplaincy in the present or future.
In his crusade against the "pagan" and "atheistic evils" one could hope the good father rendered assistance to people other than Catholic Christians.
We could hope that those who serve our armed forces as Chaplains would have a good understanding of the fact that they serve everyone and they are not hired as sectarian Preachers but as professional Chaplains for a secular nation.

Popular Posts