Born in 1905 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, Joseph Timothy O’Callahan was reared in a devout Irish Catholic family.  He took to learning with a passion and earned his bachelor’s degree by the time he was 20, and his doctorate at the age of 24.  Shortly afterward, he joined the faculty of the physics department at Boston College.  Having been accepted into the Society of Jesus in 1922, he spent many hours in religious training and was ordained a priest in 1934.  He remained at Boston College until 1937 when he left to spend a year as a philosophy professor at Weston Jesuit School of Theology.  In 1939 he became chair of the mathematics department at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and probably would have remained a little-known college professor, had it not been for World War II.

Surprising his colleagues, Father O’Cal­lahan joined the Navy as a chaplain in 1940 and was commissioned a lieutenant (JG).  He served at Pensacola Naval Air Station until 1942, when he got his wish for sea duty aboard Ranger, the Navy’s first carrier to have been designed and built as such.  Ranger led the Western Naval Task Force in Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa during November 1942.  From a position 30 miles northwest of Casablanca, Ranger launched nearly 500 sorties, destroying 85 enemy aircraft, sinking a submarine, and heavily damaging a battleship, a cruiser, and a destroyer.

After his service on Ranger, O’Callahan found himself again land-based at a naval air station, first at Alameda, California, and then at Pearl Harbor.  For two years he did his duty as a landlubber, but all the time was champing at the bit for action in the Pacific.  He finally got his wish in 1945, when he was assigned to Franklin, an Essex-class carrier.  Now a lieutenant commander, O’Callahan climbed aboard the ship on March 2.

Franklin was one of the Navy’s newest carriers.  Christened in October 1943 by the director of the WAVES, Lt. Cmdr. Mildred McAfee, the ship was commissioned at the very end of January 1944.  On June 30, Franklin saw her first action, launching strikes against Iwo Jima and other islands in the Bonin group.  In July, she was striking at Guam.  In August, it was back to the Bonins for more air raids, and then to the Palau Islands for photo reconnaissance.  In September, she supported the Marine landings on Peleliu.  In October, while Franklin was supporting the landings at Leyte, a Japanese plane crashed into the carrier and skidded across the flight deck before tumbling into the water, and a Japanese bomb clipped the edge of the flight deck.  In both instances the damage was minor.  Franklin’s luck held until October 30, when a kamikaze crashed through the flight deck into the hanger deck, killing 56 sailors and causing severe damage.

Franklin sailed to Ulithi, the Navy’s secret anchorage in the western Caroline Islands, for temporary repairs, and then to the Puget Sound Navy Yard for major work.  She set sail again for the western Pacific in February 1945.  During March, now with Chaplain O’Callahan aboard, Franklin began launching air strikes against the home islands of Japan.  Franklin’s Hellcat and Corsair pilots conducted fighter sweeps across Honshu, raking various targets of opportunity, while her dive-bomber pilots struck at ships in port.  Although at times only 50 miles from Honshu’s coast, Franklin, protected by her combat air patrol and accurate antiaircraft fire, remained untouched by Japanese aircraft.

O’Callahan was up before dawn every morning to eat breakfast with the pilots and to be with them in the ready room before they left for the flight deck.  March 19, St. Joseph’s Day, was no different.  He prayed for and with the pilots and did his best to calm their fears.  Then came the call, “Pilots man your planes.”  Soon, he could hear planes firing to life up on the flight deck and being launched into the sky.

Unknown to O’Callahan and others below decks, there were clouds and rain squalls to the west of the carrier.  Unknown even to those on the flight deck was the approach of a twin-engine Japanese suicide bomber thoroughly obscured by that weather.  The plane suddenly emerged from the cloud cover and scored direct hits on Franklin with two 500-pound bombs.  Both bombs penetrated the flight deck, and Franklin was rocked by explosions.  More explosions followed as ammunition and fuel magazines were ignited.  O’Callahan ran up from below and onto the flaming flight deck, ministering to the wounded and giving Last Rites to the dying.  Trapped by flames on the bridge, Franklin’s skipper, Capt. Leslie Gehres, watched the fearless chaplain with awe and admiration, and bellowed at him through a bullhorn to take command on the flight deck.

O’Callahan quickly organized fire-fighting and rescue parties.  Although hit in the leg by shrapnel and burned as well, he led the way in evacuating men from below decks; one report put the number at 700.  He also led the way in removing ammunition and bombs, on the verge of exploding, from magazines below so they could be carried to the flight deck and dumped overboard.  More than once, O’Callahan dragged a fire hose into a red-hot magazine by himself and soaked it, allowing others to then remove the ordnance.  Each time O’Callahan went into a magazine, sailors expected him to be blown to kingdom come.

The battle against fires and secondary explosions continued for hours.  An officer said it was

a soul-stirring sight.  [O’Callahan] seemed to be everywhere . . . urging the men on . . . handling hoses, jettisoning ammunition . . . doing everything he could to help save our ship . . . he was so conspicuous, not only because of the cross daubed with white paint across his helmet, but because of his seemingly detached air as he went from place to place with head slightly bowed as if in meditation or prayer.

By a stroke of luck, O’Callahan was captured on film, and that footage was used in an episode of the greatest documentary series ever produced, Victory at Sea.  In “Suicide for Glory,” O’Callahan is seen amid smoke and flames on Franklin’s flight deck administering Last Rites to a badly wounded sailor.  That sailor survived, but 724 officers and men died that day, and more would later die of their wounds.

Captain Gehres, a crusty and stubborn skipper who had been in the Navy since World War I, called O’Callahan “the bravest man I’ve ever seen in my life.”  Gehres recommend O’Callahan for the Medal of Honor, which the chaplain later received from President Truman in a White House ceremony.  O’Callahan became the only chaplain awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II.

Although listing 13 degrees to starboard, her metal twisted and charred, Franklin limped into Ulithi, where she was repaired enough to sail to the states.  Franklin arrived as the most heavily damaged Navy vessel to make it home under her own power.  O’Callahan was sent home to recover from his wounds at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts.  His nurse was Patricia Power, whose brother, John Vincent Power, had been one of O’Callahan’s math students at Holy Cross before the war.  Like his professor, Power was awarded the Medal of Honor, but posthumously for his heroic actions as a Marine lieutenant in the assault on Roi and Namur in the Kwajalein atoll.

In 1946 O’Callahan went back to chairing the math department at Holy Cross, teaching there until he died on March 18, 1964, one day shy of the 19th anniversary of that fateful day aboard Franklin.