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May/June 2019

No Ordinary Chaplain

Photo © john Olson

John Olson’s current photo exhibit at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., owes much to Mark Bowden’s powerful 2017 book, Hue 1968. Fr. Aloysius McGonigal, the subject of one of Olson’s photos, received only passing attention among Bowden’s cast of hundreds. We asked Bowden to provide a fuller picture. —Editor

Bob Thompson had lost his chaplain. It was in Hue City, Vietnam, on February 11, 1968. The major was preparing his Marines (First Battalion, Fifth Division) to enter the Citadel, the enormous enemy-occupied fortress across the Huong River from his position. It enclosed the northern half of Hue City, the ancient capital of Vietnam. Its walls—30-feet high and 30-feet wide—loomed like death itself.

“I can’t do it,” the chaplain assigned to Thompson’s battalion said the night before the 5/1 Marines were to launch. Thompson fired him on the spot and put in for a replacement.

It wasn’t hard to understand. There was not a grunt in his command who wasn’t battling the same dread. The fighting in Hue during the first two weeks of February had been horrendous, easily the most intense in the Vietnam War. Newly retaken from the Viet Cong by two other Marine battalions—the 1/1 and the 1/5—the southern half of the city was mostly in ruins. Hundreds of Marines were dead, and many hundreds more wounded. VC losses were even greater, and civilian casualties higher than both put together. Hue had become a city of the dead. In the perpetual drizzle and gloom of Vietnam’s rainy season, the smell of cordite, smoke, and death was everywhere. The Citadel, which was still largely held by the enemy, promised only more of the same, or worse. Who would be eager to join that fight?

One man was. The same night Thompson fired his chaplain, a stocky, balding Jesuit priest from Philadelphia, Fr. Aloysius McGonigal, materialized in his room inside an abandoned house on the south side of the river. McGonigal wore round, wire-framed glasses, a rumpled dirty uniform with gold crosses sewn on the lapels, and a pistol strapped to his hip.

“I understand you don’t have a chaplain,” he told Thompson. “I have permission to go with you. May I do that?”

Chaplains had an important role to play in battle. Men facing death seek spiritual solace with particular intensity. But despite the U.S. Army’s original doctrine, “The duty of the chaplain lies with the men of his command who are on the firing line,” most were kept close to home base. They were officially noncombatants. Given the size of the American force in Vietnam in 1968—more than a half million—the everyday duties at battalion headquarters were more than enough to keep them busy with everyday concerns. Commanders wanted their chaplains where there was the greatest concentration of troops. In Vietnam this meant keeping them on bases, the war being one in which small units were usually shuttled into the field and back by helicopter. Besides, it looked bad to lose a chaplain in combat. It made it seem as though they lacked control of their sector.

Answering To A Higher Power

But McGonigal was no ordinary chaplain. The 46-year-old Jesuit was athletic, aggressive, and drawn to action. That pistol on his hip was not regulation. He behaved like someone who answered to a higher power than colonels and generals.

He was the sixth child of a mother who died giving birth to her twelfth, and grew up the son of a cop in a distinctly blue-collar Catholic neighborhood in Philly’s northeast back when it was better known as St. Leo’s Parish. Capable of slipping into an authentic Irish brogue, McGonigal was pugnacious, precocious, and drawn to a particularly manly notion of priesthood from an early age.

Catholic boys were taught to admire Jesuits as the church’s most adventurous order, with a history of martyred missionaries that stretched back to the earliest European settlement of North America. He set his sights on the order as a boy. He never wavered from his goal, going right into the Jesuit novitiate as a teenager after attending St. Joseph’s Prep School. He was ordained at age 22, and was put to work as a high school teacher in Washington and Baltimore, instructing his classes of Catholic boys in physics, disciplining them aggressively, joining them in bruising games of football, and promoting a distinctly muscular brand of Christianity.

At Gonzaga College High School in D.C., McGonigal taught two boys who went on to make a name for themselves as prominent conservative figures: the author and columnist Lance Morrow, and political pundit and sometime candidate Pat Buchanan.

“McGonigal was the prefect of discipline there,” Morrow wrote years later, with some lingering affection for a more rough-and-tumble era of Catholic instruction. “[He] looked like a fire hydrant cased in a black cassock—short and squat, with iron muscle bulges. He radiated punitive rage. One morning he hammered a boy to the classroom floor with his fists and left him there with a concussion, the other boys too terrified to intervene.”

While teaching (and terrorizing) boys at Gonzaga, McGonigal obtained a master’s degree in physics from Georgetown University. He was working toward a doctorate when he evidently decided that his true calling was less academic than martial. He joined the Army as a chaplain in 1961 and was among the first wave of American forces to go to Vietnam. He left the Army in 1963, only to re-up three years later, joining the 9th Infantry Division as a major. He was with that unit at Fort Riley, Kansas, preparing to return to Vietnam, when Michael Mark, a newly commissioned 2nd lieutenant, encountered him for the first time. Mark later wrote about McGonigal in an article for Army magazine in 1989.

He found the priest drinking alone in the Officers’ Club when he arrived with his wife at the base. They drank with him for a while, entertained by McGonigal’s brogue, and then the priest left, leaving them with the bill. While beers sold at the club for only a dime, Mark’s wife teased him, “You just got stiffed by a priest!”

In Vietnam not long afterward, McGonigal was infamous in the 9th for “wandering” around the battlefield, much to the chagrin of his commanders.

“Saying Mass at headquarters two or three times a week didn’t seem like much of a job to him,” a sergeant from the division later told a reporter.

Lt. Mark experienced this firsthand when his platoon was airlifted to a deserted French outpost surrounded by enemy forces. They had been there a few days when they were surprised and alarmed to hear an American Jeep driving up the dirt road—it was mined—carrying Fr. McGonigal and a horrified driver, his young assistant. The Jeep was pulling a trailer containing what was needed to set up a tent, portable altar, and tabernacle.

When Mark reported this to his battalion commander, he was ordered, “Get him out of there! Now!”

Doing so would have required a chopper equipped to carry the Jeep and trailer out in a sling, which was not immediately available, or sending the two back down the mined road through Viet Cong country, so Mark reconciled himself to hosting the priest overnight.

Their position was attacked that night. Mark temporarily lost track of McGonigal in the firefight, only to find him—to his great relief—huddled inside the trailer. McGonigal said Mass and blessed Mark’s men before finally being retrieved by two M48 tanks and an armored personnel carrier.

Such exploits endeared him to the men he served. The rumpled padre with a penchant for ignoring orders became a battlefield folk hero. McGonigal respected the Army, but was not cowed by it. One soldier recalled: “He was all soldier and all priest. He would talk to generals with his hands in his pockets, a kind of character you would see in a tough guy movie of the 1930s.”

Needed on the Streets

McGonigal had witnessed much of the terrible fighting in southern Hue, so he knew exactly what he was volunteering for that night in Thompson’s room. He had spent the first weeks of the battle with the 1/1 and 1/5, some of the worst fighting of the war. While his superiors urged him to stay inside the MACV compound, the staging area for the effort, where there were mounting numbers of wounded and dead, McGonigal ignored them. Too many men, he argued, weren’t making it back to the compound. He was needed on the streets.

He had, in fact, been ordered back to Da Nang when the southern phase of the battle ended. Instead he sought permission from Lt. Col. Bruce Petree to go with Thompson.

“[Fr. McGonigal] was never concerned about his personal comfort or convenience,” said Petree, who overrode the Jesuit’s orders, giving him permission to go north with Thompson’s Marines. Several of Petree’s men said they tried to talk McGonigal out of it.

“My job is to be with the men,” he said.

Thompson knew his request for a replacement Navy chaplain would not likely be fulfilled until the Citadel fighting was over, and he figured his men would need all the help they could get.

It proved every bit as bad as feared. Scores of Marines fell every day. Enemy troops were dug into the buildings and rubble inside the fortress and atop its walls. They were determined to make the Marines bleed for every square foot of ground. Pushing them back meant street-by-street, house-to-house combat at very close quarters. Over the first days of that fight, the Jesuit was constantly on the battle line, encouraging Marines to “Get some!” or “Kick some!” administering last rites, consoling, and counseling.

Richard Hill, one of Thompson’s young Marines, was spooked by McGonigal’s matter-of-fact attitude toward death.

“He would come by and give us Holy Communion if we wanted it,” said Hill, who was neither Catholic nor religious. “The first few days he’d give us Holy Communion, which is really due on a Sunday. He told us, ‘I don’t know if some of you guys will make it to Sunday.’ That didn’t work for me. So I didn’t go back for a couple of days. Then he came out to where we were at the mortars and said, ‘I’d like to give you guys last rites.’ I asked him why, and he said, ‘I don’t know if you’re coming back.’

Photo © John Olson

“He gave us last rites and he did this three times, three different days. It really affected me ’cause I didn’t want none of my men to die. It was tough. But he was wonderful priest, and I thanked him for what he did because the ones that didn’t make it got to be blessed before they died.”

Thompson would see McGonigal in the evenings when he returned to headquarters. The Major was worried about him. He thought the priest had a death wish.

“Chaplain, you’ve gotta back off some,” Thompson told him. “You’re gonna get killed. We won’t have a chaplain.”

On the night of February 17, McGonigal failed to show up. The Major sent out a search party, and they found his body in the rubble. A bullet or piece of shrapnel had caught the priest in the head, killing him instantly.

Killed with Troops at Hue

The headline in The Philadelphia Bulletin three days later read, “Phila.-Born Priest Killed With Troops at Hue Front.” The story fostered several myths about him.

“They found Fr. McGonigal Sunday,” the UPI article read. “His body lay in the rubble of a blown-out building, a bullet wound in the back of his head.” This led to the assumption that he had been executed by communist soldiers, although there was no evidence of this.

The story also said that McGonigal had wanted to be with the Marines because they “were going to make a charge into the communist-infested Citadel.” Which would later prompt the journalist Morrow to write, years later, tongue only partly in cheek: “He seized an M-16 and tried to storm the Citadel in the old imperial capital of Hue. He died going up the hill… the attack went against the Geneva Convention, but not against his own nature.”

There is no need to exaggerate either the heroism or tragedy of McGonigal’s death. In the finest Jesuit tradition he had learned as a boy, he sought out the most dangerous place on the battlefield. In the Valley of Death that Hue had become, he walked without hesitation. The Marines who were with him in his final days were in awe. They knew he had volunteered, and he seemed utterly fearless. McGonigal was not a saint, but he could not have been truer to his vocation. His bravery cost him his life.

His legacy continues to reverberate. Two Catholic fraternal organizations are named in his honor. His sacrifice prompted at least one reappraisal of the chaplain’s role in wartime, in 2015, written by Philip A. Kramer, a major and a chaplain at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. “The Proximity Principle: Army Chaplains on the Fighting Line in Doctrine and History” asked: Do chaplains belong on base, where the largest number of troops tend to be congregated, or on the firing line, as stated in the original 1926 U.S. Army doctrine? Kramer concluded the latter, partly based on McGonigal’s example. He wrote that the original doctrine “accurately codified a timeless and enduring principle.”

“McGonigal understood, though perhaps underestimated, the dangers of ministry on the fighting line,” Kramer wrote. “In the end, his resolute conviction that the men in the forward positions needed spiritual care and a tangible reminder of God’s presence drove him to serve in close proximity to the men. His impact was significant, certainly for those men who knew firsthand the terrors of urban combat in Hue.”

Fr. Aloysius McGonigal was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.

John Olson, who photographed Fr. McGonigal at Hue, received the President’s Excellence in the Arts award at VVA’s Leadership & Education Conference last year in Palm Springs.





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