Father Aloysius P. McGonigal: Battlefield Hero Without a Gun

By Joseph Gannon

Many men become known as heroes for their bravery in battle, for their willingness to face death in an effort to kill the enemy and obtain an objective, for helping win the war for their country.

They are often celebrated by millions of their countrymen and fondly remembered by the nation on Veteran's Day and Memorial Day. But some are heroes without ever carrying a gun. Some face death not to win wars, but to comfort the wounded, to bring solace to the dying, and perhaps to save their souls. Such a man was Father Aloysius P. McGonigal.

Like all chaplains in US service throughout our history, Father McGonigal was in that area where the bullets fly, bodies are maimed and men die, by choice. By the very nature of what they do, chaplains are selfless; they give their lives over to their God and trust in his will. Father McGonigal was also a Jesuit, a group with an even longer tradition. For centuries the Jesuits have been known for going where they are needed around the world, regardless of the hardships or dangers involved. In February 1968, during that desperate gamble by the North Vietnamese which has come to be known as the Tet Offensive, Father McGonigal, Jesuit and chaplain, strapped on his helmet and went to the sound of the guns one more time. Because men were dying, because he was needed there, he offered his life into the hands of his God one more time. On Feb. 17, 1968, God would call him home. Below is the story of his death from the Washington Post.

The slight, 46 year-old priest with owlish eyeglasses really had no business being there. But the infantrymen he loved were being killed before the battlements of Hue's Imperial Citadel and the Reverend Aloysius P. McGonigal wanted to go. The Chaplain died, a bullet in his forehead, with a unit that was not his own in a battle he could have missed. He practically fought his way to the battlefield. Most soldiers die almost anonymously, known only to their close comrades, to the sergeants and to the company officers. Father McGonigal was known all over the 1st Corps area and elsewhere in South Vietnam . He roamed with a fierce devotion to "the men in the field." His 5 foot 6 inches almost disappeared inside a flak jacket.

An army major, his last assignment was the U.S. advisory compound in Hue. He traveled all over the northern provinces and had extended his year-long tour in Vietnam . He took his extension leave in his ancestral homeland of Ireland, which was practically written on his smiling face. They were expecting him to leave his post at Hue and take a desk job at Da Nang. His replacement was actually on the way up the day Father McGonigal headed for the north side of the Perfume River, where the battle for the citadel was raging. "There was no Catholic Priest with the 1st Battalion of the 5th marines who were assaulting the walls, and the father wanted to go," said Dr. Stephen Bernie, a U.S. Army doctor, who had traveled frequently with the priest. Father McGonigal had been angrily walking the advisory compound for three days before he joined the battle despite an order by the compound commander to stay put. The priest finally managed to join the unit with which he never served. "He rarely stayed here more than two days in a row," Bernie said. "He was stuck up north when the compound was hit on Jan. 31 and he came back with a Vietnamese airborne unit and made his own way across the river. Nobody was getting across the river at that time but Father McGonigal managed. He had a way about him. He wanted to be in the field, that was all he wanted," said a sergeant who knew him well. "Conducting Mass two or three times a week in the headquarters wasn't his idea of a job." The Jesuit Father's previous trips had taken him to many hot spots including the Marine fortress at Con Thien. He was killed Sunday, a cold misty day, beside the field soldiers he loved.

They went into combat armed only with their faith. Read their stories in Combat Chaplain : A 30-Year Vietnam Battle by James D. Johnson.

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Like most who died in that long conflict, Father McGonigal is not celebrated far and wide across the country, but neither is he forgotten. In 1992 the US Marine Corps named a chapel for him in Southern California. Father McGonigal was a Hibernian, and in northwest Philadelphia, Division 17 of the Ancient Order of Hibernians is named for him. And more than that, we can be certain that in Washington, D.C., where his name is carved in stone, surrounded by many of those he comforted, ex-GIs have gazed on his name through blurry eyes and run their fingers across those letters: Father Aloysius P. McGonigal.

EDITOR'S NOTE: AOH Division 17 of Northeast Philadelphia is attempting to obtain the Medal of Honor for Father McGonigal. If you would like to help in anyway, most especially if you knew him or have any information about him, please contact Mike Gallagher at: AOHD17@mail.serve.com.

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Copyright © 2012 GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@garmedia.com.

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Tags: Aloysius, Faith, Father, Hero, Irish, McGonigal, Military Service, P., Religion, Vietnam, More…War

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