OPELOUSAS, La. (CNS) — Father Joseph Verbis Lafleur, a World War II chaplain who gave his life while saving others on a Japanese prison ship, was honored posthumously with the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart in a ceremony in Opelousas.
Congressman Ralph Abraham, R-Louisiana, presented the two military medals to Father Lefleur’s nephew and his wife, Richard and Carol Lafleur, at St. Landry Catholic Church, where Father Lafleur celebrated his first Mass following his ordination in 1938.
Lafayette Bishop J. Douglas Deshotel also attended the Oct. 17 ceremony, along with Father James Brady, who is pastor at St. Landry, as well as other Catholics, a number of dignitaries and students from Opelousas Catholic junior high and high schools.
Father Lafleur died Sept. 7, 1944, when a U.S. submarine torpedoed the Japanese ship he and more than 700 fellow prisoners of war were aboard in the Indian Ocean. The ship was not marked as carrying POWs, so the American submariners had no way of knowing they were aboard at the time of the attack.
Survivors recall Father Lafleur’s heroic efforts helping his fellow POWs escape the hull of the ship under Japanese gunfire by pushing them up to the deck at the cost of his own life.
The Distinguished Service Medal, the U.S. military’s second highest award behind only the Medal of Honor, is presented for exceptionally meritorious performance of duty. The Purple Heart is awarded to military personnel wounded or killed in action.
Father Lafleur had previously received both medals for his acts of bravery during the Japanese attack on Clark Field in the Philippines Dec. 8, 1941. It is extremely rare for a serviceman or woman to receive either medal twice, according to the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services in a news release about the Louisiana ceremony.
Father Lafleur was born Jan. 24, 1912, in Ville Platte, Louisiana. In 1926, his family moved to Opelousas, Louisiana. He entered St. Joseph’s Minor Seminary in St. Benedict, Louisiana in 1927, and then went on to Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. His first assignment after was St. Mary Magdalen in Abbeville, Louisiana.
He joined the Army Air Corps in the summer of 1941, nearly six months before the U.S. entered World War II. Father Lafleur was assigned to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
He arrived at Clark Field in the Philippine Islands just a few weeks before it was attacked by the Japanese. He was a POW for about two and a half years before he died helping save fellow prisoners on the Japanese ship.
Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, head of the archdiocese, celebrated a memorial Mass for Father Lafleur at the same church where the award presentation took place Sept. 7, 2015.
This past June, the archbishop recalled the priest’s heroism during his keynote at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington. He pointed to him as an example of the spirit of service displayed by so many men and women.
“He was a man for others right to the end,” Archbishop Broglio said about the chaplain. “Father Lafleur responded to his POW situation with creative courage. He drew on his virtue to care for, protect, and fortify the men imprisoned with him.
“Many survived because he was a man of virtue who gave unstintingly of himself,” the prelate added. “To speak of the greatness of our country is to speak of men and women of virtue who gave of themselves for the benefit of all. We build for a new tomorrow when we draw from that wellspring of virtue.”
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