Hey, LA Dodgers: The Fallen Soldier in My Family Was Catholic

(AP Photo/Thibault Camus, File)

It’s Memorial Day, and I’m observing it by remembering the loss of a family member. My grandfather’s brother, Staff Sergeant Walter “Bernie” Sheehan was killed in combat on December 29, 1944. Uncle Bernie was awarded a Purple Heart and a Silver Star for multiple acts of gallantry in battle and is buried at the American Cemetery in Luxembourg, where the esteemed General Patton chose to be laid to rest alongside his Third Army.

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Walter B. Sheehan’s resting place is at the Luxembourg American Cemetery, where General Patton is also buried. (Courtesy: Brittany Sheehan)

Bernie received his Silver Star for two feats, the first was using a grenade to annihilate a Nazi machine gun nest, and the fatal act of assaulting such a gunner, as the men he fought with were taking heavy casualties in the bloody Battle of the Bulge. Bernie was a young 22 years old when he paid the ultimate sacrifice. 

Today, as I honor the loss of the beloved Bernie, a grief that never left my grandfather’s heart as he was stationed in the Pacific with the Navy, far from the battlefields of Europe and helpless to the news about his admired older brother, I can’t help but remember that Bernie was a Catholic. All four of the Sheehan siblings served in the war, each in a separate military branch and they were all Catholic. 

Sheehan Family photo, Staff Sergeant Walter Bernard Sheehan, KIA, Silver Star recipient, pictured third from left. (Courtesy: Brittany Sheehan)

Catholics in this nation are being mistreated and even targeted for their faith all the time. The Los Angeles Dodgers have decided to honor what should be considered little more than a hate group, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who use a central theme of sacrilegious mockery of nuns and other aspects of the faith. Catholic leaders have called to stand up for their faith, and the organization CatholicVote has launched a campaign opposed to the baseball club’s planned on-field ceremony to award the group for “life-saving work.” 

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Of course, if we want to give out awards for saving lives, we can start with Catholicism, whose groups are the largest non-governmental providers of education and medical care across the globe. You wanna know who is saving lives? St Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, for one. I don’t know of any Drag Queen-run research hospitals providing children with life-saving care. I never heard about the centuries of Queer religious adversaries running soup kitchens and orphanages. I don’t know of any transgender activists that provided care to lepers, leading to their Sainthood. No, that was all the work of Catholics. 

Read More: Queer Woman Confronts Catholic Priest in Ohio After He References Attacks on Faith and the LA Dodgers

VIP: Yes, Bigotry Against Catholics Exists, and Ethno-Catholicism Is a Thing

But, the life-saving work doesn’t end at charity. Faith is one of the personal possessions that our troops carry with them on the battlefield. In my family that was no different. Uncle Bernie’s military headstone is in the shape of a cross, but if that doesn’t tell you what his beliefs were as he died, young, cold, and hopefully comforted by his Lord and Savior, another facet of faith in the family will.

Bernie, as noted in the Kansas City Star newspaper clippings available through archives (thank you KC Star) attended Rockhurst High School and College, which is an all-boys Catholic, Jesuit, school in the city, founded in 1910. The Rockhurst Alumni Association records Bernie graduating from high school in 1940.

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News Paper Clipping, Walter B. Sheehan, Kansas City Star, Wed 24 January, 1945 page 9
(Credit: Brittany Sheehan)

This comes as no surprise to me, as my father also attended Rockhurst and tells of memories of growing up under the authority of the nuns that ran the school. Dad was a bit of a class clown, so he had plenty of run-ins, like when he did a candy heist and got busted by the school’s nuns. But, the Jesuits were also kind to my father. At the time he graduated high school, the family had fallen into disarray after the too-soon tragic death of his eldest sibling. My father was the youngest and only male child and was left to comfort his sisters and mother, while still in high school. As Dad was attempting to pay off the tuition he owed in order to graduate, and the school found a series of checks he had written for meager amounts, only a couple of dollars and a handful of change at a time. Dad says the Jesuits saw that he was trying and “took pity” on him, covering the balance of his tuition so he could graduate. My grandfather and two additional brothers also attended Rockhurst.

But, the Sheehan lineage is not the only part of the family to attend Rockhurst or lean on their faith in the battles of WW2. My grandmother’s twin brothers, Richard and Harold Hall were Marines at Pearl Harbor, stationed on the USS West Virginia, one of the five battleships that would be sunk in the attack. The brothers returned to the ship after a rescue mission was organized, and later fought in the battle at Iwo Jima. 

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I have Richard’s personal accounts of those battles, and along with the Battle of the Bulge where Bernie’s life was lost, those are some of the most harrowing military engagements in U.S. history. The images of burning battleships at Pearl Harbor and the U.S. flag being raised by Marines atop Mount Suribachi are forever embedded into the American psyche. 

While I acknowledge that Memorial Day is reserved for our fallen troops, the Hall brothers assisted many of their countrymen in the last moments of their lives, and their faith was referenced in the accounts. 

Here, Richard recalls the rescue effort at Pearl Harbor, wondering as a young person if he should be baptizing the men who were in the final moments of their lives, saying:

There were a lot of damaged people everywhere–shoes with feet in them, other parts of bodies lying around. You become so scared you develop a kind of tunnel vision. You tried not to look at the injured, see just what you had to see because you had to keep going. There were men dying, and I didn’t know if you should try to baptize people. As a young person, how much do you know? What should you do?

Like the Sheehan men, the Halls attended Rockhurst… because they were Catholic. 

The Halls were identical twins. They were born in Kansas City on December 3, 1922. Their mother dressed them alike and the boys didn’t mind, continuing the practice as they grew older, even at Rockhurst College, a Jesuit school in Kansas City.

Catholicism is also the story of how these two groups of servicemen became my family. My grandmother and grandfather married in Guardian Angel Catholic Church. 

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Memorial Day is about honoring the sacrifice of our troops, who gave everything in acts of bravery on the battlefield. For me, the story of Bernie naturally follows the trail of Catholicism in my family. He went to the Catholic school that arises as part of our lineage. His brother, my grandpa married my granny in the Catholic Church. They had a son named after a Patron Saint, who I call “Dad”. 

So to the Los Angeles Dodgers, no I can’t get through the holiday without noticing that for me: It’s all Catholic. Our casualty of war cannot be separated from the faith. And, the real life-saving work on the battlefield, and beyond, was done by the hands of Catholics, too. So try to remember that part when you choose disrespect instead of honor, that it includes the faith of those who we lost in service to this country. 

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