I’ve been reading a bunch of old newspapers recently, and in a Feb. 7, 1942 edition I came across a page three story: “Former Toledo Priest Wounded.” By the second paragraph, my attention was captured.
Father John Duffy was a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Toledo who’d served at a few parishes in Toledo, and at Fostoria St. Wendelin. He had been awarded the Purple Heart for injuries sustained in combat in the first weeks of World War II in the Philippines.
That article led me down Google rabbit holes, then to a book called “…But Deliver Us From Evil” by Dan Murr. I devoured the book over this Labor Day weekend — a weekend that marked the 74th anniversary of the end of the War in the Pacific.
Murr’s book highlighted the brutality of that theater, and the individual acts of heroism that sometimes pierced the darkness of war.
Heroism isn’t always the big dramatic moment. Sometimes, heroism is just surviving with dignity. And Duffy’s story holds lesson after lesson in that kind of survival.
Duffy felt a call to the priesthood in the Diocese of Toledo. After his ordination in 1928, Duffy began his career in ministry at St. Wendelin’s — ministering to the parish, and teaching Latin at Fostoria High School.
For three years, Duffy bounced around Toledo parishes before joining the U.S. Army’s chaplain corps in 1933. He did a stint in the Philippines, came back to the States, and in 1940 returned to the islands — then a U.S. territory. A year later, the Philippines would be one of four targets of the Japanese military on a “day which will live in infamy.”
The fight in the Philippines raged at sea and through the jungles through the winter of 1942. American and Filipino forces pulled back to the Bataan peninsula, but a combination of American unpreparedness and Japanese tenacity put the Allied forces in an unwinnable situation. On April 10, the last major group of Americans on Bataan surrendered to the Japanese, and Duffy was taken prisoner.
The priest joined about 75,000 other servicemen on the trip up the peninsula, and into makeshift prisoner-of-war camps; a weeks-long atrocity that became known as the Bataan Death March. It was punctuated by hundreds of deaths, some by neglect, but many more by assault and murder.
Five days into the march, Duffy straggled, and was bayoneted by a Japanese soldier. He came to his feet, and continued to march. Seven days later, he straggled again — and was bayoneted again, this time, left for dead. After the Japanese forces moved on, a band of guerrillas scrambled to the road and rescued him.
Spirited away to their headquarters, Duffy — who’d ministered to top-ranking officers and had learned some military science — took command of the guerrilla outfit and spent nearly a year secretly directing rebel operations.
In early 1943, he was recaptured by the Japanese military, and sent to Bilibid Prison in Manila, a place where the filthy conditions were matched only by the cruelty of the guards. Duffy no longer commanded guerrillas here; he simply ministered to the other prisoners. Then, in late 1944, Duffy was transferred to a Japanese “Hell Ship.”
The Hell Ships were civilian ships in better times. But during the war, the Japanese military would load the cargo holds full of prisoners — often held without food or water — and sail them mixed among warships and military supply ships as human shields. It was essentially a dare to the U.S. Navy — go ahead and bomb these ships, but know that you might be killing your own men by the hundreds.
The second night of Duffy’s confinement on a Hell Ship, it was bombed by American warplanes. The priest ministered to the living and the dead, and miraculously escaped, swimming back to the Philippine shores. He was taken back into captivity, and about a month later, put aboard another Hell Ship.
Again, Duffy’s ship was bombed. Again, he survived. Again, he was transferred to another Japanese prison. Again, he ministered to the dead, the dying, and those whose souls had been damaged by oppressive conditions.
Then, on Aug. 24, 1945, Duffy was among the first groups of prisoners of war released by the Japanese. He took a circuitous route back to Northwest Ohio and served as a parish priest again. His strength — his endurance — was a source of inspiration to his parishioners, his peers and his fellow veterans.
It’s somewhat surprising that his story isn’t one we hear more often around here, but it’s one that deserves to be told — a model of how any of us can endure, and make the lives of others just a little bit better.
Within years, Duffy developed cancer, and it was that cancer that would take what the Japanese military never could — his life. But neither touched his dignity.