GREECE — Several years after World War II, a soldier who had served with Father Elmer W. Heindl, an Army chaplain, confided to him that he and other combat veterans told newcomers to the Pacific Theater to leave the priest’s presence as soon as any fighting started. Invariably, they said, someone was always killed 15 seconds before Father Heindl was in a place or 15 seconds after he left it.
“If anybody gets hit, it won’t be him,” the soldier said he told any newcomers.
In fact, Father Heindl emerged from the war without any wounds, yet saw so much fighting that he was awarded an honorary Purple Heart.
“I went through so much combat without getting touched that they thought I should’ve been wounded,” he said with a slight chuckle.
The priest, who was unarmed throughout the war, noted that he worked diligently to keep families informed of their loved ones’ fates, good and bad, and added that giving last rites in combat was a far cry from anointing a dying person in peacetime.
“Every situation was an instant decision,” Father Heindl said. “You didn’t have time to check his dog tag to see whether he was Catholic or not. I’d say, in Latin, ‘If you’re able and willing to receive this sacrament, I give it to you.’ And then leave it up to the Lord.”
Father Heindl, who currently lives at The Legacy, a senior residence on Mount Read Boulevard, is one of the most decorated chaplains of World War II, one of only 19 such clerics to receive a Distinguished Service Cross. The priest earned the honor in the Philippines when he ministered to a dying soldier in a two-story watchtower, then carried his dead body down from the tower, then went back and rescued a wounded man — all the while under fire. Two days later, he dragged a seriously wounded officer to a medical aid station, once again as he was under fire. Then, three days later, he carried wounded men to safety and administered last rites to the dying during a battle.
When asked where he got his courage, Father Heindl shrugged off the question as if he had been asked why he bothers to breathe.
“I’m a professional soldier,” he said. “I didn’t have to know what the outcome was going to be.”
A retired lieutenant colonel, as well as an honorary colonel in the New York National Guard, among his many other honors are a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a Legion of Merit. He has also been honored by the U.S. House of Representatives, and just this year was given the Distinguished Service Award of the Combat Infantrymen’s Association.
He was also given citations by the presidents of the United States and the Philippines, a land that he was among the first to see liberated from the Japanese. He proudly noted that he was in the first news photograph of a liberated Philippines to appear in a stateside newspaper.
“It was three days before (Gen. Douglas) MacArthur got his picture in the paper,” the priest said with a smile, referring to the famed photo of MacArthur wading ashore in the Philippines, fulfilling his vow to return.
Liberating various Pacific islands from the Japanese was an arduous, bloody task, the priest noted, recalling the thick jungles he and his men traversed. Fighting at times was so brutal that it took days to advance over an area it would only takes minutes in peacetime, he noted, recalling how it once took his regiment three weeks to advance seven miles.
Father Heindl’s life in combat illustrated the biblical dictum that if you save your life, you lose it, but if you lose it, you save it. For example, instead of arguing with a captain about whether it was prudent to find a dead tank commander’s body, the chaplain simply told the captain he was going to do it, and left. Once again, “15 seconds later,” the captain was killed by a Japanese tank.
“If I had stood there for just 15 seconds more, I’d be dead,” Father Heindl said.
The priest, who had gone to see to the dead tank commander because he believed he was Catholic and wanted his family to know he had anointed his body, wound up rescuing a wounded officer instead. Had Father Heindl not gone to find the dead soldier, the officer would have bled to death, because Father Heindl was the only American in the area.
“It was Col. White, our commander,” Father Heindl said. “He said, ‘Chaplain, what are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, but it’s God’s providence.'”
Prior to the war, Father Heindl served parishes in Dansville, Auburn, Gates and Rochester. After the conflict’s end, he returned to serve parishes and churches in Rochester, Webster, Scipio Center, Genoa, Fleming, Gates, Cato, Red Creek, Weedsport and Greece. As his 95th birthday approaches, he still celebrates daily and Sunday Mass at The Legacy, and walks unassisted save for a cane, which he playfully poked at the buttons on the elevator that took him to his room.
In that room is a wall hanging that speaks of Flag Day, June 14 — the priest’s birthday. He’s concluded his birthday was God’s way of letting him know he was destined for a profession that called him to honor the flag. He added that his war experiences never shook his Catholic faith, but only confirmed for him the presence of God in the world, and the need for people to use their free will to respond to the divine.
“In this uncertain world, you and I don’t know if we can finish this conversation,” he said. “Therefore, we’ve got to do the best that we can from minute to minute.”