A Paratrooper Chaplain: The Life and Times
of Chaplain (MG) Francis L. Sampson
by William J. Hourihan, Ph.D.
The recent death of Francis L. Sampson has removed from the scene one of the
best known Army chaplains of the twentieth century. Like Chaplain Francis
Duffy in World War I and Chaplain Emil Kapaun in the Korean War, Chaplain
Sampson’s career as a Catholic priest and Army chaplain has an almost a mythical
quality about it.
It began almost fifty-five years ago when as a young, newly ordained
priest, Father Francis L. Sampson received permission from his bishop, the Most
Reverend Gerald T. Bergan, of Des Moines, Iowa, to enter the United States
Army as a chaplain. It was at Harvard University, strangely enough, that he
really began his odyssey; for it was at Harvard that new Army chaplains
received their initial entry training into the U.S. Army chaplaincy during most
of World War II. After finishing the month-long course, Chaplain Sampson
volunteered for an airborne assignment. It was a decision that would define
the rest of his life.
It was also a decision, he wrote later, that was made out of ignorance.
"Like a zealous young business man, starting out in a strange town," he
admitted, " I was ready to join anything out of a sheer sense of civic duty."1 Had
he known previously what being a paratroop chaplain entailed, he confessed, he
would have made a different choice.
Chaplain (MG) Francis L. Sampson,
Chief of Chaplains, 1967-1971
Frankly, I did not know when I signed up for the airborne that chaplains
would be expected to jump from an airplane in flight. Had I known this
beforehand, and particularly had I known the tortures of mind and body prepared at
Fort Benning for those who sought the coveted parachute wings, I am positive
that I should have turned a deaf ear to the plea for airborne chaplains.
However, once having signed up, I was too proud to back out. Besides, the
airborne are the elite troops of the Army, and I already began to enjoy the
prestige and glamour that goes with belonging to such an outfit.2
Francis L. Sampson was born on 29 February 1912, in Cherokee, Iowa. He
attended Notre Dame University, graduating in 1937, and then entered St. Paul’s
Seminary at Saint Paul, Minnesota. He was ordained to the Roman Catholic
priesthood for the Des Moines, Iowa, diocese on 1 June 1941. Following his
ordination, Father Sampson served briefly as a parish priest in Neola, Iowa, and
also taught at Dowling High School in Des Moines. He entered the Army in
early 1942, was commissioned as a first Lieutenant, and began his Army career at
Camp Barkley, Texas. The month of January 1943, was spent in training at
the Chaplain School. He then joined the 501st Parachute Regiment, of the 101st
Airborne Division, as its regimental chaplain. He would be its chaplain for
the rest of the war.3
It was during the invasion of France, in the summer of 1944, that the story
of Chaplain Sampson began to take on its legendary quality. Lawrence
Critchell, in his book Four Stars of Hell, described him as "one of the most
respected and best-loved officers in the Regiment," while S.L.A. Marshall in Night
Drop, portrays Sampson as "a jolly man, deeply loved by the Regiment." His
exploits were recorded by John Eisenhower in The Bitter Woods, and also by
John Toland in Battle and The Last Hundred Days.4
It all began on D-Day, 6 June 1944. While the soldiers of the 501st may
have looked at their chaplain as a cool and heroic figure, Chaplain Sampson
remembered that in those initial days among the hedgerows of Normandy, "[n]o
pair of knees shook more than my own, nor any heart ever beat faster in time of
danger."5
Chaplain (CPT) Sampson of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment sits
astride a captured German motorcycle given him by one of the troopers. Sampson
used this method of transportation to get around to his men in the battle
areas of Holland. (Sept. 1944)
The 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions that landed in Normandy on D-Day met
intense opposition, and while they helped to gain an Allied toehold on the
coast of France, confusion reigned. Chaplain Sampson was swept up in a
kaleidoscope of activity. He spent that first day at the regimental aid station in a
large farmhouse, which also housed the unit’s command post. Eventually the
fighting became so intense that the regiment moved its headquarters away to a
safer location.
The medics stayed with the wounded who could not be moved, and so did
Chaplain Sampson. At one point the area was taken over by units of the Waffen SS.
Chaplain Sampson was taken prisoner by two soldiers, and put up against a
wall to be shot. He recalled that he was so frightened that instead of
reciting an Act of Contrition, the usual prayer for the forgiveness of sins, he kept
repeating to himself the Catholic blessing before meals: "Bless us, Our
Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive through Thy bounty
through Christ Our Lord, Amen." Rescued at the last minute by a German
noncommissioned officer who turned out to be a Catholic, Chaplain Sampson was
escorted to a nearby German intelligence post where he was interrogated, found
harmless and then released.
He returned to the aid station, and after experiencing a number of close
calls, Sampson and the aid station were liberated by American troops. At this
point Sampson found himself ministering not only to wounded U.S. soldiers, but
also to German troops who had been brought to the station. Chaplain Sampson
was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second
highest American military award, for his actions during these days.6
Chaplain Sampson went with his regiment as it jumped into Holland, where he
was nearly captured for a second time. By early December 1944, the 101st was
taking a well-deserved rest from the fighting in a small French town just
outside of Paris. The rest was to be brief, for the surprise assault by German
forces through the Ardennes that month began what was to be called the Battle
of the Bulge.
General Eisenhower ordered both the 82nd and the 101st Airborne Divisions
to the front. Their destination was a small village near Bastogne. In the
confusion of the fighting, Sampson was taken prisoner on 19 December. This
time there would be no quick resolution to his predicament. He was sealed in a
train for six days without food or water, and the train was also attacked at
intervals by American aircraft. Imprisoned in Stalag II A, which was
located north of Berlin near the city of Neubrandenburg, Chaplain Sampson at his
request was allowed to remain in the enlisted men’s prison, rather than the
officer’s prison.
At midnight on 28 April 1945, Russian tanks belonging to the forces of
Marshall Konstantin Rokossovsky’s Second Belorussian Front freed the camp, ending
Sampson’s four months of bitter winter imprisonment.7 Chaplain Sampson as a
POW in Stalag II A.
In October 1945, Chaplain Sampson returned to the United States and went
back to his teaching duties at Dowling High School in Des Moines. He returned
to active duty in July 1946, as regimental chaplain with the 505th Parachute
Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division.
The following years saw him serve a number of important posts. He was
regimental chaplain with the 187th Airborne Infantry Regiment, from 1947 to
1951.8 While chaplain with the 187th, Sampson found himself part of a
massive airborne drop in Korea, near Sukch’on and Such’on, north of the North
Korean capital of P’yongyang. General MacArthur hoped that this force could
rescue American prisoners of war who it was assumed would be moved northward in
the Communist retreat, while also cutting off North Korean officials and
troops.9
Sent home to the United States in 1951, Sampson served as an instructor at
the U.S. Army Chaplain School at Fort Slocum, New York, until 1954. He then
served as the 11th Airborne Division chaplain, between 1955 and 1958. More
important assignments followed as he rose up the ladder in the
chaplaincy.
Promoted to full colonel in 1961, he served as Seventh Army Chaplain from
1962 to 1965, and then as the USCONARC Staff Chaplain in 1965. The next year
he was appointed as the Deputy Chief of Chaplains of the United States Army
and promoted to the rank of Brigadier General.10
Chaplain Sampson suited up for a jump.

Chaplain Sampson now found himself in a role far removed from his previous
experience as a field chaplain. He was now at the center of power and
responsibility, in the midst of an increasingly controversial and unpopular war in
Vietnam. With the retirement of Chaplain (MG) Charles E. Brown as Chief of
Chaplains in July 1967, Sampson succeeded him in that office. Now 55 years old
and a veteran of 25 years of Army experience, Sampson was a popular
choice.11
The appointment of Francis L. Sampson ... may have appeared to some as a
public-relations’ attempt to rescue the image of the chaplaincy. Sampson was,
after all, a highly-decorated airborne hero of both World War II and the
Korean conflict. He wore the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery in
Europe and his exploits had been featured in three national television programs.
Besides that, he had authored two books, numerous articles for periodicals,
and was an outstanding athlete who had won seven Army regional tennis
championships during his career.12
His service as Chief of Chaplains from 1967 to 1971, "was characterized by a
genuinely personal esteem for the chaplain’s calling and a deep respect for
the soldier’s profession."13 His tenure as Chief, in the midst of these
trying times, was filled with solid accomplishments. His management style was an
open one.
To insure that his decisions and guidance were based on the real issues
being encountered by chaplains, he maintained a continuing open dialogue with
officers and enlisted men alike at every echelon through a vigorous schedule of
personal staff visits to every major army command throughout the world. As a
result of these person-to-person observations, he maintained a realistic
awareness of Army-wide activities and provided a continuing professional
appraisal for the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, the Chief of Staff, and
other interested members of the Department of the Army Staff.14

Chaplain (MG) Sampson visits
hospitalized soldiers in Vietnam. Chaplain (MG) celebrates Mass in
Vietnam.

But this was a far different war than World War II, and Chaplain Sampson
found himself dealing with such Army-wide problems as drug abuse, racial
tension, and changing life styles. As Chief of Chaplains, he gave a speech in 1970,
in which he said that he was "proud of the soldiers of today — frankly,
they are even better soldiers in most ways than their dads were. But just as
1775 and 1941-45 were times ‘that tried men’s souls,’ so too we move into
1971 with the sobering awareness that never before in our history have we faced
a more critical phase in our national existence."15
A few months before his retirement as Chief of Chaplains on 31 July 1971,
Chaplain Sampson gave a speech, part of which captures the philosophy he
operated under both as a field chaplain and as Chief of Chaplains.
In civilian life many people misunderstand the military mission. I have
spoken at various universities and have been challenged by this
misunderstanding. I have been asked how I can wear the uniform which symbolizes war and also
wear the cross upon it symbolizing peace. One would think that they should
find the answer to the very question they proposed — for such questioners are
of lofty academic standards, positions and responsibilities.
It is very easy for me to tell them that, by law and statute, the mission of
the military of the United States is, first, to preserve peace. Second, to
provide for the security of our country, its borders and internal security.
And third, to implement national policy as it pertains to peace treaties with
friendly nations which of themselves cannot repel the aggression of
avaricious neighbors.
I see nothing in this mission that does not appeal to the highest ideals of
any man — regardless of his religion. Indeed, it was Cardinal O’Neal, the
great Churchman, who once said if he had not been a priest he most certainly
would have had to be a soldier, because they are both called to the identical
things — that is — the preservation of peace, the establishment of justice
when it has been lost, and the providing of security with protection for the
weak and the innocent.16
His words are a fitting testimonial to a memorable thirty-year career as
both soldier and chaplain.

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