Photo by Albert A. Krochka (501st PIR)
Mark A. Bando Collection
Father Francis L. Sampson
WWII HISTORY, February 2016
Download Full Article (PDF), 3.0 MB
The calendar read December 2012, and I had just begun a four-day visit to the National Archives. My goal was to locate documents and photos for several ongoing projects, but serendipity intervened and handed me a story almost beyond belief.
I flipped open a typical Hollinger box and leafed through folder after folder until something caught my eye. The folder contents had the aroma of old deteriorating paper, and the yellowed cover sheet read FRANCIS SAMPSON. I knew of Father Francis Sampson, the legendary chaplain from the 101 Airborne Division. But what surprised me was the abbreviation CMH written under his name. Sampson received a Distinguished Service Cross during World War II.
Not a Medal of Honor.
I made a split-second judgement that someone else with the same name must have received the medal. But it gnawed at me.
I soon returned to the cover sheet and read the thirty pages stapled beneath it. To my astonishment, I now held wartime paperwork recommending Father Sampson for the United States military’s highest decoration, the Medal of Honor.
His regimental commander had signed the proposal, a document connected to the chaplain’s actions on D-Day and the following two days. Even more curious, one page showed the medal being approved in September 1944, reversing an earlier vote against it.
Two vintage staples held the packet together. No previous researcher had removed them to scan or photocopy the documents. Adherent to National Archives policy, I asked a staff member to remove the fasteners, allowing me to scan each page. I departed the archives on a weekend, sensing I had unearthed something important.
At home I culled through my records and determined that the War Department approved a Distinguished Service Cross for Father Sampson in December 1944, three months after the Medal of Honor approval date. What happened during that intervening period? Why had he received the lower decoration?
Once or twice a year, I travel to see Mark Bando at his home in suburban Detroit. One such get-together happened in February 2013 on a freezing-cold Saturday. I had something to show the 101st Airborne author and historian.
We met at his house and headed out to Lulu’s Coney Island, a local eatery packed with patrons and humming with chatter. After we ordered sandwiches, I handed Mark a spiral binder containing all the documents I had scanned. “Are you familiar with Father Sam’s Medal of Honor?” I asked. The retired Detroit police officer answered “No” without looking up. He pored over each page, paying special attention to the recommendation signed by Colonel Howard R. Johnson. Mark had researched the 101st for over forty years and interviewed hundreds of its veterans including the padre himself. If my discovery constituted news to Mark, that alone made it significant.
I decided to focus on Father Sampson over my other projects. The work spanned three years, including four more trips to the National Archives, four excursions to the National Personnel Records Center, a battlefield investigation in Normandy, and three more visits to Mark’s house. I also tracked down unpublished photographs and primary-source material in family collections, including letters the chaplain sent home in 1944. One envelope contained a German Army enlisted man’s breast eagle, somethings its owner had “no further use for” according to an enclosed letter. Father Sampson authored the correspondence when events were fresh in his mind. I found no mistakes in these recollections, unlike his postwar memoir where he expanded on his wartime writings and unwittingly made factual errors. The letters also held information omitted from the memoir, including the Medal of Honor story.
My research effort resulted in an article for WWII History magazine, although I amassed more photos and stories than needed for the piece. I have long-term plans to publish much of it.
Photos posted on Pinterest.