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Courageous Chaplain

As V-E Day anniversary nears, Archbishop Borders recalls time on battlefield
By Carl Schoettler
Sun Staff
May 7, 2005

Archbishop William D. Borders is not a man given to celebrating his own courage. He doesn't talk much about the year he spent as a chaplain with an infantry regiment in Italy during World War II. He recounts with terse modesty the story of how he earned the Bronze Star for Valor.

During an attack on a German position, he recalls, an American was hit and lay wounded on the battlefield.

"I was in pretty good physical condition and I managed to run and pick him up and put him on my shoulder and pull him out," the archbishop says, during a conversation in his office at the Catholic Center as the 60th anniversary of V-E Day approaches tomorrow.

"Oh, yes, I was under fire, and it was machine-gun fire."

Not everyday priestly duties, it seems.

"Oh, the priestly duties were there. But the circumstances were different," he says.

He never learned the wounded man's name.

"After I anointed him, they sent him to the rear, and I never saw him again."

Do you think he lived?

"Well, he had a chance," he says.

Borders has never considered himself particularly brave.

"You didn't even think of it," he says. "It didn't enter your mind one way or another. You're too busy. You're involved all the time. When you're involved, you're thinking about what you're doing, not am I brave, or am I not brave. It just doesn't enter your mind."

You're decorated, he says, because someone else calls what you do valorous.

"Another person says you're courageous. You don't think of it," he says. "The motivation is somebody needs help, pure and simple."

He was somewhere near Florence when he rescued the fallen soldier. He was a battalion chaplain with the 362nd Infantry Regiment, of the 91st Infantry Division. His outfit had crossed the Arno River, going north, in September 1944. He was not quite 30 years old.

Borders is 91 now, and he's been retired a bit longer than he served as leader of the Archdiocese Of Baltimore. He succeeded Cardinal Lawrence J. Sheehan in April 1974 and retired in 1988. He moves a little laboriously around his office on Cathedral Street these days - he's recently had a pacemaker implanted - but he's delightful to talk with, vivid in his recollections, amusing, thoughtful and reflective, and more than occasionally ironic. He's got a fine, square face. He smiles often and he speaks plainly.

"Hell of a man," says Fred Booth, an 87-year-old Minneapolis adman who was L Company commander in the 362nd, in an e-mail to The Sun. "I remember him because he was a memorable man. ... And he was like no other chaplain I ever knew.

"Sometimes, he was up with our company at daybreak when we were about to jump off in an attack," Booth says. "He would talk with our men, and often we came under fire almost immediately, so he was in some danger. No other chaplain ever did that.

"I remember when we broke through the Gothic Line at Futa Pass, a terrible day, a bloody day. When our company finally cleared the enemy out of the pass, German bodies were all over the place, plus many of our men.

"Suddenly, there was Chaplain Borders with the little case he carried. He opened it up and took out a white, lacy kind of garment, put it on and went around, I guess, blessing all the dead. Then the Germans counterattacked, and he was in the middle of all that."

When the 362nd pulled back into deep reserve for a few days rest behind the fighting line, Borders joined Booth and his officers for a drink.

"He would take a stout shot of bourbon and a splash of branch water from his canteen and drink along with us," Booth says. "We had great conversations with him, and he never talked religion. No other chaplain ever did that. ... Once in a while, we would get a poker game going, and he loved to join in. Tough player, too. "

Borders was an associate pastor at Sacred Heart parish in Baton Rouge, La., when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He was born in Indiana and had studied for the priesthood at Saint Meinrad's seminary there. He was ordained in 1940 at Saint Louis Cathedral in New Orleans.

"I was working with young adults," he says, "and so many of them were drafted and volunteering I thought, 'Oh, by golly, if they do, I better, too.' ... It was an easy decision. None of us realized what we were going to get into, though. Nobody can anticipate combat. ... The reality is much worse than the imagination."

He received a month's training at Harvard University, but not much preparation for work as a chaplain in an infantry regiment.

"Nobody prepares you for battle," Borders says. "You can't do it. How do you prepare for someone dying?"

"Three weeks later," he says, "the 91st Infantry Division, in Oregon, received orders to go to North Africa, and they were short a Catholic chaplain. I was reassigned to the 91st. So after two months in the Army, I was already in North Africa."

The 91st trained in Africa for the Italian Campaign. The division landed in Italy below Naples in June 1944 and slogged north with Gen. Mark Clark's 5th Army. Borders was in Italy more than a year.

Borders wore an Army uniform, a cross on one collar, insignia of rank on the other. But no Roman Catholic collar.

But he never carried a gun: "Too dangerous," he says.

He traveled with the medics.

"That's where you're needed, really," he says.

Medics basically moved with the combat troops, setting up forward aid stations close to the front. Borders ministered to these men, comforting the wounded and anointing the dead.

"That's right," he says. "If they were conscious, I talked to them, gave them counsel, administered the sacraments of penance [confession] and the Holy Eucharist and anointed many people who were dying. ... I don't have any idea how many. You don't keep statistics."

"It wasn't constant, of course. Combat is never constant. It comes and goes."

His outfit was on the line in the Apennine Mountains on Christmas Eve, 1944.

"We thought that was where we were going to be on Christmas Day," he says. "But by the luck of Army logistics, another division replaced us, and we were pulled back about 15 to 20 miles to a little town that was pretty well bombed-out."

He found the skeleton of a church with all the windows blown out. He called his first sergeants together and told them that if they could clean up the church, he could say midnight Mass. He spent the day and evening hearing confessions from the soldiers.

"In the meantime, this crowd of volunteers had cleaned up that church," he says. "And by the time I got there, the place was packed. Not only clean, but they had cut some leaves and things and decorated it. And without question, that was the most memorable offering of sacrifice in the Mass I ever had in my life. You never forget something like that.

"It was a long time ago," he says.

Archbishop William D. Borders, retired leader of the Archdiocese Of Baltimore, earned the Bronze Star for Valor during World War II.

Copyright © 2005, The Baltimore Sun