Francis L. Sampson – The Paratroop Padre

“Saving Private Ryan” is one of my favorite films. The film takes its viewers on an incredible Saving Private Ryanmission as a brave army captain and his skeptical troops go deep into occupied territory to try and save find Private James Ryan, whose three brothers have been killed in combat. “Saving Private Ryan” is brilliant fiction. A critical and popular smash, the character of Captain Miller is an example of American devotion to humane duty. He and his men risk their lives to bring comfort to a soldier they’ve never met.

Many people with knowledge of World War II assumed “Saving Private Ryan” was based on the story of the Sullivan brothers. They were sailors who, serving together on the USS Juneau, were killed in action on its sinking around November 13, 1942. However, it turns out that Father Francis L Sampson, nicknamed the “Paratroop Padre,” was in many ways the inspiration for “Saving Private Ryan’s” Captain Miller!

Although you may not have heard of Father Francis L Sampson, the ‘Paratroop Padre,’ he Look Out Below! A Story of the Airborne by a Paratrooper Padreis mentioned in John Toland’s Battle: The Story of the Bulge, in Cornelius Ryan “The Longest Day,” & John Eisenhower’s “The Bitter Woods,” father Sampson was considered a hero throughout the military and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest medal of valor awarded by the United States Army.

Francis Sampson was born on Leap Year Day in 1912 in Iowa. After graduating from Notre Dame and being ordained as a Catholic priest, he eventually joined the military and volunteered as a chaplain in the Air Corps. He openly admitted to being terrified as he was preparing to be trapped behind enemy lines on D day. In his autobiography, he said: “Frankly, I did not know when I signed up for the airborne that chaplains would be expected to jump from an airplane in flight….no pair of knees shook more than my own, nor any heart ever beat faster in times of danger.”

Father Sampson On D-Day

The text of his distinguished service cross commendation explains, in part, how this incredible priest served on D day.

On the afternoon of D-Day, a small force of parachute infantry was forced to evacuate its position to the enemy’s advance. Chaplain Sampson, though strongly urged otherwise, elected to remain behind with fourteen seriously wounded men. When the enemy seized the position of Chaplain, Sampson immediately made his presence known so that no attack would be made on the wounded men. Granted permission to remain with the wounded, he valiantly struggled in the face of the most hazardous and difficult conditions to keep the men alive. On the second night, during an artillery barrage that lasted four hours and virtually demolished the house, he administered blood plasma and aid to the wounded. As three shells hit the building, he threw his body across the wounded to protect them. He made numerous trips across a shell-swept courtyard to ascertain the condition of one of the most seriously wounded men. When a shell destroyed the adjacent room, fatally injuring the two men therein, he went immediately to their assistance and attempted to dig them out from the debris. He suffered a second-degree burn from a tracer bullet but continued to care for the wounded. In the morning, after the Germans left the vicinity, an evacuation party arrived. Assured that the living wounded were evacuated to the division hospital, Chaplain Sampson proceeded to the same hospital where he gave a seriously wounded man a liter of blood and spent the remainder of the day and night rendering physical and spiritual aid to the wounded.

Father Francis Sampson – The Paratroop Padre – Prisoner Of War

During the horrendous Battle of the Bulge, Father Francis Simpson demonstrated amazing courage time and Father Francis Sampson - The Paratroop Padreagain. He would often leave secure emplacements to search for wounded soldiers and try to bring them aid. It was then Nazi soldiers captured him. Along with the other POW, Father Sampson marched 185 miles in ten days. 1,500 men were crammed into overcrowded boxcars. With no food and only snow to use as water, Father Sampson went from man to man, offering physical and spiritual help. Imprisoned for five months,

Sampson was the only Catholic Priest tending to 5000 American POW. He held mass daily and offered non-denominational services. Many contemporaneous reports tell of his great kindness, courage, and devotion to others during that terrible time.

“Saving Private Ryan” and Father Sampson

Fritz NilandAfter his selfless heroics on the day, and before his harrowing imprisonment, Father Simpson settled on a mission of mercy that is considered to be the inspiration for “Saving Private Ryan.” During the Normandy campaign, Father Sampson selflessly volunteered to stay behind in a makeshift hospital, caring for the wounded and staying with the men who could not walk. Father Sampson was captured by the Germans, who put a gun to his head. He was spared when one German realized he was a Priest.  At the hospital, he met Fritz Niland. The paratrooper told him that two of his brothers had been killed on D-Day. Making matters worse, a third brother was reported missing in the Pacific. Father Sampson arranged for Sgt. Niland to be sent home. As did the fictional Private Ryan, Niland refused to leave his post. He said, “I’m staying here with my boys.”

Sampson would not budge, “You can take that up with General Eisenhower or the president, but you’re going home.”

Father Sampson After The War

Father Simpson never fully left the military, serving heroically in Korea, where his courage and kindness were noted by the grateful man he served. In 1967, Father Francis L. Sampson, the World War II ‘Paratropp Padre’, was appointed Chief of Chaplains of the U.S. Army! Now General Sampson, in his 70s, continued to serve throughout the Vietnam War. He always spent Christmas with the troops. Stateside, he served as the president of the US so and never tired of visiting any soldier in any hospital. He died of cancer at the age of 83 on January 28, 1996, and was widely mourned by men who had served in three different conflicts. The movie “Saving Private Ryan” premiered 10 years after his death. It is a shame that he is not mentioned in the wonderful film.  His heroic life should inspire all of us.

4 thoughts on “Francis L. Sampson – The Paratroop Padre

  1. Wonderful and moving article. I have watch Saving Private Ryan many times, but didn’t know the full story behind the movie. Thank you so much for sharing with us. Barry, You are very much appreciated!

    • Carol,

      It’s one of the reasons why studying history is so gratifying! I was not aware of the story of Father Sampson. When you look at the life of this amazing man, you realize the power of goodness among us!

  2. What an amazing story. No doubt this man’s life deserves more recognition and attention!
    Especially today, when the term hero is used to describe anyone who does any good deed. He demonstrated what it really meant! Thanks for sharing this wonderful story.

  3. “Saving Private Ryan” is a movie I never tire of watching, and although I knew about the Sullivan brothers, I did not know the story of the paratrooper priest. I’ve always been fascinated with WWII and went to Normandy with a girlfriend in 2005. We had hired a British historian and former soldier as a guide and he sort of walked us through the invasion, but with a decided British slant to the events. Thank you for this amazing story.

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