A Philadelphia chaplain’s heroic World War One acts
By Chris Gibbons
via the Philadelphia Inquirer
In autumn 1918, during World War One’s great Meuse-Argonne offensive in France, a badly wounded young American soldier lay on his back, clutching the hand of a chaplain, Lt. Joseph Wolfe, as the priest administered last rites.
Although the battle raged around them, an eerie calm enveloped the fallen soldier as he looked up into Wolfe’s eyes — knowing that they were likely the last he’d gaze into upon this Earth. The chaplain held his emotions in check, finished his prayer, and made the sign of the cross above the young soldier’s body.
Wolfe’s grim tasks were just beginning. Dead and wounded soldiers littered the floor of the Argonne Forest. Cries for help pierced the air amid the hissing bullets, rattling machine gun fire, and exploding mortar shells. Wolfe crawled over and knelt next to another wounded American soldier, trying to help him in any way he could.
Other 28th Division soldiers, who had taken cover, were stunned by what they saw. “Calmly and without fear [Wolfe] administered to the boys who were hurt and those who were in danger,” wrote fellow soldier John J. Mangan in a letter to the Philadelphia Public Ledger in November, 1918. “This is but one instance of the work of this noble priest that the boys who were out there were able to see.” A wounded soldier told Mangan that Wolfe “spent three days on the line without a bite to eat ... out there in the thickest of the shelling, not knowing the minute when it would come his turn."
My continuing search for the Roman Catholic High School alumni who gave their lives in World War I led me to the heroic story of Rev. Joseph L.N. Wolfe. I had come across numerous newspaper articles lauding Wolfe’s acts of bravery during the Great War and unexpectedly discovered that he graduated from the historic school in 1899.
Born in Philadelphia in 1881, and raised in the city’s old Logan Square section, Wolfe pursued theological studies at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary following Roman, and was ordained a priest in 1906. He was serving as assistant pastor at St. Patrick’s Church in Rittenhouse Square when the United States entered World War I in 1917. Wolfe enlisted at the age of 35 and was assigned as a chaplain in the 110th Infantry Regiment in the 55th Infantry Brigade of Pennsylvania’s 28th Division.