We were delighted to chat with Sean Brennan about the memoir Look Out Below! A Story of the Airborne by a Paratrooper Padre by Francis L. Sampson, for which Brennan wrote the introduction. Brennan is professor of history at the University of Scranton. He is the author of The Priest Who Put Europe Back Together: The Life of Fabian Flynn, CP (CUA Press, 2018) and the translator for The KGB and the Vatican: Secrets of the Mitrokhin Files (CUA Press, 2022). Francis L. Sampson (1912-1996) was a Catholic priest and an American Army officer who served as the 12th Chief of Chaplains of the United States Army from 1967-1971.
Q: Perhaps the easiest way to pitch Fr. Francis Sampson’s story is that he led the rescue mission of Frederick Niland that inspired the film Saving Private Ryan. How did you first come across the story of Fr. Sampson? What about his story made you want to see it back in the public eye?
A: I first found out about Fr. Sampson during my time as a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame from 2003 to 2009. He was a rather famous alumnus! I saw Saving Private Ryan when it first came out, but I did not realize until my time in South Bend that Fr. Sampson’s time in the Second World War led to one of the most famous of all war films. As much as I enjoy that movie, though, I am very happy a new addition of Sampson’s memoirs are being published, as there is much more to his story than his assistance of Frederick Niland. I also think Look Out Below! is an important work because it links Sampson’s service in the Second World War to his later occupation duty in West Germany and Japan, as well as his service in the Korean War. Far too often, treatments of American military chaplains and the soldiers they served in the struggle against the Axis Powers ends abruptly in 1945, without dealing with the aftermath of the war and, of course, the Cold War. Works that link the Second World War to these later efforts, like Sampson’s memoir, help us better understand the full history of momentous events in the 20th century, with all of its tragedies and complications as well as the moments of heroism.
Q: Ministering to soldiers can differ quite greatly from ministering to a civilian community. What qualities do you think made Fr. Sampson successful as a military chaplain?
A: Sampson was a man of tremendous personal courage who was always willing to be in the thick of things with the paratroopers, which helped him gain and maintain the respect of the men he served. Sampson was well aware that the spiritual leadership chaplains are supposed to provide is impossible without the respect of the people they provide it to, especially in extraordinary and tragic circumstances such as the Second World War or the Korean War.
Q: How would you describe Fr. Sampson’s writing style and voice? What about his life does he embellish or diminish that you think would come across differently in a biography written from someone’s outside perspective?
A: Sampson was not a trained historian or journalist, and that comes across in the somewhat informal nature of his writing. However, at the same time, he had a marvelous attention to detail that makes the reader feel that he or she is physically with Sampson during his experiences. His use of quotes from different individuals also helps bring the story to life. During some of the darker segments, such as his time in German captivity after the Battle of Bulge in late 1944, or the brutal actions committed by their Soviet liberators a few months later, you do get the sense that Sampson is holding back from mentioning of his worst experiences. Whether that is due to the sensitivity of his audience or his own understandable unwillingness to relive them will remain a matter of speculation.
Q: You wrote the biography of another 20th century military chaplain, Fr. Philip Fabian Flynn, in The Priest Who Put Europe Back Together. If the two met and had lunch together, how do you think they would interact? If you got to spend half a day with each of them, what would you want to do with them?
A: I think they would get along quite well! Both were men who went through hell and back on multiple occasions, yet their faith and their desire to serve others never wavered. While men of that generation were often reluctant to share their war experiences, I bet they would find the time to share a few stories. Sampson would probably ask Flynn what it was like to serve in Hungary as the Communists took over in 1948, whereas Flynn would definitely inquire from Sampson about the conditions for soldiers and chaplains in Korea during the conflict there. Given the New England and Midwestern backgrounds of Flynn and Sampson respectively, they might also debate the merits of the football teams at Boston College and Notre Dame! Regarding what I would do with both Sampson and Flynn, I would take them to Normandy and to Budapest respectively so they can see that the places where they served, and where they came so close to death, are places of peace and freedom from dictatorship, as they hoped they would be.
To learn more about Sean Brennan and his work, check out his website here.