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A real hero comes from New London

By Henry Timman • Mar 2, 2018 at 12:54 PM

How is this for a movie or “thriller” book plot: 

“Forced by Japanese troops to join the Bataan Death March (in World War II), a U.S. Army Chaplain is bayoneted and left for dead. Found by Filipino guerrillas, he recovers and helps direct guerrilla attacks against the Japanese. Wounded again, the chaplain is captured and becomes the only officer ever to beat a Japanese court martial. Now a prisoner of war, he is put on a ship bound for Japan that is bombed by the Allies. Injured, he swims ashore, saving a non-swimmer on the way. He steals a U.S. flag from a Japanese soldier and hides it under his clothing until he could give it to a fellow chaplain, asking him that it be sent to his family in case of his death. When the war ended, he is one of the first sent home due to his medical condition.”

This is no fiction writer’s work. This is the true story of Rev. John Duffy, a Catholic priest who served New London’s Our Lady of Lourdes parish from Jan. 22, 1946, until shortly before his death on June 4, 1958, at Letterman Veterans’ Hospital in San Francisco. He had resigned his New London pastorate in March of 1958 and traveled to California, where his war injuries flared up and caused his death.

No doubt there are many people in New London who remember Fr. Duffy. Not only did he labor for the good of Our Lady of Lourdes, he also labored for the advancement of American Legion Post 292. He was twice post commander and also served as national chaplain for the Legion. In 1928, he was ordained a priest after having served in Europe during World War I when still a teenager. He served three other parishes in the Toledo Diocese before being commissioned a chaplain in the U.S. Army.

When World War II ended and he was liberated, Fr. Duffy came home with the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart with five oak leaf clusters, the Philippines Defense Medal and the Navy Department’s Commendation Ribbon. He left all of those honors with the New London American Legion Post when he retired to California.

Fr. Duffy was in great demand as a speaker at various functions and participated in various Catholic activities in the area. Some of my information comes from a Norwalk friend of mine who once served a Mass for Fr. Duffy at St. Mary’s Church in Norwalk and has always remembered the occasion due to Fr. Duffy’s place in history.

Funeral services for our hero were held in California with burial following at Presidio National Cemetery in San Francisco. That was the end of a long and difficult story of a boy from Lafayette, Indiana. A eulogy says of him at his death: “Thus this war hero and nationally prominent figure passed to his eternal reward. But he was a priest first and foremost in all of his endeavors.” What better words could be written?

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REMEMBER: My “Just Like Old Times” books are on sale at Colonial Flower and Gift Shoppe at 7 W. Main St. in downtown Norwalk. These preserve my earlier columns in permanent book form.

Henry Timman, an authority on Firelands history, resides in rural Norwalk.

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