The Order supported troops while praying for peace during a controversial conflict.
By Andrew Fowler
The Vietnam War has a complicated legacy. To historians and political scholars, the conflict is a quagmire because of the United States’ decades-long effort to thwart the communist North Vietnam and Viet Cong from overtaking the democratic South.
On the home front, the war bitterly divided Americans, with some questioning the veracity of U.S. government reports about the conflict and whether increased U.S. intervention was necessary. Protests broke out across the country.
Just as the American public was divided, so were Catholics. In an editorial published by Columbia in 1967, then editor Elmer Von Feldt wrote, “the conscience of American Catholics is seriously troubled about the war in Vietnam.” Some American bishops, such as Archbishop Fulton Sheen, favored withdrawal, while others argued that the United States, through its involvement in the conflict, was trying to defend human rights against the communists.
The stance of the Knights of Columbus was less complicated. The Order pledged its assistance to U.S. troops and to bring a “just and honorable peace in Vietnam.” As with previous military conflicts, the principle of patriotism compelled Knights to provide for the temporal and spiritual needs of those fighting in Vietnam, as well as refugees, and the families of soldiers who died.
A Constructive Response
In early August 1964, the U.S. government reported that several American ships were attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. As a result, the United States drastically increased its military engagement in Vietnam with American troops fighting in direct conflicts against communist forces.
Within two weeks of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, delegates to the Knights of Columbus 82nd Supreme Convention met in New Orleans. Supreme Knight John McDevitt, who was elected earlier that year, asked them to expand the Order’s Educational Trust Fund to “members of our Order who have given their lives, who are disabled or who will die as a result of action in the Vietnam episode.” The fund was initially created during World War II to provide scholarships for the sons and daughters of members who were killed in action.
The measure to further expand the fund was passed, and by 1975, more than 121 children of veterans of the Vietnam War were beneficiaries of the scholarship.
At the 1966 Supreme Convention, delegates passed a resolution expressing support for U.S. troops and extending a "handclasp of friendship and solace" to the loved ones of those fighting overseas. In response to this resolution, President Lyndon B. Johnson commended the Order for its “constructive response” to a “complex national challenge.”
Especially important to the Order was the safe return of members of the armed forces. Knights and their families were encouraged to pray for peace and a just conclusion to the war, and to fly an American flag every Sunday.
Supporting the Troops
Knights of Columbus councils ramped up their response to the Vietnam War with charitable efforts and prayer programs. Members of University Council 1678 in Chicago, Ill., launched a “Crusade of Courage” initiative, which consisted of a weekly Mass offered for those in the armed forces as well as periodic blood drives.
Many other councils — including Coudersport (Pa.) Council 1355, St. Jude Council 3904 in Toledo, Ohio, and Msgr. Felix Donnelly Council 4371 in Warner Robins, Ga. — held special Masses for the intentions of American armed forces, prisoners of war, and those who gave their lives in battle.
Councils throughout the United States sent supplies to troops to help fulfill the spiritual needs of military personnel. Sacred Heart Council 2842 in Rochelle Park, N.J., sent 10,000 prayer cards designed by member Peter Romero, whose work received letters of appreciation from Pope Paul VI and Gen. William C. Westmoreland, commander of the U.S. forces in Vietnam. Meanwhile, New York Knights sent 25,000 St. Michael medals and tens of thousands of rosaries, which were blessed by Cardinal Terence Cooke.
Additionally, councils across the world also donated food, clothing, toys, medicine and more — not only to the servicemen in Vietnam, but also to refugees and orphans. For example, Knights from the Philippines donated medicine to the Vietnamese embassy in Manila to assist refugees; Holy Spirit Council 6032 in West Hollywood, Fla., donated a shipment of soap, crayons and coloring books to Vietnam orphans overseen by the 13th Division of the Coast Guard; and Pale Sanvitores Council 5666 in Hagåtña, Guam, served pot luck dinners for patients at the local U.S. Naval Hospital.
Ed O’Brien, a merchant marine and member of Twin Peaks Council 2542 in San Francisco, Calif., personally delivered nearly 1,500 books to hospitalized servicemen in Vietnam, traveling from Oakland to Saigon on behalf of his council.
You Are Not Forgotten
Throughout the duration of the war, Knights prayed and advocated for prisoners of war (POWs). A petition advocating for the humane treatment of American POWs, organized by the Knights in Colorado, garnered more than 50,000 signatures.
One of the war’s most famous POWs was Jeremiah Denton who, after being shot down over North Vietnam, endured seven years of physical and mental torment and harsh living conditions, including in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. In 1966, as a propaganda stunt by the North Vietnamese, Denton was featured in a scripted interview that aired on television to show the treatment of prisoners. Although he mostly adhered to the script given to him by his captors, he used the opportunity to communicate a different message by blinking the word “T-O-R-T-U-R-E” in Morse Code. He was finally released in 1973 along with other POWs.
Denton, who became a Knight after his release, spoke at the 94th Supreme Convention, praising his fellow Knights as “valiant fighters for the preservation and application of values which I, as a Catholic, as a professional Navy officer and former captive of Communism, see as an essential, not only to pleasing God, but to the survival of this nation and of the free world.”
Beyond the Call of Duty
Of the other members of the Order who served during the Vietnam War, several have been recognized for their bravery. In fact, the first man to receive the Medal of Honor during the war was Col. Roger Donlon, a member of St. Viateur’s Council 745 in Columbia, S.C.. According to the citation given Dec. 5, 1964, Donlon directed the defense operations and rescue of wounded soldiers during an attack on Camp Nam Dong the previous July, while he suffered wounds to his stomach and shoulder.
Col. Walter J. Marm Jr., a member of Washington Council 1083 in Pennsylvania, received the Medal of Honor two years later, on Dec. 19, 1966. In November 1965, he came under heavy fire while advancing across a field in Ia Drang. Putting aside concerns for his own safety, Marm charged a machine gun position manned by eight enemy soldiers, saving the lives of his platoon.
Additionally, Rev. (Maj.) Charles J. Watters — a Catholic chaplain and Knight of Columbus — exemplified gallantry in the Battle of Đắk Tô in November 1967. During the firefight over Hill 875, the unarmed chaplain ran through intense enemy fire to retrieve the wounded outside the defensive perimeter, bringing them to safety and administering the sacraments to the dying. His citation reads that he performed these duties to aid troops “without hesitation” and with an “unyielding perseverance and selfless devotion to his comrades.” He gave his own life in the process, dying while assisting wounded troops. For his actions, he posthumously received the Medal of Honor on Nov. 4, 1969.
Nearly 50 years later, in October 2017, retired U.S. Army Capt. Gary Rose, a member of Good Shepherd Council 11672 in Huntsville, Ala., was awarded the Medal of Honor after the declassification of Operation Tailwind, a secret mission in Laos. Rose, who served as a Special Forces medic, is credited with treating and saving 60 wounded soldiers during the mission.
Armed With the Faith
After signing the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam. The war continued for another several years and ended with the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, which was a victory for the communist forces. In total, there were more than 58,000 casualties of U.S. service personnel throughout the war.
Amid the devastation, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled Vietnam and resettled between 1975 and 1997. Knights offered assistance to refugees, and in some cases even took them into their homes. Council 612 in Hutchinson, Kan., adopted the Nguyen Van Dao family of South Vietnam; Father Emil Platte Council 5052 in Dallas, Texas, adopted a five-member Vietnamese family; and the St. Vincent de Paul Council 5012 sponsored two Vietnamese men, finding them employment, as well as housing and transportation.
Today, the Knights of Columbus continues to support veterans and service members in various ways, including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans Affairs Voluntary Service (VAVS) Program. In partnership with the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, the Order supports the Co-Sponsored Seminarian Program, funding diocesan seminarians’ education in return for several years of service as military chaplains, and co-sponsors the annual Warriors to Lourdes pilgrimage, serving the wounded, ill and injured — especially those with spiritual and mental wounds.
A new 40-minute documentary released this year, Armed With the Faith, explores the legacy of the Order’s unwavering support for the armed forces.
The relationship between the Knights of Columbus and its history with the military is further explored in The Knights of Columbus: An Illustrated History. Click here to purchase a copy of the book.