WASHINGTON, D.C. – Father Joseph Verbis Lafleur, a Catholic U.S. Army Air Corps Chaplain in World War II, posthumously received the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart in a ceremony on Tuesday, Oct. 17, in Opelousas, LA. Congressman Ralph Abraham, M.D., (R-LA), presented the two military medals to Father Lafleur’s nephew and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Lafleur, at Saint Landry Catholic Church, where the priest celebrated his first Mass following ordination in 1938. The Most Reverend J. Douglas Deshotel, Bishop of Lafayette, LA, and Father James Brady, pastor of Saint Landry Parish, participated in the ceremony along with other dignitaries, devout Catholics, and students from Opelousas Catholic Junior High and High Schools.
Father Lafleur died on Sept. 7, 1944, when a U.S. submarine torpedoed the Japanese ship he and more than seven-hundred fellow prisoners of war were aboard in the Indian Ocean. The ship was not marked as carrying POWs, so the American submariners had no way of knowing they were aboard at the time of the attack. Survivors recall Father Lafleur’s heroic efforts helping his fellow POWs escape the hull of the ship under Japanese gunfire by pushing them up to the deck at the cost of his own life.
The Distinguished Service Medal, the U.S. Military’s second highest award behind only the Medal of Honor, is presented for exceptionally meritorious performance of duty. The Purple Heart is awarded to military personnel wounded or killed in action. Father Lafleur had previously received both medals for his acts of bravery during the Japanese attack on Clark Field in the Philippines on Dec. 8, 1941. It is extremely rare for a serviceman or woman to receive either medal twice.
On September 7, 2015, His Excellency, the Most Reverend Timothy P. Broglio, Archbishop for the Military Services, USA, celebrated a Memorial Mass for Father Lafleur at the same church where the award presentation took place on Tuesday. And in a keynote speech to the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC, on June 6, 2017, Archbishop Broglio said of Father Lafleur: “He was a man for others right to the end… Father Lafleur responded to his POW situation with creative courage. He drew on his virtue to care for, protect, and fortify the men imprisoned with him. Many survived because he was a man of virtue who gave unstintingly of himself. To speak of the greatness of our Country is to speak of men and women of virtue who gave of themselves for the benefit of all. We build for a new tomorrow when we draw from that wellspring of virtue.”