Athenaeum library displays priest’s WWII Memorabilia
By Mary Massa
For The Catholic Telegraph
Interest in the book and hit movie Unbroken – the true story of a World War II bombardier who survived a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean only to be captured by the Japanese, prompted interest and a display of WWII memorabilia by a heroic retired priest who also a flew combat missions in the Pacific.
“I navigated in a B-24 “Liberator” – the same kind of plane that Louis Zamperini flew in when he crashed,” said Father Joseph Beckman, the 93-year-old retired priest of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, whose personal photographs and mementos are now on display at the Eugene Maly Library at the Athenaeum.
At the age of 20, Father Beckman enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps. After 15 months of training, he flew his first mission out of Guadalcanal and then followed the war in the Pacific along New Guinea, the Dutch East Indies into the Philippines. Father Beckman’s most harrowing experiences happened when he flew over the oil fields of Balikpapan which supplied 20 percent of the Japanese oil needs.
“Although we saw much ‘ack ack’ (shells from the grounds) and many Jap fighter planes, our plane was only hit twice in a minor way through the whole war.” He added, “Sometimes we saw companion crews get hit and bail out of their plane with Japanese firing upon them before they hit the ocean.”
Father Beckman pointed to his reunion photographs in the library display, which shows some of his comrades in wheel chairs with one missing a leg from combat.
“The planes he and his crew flew were nothing but flying tin cans,” said fellow WWII veteran Ed Maj. “You can see, in the display case, the primitive tools he had to work with in plotting their flight course. Today it’s all computerized. It took courageous young men to survive the rigors of flying 10-16 hour-long missions, many times through flak and enemy planes. We thank him for his service.”
Maj is a retired lieutenant colonel of the U.S. Army Artillery Unit who also served in the Pacific during WWII as a private in the army. The two veterans struck up a friendship when Maj began working at the Athenaeum in 1977 as the first director of development. Father Beckman came to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in September 1945 – one month after the war ended.
“I decided before I enlisted that if came back alive, I would go into the seminary,” Father Beckman recalled, noting that he kept a Latin book with him throughout the war to remind him of his calling. He has had a long and fruitful life as a priest, serving several parishes including St. Rose in Cincinnati and traveling to 100 countries throughout the world including Haiti (13 times) while studying and writing about poverty and the church’s mission.
Father Beckman is now the second oldest priest in the archdiocese and the only living member of his ten-man aircrew.
The Library exhibit is located in the east wing of the Athenaeum of Ohio, which is the official graduate fchool of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and home to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, the Lay Pastoral Ministry Program and Special Studies Program. For a current schedule of Library hours, please consult the calendar available at http://athenaeum.libguides.com/c.php?g=30836&p=193220.
The Maly Library is open to the public. Books may be borrowed directly at the Athenaeum or through Ohio libraries affiliated with OhioLINK. For additional information, please call 513-233-6136 or visit www.athenaeum.edu.
This story originally appeared in the February 2015 print edition of The Catholic Telegraph.