102-year-old priest gets long overdue medals earned for World War II service

Educator, chaplain, pastoral assistant Father Ed Flaherty gets seven awards 76 years late

His tireless life of service, humble, gentlemanly demeanor and shining intellect exemplify why his is called “the greatest generation.”

In a recent surprise ceremony, 102-year-old Jesuit Father Ed Flaherty finally got the medals he earned but never received for his World War II military service. 

“I was sort of stunned,” Father Flaherty told the Denver Catholic by telephone from St. Louis, Mo. “And also embarrassed. It was a shock.”

On the morning of June 18, U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter and retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Steven Best showed up to the veteran’s longtime home in north Denver to award him the richly deserved and long overdue medals for his work as a medic in the U.S. Army from 1941 to 1945, including three years in the Pacific Theater. As part of the 131st Engineer Regiment Medical Detachment, he treated fellow soldiers’ wounds and assisted with evacuations.

“It is a great privilege and honor to recognize Father Flaherty for his service to our country during World War II,” Congressman Perlmutter said. “We are proud to have Father Flaherty call Colorado home for so many years, and forever indebted to him for his service to our community and sacrifice on behalf of our country.”

In a surprise ceremony June 18, Father Edward Flaherty was presented with seven medals he’d earned during his service as a medic in the Pacific Theater in World War II 76 years ago, but was never given. (All photos by Brett Stakelin courtesy of Regis University )

Father Flaherty was awarded: 

· Army Good Conduct Medal; 

· American Defense Service Medal;

· American Campaign Medal;

· Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two Bronze Service Stars;

· World War II Victory Medal; 

· Honorable Service Lapel Button-WWII;

· Philippine Liberation Ribbon with one Bronze Service Star.

Major Gen. Best pinned the medals on the centenarian. 

“His service in the Pacific Theater of Operations was in places most of us only know about from what we’ve read in the history books, or seen in movies,” he said. “While we are recognizing his service in uniform, what is perhaps even more remarkable is his lifetime of service after he took off his Army uniform, in exchange for another type of ‘uniform.’ 

“This is indeed a special day for both a servant to his nation in its time of need, and a servant of God.”

Nearly a year before the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor that formally launched the United States into World War II, then 22-year-old Edward Flaherty Jr. was doing bookkeeping for his father’s garage in Kansas City, Mo., when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in the first peacetime draft. Bound to a year’s service, he stayed in the military for four years, until World War II ended in 1945.

“I could not conceive of myself killing another human being, so I applied for transfer to the medical detachment,” Father Flaherty recalled. “I chose the medics because I still, of course, had to be in the service to help win the war.”

After his discharge from the Army, he returned home to Kansas City and worked several years for the Folgers coffee company as a bookkeeper and accountant. But he was dissatisfied with the business world.

“I wanted to help people,” he said, adding that with a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy he felt ill equipped to try to pursue a new career in law or medicine. “In the back of my mind, even in grade school, I thought of being a Catholic priest. Finally, I guess the Holy Spirit took hold of me.”

Educated by Jesuits at Rockhurst High School and Rockhurst College, he had long admired them both as priests and excellent teachers. In 1959, at age 40, he entered the order.

“They just impressed me as good men,” Father Flaherty said. “They were working for God and for people.”

U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter and retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Steven Best presented Father Flaherty with the awards, and commended him for his life of service both as a medic and a priest, saying ““This is indeed a special day for both a servant to his nation in its time of need, and a servant of God.” (All photos by Brett Stakelin courtesy of Regis University )

After formation and with newly minted degrees in theology, he was ordained to the priesthood in 1965. He moved to Denver two years later to teach theology at Regis University. In his 54 years of ministry in the Archdiocese of Denver, in addition to working as an educator, he also served as a chaplain — both to the Knights of Columbus and at the former Lowry Air Force Base — and did pastoral ministry.

“I started helping a pastor at Shrine of St. Anne in Arvada (in 1992) and I was there for 21 years,” Father Flaherty said. “I finally decided (in 2013) at the age of 95 to retire.” 

Until his move just this week from Denver to the Jesuit’s retirement home in St. Louis,  Father Flaherty had continued pastoral ministry to brother priests residing with him at Regis’ Xavier Center and as chaplain to the North Denver Knights of Columbus.

He is getting adjusted to his new home and is still in awe over getting his military medals. A fellow Jesuit had apparently discovered Father Flaherty’s Army discharge papers and reached out to Perlmutter to recognize his military service before the priest left Denver. 

 “I had never dreamed of that happening,” Father Flaherty said. “I was quite honored in having a major general pin the medals on me. I was as surprised as anybody in the world may have been.”

All photos by Brett Stakelin courtesy of Regis University  

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”