Book review: The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots

The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots is the autobiography of Philip Hannan.  I’m not sure that a Protestant would find it as fascinating as I did, but most of it is interesting for the sheer amount of history in it.  Anecdotes range from standing outside the Patterson house to catch a glimpse of Calvin Coolidge and Charles Lindbergh in 1927 to giving the homily for John F. Kennedy’s funeral to personal letters from Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Hannan attended the North American College seminary in Rome in the late 1930’s, when Mussolini was in power.  While touring Europe on summer break in August 1939, he was warned by a woman to go west, because the German trains were full of troops.  They sent all the American seminarians home in the summer of 1940 on the S.S. Manhattan, where a Nazi sub trailed them all the way to American waters.

Hannan joined the Army as a chaplain in 1942.  (**waves at Padre Harvey**)  He went to Harvard for the military chaplaincy training then was assigned to a training center in Miami.  I was amused by his story of trying to prevent  hasty marriages by making soldiers fill out the form to request permission to marry in triplicate but without carbon paper.  If the soldier misspelled his fiancee’s name or forgot her address in any of the three attempts, permission was denied.  Hannan kept applying for an overseas post and was finally sent to England.  From there, he went to France in July 1944 and ended up with the 82nd Airborne where, in a convoluted series of events, he was nearly shot for wearing a trench coat.

My favorite story of Chaplain Hannan was that if he was going to be in the 82nd Airborne, he should be jump-qualified.  No training at Fort Benning for him, just load up, fly over war-torn Germany and jump.  Since he was an officer, he needed to be the first to jump.  Even better, for his second jump, the C.O. gave him a field promotion to jumpmaster as a “morale boost” for the men.  “What fool thought up this command?” went through his mind at one point.  Now jump-qualified, it was back to tending the wounded and dying, using the hood of a Jeep as an altar when necessary, and trying to help the survivors of the war, especially from the Wöbbelin concentration camp.

There’s a lot more in the book – dealing with racial integration in the Catholic schools, secretly advising President Kennedy, taking part in the Second Vatican Council (where he eloquently argued that possession of nuclear weapons should not be forbidden if used as a deterrent for war), and helping New Orleans recover from Hurricane Betsy in 1965.  (That part was more than a little frustrating, reading, “The Ninth Ward was under eight feet of water”, knowing that they rebuilt for Hurricane Katrina to come along 40 years later and flood them again, and would rebuild yet again.  MOVE to higher ground!)    There’s some interesting behind-the-scenes stories about what’s involved in a papal visit and perhaps a little jealousy that he was never promoted to Cardinal.

It is indeed a “memoir of an extraordinary life.”