Commander Leo Stanis, Chaplain Corps, U. S. Navy, served in the US Army during World War II. He was inspired to one day become a military chaplain. In 1967, he re-joined the service—this time as a Navy chaplain, and his service took him to Vietnam where he teamed with a local Catholic church to recover religious relics from the control of the North Vietnamese. When he wasn’t doing that, he was taking care of Marines at a place called Con Thien.
Jim Coan wrote about this place, located just south of the so-called Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Ask any Marine who was there, and he’ll tell you there was nothing demilitarized about it. It wasn’t only the enemy that was trying to kill Marines … sometimes, it was tragic human error. Conan tells us that human error was “… inevitable. Someone would make a mistake, and lives would be lost. That happened on August 15, 1967 at Con Thien. Ron Smith, a corpsman assigned to 1st Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines had just removed his boots to wash out his socks in his helmet when he heard a loud explosion. That dreaded cry went up: ‘Corpsman, get a corpsman over here!’ HM3 Smith, accompanied by another corpsman named Bob Wilson, ran barefooted over to the scene of the explosion. Both corpsmen had been through a lot that summer, but nothing could have prepared them for what they saw laying on the ground beneath a pall of smoke and dust. Two blood-covered Marines lay writhing in pain out in an old minefield. They were combat engineers clearing mines out of an area of Con Thien called ‘Death Valley’ where some Dyemarker bunkers would be constructed.
“The two Navy corpsmen never hesitated. They made two perilous trips through the deadly minefield to the side of the mortally wounded engineers and carried them to safety. One of the Marines was Corporal Gerald B. Weaver; he died in the arms of his corpsman Bob Wilson while expressing concern for his family, asking over and over, ‘How can my mother make it without me?’ The second Marine, Lance Corporal Andre R. Latesa, held Navy Chaplain Leo “Chappie” Stanis’ hand tightly, reciting the Lord’s Prayer over and over, while the two corpsmen worked rapidly to save his life. He would later succumb to his grievous wounds.”
Al Hemingway also wrote of A Place of Angels. “For the Marines manning that outpost just south of the DMZ, Con Thien was hell on earth when the NVA attacked.” Marines had another name for the firebase; they called it the meat grinder.
“Incoming! To men in combat, this warning means just seconds to find any obtainable shelter before enemy shells land. And for the Marines manning the desolate outpost at Con Thien, those seconds meant the difference between life and death.
“There is nothing more terrifying than to experience the feeling of sheet helplessness during an artillery barrage. There is something impersonal about the deadly whine of metal fragments as they search out victims to maim. These thunderous projectiles would hurl white-hot shrapnel everywhere, both large and small, ripping, tearing, and slicing human flesh. Prolonged shelling of this nature can also be psychologically detrimental.”
“’I can’t stand that artillery,’ one shaken Marine confessed. ‘There’s no warning, no rhyme or reason to who gets hit and who doesn’t.’”
“While traveling between companies to hold religious services, Navy Chaplain Leo Stanis had a rule. He never said mass for more than 25 individuals at a time. He would state from the outset: ‘Men, before we start, look around you. In case we receive incoming, we don’t all want to jump into the same hole. Let us pray…’”
The old adage that there are no atheists in foxholes applies to moments such as these when everyone is experiencing sheer terror —when the prospects of meeting their ultimate fate confronts them head-on and there is nothing they can do to alter the next few moments —which often seem like hours. It is also a time when the comforting words of men like Leo Stanis are most needed. “’Incoming at Con Thien many times makes us feel that the earth is removed and that the mountains are carried into the ocean,’ the chaplain said.”
“The Marines at Con Thien found solace in Stanis’ words. Anywhere he opened his Bible on ‘the hill of angels,’ that spot became his altar. And anytime a Marine feared for his life, he was there to alleviate his dismay. He was truly a man of compassion.”
Commander Stanis came under fire several times; he was awarded a Purple Heart for wounds received while in the service of God and His Marines. Yes, an exceptional man … and what many people do not realize is that there were hundreds of Chaplains just like him: men of God in military service. It is a tradition that began during the American Revolution. During the Vietnam War, 3 chaplains received the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity for service above and beyond the call of duty —all three of these men were Catholic priests.