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Senior Correspondent

How does a group of GIs, including a preacher’s kid, get to have an audience with the Pope? It doesn’t hurt to have a connection in Rome even if it is a basketball game.

In 1957, I was the commander of a NATO Fighter Base in France. It was peacetime, and the base was a busy place including off-duty activities for the fliers and plane crews. Our basketball team was pretty good, and they had beaten all the local teams. The coach told me that he had received a challenge for a championship game from a team in Rome coached by a priest friend of his. I told him to accept, and we would work out the details.

Our team loaded into my “Gooney Bird” for the short flight over the Alps to Rome. We were met by Father Wahl who had chartered a bus. He gave us a marvelous tour of the Holy City. At last I was able to see all the historical and biblical sites that I had learned about in my Latin studies in high school.

(Of particular interest to me as an airman was the fact that, despite the fierce World War II fighting in Italy, there was little damage to the religious sites in Rome. This was due in large part to the skillful leadership of General Jimmy Doolittle, who led a 500 aircraft bombing raid that completely destroyed the railroad yards in central Rome. Doolittle was careful to spare the religious sites even before Rome was declared an open city.)

On the last day of our visit, we were ushered into the Vatican Hall of Benedictions where we joined several hundred other visitors. There were two boxes at the front of the sanctuary. One was full of Cardinals in their red robes; we were escorted into the other. As a young Protestant, whose father and brother were Presbyterian ministers, the pomp and majesty of this sanctuary were positively breathtaking.

The Holy Father, Pope Pius XII, was ceremoniously carried into the hall on his sedan chair. He delivered his homily in several languages and specifically acknowledged the presence of our Air Force team from France. He then walked over to our box, accompanied by the Swiss Guards, and the above photo was taken. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence for me — one that I shall never forget.

As a remembrance of this spiritually moving experience, I was given a rosary which had been blessed by the Pope. I kept this rosary for many years until the Air Force Aide to President Kennedy notified me of the death of a close mutual friend, Col. James Chatfield. I had served with Jim and knew him as a devout Catholic. I was honored to be asked to be his funeral escort.

I took the rosary with me to his funeral and presented it to his widow, who placed it in Jim’s casket. 

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