Mysterious monument finds way to NC Knights Council

Joshua Whitney

Fr. Joseph Vanderheiden was many things.

He was a small-town Nebraska boy, a priest, a coach, a veteran, a prisoner of war, and ultimately, someone who gave his life in service to God and his country.

He was also the namesake for Nebraska City Knights of Columbus Council No. 3152.

His story had largely been lost to time, but thanks to a plaque of mysterious origin and the diligent research that followed, his story and his sacrifice have been passed on to a new generation.

A few years ago, as he was cleaning out the Vet Center in Dodge, Neb., Norm Fendrick, a member of Knights Council No. 1794 of Humphrey, found a metal plaque honoring Fr. Vanderheiden, where it apparently was hidden for decades.

The bronze plaque, measuring about 8 x 13 inches, reads “Memorial to Rev. Joseph Vanderheiden, O.S.B. Age 34, Chaplain of World War II, died in active service of the U.S. Army, Buried at sea in Pacific theater of war, January 14, 1945.”

Fendrick said the plaque prompted a host of questions, such as “Where did the plaque come from? Why was it here? Who was this guy?”

He spent the next several years answering those questions and learned a lot about the life of Fr. Vanderheiden.

As he discovered, Fr.Vanderheiden was born Gerald D. Vanderheiden on Oct. 22, 1911, at Humphrey, the oldest of Theodore J. and Ida Mary Vanderheiden.

The family moved several times and settled in the Dodge area for most of the 1920’s, and Fr. Vanderheiden was confirmed at St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church in Dodge, and several of his siblings were baptized there.

Following his eighth-grade graduation in 1927, he attended high school at Conception Abbey in Conception, Mo., where he later entered the Benedictine Abbey novitiate in 1931 and took simple vows a year later, taking the name Joseph.

Solemn profession came two years later, and his ordination followed three years after that in 1937. Following ordination, he stayed on at Conception Abbey as a prefect and a teacher and coached at the Catholic school in nearby Clyde, Mo.

As World War II neared, he entered the Army as a chaplain in July of 1941 and found himself on Mindanao, an island in the southern Philippines where the 5th Air Base Group was constructing an air base for heavy bombers.

The Japanese invaded the island the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and U.S. forces surrendered several months later on May 10, 1942.

Fr. Vanderheiden would spend the rest of his life, 989 days, as a prisoner of war.

After being housed at Malabalay Prison camp until October of that year, he spent the next year and a half at a prison camp on the southern part of the island.

On D-Day, Fr. Vanderheiden and more than 9,200 other prisoners began a journey that took them to Bilibid prison in Manilla before being boarded on what the POWs call “hell ships.”

On these “hell ships,” the POWs were placed in the ship’s hold, and food and good air were scarce and sanitation was nonexistent; many POWs on these ships died of starvation and suffocation.

These ships were not marked as ships containing POWs and were attacked by allied planes, as was the ship Fr. Vanderheiden was on on Dec. 15, 1944.

He and 1,300 (out of more than 1,600) of his fellow POWs survived the attack, only to be placed in another makeshift prison and moved around before ending up on another “hell ship,” the Brazil Maru, where he died on Jan. 14, 1945 of beriberi, a vitamin-B1 deficiency, and was buried at sea.

Of the group of more than 1,600 POWs, including about 20 other Catholic priests, only 128 survived the war.

At the time of his service, Fr. Vanderheiden’s family lived at Nebraska City, and the family donated a stained-glass window in the new St. Mary’s Catholic church in 1945 in his memory.

Three years later, the Knights of Columbus council at Nebraska City was chartered and named in his honor. His father was one of its charter members.

As for how the plaque found its way to Dodge, Fendrick recalls that “I came to realize that I may have been responsible for it being there. Possibly, it was given to me several years ago by a woman in Omaha who had it and believed he had a connection to Dodge.”

“She wanted it to be someplace that had a connection to him,” he continued, and “I left it at the Vets’ Club, while attending an American Legion meeting.”

It remains a mystery, however, how this woman came to have it and where it was originally displayed.

Fendrick learned of the Nebraska City connection and felt it belonged with the Knights council there, where he presented it at the council meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 29.

During the meeting, Fendrick shared the fruits of his research with the council members and several honored guests, including Knights from Humphrey and members of Fendrick’s family.

Said Financial Secretary Ken Carlstedt, “The very detailed background info discovered of Father Vanderheiden and the other Chaplains had an emotional impact on all our council members.”

“Going forward, it will also provide more inspiration for the Knights and others to pursue charity, faith and other goals,” he added.

The plaque was later placed prominently in council’s display cabinet, where it will serve as a reminder of Fr. Vanderheiden’s sacrifice and the council’s origins.

Pictured is a stained glass window honoring Fr. Vanderheiden.