Abraham leads efforts to honor Acadiana WWII hero

Lt. Joseph Verbis Lafleur, an Army chaplain who sacrificed his life in World War II.
Lt. Joseph Verbis Lafleur, an Army chaplain who sacrificed his life in World War II.

(Press Release) WASHINGTON – Congressman Ralph Abraham, M.D., R-Alto, is leading the effort in the U.S. House of Representatives to bring long overdue recognition for the heroism of Lt. Joseph Verbis Lafleur, an Army chaplain who sacrificed his life in World War II. He has introduced a bill that would award Lafleur with the Distinguished Service Cross.

In December 1941, the Japanese attacked Lafleur’s steamship. Lafleur remained onboard to minister and aid evacuating soldiers. He was the last person to leave the ship and was eventually captured by enemy soldiers.

While imprisoned in the Japanese POW camp, Lafleur continued to minister to other prisoners, and he endured multiple beatings from guards as a result. Though he suffered from malaria and failing health due to field labor, he denied himself medicine so that others could take it and volunteered for the grueling Lasang work detail to spare others that pain.

Lafleur died in 1944 while aboard a Hell ship bound for Japan after a torpedo struck the ship. His family, who lives in Dr. Abraham’s district in Opelousas, has been seeking to recognize Lafleur for his service to our nation. Dr. Abraham, joined by other members of the Louisiana congressional delegation, introduced a bill this week to help pave the way for Lafleur to be awarded with the Distinguished Service Cross, a recognition second only to the Medal of Honor.

“Chaplain Lafleur is more than deserving of the Distinguished Service Cross for his incredible acts of heroism and self-sacrifice in the face of tremendous adversity. His faith in God and country is an inspiration to us all. His service to our nation can never be fully repaid, but I am thankful that I get to play a small role in highlighting to the nation what this great Louisianian did for it and his fellow soldiers,” said Dr. Abraham, who serves on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

Lafleur’s family has been trying for years to get him the recognition he deserves. The Army reviewed the case and determined he is eligible for the Distinguished Service Cross. Due to the amount of time that has passed, legislation is required to move the process forward. Dr. Abraham’s bill provides the authorization needed for the Secretary of the Army to award Lafleur with his medal.

Reps. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, John Fleming, R-Minden, and Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, cosponsored Dr. Abraham’s House legislation. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., has introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

Dr. Boustany said, “I am proud to support legislation that recognizes the valiant effort and unwavering bravery of American soldiers. If there ever was an individual worth receiving such an honor, it is First Lieutenant Joseph Verbis Lafleur. As a prisoner of war on a Japanese ship, Lafleur deprived himself of his basic needs to tend to the physical and spiritual needs of his fellow soldiers.  It is because of his sacrifice and the sacrifice of others like him that we can experience the freedoms we have today.”

Dr. Fleming said, “Even as we celebrated our nation’s independence this week, we cannot lose sight of the men and women who have, are right now, and will in the future, honorably, courageously, and valiantly serve in our nation’s armed forces. Chaplain Lafleur, a true unsung WWII hero, selflessly provided physical and spiritual nourishment for his comrades in captivity. Chaplains are an integral part of our military fabric, facilitating the free exercise of religion within the military, and providing timely care, compassion, and comfort to our servicemen and women.”

Rep. Graves said, “Chaplain Lafleur’s passion to fill the needs of the people and circumstances surrounding him influenced his every decision – as a priest in Abbeville and Opelousas to a First Lieutenant serving in the Pacific – and continues to inspire us today. His willingness to put others before himself endured to the end – choosing to help his men instead of himself escape the sinking ship that ultimately took his life. He embodied the spirit of the Distinguished Service Cross, and I’m proud to support the effort to authorize this award in recognition.”