While my grandfather offered land support on the Western Front during World War II, his cousin, Joe Beckman, offered air support in the Pacific over Guadalcanal, New Guinea and the Philippines. Some of his fiercest battles took place over the seaport of Balikpapan.
Balikpapan – now Indonesia – supplied the Japanese with one-fifth of their petroleum needs and hence was the site of fierce aviation battles. Every mission was met with enemy ground and air fire from Japanese long-range fighter aircraft, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero.
January 5, 1942: a young American navigator stares down at 13 playing cards firmly clutched in his hand. All around a dimly lit, smoke-filled room, he can hear the jumbled commotion of his fellow aviators. Stories of fond family memories, sports and maybe even some inappropriate conversations hover in the air, dancing with the white smoke emitted from a sea of cigarettes and cigars.
His hands are shaking, and he feels a cold shiver cross through his body. These January cold spells were all too common for this young man growing up in Ohio. But this was a different kind of shiver, and he wasn’t in Ohio. He knew tomorrow could be his last day on Earth. Only hours, and this game of Hearts, separated him from his fate. Tomorrow he would board a B-24 Liberator plane with the 5th Bombardment Group of the 13th Air Force.
Months earlier, he was working at a local machine shop when he contemplated joining the priesthood. He had made a pact that if he came back alive from the greatest war the world had ever seen, he would join the seminary and offer his life up to God. That night the odds were in his favor, and he ended up winning the card game and a $3.60 IOU from a fellow navigator. Unfortunately, Joe would never see that $3.60 or the navigator again. This navigator, like many other aviators during the Asia-Pacific War of World War II, never made it back home.
Over the course of the next three years, Joe Beckman would have 43 more nights like this one. He and his fellow crew members would average over 10 hours a mission, and fly three missions over 15 hours. During the battle of Balikpapan, he witnessed some close friends shot down over the oilfields, their lives cut short at the hands of the Japanese Army. They would forever stay young in the minds of those they left behind.
By the time the war was over, Joe and his crewmates had flown a total of 44 combat missions. Their pilot was not yet 21 years old, and Joe had just turned 23. It was during his time in Asia that Joe came face to face with world poverty problems. He saw illness, death and disease and the misfortunes of those who had to live in huts with dirt floors, lacking electricity and water.
He upheld his pact and become a priest in 1954, teaching high school for 12 years and serving as the Catholic Newman chaplain at Miami University in Oxford from 1964 to 1971. He traveled to 100 countries, and his church and world poverty articles have been featured in 65 publications.
At age 96 as of this writing in 2018, Father Joe Beckman continues to serve as an example of the long and enduring faith and commitment of one man, and the follow-through on an IOU to God that many never had the opportunity to repay.
Editor’s note: Rev. Joseph E. Beckman died in Cincinnati on Tuesday, July 20, 2021, months short of his 100th birthday. The Catholic Telegraph Magazine chronicled his service as a priest in its bicentennial edition in June 2021. The Telegraph’s obituary is here.
Chris Beckman also wrote about the military service of his grandfather, William Beckman: