May 3, 1998

Frederic Gehring, 95, Priest Called Padre of Guadalcanal

By ROBERT McG. THOMAS Jr.

The Rev. Frederic Gehring, the World War II Navy chaplain who plunged into jungle combat with the First Marine Division in 1942 and came out with a battle-scarred little Chinese girl who became an inspiring symbol of hope at a time of national despair, died on April 26 at a hospital near his home in Orlando, Fla. He was 95 and known as the Padre of Guadalcanal.

If the mention of the name Guadalcanal no longer sends chills down American spines, it is only because more than 50 years have passed since the United States, still reeling from the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and the simultaneous rout at Corrigedor eight months earlier, drew a line in the sand of a Guadalcanal beach and turned the island in the Solomons into the first bloody battleground of World War II.

And if the name Patsy Lee no longer is recognized as the miracle child of the war, it may be because the war is fading from memory and Father Gehring's 1962 book, "A Child of Miracles," is no longer in print.

For all the widespread wonder that a 6-year-old Chinese girl would be discovered in wartime on a remote Pacific island thousands of miles from China and the even greater wonder that she would survive after being bayonetted by Japanese soldiers and left for dead in a Guadalcanal ditch, her body wracked with malaria and the impression of a rifle butt imprinted on her smashed skull, it was not especially surprising that the man who nursed her back to life, took her to safety and helped make Patsy Lee a household name would be Lieut. Frederic Gehring.

For one thing, as a member of the Catholic Order established by St. Vincent dePaul to help the poor, he had spent most of the 1930's running orphanages in war-torn China. If there was a needy Chinese child to be found on Guadalcanal it was a cinch that Father Gehring would be the one to find a way to help her.

And, of course, he was from Brooklyn, where miracles were an article of baseball faith. By the time he joined the Marines on Guadalcanal a few weeks after they stormed ashore on Aug. 7, 1942, Father Gehring, who remained during the six-month campaign and later was chaplain at St. John's University, had come to accept miracles as routine.

On Christmas 1938, for example, Father Gehring's orphanage in China was strafed by Japanese planes. As others scrambled for cover, the priest, hoping to ward off the planes by signaling the pilots that they were attacking a neutral nation's mission, ran outside waving large American flag. As Father Gehring recalled, when the attack abruptly ended it was an especially satisfying moment for a priest, until a spoilsport at the missison suggested the planes might have left simply because they had run out of ammunition.

On Guadalcanal it was not miracles but Father Gehring's courage, dedication and perpetual cheer that led him to become a favorite of Adm. Bull Halsey, a violin-playing inspiration to the troops and the first Naval chaplain decorated with the Presidential Legion of Merit for conspicuous gallantry: On three occasions he went deep behind enemy lines to rescue missionaries.

Still, as a priest under fire, Father Gehring came to expect miracles.

Not that the Christmas Eve services he conducted in the peak December fighting in 1942 were a small matter to the priest, or to the 700 combat-weary worshipers who gathered at his new chapel tent (the old one had been blown to bits by Japanese artillery) to sing carols.

Finding someone to play his little pump organ might not have been a miracle, but some sort of chuckling divine intervention does seem to be the most logical explanation for the fact that the only man on Guadalcanal who knew how to play the organ was Barney Ross, a decorated war hero, who surely could not have just happened to be Jewish.

Painstakingly learning the carols note by note, Ross obligingly pumped out "Silent Night" and the rest of the Christian canon, and as Father Gehring, who accompanied him on the violin, later recalled, when they got to the post service finale, "My Yiddishe Mama," there wasn't a dry eye in the camp.

When a miracle was in the offing, Father Gehring always had help. There was, for example, Foster Hailey, the New York Times war correspondent who stumbled on Patsy Lee and wrote the series of articles that brought her to national attention.

Because he could not communicate with her in any of the eight Chinese dialects he knew, Father Gehring had made up the name Patsy Lee. But when a Singapore woman read the Times clippings sent to her by a sister in New York after the war, the woman, who had lost a 6-year-old daughter named Patsy Li at sea when their ship was torpedoed off Singapore in April 1942, refused to accept it as a coincidence.

Going in 1946 to the New Hebrides orphanage where the girl had been taken, the woman, Ruth Li, declared that Father Gehring's Patsy Lee was the child she had last seen drifting away on a piece of wreckage, 4,000 miles from Guadalcanal.

Father Gehring, who had corresponded with Li, warning her that the Guadalcanal child could not possibly be hers -- but suggesting that she adopt the girl, was not one to argue with miracles.

After all, the Navy doctor who first examined her on Guadalcanal had told Father Gehring that she could not live through the night.

She did better than that. After a troubled home life in Singapore, Lee was brought to the United States by Father Gehring in 1950, became a nurse, married, and after her husband died, married a man named Angelo Fasano.

After Father Gehring retired to Florida to live with his sister, Mariette Santangelo, his only survivor, Fasano, who now lives in Las Vegas, Nev., was a frequent visitor.

At Father Gehring's funeral on Thursday at St. Vincent's Seminary in Philadelphia, where he was ordained in 1930, she was there as was a Marine honor guard, reminders of a time when Guadalcanal was a name to reckon with and a little girl was a miracle of war.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company