Fr. Christopher Berlo, C.P. A Passionist ‘James Bond’
Edited by Morgan P. Hanlon, C.P.
Student archivists are cautioned by their instructors to avoid gathering material that focusses too heavily on the plans, programs, buildings or real estate of the organization whose history they are documenting. One then ends up with a dry-as-dust story of programs, etc. but not the living story of the men or women who did the work, labored and suffered for the organization and whose lives are the real story. Religious communities have been especially guilty of this tendency.
Sometimes, out of genuine humility, a true hero or heroine, obscures their own role in a fascinating tale. In the following article we are previleged to share the story of such a hero—Fr. Christopher Berlo, C.P. We have this story only because “Chris,” as he was known, was urged by members of his own family to commit his experiences to writing in 1948 for a family publication, THE BERLO FAMILY REGISTER & HISTORY. We hope you will find it as interesting as we did.
Fr. Morgan Hanlon, C.P., Editor
BERLO, Christopher John, C.P. 1902 – 1979
Ch. Chris J Berlo, 0-517909
Staff, Percy Jones Gen. Hosp.
Battle Creek, Michigan
15 April 1948
I was born 45 years ago in Boston. My father was a pioneer of the automotive industry with the first garage in that city and his antecedents were French, having streamlined the name from Berleau to Berlo in 1729. My mother was descended from Alsatian stock, almost entirely self-educated and endowed with more than a normal share of that open honesty, militant common sense and willingness to work commonly associated with the old-school conservative New Englander.
Since my parents gave me complete freedom in the choice of my life’s ambition, I left home at an early age and became a student at St. Joseph’s Prep School, then located in Baltimore, thus beginning a nomadic existence of living out of a suitcase which has lasted, with few interruptions, for 32 years and taken me to 21 countries of this earth. My studies were continued in various cities of the eastern United States and Europe and I was ordained in 1927 in an old pilgrimage church in the Styrian Alps, which is now located behind the iron curtain. Then began a series of European assignments which took me all over the continent and necessitated the study of several foreign languages.
In addition to the normal clerical duties of a missionary and religious superior, I was also entrusted with the restoration and modernizing of Monasteries and Churches, the designing and construction of new units, and also the compilation of an extensive and artistic work in Latin dealing with Gregorian Chant. The last thousand copies of this work were destroyed at the printers in Belgium when the German Wehrmacht overran that country in 1940.
The most interesting and politically dangerous assignment consisted in the designing and construction of a new monastic unit in the Palatinate district of Bavaria immediately after Hitler’s rise to power in 1934. The financing of this project involved the purchase of a large packet of frozen credit Marks from the Reichsbank in Berlin and the release of the same through the Devisenstelle in Nuremberg for the purpose of employing the jobless in a certain town—a complicated procedure by means of which the Nazi government unwittingly paid the lion’s share of the cost of building a new Monastery at the same time that it was confiscating and secularizing old ones. For this piece of “business administration” I was promised 15 years in jail, and while I actually stood trial on five occasions in Amberg and Nuremberg and had to flee the country several times, it was proved in court that every step of the proceedings had been accomplished in accordance with existing laws and I have yet to see the inside of a Nazi lockup. In 1938 it was no longer possible for me as an American to hold the position of Rector of the monastery; in fact, it was no longer possible to work anywhere within reach of the Nazi strong arm, so I again returned to the United States where I spent the next year working in Pittsburgh and the adjacent coal mining areas.
In the summer of 1939 I flew from New York to Marseilles on one of the pioneer flights of Pan American Airways and then on to Rome in an Italian bomber where I arrived in late August and had another private audience with the present Pontiff, Pope Pius XII, whom I have known since he was Papal Secretary of State. On the following day Hitler’s troops marched into Poland and World War II was under way. A month later I was given an assignment in Austria and Germany which I undertook with misgivings, despite my good contacts and fluent use of German dialects. In the company of Italian aviators the border crossing at Tarvis presented no problems and for a while I managed to fulfill my duties without opposition, for as it turned out later, the Gestapo did not then know I had returned. During this time the practical plans were laid for the preservation of our monastic property during the war, or its recovery after the war.
Finally, in the summer of 1940, after Dunkirk, my contact in the German Sicherheitsdienst or Secret Service warned me of impending disaster. I studied every means of exit: through Italy or Switzerland, or by air to Lisbon or Danube riverboat to the Black Sea, or even via the Siberian railroad to Vladivostock: all were closed to me.
So I made one gigantic effort to leave the country in a legal manner; I coolly walked into Gestapo headquarters in Vienna and requested an exit permit on my American Passport, presenting a letter from the American Consulate. I was ushered into the private office of the chief, who turned out to be the former chargè d’affaires of the German Consulate in Vienna. We recognized each other at once and I knew I had made a colossal mistake. He laughed in my face, took the letter from the Consulate by the corner as though it were something unclean and dropped it into his wastepaper basket, confiscated my passport and told me I was under investigation, must not leave the city, and might return in three weeks for a decision. The meaning of this was all too clear to me: my passport would be given to a German spy and I would be arrested before midnight.
Extreme situations call for extreme measures. By five o’clock that evening I had personally reappropriated my passport and bluffed my way out of the building by starting an argument between the sentry and his corporal and by midnight I was holed up in a beer tavern owned by a friend of mine in Wiener Neustadt, a city thirty miles south of Vienna. By nine the next morning I had secured my exit permit from a female employee of the county in Neunkirchen; at noon I said a hurried goodbye to my confreres in the Styrian Alps and had taken to the road as a fugitive, with 27 American dollars in my pocket. Thirty days and 8600 miles later, I landed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard determined to ask for a Chaplain’s commission in the US Army.
Two hours after I left the Monastery in the Styrian Alps, a car with Gestapo agents drove up with the intention of arresting me for espionage. But not even Hitler’s agents could arrest a man until they had caught him. They followed my trail back to Vienna, on a troop train to the Czech border, back to Leipsig, to the Polish border, then to Berlin, where for a while I succeeded in getting lost among the three million inhabitants. During this time I watched an English air raid on Germany’s capital from the Propaganda Minister’s backyard. Goebbels was in the underground shelter; I had a box seat outside. By bribing a native with a generous supply of meat ration tickets—they were no use to me for their original purpose—I secured the information I wanted and shortly thereafter managed to board a Swedish railroad ferry at Sassnitz harbor while German troops were loading for Norway at the same pier, and by the following morning I was in Trolleborg, Sweden, where I was received and cleared by armed military guards. After a short rest in Stockholm, where a friendly hotelkeeper brought me up to date on my rations, I continued on, mostly by train, to the north. At Haparanda I was fed courtesy of the mayor and spent the night in a sleeping car in the railroad yards. Then over to Tornio in Finland and a day-long trip with a wood-burning locomotive built in 1906, to Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle.
The Finns were most courteous, but food was almost unobtainable, and for the first time I passed out from hunger. The same night I continued northward, on a kind of bus, over the Arctic Highway, destination Petsamo, about 400 miles away. This was between the first and second occupation of Petsamo by the Russians and at this time exactly 12 buildings remained standing in that city. I counted them.
Here I spent almost a week, watching the German artillery on one side of the bay and the Russian pieces on the other side, and finally the rescue, a gleaming white American ship, an Army transport, in the harbor. The magic “Sesame” to this ship was not money, but an American passport. A couple of weeks later I was again in the land of the free, and the Statue of Liberty never looked so welcome.
Early in 1943, my superiors finally released me for service in the Army and after a year of infantry training with the 75th Division in the USA, I was sent to the Pacific. For obvious reasons, I was not sent to the European Theater of Operations. For the next two years I followed the course of the fighting from Australia to Japan, first on New Guinea at Milne Bay and Finschafen, then with the 40th Division in New Britain and then with the 19th Infantry Regiment of the 24th Hawaiian Division. With these experienced jungle fighters I made the initial invasion of the Philippines on the left flank of Red Beach at Leyte and within the first week of that important campaign, hand buried 151 of my men, every one of them a hero. Later I took part in the invasion of Mindoro and the other jobs handled by the West Visayan Task Force, including the Islands of Romblon and Verde, the landing at Tagaitai Ridge and up through Ft. McKinley to Manila, and finally the entire Mindanao Operation. With the 19th I also went to Japan after the surrender and was the only Catholic Army Chaplain on the Island of Shikoku.
In the spring of 1946 I returned to the USA and after some leave time, served at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, Camp Lee in Virginia and Ft. Knox, Kentucky and was then sent to join the Army of Occupation in Germany. There I was Chaplain with the 15th Constabulary Regiment and was known as the flying Padre, for every Sunday I visited my various troop units with a small liaison plane to conduct services. Recurrent attacks of malaria, contracted in the South Pacific, finally terminated my tour of duty in Europe and in 1948 I was again returned to the United States. But before leaving Europe I was able to visit the places where I had worked before the war and it afforded me no small gratification to see that my religious work of the pre-war days had survived the ravages of war and is now flourishing with renewed vigor.
In 1946 I made the acquaintance of Mr. Carl Gubisch and learned of his ambition to make the study of our Constitution available to every man, woman and child in our country. His plan produced a sympathetic response, for I had been nursing the same idea for many years. Then by mistake I was sent a copy of a Communistic booklet on our Constitution, “The Founding of the Bourgeois Republic,” which so infuriated me that I started at once with the composition of our booklet, “Know Your Constitution”.
I sincerely hope that this booklet will have as universal a coverage as possible and do its part in the education of Americans to our priceless heritage of life, liberty and happiness, its share in the saving of our country, and if possible the whole world, from any and every kind of totalitarianism.
At the present time I am duty Catholic Chaplain at Percy Jones General Hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan.
CHRIS J BERLO
Ch. Capt. USA
The preceding resume was written by Father Christopher in 1948. It was graciously sent to the BERLO FAMILY REGISTER & HISTORY by Vickie and Ernest Berlo, San Francisco, California, in September 1984. Many thanks to Vickie and Ernest for sharing this wonderful find with all of the relatives.
From BERLO FAMILY REGISTER & HISTORY by Peter W. Berlo