The Ordeal of Fr. Kapaun

by Brent Klaske

Note: The following article appeared in our February 2008 edition of The Angelus. We present it again today in light of the news that Fr. Kapaun is today receiving, posthumously, the Congressional Medal of Honor.

He wore the cross of the Chaplain branch instead of the crossed rifles of the infantry, but he was, I think, the best foot soldier I ever knew, and the bravest man, and the kindest. His name was Emil Joseph Kapaun, and he was a priest of the Roman Catholic Church. But the men he served in the prison camps of Korea didn’t care whether he was Catholic or Baptist, Lutheran or Presbyterian. To all of them, Catholic, Protestant and Jew alike, and to men who professed no formal faith at all, he was simply “Father,” and each of them, when trouble came, drew courage and hope and strength from him.

He’s dead now, murdered by the Red Chinese, and his body lies in an unmarked grave somewhere along the Yalu. But the hundreds of men who knew and loved him have not forgotten him. And I write this so that the folks at home can know what kind of man he was, and what he did for us, and how he died.

The first thing I want to make clear is this: He was a priest of the Church, and a man of great piety, but there was nothing ethereal about him, nothing soft or unctuous or holier-than-thou. He wore his piety in his heart. Outwardly he was all GI, tough of body, rough of speech sometimes, full of the wry humor of the combat soldier. In a camp where men had to steal or starve, he was the most accomplished food thief of them all. [This and other references to “stealing” are used loosely. As the Catholic Encyclopedia says, “one in danger of death from want of food, or suffering any form of extreme necessity may lawfully take from another as much as is required to meet his present distress even though the possessor’s opposition be entirely clear” (s.v. “Theft”).–Ed.] In a prison whose inmates hated their communist captors with a bone-deep hate, he was the most unbending enemy of Communism, and when they tried to brain­wash him, he had the guts to tell them to their faces that they lied. He pitied the Reds for their delusions, but he preached no doc­trine of turn-the-other-cheek. I came upon him once sitting in the sunshine by the road. There was a smile on his face and a look of happiness in his eyes.

I hated to break in on his meditations, but I needed cheering, so I asked him, “What are you thinking of, Father?”

“Of that happy day,” he said, “when the first American tank rolls down that road. Then I’m going to catch that little so-and-so, Comrade Sun, and kick his butt right over the compound fence.”

He Spoke In Parallels

Such plain, blunt speech was typical of him. He always spoke in phrases that the most unlettered soldier could understand, for he was the son of a Kansas farmer, and he had a farmer’s flair for down-to-earth, homely talk.

In his religious services, which he doggedly held even though the Chinese threatened him, his brief sermons were deep, but every point he made struck home. Even the great mysteries of the Catholic Faith, which no man can fully comprehend, became clearer to us as he talked of them.

He always spoke in parallels, relating the sufferings that Christ endured to those that we were forced to bear. As he spoke, the agony in the garden, the road to Calvary, the Crucifixion, became very real to us, who ourselves lived daily under the threat of death, and who bore our own crosses of blows, and cold, and illness, and starvation. But Christ endured, he told us, and we, too, must endure, for the day of our resurrection from the tomb of the prison camp would surely come, as surely as the stone was rolled away from the sepulchre.

Because of those sermons, which gave us hope and courage, and because of the food he stole for us and the care he gave us when we were sick, many of us came back who never would have survived our long ordeal without him.

He had become a legend among the troops long before the Chinese captured him. When his outfit, the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division, was fighting along the Naktong River, his jeep was blown up by enemy fire and his driver was wounded. So, he commandeered a ramshackle bicycle. Helmet jammed down over his ears, pockets stuffed with apples and peaches he had scrounged from Korean orchards, he’d ride this bone-shaker over the rocky roads and the paths through the paddy fields until he came to the forward outposts. There he’d drop in a shallow hole beside a nervous rifleman, crack a joke or two, hand him a peach, say a little prayer with him and move on to the next hole.

He always stayed close to the fighting. Even before the blood had dried on the dusty slopes after the Cav had taken a hill, he’d set up his altar on a litter stretched across two ammunition boxes. There on the battlefield, with mortar fire coming in and the enemy massing for a counterattack, he’d hear Confessions, and celebrate the Mass, and administer Holy Communion to men who in another hour would be in battle again.

His parish was the front and the battalion aid station close behind the lines. There he’d cheer and comfort the wounded all he could. He’d joke and kid with the lightly wounded, and over the dying men–whatever their faith–he’d say the last prayers of the Church. He seemed to have no fear that he himself might be killed.

At Kumchon early in the war, when word came back that there was a wounded man on the left flank of the first battalion, in a position so exposed that the litter men could not reach him, Father and another officer went after him and brought him back, crawling and ducking from rock to rock through fire so thick his pipe was shot out of his mouth.

Capture at Unsan

It was his devotion to the wounded which finally cost him his freedom, and his life. It was at Unsan, on the second of November in 1950. For 36 hours the 8th Cavalry, fighting a perimeter defense, beat off a fanatical attack. Early in the morning the breakthrough came, and all day hand-to-hand fighting swirled around the command post and the aid station where the wounded lay.

Finally, at dusk, the order came for every man who could still walk to try a breakout through the surrounding enemy. Father, who was unwounded, might have escaped with them. He refused to go. Of his own freewill he stayed on, helping Captain Clarence L. Anderson, the regimental surgeon, take care of the wounded. And there, just at dark, the Chinese took him as he said the last prayers over a dying man.

I’ll never forget the night I finally met him. It was at Pyoktong, on a backwater of the Yalu River, a village where prisoners from many American units were being assembled. With the survivors of my outfit, C Company of the 19th Infantry of the 24th Division, I had been brought there from near Anju where we had been overrun.

The men of the 89th Cavalry who had broken out of the perimeter and had later been captured by twos and threes as they scattered to the south, were already there. As we came in, they crowded around us, asking for word of Fr. Kapaun. We had none.

That afternoon, Pyoktong was bombed. A B-26 swept over, dropping fire bombs, and more than half the city went up in flames. The Chinese panicked. They broke all the prisoners out of their houses and, shooting at the feet of the walking wounded to hurry them along, they herded us up onto a hill above the town. All that afternoon and into the night we sat there on the icy slope, cold and miserable, smoking cigarettes made of dried oak leaves and watching the burning town. That night, they brought us down to where the wounded from another group lay along a road on litters made out of straw sacks stretched on rough pine poles. We shouldered their stretchers and set off over a frozen road to the southwest.

The Man Behind

I was on the right-hand pole, at the front. We carried them on our shoulders, and as the shoulder began to ache with the pressure of the pole against the muscle, we’d stop and change round.

It was during one of these breaks that I noticed the man who was carrying behind me. He was a short man, thick-shouldered, with wide-set gray eyes and a strong jaw with a deep cleft in it. He wore a thin red-brown beard, with a little tuft of goat whiskers at the chin.

“I’m Mike Dowe,” I said.

“Kapaun,” he said, and put out his hand.

“Father!” I said, feeling as if I’d met an old friend. “I’ve heard about you.”

He smiled. “Don’t pass it along,” he said. “It might get back to the Chief of Chaplains.” It was a feeble joke, but it cheered us all.

Hour after hour we stumbled on. It was hard enough to walk by yourself in the dark, on that slippery footing, but carrying a litter was agony. Father never ordered a man to carry. After a rest he’d just call, “Let’s pick ’em up,” and all down the line the guys would bend and lift, and follow him.

Far in the night we came to a village of huts scattered along a narrow valley. The Chinese went ahead of us, driving the people out of the houses. We dropped all the wounded off at one house, and the rest of us were moved on to other houses farther up the valley. Father and Doctor Anderson refused to leave the wounded, but the Chinese threatened them and made them move on with the rest of us. The next morning they came around and pulled all the officers out and put us together in a compound at the north end of the valley.

Father squawked about being separated from the enlisted men. But the Chinese poked him with gun butts and made him move along.

St. Dismas, The Good Thief

In the first week of our stay in the valley the Chinese allowed us a food ration of about 500 grams (1 lb. 2oz.) of millet or cracked corn per man per day. It was a starvation ration to begin with, and then they cut it down to 450 grams (slightly less than a pound). It was obvious, Father said, that we must either steal food or slowly starve. And in that dangerous enterprise we must have the help of some power beyond ourselves.

So, standing before us all, he said a prayer to St. Dismas, the Good Thief, who was crucified at the right hand of Jesus, asking for his aid.

I’ll never doubt the power of prayer again. Father, it seemed, could not fail. At the risk of being shot by the guards he’d sneak at night into the little fields around the compound and prowl through the shocked corn, and find where the Koreans had hidden potatoes and grain beneath the corn shocks.

He moved out of the crowded room where 19 of us slept spoon-fashion on the dirt floor, to sleep in an open shed in the compound–and found that the shed backed up to a crib full of Korean corn, which he stole, surreptitiously, ear by ear.

His riskiest thefts were carried out by daylight under the noses of the Chinese. The POWs cooked their own food, which was drawn from an open supply shed some two miles down the valley. When men were called out to make the ration run, Father would slip in at the end of the line. Before the ration detail reached the supply shed, he’d slide off into the bushes.

Creeping and crawling, he’d come up behind the shed, and while the rest of us started a row with the guards and the Chinese doling out the rations, he’d sneak in, snatch up a sack of cracked corn and scurry off into the bushes with it.

There were other men stealing, too, and some of them squirreled their stolen food away to eat themselves. Father tossed his into the common pot. He never said a word to the men who hid and hoarded food. But at night, after a successful foray, he’d say a prayer of thanks to God for providing food “which all can equally share.” That seemed to shame them, and soon the private hoarding stopped.

His one great failure had overtones of humor which served to relieve what, at the moment, was black tragedy. Once after we’d been moved back to Pyoktong, a little black pig wandered into the compound. Men who had tasted no meat in months felt themselves drooling as Father, a big rock in his hand, cautiously stalked the pig.

While a dozen silent prayers went up, he raised the stone high and brought it down. It struck the pig, but only a glancing blow. The pig set up a horrible squealing, the Chinese guard came running, slamming a cartridge into his rifle and shouting, ” Huh? Huh? Huh?” Father fled for the latrine, and the guard, confused, ran down the road in hot pursuit of the pig.

The Sick House

Soon after we reached the valley, the wounded in the sick house–the Chinese called it the hospital–began to die by dozens, poisoned by their untended wounds. Finally the Chinese allowed Doctor Anderson to go to their aid, though he had nothing but the skill of his hands to help them. Encouraged by this concession, Father asked permission to go with the doctor. It was refused.

“What these men need is medicine, not prayer,” the Chinese told him.

“Since they aren’t getting any medicine,” Father answered, “a little prayer won’t hurt.”

“No,” the Chinese said, “you will not be permitted to spread your poisonous Christian propaganda here.”

Then began Father’s most hazardous exploits. On days when there was a ration run, he’d stop and steal food at the warehouse. Then with his pockets full of cracked corn, or millet, dodging the Chinese roving patrols that watched the trail, he’d move on to the house where the wounded were.

On days when there was no ration run or wood-carrying detail, he’d sneak down to the creek that ran through the valley, ducking under the bushes to keep out of sight of the guards along the road.

He scrounged cotton undershirts to make bandages. He took their old bandages, foul with corruption, and sneaked them out and washed them and sneaked them back again. He picked the lice from their bodies, an inestimable service, for a man so weak he cannot pick his own lice soon will die. He let them smoke his pipe, loaded with dry cotton leaves, and he joked with them, and said prayers for them, and held them in his arms like children as delirium came upon them.

But the main thing he did for them was to put into their hearts the will to live. For when you are wounded and sick and starving, it’s easy to give up and quietly die.

Somehow, as it says in the New Testament, “Power went forth from him and healed them.” In Fr. Kapaun’s valley the conditions were the same as in the camp known as Death Valley. But in Death Valley the death rate was ten times higher. Even when they died, he did not abandon them.

The POWs buried their own dead, carrying the bodies up the adjacent mountainsides and later, in Pyoktong, across the frozen Yalu backwater to a little island where they dug the graves in the stony frozen ground.

Men dodged this detail whenever they could. But Father always volunteered. And at the grave as the earth covered the naked body–for the clothing of the dead was saved to warm the living–he would utter for them the last great plea: “Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.”

When he had done all he could at the house of the wounded he would slip out to the houses where the enlisted men were kept. He would step in quickly and quietly, saying, “The Lord be with you,” and the starving, torpid men lying on the straw mats would sit up and respond, as he had taught them, “And with thy spirit.” Then he would say a quick general service, beginning with a prayer for the men who had died in Korea, both in battle and in prison, and for the sick and wounded, and for the folks back home. Then he would say a prayer of thanks to God for the favors He had granted us, whether we knew about them or not, “for the food and wood and water we have received at the hands of our enemies.”

Then he’d speak, very briefly, a short, simple sermon, urging them to hold on and not lose hope of freedom. And above all, he urged them not to fall for the lying doctrines the Reds were trying to pound into our heads.

“Be not afraid of them who kill the body,” he’d say, quoting from the Scriptures. “Fear ye him, who after he hath killed, hath power to cast into hell.”

To Father’s stubborn faith, the man who bought the communist teachings–and a very small group did out of ignorance or opportunism–was selling his immortal soul.

In his soiled and ragged fatigues, with his scraggly beard and his odd-looking woolen cap made of the sleeve of an old GI sweater, pulled down over his ears, he looked like any other half-starved prisoner.

But there was something in his voice and bearing that was different–a dignity, a composure, a serenity that radiated from him like a light. Wherever he stood was holy ground, and the spirit within him a spirit of reverence and abiding faith went out to the silent, listening men and gave them hope and courage and a sense of peace. By his very presence, somehow, he could turn a stinking, louse-ridden mud hut, for a little while, into a cathedral.

He did a thousand things to keep us going. He gathered and washed the foul undergarments of the dead and distributed them to men so weak from dysentery they could not move, and he washed and tended these men as if they were little babies.

He traded his watch for a blanket, and cut it up to make warm socks for helpless men whose feet were freezing. All one day, in a freezing wind, with a sharp stick and his bare hands, he cut steps in the steep, ice-covered path that led down to the stream, so that the men carrying water would not fall.

The most dreaded housekeeping chore of all was cleaning the latrines, and men argued bitterly over whose time it was to carry out this loathsome task. And while they argued, he’d slip out quietly and do the job.

Back to Pyoktong

In mid-January, in subzero cold, they marched us eight miles back to Pyoktong, into houses still shattered by the bombing and the fire.

Nine of the sick and wounded died that day, and many of the rest of us, sick, half-starved and despairing, were on the point of giving up. But Father led scrounging parties out, to prowl through the ruins to find nails and tin and broken boards to patch the houses and make them livable.

In the yard of the officers’ compound he built a little fireplace with bricks he had stolen. On it, with wood he had stolen–once they caught him stealing pickets from the fence and made him stand for hours, stripped of his outer garments, in the bitter cold–he would heat water in pans made from tin he had stolen and pounded into shape with a rock.

Every morning he’d bring in this pan full of hot water, calling cheerfully, “Coffee, everybody,” and pour a little into every man’s bowl.

And though there was no coffee in it, somehow this sip of hot water in the morning gave each man heart to rise and pick off his lice and choke down his bowl of soupy millet, and face, if not with cheerfulness, at least without despair, another day of captivity and abuse.

He was always telling us we’d soon be free, and he was always dreaming up fancy menus–ten-course meals we’d eat when we got home.

At night we’d hear the roar and see the flash of great explosions to the south. It was our bombers, working over the roads and bridges on the Reds’ supply routes to the front. But we thought it was our artillery. “The guns sound closer tonight,” Father would say. “They’re coming. They’ll be here soon. The moon is full tonight. By the time it’s full again, we’ll be free.”

As weeks and months passed, robbed of all strength by pellagra and beriberi, men grew weaker. The unbroken diet of millet and corn became nauseating. We could hardly choke it down.

By mid-March we were in desperate condition, boiling green weeds in our hunt for vitamins. The hideous swelling of the body that is the first mark of approaching death by starvation, was showing up on more and more of us.

The night before St. Patrick’s Day, Father called us together and prayed to St. Patrick, asking him to help us in our misery. The next day, the Chinese brought us a case of liver–the first meat we had had–and issued us golian instead of millet.

The liver was spoiled and golian is sorghum seed used as cattle feed in the States, but to us they were like manna. Later he prayed for tobacco, and that night a guard walked by and tossed a little bag of dry, straw-like Korean tobacco into our room.

As our bodies weakened, the Reds stepped up the pace of their propaganda assault upon our minds. Hour after hour we sat in lectures while Comrade Sun, a fanatic little Chinese who hated Americans with an insane hatred, assailed our rotten, capitalistic Wall Street civilization. Then we’d have to comment upon the great truths revealed by Comrade Sun.

A few bold men, in reckless despair, commented in unprintable words of contempt and were thrown into a freezing hole or subjected to other severe tortures sometimes resulting in death. Some veiled their ridicule. “According to the great doctrines taught us by the noble Stalin, Lenin, Marx, Engels, Amos and Andy–” they would read aloud in the “classes.”

Father was not openly arrogant, nor did he use subterfuge.

Without losing his temper or raising his voice, he’d answer the lecturer point by point, with a calm logic that set Comrade Sun screaming and leaping on the platform like an angry ape.

Strangely, they never punished him, except by threats and ominous warnings. Two officers who knew him well were taken away and tortured. With their hands tied behind them, they were lifted by ropes until their wrist joints pulled apart. They then were brought back to accuse him publicly. They charged him with slandering the Chinese, which was true if you call the real truth slander, as they did. They said he advocated resistance to the Reds’ study program, and that he displayed a hostile attitude toward his captors, all of which was also true.

They said he threatened men with court martial on their return if they went along with the Chinese, which was not true. Father never threatened anybody.

When the two men came back after their ordeal, unsure of their welcome, Father was the first to greet them. Looking at their twisted hands, he told them, “You never should have suffered a moment trying to protect me.”

We expected that the public accusation would bring on a farcical trial in which Father would be convicted and taken out and never returned. Instead, they merely called him in and bullied him and threatened him.

We realized then what we had half known all along. They were afraid of him. They recognized in him a strength they could not break, a spirit they could not quell. Above all things, they feared a mass rebellion, and they knew that if Father was maltreated, the whole camp of 4,000 men would mutiny.

His Boldest Challenge

On Easter Sunday, 1951, he hurled at them his boldest challenge, openly flouting their law against religious services. In the yard of a burned-out church in the officers’ compound, just at sunrise, he read the Easter service.

He could not celebrate the Easter Mass, for all his Mass equipment had been lost at the time of his capture. All he had was the things he used when administering the last rites to the dying–the purple ribbon, called a stole, which he wore around his neck as a badge of his priesthood, the gold pyx, now empty, in which the Host had been carried when he had administered Holy Communion, and the little bottles of holy oil used to administer the last sacraments.

But he fashioned a cross out of two rough pieces of wood, and from a borrowed missal he read the Stations of the Cross to the scarecrow men, sitting on the rubbled steps of the burned church. He told the story of Christs suffering and death, and then, holding in his hands a Rosary made of bent barbed wire cut from the prison fence, he recited the Glorious Mysteries of Christ risen from the tomb and ascended into heaven.

As we watched him it was clear to us that Father himself at last had begun to fail in strength. On the starvation diet we were allowed, a man could not miss a single days meals without growing too weak to walk, and for months Father had been sharing his meager rations with sick and dying men.

The week after Easter he began to limp, hobbling along on a crooked stick. The next Sunday, as he read the service for the First Sunday after Easter, as he reached the line in the Epistle: “And this is the victory that overcomes the world, our Faith,” his voice faltered, and we caught him as he fell.

Beneath his tattered uniform his right leg was dreadfully swollen and discolored. For weeks, we knew, he had been suffering terrible bone aches, a by-product of hunger, that came upon men at night with such fearful pain that they would scream and beat the ground in agony.

Father, when awake, had never whimpered, though tears of pain filled his eyes. When he slept, though, his iron will broke, and he would moan pitifully. Finally, the bad pain went away, but the leg continued to swell until it was one great mass of purple, blue and yellow flesh. The communist “doctor,” a brain-washer posing as a medical man, pronounced the usual diagnosis by which they sought to convince us–or themselves–that we were an evil, immoral and decaying race. Father, he said blandly, had syphilis.

Doctor Anderson and his medical companion, Captain Sidney Esensten, knew it for what it was–a blood clot blocking circulation to the leg.

They applied hot packs, and slowly the swelling began to subside. Soon Father could walk again, though he was so weak and shaky he would often fall. Then a fearful dysentery seized him, and as he so often had done for us, we cared for him as best we could. And he beat that, and got on his feet again.

Then one raw, cold day he arose, a walking ghost, to give the last sacrament to a dying man. The next day his eyes were bright with fever and his breath came in a hoarse rattle. He had taken pneumonia, and soon was in delirium.

Thinking back upon it, I believe that period of semi-consciousness was the only happy time he knew during his captivity. Around him there seemed to gather all the people he had known in his boyhood on the farm in Kansas and in his school days.

Babbling happily, sometimes laughing, he spoke to his mother and his father, and to the priests he’d known in the seminary. Even in his delirium, his unbreakable spirit manifested itself in sallies of humor. Finally, he sank into a deep and quiet sleep, and when he awoke, he was completely rational. The crisis had passed. He was getting well.

But the Chinese did not intend that he should live. He was sitting up, eating and cracking jokes, when the guards came with a litter to take him to the hospital. We knew then that he was doomed, for the hospital was no hospital at all, but a death house so dreadful that I will make no attempt to describe it here.

In the room in which he was placed, men in extremis were left to lie untended in filth and freezing cold, until merciful death took them. The doctors protested violently against his being taken there, but the Chinese cursed them and forbade them to go along and care for him. The rest of us protested. All they answered was, “He goes! He goes!”

They Take Him Away

Father himself made no protest. He looked around the room at all of us standing there, and smiled. He held in his hands the pyx in which, long ago, he had carried the Blessed Sacrament. “Tell them back home that I died a happy death,” he said, and smiled again.

As they loaded him on the litter he turned to Lieutenant Nardella, from whose missal he had read the services. He put the little book in Nardella’s hand. “You know the prayers, Ralph,” he said. “Keep holding the services. Don’t let them make you stop.”

He turned to another officer, who, before his capture, had been having trouble at home. “When you get back to Jersey, you get that marriage straightened out,” he told him, “or I’ll come down from heaven and kick you in the tail.” Then he turned to me. “Don’t take it hard, Mike,” he said. “I’m going where I’ve always wanted to go. And when I get up there, I’ll say a prayer for all of you.” I stood there crying, unashamed, as they took him down the road with the pyx still shining in his hand…

A few days later he was dead. Not long afterward, the little daughter of the Chinese camp commander walked past the compound gate. She was tossing up and catching something that glittered in the sun. It was Father’s little gold pyx. On the demands of the POWs, it was returned at Operation Big Switch [see “Personal Effects” sidebar]. We brought it back to commemorate his deeds and the deeds of all who died at the hands of the communists. It is to be placed on a memorial in his home town [i.e., a display case at Kapaun Mt. Carmel High School, see picture at bottom left corner on p.10–Ed.]

A year later, on the anniversary of his death, Ralph Nardella asked the communists for permission to hold a service in his memory. They refused. I was glad they did. For it told me that even though he was dead, his body lost forever in a mass grave, they still were afraid of him. They feared him because he was the symbol of something they knew they could not kill–the unconquerable spirit of a free man, owning final allegiance only to his God. And in that sense, I know, he and the things he believed in can never die.

 





Brent Klaske
Brent Klaske

Author

Director of Operations at Angelus Press. I have worked in Catholic publishing for more than 20 years. I currently live near St. Marys, KS with my wife and 10 children.


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