I believe that the Korean War is the least recalled and remembered
of all the U.S. conflicts, but today I was taken back to it because of
a piece I tore out of the 1993 Catholic Digest. It has also helped
me to remember why I am Catholic even though at times I have
been disillusioned by a male- dominated hierarchy whose positions
often make me sad. While I disagree with a number of them, t he
two which readily come to mind is their lack of a compassionate
teaching for suffering animals and the sad neglect of accepting
women in policy-making decisions.
But this is not going to be a diatribe against the leaders of the
church. Rather it is a confirmation of my belief, that even despite
their human weaknesses, the church itself has been blessed and
continues to be blessed with men and women of extroardinary
faith and gifts. Father Emil Kapaun is one such man.
I reread his story and the first thing that came to my mind was -
has he been selected as a person worthy of future sainthood?
Needless to say, my first stop was the internet and I joyfully read:
"The Roman Catholic Church has declared him a Servant of God
and he is a candidate for sainthood." Tears came to my eyes and
you will only understand why after reading his story in an
Emil Joseph Kapaun was born of Czech immigrants on April 29,
1916 on a farm three miles southwest of Pilsen, Kansas. I wondered
about his name and was surprised that it is a Czech name. At any
rate, I am happy for the Czech people to have spawned such a man
of exemplary virtue who would comport himself admirably in the
most cruel of circumstances in the Korean War.
On June 8,1940- Kapaun was ordained a priest, and he celebrated his
first Mass at St. John Nepomucene in Pilsen, Kansas. After assisting
at area churches and becoming pastor of one, he enlisted in the
army in 1944- ministering to 19,000 service men and women with the
help of another chaplain. He was discharged in 1946. In September
1948, he re-enlisted in the army, and this time he left his parents and
Pilsen for the last time.
In July 1950- Fr. Kapaun was ordered to Korea from Japan after North
Korea invaded South Korea. In January,1950 Fr. Kapaun's unit, the
35th Brigade from Ft. Bliss landed in S. Korea during a big invasion.
They would be constantly on the move northward until their capture
by Chinese Communists in November 1950.
When captured -Captain Emil Kapaun, described as a thin, pipe-
smoking priest from Kansas was the only officer still on his feet.
Only the day before Father Kapaun had celebrated four masses
and now, he and the young GIs were prisoners of the Chinese
He had already showed earlier some incomparable acts of
heroism like driving a jeep full of wounded soldiers through a
fusillade of bullets. This had earned him the Bronze star, but the
soldiers respected him more for lesser events like offering an
encouraging word in a rain- filled foxhole and sharing food with
the troops. He also remained with them in the midst of a firefight.
These acts, more than anything else, caused his troops to hold him
in great esteem.
Kapaun's mettle would be tested again and again in the days that
followed. When a wounded GI was unable to drag himself out of
his foxhole, a Chinese soldier was ready to execute him, but
Kapaun lunged forward and knocked the weapon aside from the
startled soldier, and then lifted the GI to his feet. And then for the
days that followed, he continued to assist his wounded comrades
as they trudged through the snow-covered mountains toward a
The prisoners were weakened during this trek, because they were
given little nourishment during it. And some even had to put gloves
on their feet because the guards had confiscated their boots. And
to make matters even worse, the GIs also had the added burden of
carrying their wounded. Captain Kapaun, not surprisingly, did not
excuse himself from helping to haul a makeshift stretcher carrying
a wounded GI .
Once when a soldier forced him to rest, instead- he moved back and
forth along the column praying and urging his fellow soldiers not
to give up.
The march was horrendous and diarrhea was a big problem, but
the enemy soldiers would not stop the march so that the men could
seek relief. One GI went into the woods for this purpose. A guard
followed him and soon after a shot was heard, and the guard returned
alone. Of course this horrified the GIs.
By the time the Eighth Cavalry reached Pyoktong on the Yahu River,
120 prisoners of war had died on the 100-mile march. Those who
made it lost on average 60 pounds.
They were soon on the march again as an American bombing raid
forced a relocation. Once again, the weary soldiers harkened to
Kapaun's call "Let's pick 'em up!" -meaning the litters that held
their wounded buddies.
When they reached the village of Sambakol which came to be known
simply as "The Valley," they were jammed together in wooden huts-
heated only by wood burning cook stoves. Even though many soldiers
began falling ill with dysentery, pneumonia, and other ailments, they
were provided with little or no medical care.
Food was scarce, and even though the guards threatened
punishment for any prisoner who left the hut at night, the chaplain
snuck out often in search of food. One time he came back with a
sack of potatoes which weighed at least 100 pounds. Not only were
they amazed by the find, but they wondered how he managed to
carry it to his hungry comrades.
On another occasion he raided a well-stocked corn crib. Another
time he asked the GIs to make a ruckus when they were sent to collect
rations. He then would race into the building from the opposite side,
snatch a sack of cracked corn, and then slip into the nearby underbrush.
Some of the solders still wore bloody bandages and others stricken
with diarrhea wore soiled clothes. They were so feeble that they were
unable to clean their uniforms. Kapaun would gather up their foul
bandages and uniforms and take them to a stream that ran through
the compound. He would smash a hole in the icy surface and wash
the soldiers' clothes in the cold water.
Skilled with his hands from his experience in Burma and India
during the 2nd World War, Kapaun found some scrap metal and
using a rock pounded and twisted the metal into a pot to boil water.
In the morning he would come in with it and shout "coffee." The
soldiers knew it was only hot water, but they still smiled at his
attempt to bring some levity into these harsh circumstances.
At night Kapaun would hold the forbidden nighttime prayer service
to bolster the men's hopes. He became upset to learn that some of
the GIs were tortured because they would not level charges against
In January 1951- those who survived were marched back to Pyoktong,
where as many as twelve prisoners were forced into a seven-by-ten
foot room. There was no heat and some would awaken to find a
bunkmate had frozen to death.
As the prisoners became understandingly depressed, Kapaun urged
them to be hopeful. The sound of American bombing raids suggested
to him that they would soon be rescued. One day a GI asked him
what he was thinking. And Kapaun smiled and said "I'm contemplating
that happy day 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."
His efforts to help the prisoners sometimes went awry. One time the
guards caught Kapaun stealing firewod. As an example, they stripped
off his clothing and forced him to stand naked for hours in the bitter
Of course, religious activities were curtailed, but to improve their
image before the world at Easter1951, the communists grudingly
allowed Kapaun to conduct an open-air service early on a cold
morning. For Father Kapaun it was the high point of his ministry
to the prisoners.
They found a church which American bombers had destroyed
completely but for 15 steps and there some 40 bearded, gaunt
American and British soldiers dressed in tattered uniforms and
clothing retrieved from their deceased comrades, gathered around
their chaplain. The prisoners yearned for a message of hope and
Chaplain Kapaun did not disappoint . Of course. he reminded
them that Easter celebrated the resurrection of Jesus which was
the fulfillment of joy but only after so much suffering and his
agonizing death on the cross.
One soldier sang the Lord's prayer, and then all joined in singing
The Battle Hymn of the Republic and America the Beautiful. T he
solemnness of the occasion and the thrill of the music gave many of
them goose pimples, and they expressed having a feeling that they
were much closer to home than they had felt for months.
At this time 30 Americans were dying every day at Pyoktong. Still
Kapaun shared some of his food. But it was evident now that he was
in a very weakened condition. He also had an eye injury he had
received while chopping firewood. At the services on the Sunday
after Easter Chaplain Kapaun's voice faltered and he collapsed.
He admitted to the two American doctors who were also prisoners
that his bones had been aching for many weeks. The doctors
determined that his discolored right leg had a blood clot and severe
thrombophlebitis. The GI doctors advised him to stay off his feet
for two weeks. He began to improve, but then suffered a bout of
diarrhea. Even though the soldiers were able to get sulfa tablets for
him claiming that they needed them for themselves, he still was in a
Now the captors decided it was time to take him to the "hospital."
What a joke. Any prisoner taken to this former maggot-ridden
temple were abandoned to die. The prisoners all knew that.
Though the prisoners protested the removal of their beloved friend
and chaplain, he reminded Lieutenant Dowe - "Don't take it so hard,
Mike, I'm going where I always wanted to go. And when I get up
there, I'll say a prayer for you."
A prisoner who did survive a hospital stay said he saw the Eight
Calvary's beloved chaplain lying on the floor, unable to speak,
barely breathing. Captain Emil Kapaun died on May 23, 1951.
Thank you dear Father Emil Kapaun. Your extraordinary life made
me realize just how terrible war is and certainly the Korean War
was a terrible war as your sufferings and those of the other GI's attest.
Thank you also for reminding me why I am a Catholic still.