On September 11, 2011 61 year old John Moore of Gallup New Mexico started a 630 mile pilgrimage from the National Cemetery in Sante Fe to the small town of Pilsen Kansas. On his back he bore a 25 pound handmade wooden cross, carved from Arizona alligator juniper tree by Mark Chavez, a retired Albuquerque firefighter .
Moore arrived in Pilsen on Veterans Day morning, and presented the crucifix to the St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church, where it replaced the original cross which had inspired it.
That crucifix had been carved in the living hell of a North Korean POW camp by Gerald Fink, a Jewish Marine fighter pilot, to honor Fr. Emil Kapaun, a U.S. Army Catholic chaplain born in Pilsen on Holy Thursday, April 20, 1916. Fink spent 2 1/2 months creating the crucifix from the sparse resources that he could scrounge or steal in the camp. He made a knife from a steel arch from a boot, and his chisel from an irrigation pipe. Scrub oak provided the material for the 26 inch tall corpus, cherry wood the 40 inch cross, and scraps of radio wire which resembled barbed wire made the crown of thorns.
The POW’s dubbed it “Christ in barbed wire” and when they were repatriated at the end of the war they refused to leave until the North Koreans allowed them to take it with them.
The brutality of the North Koreans and Chinese rivaled that of the Nazi death camps. Never before had American warriors faced such systematic brutality at the hands of enemy captors. Not the prison ships of the Revolution, the squalor of Andersonville, or even the horrors of Japanese POW camps compared. From these vicious conditions came the United States Code of Conduct to govern the actions of our POW’s, and the bulk of the knowledge that formed Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training that would later prove so valuable during Vietnam.
But in 1950 the POW’s were unprepared for the savageness of the North Koreans and later the Chinese. It was from that hell that Fr. Emil Kapaun emerged as the spiritual force that would save countless lives, inspire a Jew who had never met him to carve a crucifix in his honor, and over 60 years later compel John Moore, a man born the same year Kapaun died, to walk over 600 miles bearing a cross on his back. Fr. Kapaun sacrificed all for his flock and died in the hell of a Pyoktong prison camp on May 23, 1951. He has been nominated for the Medal of Honor, and the Catholic Church has declared him a Servant of God, thus beginning the process of canonization. Below the fold is the complete 8 part series that ran in the Wichita Eagle in 2009. There is nothing which I can write which would match the excellent series, so on this Good Friday I leave it to you to read, and ponder the cross that Fr. Kapaun bore for his flock, the crosses we all bear, and the original Cross which was borne for all of us 2000 years ago.
Doctors said Chase Kear’s survival was impossible.
After he hit his head on the ground in a pole vaulting accident last year, they sawed off a third of his skull to relieve the pressure on his swelling brain.
They told his family that all hope was lost.
But Chase’s family lives near Wichita, where a farm kid named Emil Kapaun was ordained a priest 69 years ago. The Kears prayed thousands of prayers to the soul of Father Kapaun, asking him to bend the ear of God. They chanted his name like a mantra.
And Chase woke up.
And he arose and walked.
His baffled doctors said his survival defied medical science. They told the Vatican later that it was a miracle.
So Chase became the latest chapter in the improbable story of Emil Kapaun, dead since 1951.
The story might become more improbable: The Army has recommended Kapaun for the Medal of Honor. The Vatican might make him a saint — if it decides he performed miracles.
Mike Dowe and William Funchess starved and shivered with Kapaun in a North Korean prisoner of war camp. So did Herb Miller and Bob Wood and Robert McGreevy.
They say Kapaun sometimes swore like a soldier. They say he gave away his own food as he starved.
They say that when all hope seemed lost, he rallied hundreds of filthy and ragged men to embrace life and forgive their enemies.
They don’t consider themselves experts on miracles.
But they know what they saw.
Nov. 1 is All Saints Day on the Catholic calendar.
On that day in North Korea in 1950, Father Emil Kapaun celebrated four Masses for soldiers in the 3rd Battalion of the 8th Cavalry Regiment and went to bed early in his pup tent south of the village of Unsan.
All around him, as his battalion bedded down in a cornfield, were clues that foretold the disaster about to overtake them. With the North Koreans on the run, they thought the war was as good as won. And the generals had insisted that the Chinese would not enter the war. The generals were wrong.
Lt. Bob Wood went into the hills on patrol and listened to enemy officers talking to one another on his radio. When he asked a South Korean what the enemy was saying, the Korean said, “Chinese.”
Herb Miller, a tough little sergeant who had fought in World War II, had taken a patrol north and come back with a farmer who told 3rd Battalion intelligence officers that the surrounding mountains hid tens of thousands of Chinese. The intelligence officers scoffed.
Miller, disgusted, watched the farmer go home, then stuffed his pockets with grenades.
Early on Nov. 2, All Souls Day, Miller took out another patrol, to the top of a little rise and bedded down in the dark. By then, though he didn’t know it, the 1st and 2nd Battalions were already being overrun; the 3rd Battalion was next.
After midnight, he heard a whistle downslope that sounded like a bird call. Miller punched the GI sleeping next to him. “That’s no bird call!” he said. “We are in for it!”
They got out of there and headed back to the battalion. But then they saw hundreds of figures moving in the dark, and a bugle blew, and then another, accompanied by the ghostly calls of sheep horns blown by Chinese peasant soldiers. Then machine guns sprayed pink tracer bullets, and mortars began thumping. Wild music broke out in the night, war songs from bugles and thousands of throats.
Kapaun jumped out of his tent.
GIs fired flares into the night sky and caught their breath: They saw thousands of Chinese soldiers coming at them. A 19-year-old corporal named Bob McGreevy, dropping mortar shells down a tube, saw a forward observer come running.
“Get the hell out of here!” he yelled.
Twenty thousand Chinese, who the generals said were not in North Korea, had rushed out of the hills at the 3,000 men of the 8th Cavalry; the 1st and 2nd Battalions withdrew south.
Kapaun and a private named Patrick Schuler drove toward the fighting, then ran into enemy soldiers blocking the road. Kapaun and Schuler loaded a few of the wounded and brought them south.
“Stay with the jeep and say your prayers,” Kapaun told Schuler. “I’ll be back.”
He ran to find more wounded, but the Chinese attacked, and Schuler in desperation set the empty jeep on fire to destroy it. He never saw Kapaun again.
Most of the 1st Battalion would escape; some of the 2nd Battalion, too. But the 800 men of 3rd Battalion covered the withdrawal, and they were overrun.
Miller, running for cover, found GIs in a ditch quivering like puppies. “Get up!” Miller yelled, kicking them. “Get out of here!” They would not move.
All the GIs had to do to kill Chinese was point a rifle in any direction and shoot. Waves of Chinese reached the heart of the 3rd Battalion; men fought hand to hand. A machine gunner, Tibor Rubin, shot Chinese by the dozens but saw hundreds more keep coming.
GIs saw Kapaun running from foxhole to foxhole, dragging wounded out, saying prayers over the dying, hearing confessions amid gunfire, ripping open shirts to look at wounds. Men screamed at him to escape, but he ignored them.
Kapaun called McGreevy and others into a huddle.
“I’m going to give you guys the last rites,” he said. “Because a lot of you guys are not going to make it home.”
McGreevy noticed how calm Kapaun looked. The priest called out the sacred words in English, not Latin; the GIs were from all shades of belief.
On the Chinese came. GIs fired bazookas into their own trucks in their own camp and machine-gunned Chinese by the light of the fires. Warplanes dropped napalm, incinerating hundreds of Chinese.
For days, the 3rd Battalion fought off mass charges of Chinese. They ransacked bodies for weapons and bullets when they ran low.
Kapaun and Clarence Anderson, a doctor, set up an aid station in a sandbagged dugout.
The GI perimeter shrank to 50 yards end to end, but Lt. Walt Mayo saw Kapaun run 300 yards outside it to drag wounded inside.
During one of those runs to help the wounded, Kapaun was captured and led away at gunpoint. But Mayo, as he told author William Maher later, shouted a command and GIs rose up and fired, killing the captors.
McGreevy heard officers yell at Kapaun to leave the battlefield.
“No,” Kapaun called back.
The officers yelled again.
“No,” Kapaun said. “My place is with the wounded.”
The priest looked as calm as he did at Mass.
By this time, Kapaun and Anderson had about 40 wounded in the dugout, which lay exposed far outside the GI perimeter. The Chinese were digging trenches while advancing, protecting themselves as they moved in. McGreevy could see dirt flying out of trenches.
Lt. William “Moose” McClain watched this and thought of Custer’s Last Stand.
The sergeant who had heard that first bird call now lay in a ditch not far from Kapaun’s aid station. Miller’s ankle had been shattered by a grenade. He had spent hours playing dead.
Once in a while, when a group of Chinese got close, he tossed a grenade, then played dead again. When he ran out of grenades, a nearby wounded GI threw him a few more and Miller tossed them at the Chinese.
The Chinese were all around him now, shooting at the shrinking perimeter. Miller pulled a dead enemy body on top of himself. Soon an enemy soldier sat down in the ditch, his boot touching Miller’s arm.
By then, the Chinese had crept near the dugout where Kapaun and Anderson tended the wounded; they fired mortar rounds in there, killing some of the wounded.
Surrender seemed like suicide. The GIs had heard stories of atrocities in Korea. Kapaun had written a friend weeks before that “the Reds were not taking prisoners. So we resolved to fight them to the finish because we would not have a chance if we chose to surrender…”
But in the dugout now, Kapaun made a bold move: He approached a captured and wounded Chinese officer. He said he would surrender and appeal to Chinese humanity.
That officer yelled outside. The Chinese stopped shooting at the dugout. They took Kapaun and 15 or so of the wounded who could walk as prisoners. They also agreed not to shoot the rest of the wounded.
Anderson thought Kapaun’s negotiations saved 40 lives in the dugout.
Kapaun, under guard, stepped out of the dugout, over dead men piled three high.
Down by the road, he saw an enemy rifleman take aim at a GI lying in a ditch.
That rifleman had found Miller hiding under a dead body. He put his rifle muzzle to Miller’s head; Miller thought the muzzle looked big enough to crawl into. He would die now.
Then he heard footsteps.
So did the soldier about to kill him. The soldier, distracted, looked toward the dugout, his rifle still touching Miller’s forehead.
Miller turned to look.
They saw an American officer walking toward them. He was tall, skinny and unarmed, and walked as calmly as a man about to pay his grocery bill.
Kapaun had walked away from his captors, in the middle of a battle, risking a bullet in the back. But his captors held their fire.
Kapaun walked to the rifleman and shoved him aside, brushing the rifle barrel away from Miller’s head with his arm.
“Let me help you up,” he said. His voice was calm. He got Miller up on one foot, then picked him up piggyback.
Miller turned around to look. The rifleman who had wanted to shoot him aimed his rifle but did not shoot. He looked puzzled.
Kapaun walked toward the Chinese soldiers who had taken him prisoner at the dugout. Miller waited for death. But his would-be executioner just watched them walk away.
“He didn’t know what to do,” Miller said. “Father Kapaun had that effect on those guys.”
Miller, with his arms around Kapaun’s skinny shoulders, wondered how far the priest could carry him.
“Men find it easy to follow one who has endeared himself to them.” -Father Emil Kapaun
Father Emil Kapaun was considered an unusual man even before the 8th Cavalry’s 3rd Battalion was overrun at Unsan. Many devout Christians believe, for example, that they must overtly preach Christianity, but Kapaun by all accounts never lectured, never forced it. What he did instead was scrounge food for soldiers, write letters to their families, pass his tobacco pipe around for a few puffs, and run through machine gun fire, rescuing wounded. If he brought up religion in foxholes, he asked permission first: “Would you care to say a prayer with me?” He treated Protestants, Jews and atheists the same way he treated Catholics — and he treated Catholics like loved ones. Some GIs did not like some chaplains. They loved this one.
Survivors at Unsan broke out and fought south through the hills. Most were captured. Chinese soldiers stole their watches, rings, helmets and boots. Some of them thought this was the end, that they’d be shot now. The enemy in Korea frequently murdered prisoners. Sgt. Herb Miller, his ankle shredded and bleeding, rode away from slaughter on Kapaun’s back.
Lt. Walt Mayo, who had saved Kapaun the first time he was captured at Unsan, escaped from the perimeter with his friend Phil Peterson, running across a road covered with dead Chinese. They were captured three days later. Mayo, who spent four months in a German prisoner of war camp in World War II, would spend 34 months in a camp more deadly.
Bob McGreevy, who had watched Kapaun bless men with the last rites, briefly escaped over a carpet of hundreds of dead Chinese in a stream bed, their limbs burned and twisted from napalm.
Lt. Ralph Nardella, a toughtalking Italian from New Jersey, was captured before he got out of the perimeter. In six months, Nardella would risk his life to save Father Kapaun.
Kapaun carried Miller north, under guard with other prisoners. The Chinese let the priest keep his ciborium, the threeinch-wide gold container for communion hosts.
Miller got a good look at him: wide-set gray eyes, a sharp nose, a cleft chin and thinning, sandy hair. The priest said he was from Kansas; Miller told him he was a farm kid from western New York.
The guards yelled at them if they talked, so they couldn’t say much more. The Chinese herded them along, mostly without food, mostly at night, in a three-week trek in the cold that survivors later called the Death March. At least, Kapaun told Miller, if they kept walking like this, they’d stay a little warmer.
Korean winters can be bitter cold, especially in the mountains; this would prove fatal to many. Along the way, shivering men who had not eaten in days began to refuse to carry wounded comrades, a move that meant death for the wounded.
Joe Ramirez, a soldier whom Kapaun had baptized literally on the invasion beach when the 8th Cavalry landed in Korea in July, was carrying wounded even though he had been hit five times himself.
He saw Kapaun begin to move up and down the line, “practically begging men to carry the wounded.” Some did; others hid from officers and the priest.
Other streams of prisoners would join theirs; some of them, including Kapaun, would ride part of the way in captured trucks. But for part of the way, Miller rode on the priest’s back, amazed that they were both still alive.
“You should put me down,” Miller said. “You can’t keep this up.”
“We’ll keep going,” Kapaun said.
Sometimes Miller heard shots from the back of the column. He suddenly realized: The Chinese were shooting those who could not keep up.
On Nov. 4, 1950, while the 8th Cavalry was being overrun to the northeast, Lt. William Funchess of the 19th Infantry had one of those frustrating conversations that happened a lot at that time in Korea.
Funchess was staring from a hilltop at hundreds of soldiers stripping naked on the bank of the freezing Ch’ongch’on River. They carried clothes and rifles above their heads as they waded across. They marched four abreast in the direction of the battalion headquarters of Funchess’ commanders.
Funchess had radioed a commander at headquarters to say the soldiers he saw were not dressed like North Koreans. “They are Chinese.”
“You are mistaken,” the commander said. “There are no Chinese in North Korea.”
Not long afterward, Funchess heard gunfire coming from headquarters. A short time later, Funchess and Lt. Mike Dowe and the two platoons they commanded were fighting hundreds of Chinese.
In only a few weeks, they would become two of Kapaun’s closest friends; they would try to save his life. But first they had to save each other.
Dowe and Funchess retreated at last, leading a dozen survivors, and saw soldiers in the distance. Dowe and Funchess told everybody to be quiet, but a GI cupped his hands.
“Don’t shoot! We’re GIs!”
But the soldiers were Chinese, and they sent bullets spattering against the rocks, knocking men down, tearing a hole through Funchess’ right foot.
“You’re not going to leave me here, Mike?” Funchess asked.
“No,” Dowe said.
They tried to run up a small mountainside, with Dowe dragging and carrying Funchess along.
They came face to face with a Chinese soldier firing a submachine gun, shredding scrub pine needles all around them. They shot back and kept going.
They made their way to a ravine, where they looked up at dozens of Chinese aiming rifles at them, a vision Funchess would see for decades in nightmares. They were captured.
The Chinese, herding them along, came across half a dozen wounded GIs. When they saw the GIs were too hurt to stand up, the Chinese rolled them over and shot them in the back of the head, one at a time, as Funchess watched.
They tied them up, binding Dowe with a loop around his neck that choked him if he moved. Dowe watched a Chinese soldier try to remove a ring from the finger of a wounded GI. When the ring stuck, the Chinese cut the finger off with a knife.
Another soldier put a pistol to Dowe’s head and pulled the trigger. The pistol was empty; the Chinese soldier laughed.
Hours later, they crowded the Americans into a schoolhouse to rest. In the building were wounded from the 8th Cavalry. They told Dowe a heroic 8th Cavalry chaplain had saved many lives.
Riding Kapaun’s back, Miller felt guilty. He had never attended the priest’s Masses in camp or on the battlefield, though he knew the guy was well liked. Miller had never met him until the priest stopped his execution.
Sometimes other people helped carry Miller, and the priest carried others, or urged men to carry stretchers, which they made from tree branches and rice sacks scrounged from nearby farms.
The branches would dig into the men’s shoulders. Sometimes, when carriers would set the stretcher down to change positions, the Chinese would yell to move along, and the wounded soldier was left to die.
Kapaun one night rode in a captured American truck, buried under wounded GIs. He didn’t move for fear he would hurt the wounded atop him. When the truck stopped and Kapaun got out, he collapsed, his legs stiff with cold. When he checked his feet he saw frostbite. He limped after that.
But when he found men refusing to pick up the wounded, he picked up stretcher poles himself. Men who had refused to do this for their officers did it when he asked.
At the schoolhouse where Funchess and Dowe spent their first night as prisoners, Funchess shoved his compass and his pocket-sized copy of the New Testament into the sock of his undamaged left foot.
Dowe heard prisoners from the 8th Cavalry say that the reason so many of them were alive was that they’d been saved by a doctor named Anderson and a recklessly brave chaplain. Dowe heard the 8th Cavalry men say the priest’s name. “KuhPAWN.”
Funchess, Dowe and other prisoners from the 19th Infantry joined the long line of POWs that included Kapaun, Miller and the 8th Cavalry. Other streams of prisoners joined theirs; they were given little or no food, ate snow for water.
Funchess stumbled forward, the bones of his right foot mangled. Dowe had saved his life, but now, with men being carried in the rice-bag stretchers, Funchess rode that way for a while. After soldiers dropped him several times, he walked.
During the days that followed, Chinese soldiers noticed Funchess stumbling and motioned him to sit down. Funchess thought they wanted to shoot him, so he pretended not to understand.
Kapaun kept moving up and down the line, limping, carrying stretchers, comforting men. Sometimes he would carry Miller.
When he got tired he would let Miller slide down his back, and Miller would hop on one foot with one of the priest’s arms around him. Miller did not want to wear out the priest, but hopping made his ankle bleed badly, so Kapaun or somebody else would carry him some more.
Miller had parachuted into Normandy on D-Day six years before; he had fought many battles, but he had never seen anybody like this priest.
Miller could feel Kapaun’s skinny back. There did not appear to be a lot of muscle there, but the guy seemed to be made of iron. He kept going hour after hour, living on nothing but the little ball of millet they got once a day from the guards.
“Father,” Miller said. “You need to put me down.”
Kapaun shook his head.
“If I put you down, Herb, they will shoot you.”
“People whose ambitions are confined to the limits of earthly things would be confounded at the beatitude on meekness.” — Father Emil Kapaun
By February 1951 the Allied prisoners at Pyoktong, North Korea, were dying so fast on ground frozen so solid that unburied bodies lay in stacks three to four feet high, 30 to 40 yards long. Men hoarded food or stole it from the weak, and left sick men to die in their own defecation.
Many soldiers were in their teens and early 20s, not mature enough to deal with that level of suffering. Father Emil Kapaun never yelled at them; he let his actions speak.
When men fought over who should dig out latrines, Kapaun dug out latrines. When men argued, Kapaun mediated. When men despaired, Kapaun cracked jokes, said little prayers.
On the farm in Kansas, his father, Enos, had taught him to make or fix nearly anything with his hands. He put those hands to use.
Kapaun watched feeble men carrying water for the camp in two leather bags hanging from a stick draped across their backs. The leaky bags lost half their contents before the POWs could bring them home. One day the bags stopped leaking; Mike Dowe, curious, asked what had happened. Other POWs said they’d watched Kapaun melt down an old rubber boot and make hot patches for the buckets.
He gave away nearly everything he had, even his own food; when he had no food to give, he gave words.
Al Brooks, on a wood detail one day, walked past and saw him grin. “God bless you,” Kapaun said. Brooks never forgot him saying it, or how those three words lifted him. After 59 years, Brooks still chokes up describing that moment.
Kapaun gave away pieces of his own clothing, in a camp where men committed suicide by rolling away from their friends’ body heat. Bob Wood more than once heard a fellow officer say, “I’ve had enough, don’t bother to wake me in the morning.” The next morning, that man was dead.
They died by the dozens in February. William Funchess one night talked to Dick Haugen, who slept beside him. Funchess awoke the next morning and found the men on either side of him dead, including Haugen.
Haugen had loved Kapaun so much that he’d told the priest he’d convert to Catholicism. He never had the chance.
Funchess had liked Haugen, too, but now he stripped off Haugen’s clothes for himself, feeling terrible as he did it.
On most mornings, Kapaun would come home from a foray long before the rest of them stirred, carrying cornstalks he dried in the sun. He lit the stalks in little fires and boiled sorghum or soybeans in a GI sock to make a hot drink.
Dowe, wary at first, was surprised at how good the drink tasted, and how he felt as he drank. Kapaun, if only briefly, made him feel civilized again, made him forget he was in a death camp.
There were nights when men like Bob McGreevy went to sleep at night among a dozen men and awakened to find two or three or four dead. Men lived every day with death hanging over them, the wounded especially.
Don Slagle, a young soldier from Nebraska, went to Kapaun one day, worried about a wound festering on his leg; men often went to Kapaun for what he gave Slagle now: reassurance. “It’ll be OK.” Slagle was a Protestant, but for some reason hearing the priest say things made them seem true.
Kapaun slept with friends like Moose McClain, warming each other. Men slept spoonfashion, with cold feet clamped in the armpits of others.
“The only way we could cling to life was cling to each other,” Funchess said.
When Funchess nearly died that winter, Louis Rockwerk crushed hoarded dried peppers and garlic into the gruel to make it tastier, then fed Funchess like a baby.
Men slept with corpses for days, to trick guards into giving them the rations for the dead. Men ate grain the guards gave them even though worms sometimes wiggled in it. If the men kept dying at this rate, there would soon be no POWs left.
In a few months, as truce talks loomed, China realized this would look embarrassing. The Chinese would feed them better. The extra food would come too late for many.
Kapaun did a thousand things to take care of them, Wood said. Wood watched one day as Kapaun sneaked into the officer’s compound with a bag holding about 100 pounds of rice.
Another POW, David MacGhee, hunted for rice bags in root cellars with Kapaun when the two slipped away from burial details. MacGhee would tease: Isn’t stealing wrong? Men were losing frostbitten fingers or toes, the skin turning black and falling off, leaving bones as dry as sticks poking out. Kapaun brought them to the doctors, who amputated dead bone with a butcher knife they hid from guards.
He got them to recite menus of meals to take their minds off the suffering. He described meals his Czech mother made, including the kolache, a fruitfilled pastry.
On many nights, Kapaun would gather officers after sundown on the porch of a mud hut and ask them to sing: “America the Beautiful” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the Americans; “God Save the Queen” for British officers, who had arrived in late March.
“The Lord will forgive this transgression,” Kapaun replied.
Lice multiplied overnight, congregating in armpits, inside seams, in underwear. Men who failed to kill them died covered with gray swarms; men too starved to care let them die.
But Kapaun would open the shirts of the sick and pick lice from armpits. He made it a game. “Hey, Mac,” he’d say. “I got 75.” “Yeah?” McClain would answer. “I got 90.”
Kapaun looked old at 34. When GIs joked that he looked like Christ with his beard and long hair, he cringed.
He scouted out the wounded and sick, and either helped them himself or brought the American doctors to them.
Upset at how the guards tried to coerce them into collaboration, Kapaun told them to sing loud enough that the enlisted men could hear it. Then he would give a brief sermon about Christ’s insistence on forgiveness in spite of all earthly suffering.
On some nights, Sid Esensten, the doctor, watched the full moon shine down on silent figures standing and kneeling in front of the lone figure of Kapaun on the porch. It looked like a spotlight shining on the man standing before them.
Amid the filth one day, Wood learned that Kapaun could have avoided all this.
Kapaun had served in Burma and India in World War II. After that, Kapaun said, he went back to Masses and baptisms in Kansas. “Then how did you end up here?” Wood asked. “I volunteered.” “Father Kapaun!” Wood almost shouted. “My God, Father! Why did you come back?” “I wanted to come back to men like these,” Kapaun said. “Serving in those parishes . . . it didn’t work out.” Kapaun grinned. “I mean . . . my God, Bob!” Kapaun said. “Have you ever had to deal with one of those women’s committees of a church Altar Society?”
Communist propaganda classes began in April; lecturers denounced Wall Street and Washington, using starvation to entice betrayal.
They isolated black soldiers from white, officers from enlisted men. They tried to break down social bonds; Kapaun fought to keep them, angering guards, who began to heckle him about Christianity.
Kapaun stood up to them: When he learned that some of the Chinese hecklers had learned English in British or American missionary schools, he asked whether their Christian teachers were the deceivers that Communism claimed.
At night he led forbidden prayers; when caught, he was heckled some more.
The guards were afraid of him, Bob McGreevy realized; they would try to argue, and Kapaun would quote books about God and the church and tell them they didn’t know what they were talking about.
Walt Mayo and Ralph Nardella noticed something else: He had captured the imagination of men from every shade of belief.
There was more than one reason why Kapaun did all these things. He detested Communism, but Funchess and Dowe began to realize that he defied the communists because he saw that men, if they sold their souls, might give up and die.
So at the lectures, Dowe said, in full view of other POWs, Kapaun told Communist monitors that they lied.
If the ground thawed, the men would try pitiful burials.
Esensten began poking the dead men’s dog tags in their mouths to aid in future identifications that he knew might never take place. Skeletal men dragged skeletal bodies to the Yalu and crossed the ice to an island. They’d scratch pits two feet deep into the snow and rock and cover the bodies with stones.
Brooks remembers a skinny Kapaun standing at the edge of the Yalu, the Manchurian breeze blowing through his beard, his long hair matted. He was blessing the dead. He looked thin and weak.
Kapaun stripped the bodies, too, including those who died in their own defecation. He’d smash ice holes, wash the clothes in cold water, or boil them. Men watched him spend days drying clothes, which he then gave to other prisoners.
Though he could not easily slip out of the officers’ camp now, though he was growing weaker, he still made his way down to the enlisted men, rallying resistance and hope among the dying.
That winter, McGreevy saw him come in among them at least a dozen times. He told them to ignore the propaganda.
“Crap,” he called it.
“Come on,” he’d say. “We’re going to get out of here.”
He’d gather enlisted men in little huddles. “Do not let your families down,” he told them. “Stay alive! Whatever else you do, keep eating.”
McGreevy had withered from 180 plus to 100 pounds. But like Funchess, he felt a strange thing happen in the presence of Kapaun: He’d forget he was starving, that the Chinese might shoot them someday soon. Two minutes in a huddle with Kapaun, and all the fear melted away.
They prayed with him every night in the huts.
“Here’s a little parched corn you guys can nibble on,” Kapaun would say. “Is there anybody here who needs a little help? Anybody I need to look over?
“Would anybody care to say a prayer?”
That winter, Herb Miller, sleeping amid 14 men in an 8-foot by 8-foot room, would hear a tap on the door. A shadow would creep in. Miller would see a spark; Kapaun would light his pipe. Men desperate for a smoke would pass it around. Kapaun would say a quick prayer, after asking permission. Then he’d slide out the door, after first looking both ways.
“I got to watch where I’m going,’’ Kapaun said. “I got to watch whether they’re watching.”
If the guards caught him, which they did sometimes, it meant time in a punishment hole, or standing on ice for hours while stripped to the skin.
MacGhee one night at sundown came upon Kapaun carrying the two leather buckets with the stick between them over his shoulders. MacGhee asked for a drink.
“I’m sorry, David,” the priest said. “I don’t have any water, just the love of Jesus Christ.”
The priest tipped one bucket and then the other. They were empty, a ruse to sneak past the guards. Kapaun said the buckets didn’t fool everybody.
“I am sure that the guard knows also, and God knows about both of us.”
Kapaun kept them alive; he kept them together; he made them laugh.
Years later, Mayo told author William Maher that he and Kapaun cherished a private joke that they carried out nearly every day. Kapaun would walk past Mayo and say a sentence in Latin: “Ne illegitimi carborundum esse.”
Mayo replied in English:
“Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
The miracle of Father Kapaun, Funchess would say later, was not just that he patched leaky buckets or stole food. It was that he rallied men to embrace life when life looked hopeless. When starvation inspired betrayals, Kapaun inspired brotherhood.
One day, as more men stole or hoarded food from each other, Kapaun walked into a hut, laid out his own food and blessed it.
“Thank you, O Lord, for giving us food we cannot only eat but share.”
Soldiers describing that scene to Maher years later, said that act put a stop to much of the stealing and hoarding.
The men loved Kapaun; the guards now hated him passionately. Funchess cringed when he saw how they abused him. They heckled him every day, for what he said, for where he walked, for how he looked.
“Where is your God now?” guards demanded.
“Right here,” he replied.
Mayo one day heard a Chinese officer lecture Kapaun.
“Don’t ask God for your daily bread,” the officer said. “Ask Mao Zedong. He’s the one who provides your daily bread.”
“If this is an example of God’s daily bread,” Kapaun said, “then God must be a terrible baker.”
Mayo watched in delight: Chinese guards, puzzled at American idioms and American sarcasm, did not know what to make of that. Was Kapaun criticizing God?
They do not know what to do with that man, Funchess thought. He deliberately said things to confound them.
But Kapaun lived on a knife’s edge now; camp commanders clearly regarded him as a threat.
“He represented a free people who refused to play along,” Dowe said.
“And they made him pay.”
“No sincere prayer is ever wasted.” -Father Emil Kapaun
At sunrise on Easter Sunday, March 25, 1951, Father Emil Kapaun startled POWs by donning his purple priest’s stole and openly carrying a Catholic prayer missal, borrowed from Ralph Nardella.
He had talked atheist guards into letting him hold an Easter service, a favor they soon regretted.
No one there would ever forget this day. The most moving sight the POWs ever saw.
At sunrise, 80 officers — bearded, dirty and covered with lice — followed Kapaun up a little rise, to the cold steps of a bombed-out church. They gathered in a circle around him. Kapaun held a crude crucifix made from broken sticks. He looked thin and filthy; except for the black eye patch, he looked to Walt Mayo like one of the ragged apostles.
Kapaun began speaking, and his voice caught; he said he didn’t have the equipment to give them a proper Mass. But then he held up his ciborium, the tiny gold container that before his capture had held communion hosts he had placed on tongues of soldiers.
He opened Nardella’s prayer missal, and as he began to recite from it, the Christians among them realized what a risk he was now taking. He was beginning not from the Easter promise of rebirth but from the dark brutality of Good Friday.
As the guards glared, Kapaun read the Stations of the Cross, describing Christ’s condemnation, torture and death. Captives who had been mocked and tormented and beaten listened as Kapaun spoke of Christ being mocked and tormented and beaten.
Kapaun held up a rosary. He asked the non-Catholics to let the Catholics indulge for a bit; they knelt as he said the rosary, recited the glorious mysteries of Christ rising, ascending, defying death for all time.
A voice rose in song. A POW, Bill Whiteside, had a beautiful voice, and he raised it now to sing the Lord’s Prayer, a recital that gave goosebumps to Sidney Esensten, the Jewish doctor.
Kapaun spoke. His theme: forgiveness.
And he said he did not feel qualified to advise them about life because, “I am not any better than you are.”
Then they all sang as Kapaun had taught them: loud so that the enlisted men could hear. Starving men sang at sunrise, the same song Whiteside had sung, the Lord’s Prayer, a song they laced with reverence.
Kapaun had rallied them all.
When guards demanded that Ralph Nardella stand before the prisoners and recite what he had learned about Communism’s founders Marx and Engels, Nardella yelled out with a straight face to fellow captives that he’d learned a lot from “Marx and Engels and Amos and Andy,” the last two being fools from an American radio program. POWs laughed; the guards glared.
There were now hundreds of acts of defiance in the camps every day. Kapaun and a prisoner named William Hansen stole dysentery drugs from the Chinese hospital and smuggled them to Esensten.
Herb Miller, inspired by Kapaun, began to read a pocket Bible, which one of Miller’s fellow prisoners hid from the Chinese by sticking it in a bandage he’d wrapped around his knee. The one place the Chinese would never search on them was a bandage, Miller thought grimly. They let the men die of their wounds.
William Funchess, in the officers’ camp, had taken to reading aloud at night from his own pocket Bible, putting his soul and his syrupy Carolina accent into every tender reading. The men always asked for the 23rd Psalm, and sometimes asked him to read it 15 or 20 times in a row. Funchess would read it to them and feel at peace.
Again and again Mike Dowe and Funchess and the others saw Kapaun defy the Chinese monitors in the propaganda classes. He never raised his voice, but he challenged them every time, and Funchess after a time began to realize he did it not just to rally them to the flag but to rally them to live.
Every time Kapaun defied them, it was a reminder to starving prisoners that standing up was the opposite of giving up.
A Chinese officer one day, outraged by POW defiance, told them he would shoot them all, and bury them “so that your bones will forever fertilize the soil of North Korea.”
There was a brief silence. Then Kapaun spoke:
“What a dumb son of a bitch!”
In private moments, Kapaun would renounce his swearing.
One day, filled with anger at the camp commander, Comrade Sun, Kapaun told Dowe, “When Jesus talked about forgiving our enemies, he obviously did not have Comrade Sun in mind!”
But he recanted after he cooled down.
“We need to forgive our enemies,” he told Funchess. “We need to love them, too.”
The Chinese by this time had removed the North Korean guards, who had guarded the prisoners since the camps opened. The North Koreans hated the Americans who had mauled them so badly before the Chinese entered the war.
The Chinese, embarrassed by all the deaths, took over administration along the Yalu River, though all it really meant at first was that they starved POWs at a slower rate and replaced brutal guards with slightly better guards.
But like the North Koreans, the Chinese hated religion, and Comrade Sun made sure Kapaun knew it. Dowe came across Kapaun one day, and was surprised to see him smiling. Kapaun stared down a road leading south.
“What are you thinking of, Father?” Dowe asked.
He was daydreaming, the priest replied. “Of that happy day when the first American tank rolls down that road.”
Kapaun looked at Dowe.
“Then I’m going to catch that little so-and-so Comrade Sun and kick his ass right over the compound fence.”
There was at least one healing, prisoners said later.
Kapaun one day walked into a hut and took an apparently dying prisoner in his arms. Chester Osborne Jr. was one of Moose McClain and Dowe’s closest friends, but they saw, with eyes trained by experience, that he would die soon. Kapaun cradled Osborne in his arms, laid Osborne’s head on his shoulder. Kapaun then bluntly told Osborne to quit dying.
As a “precaution” he told him, “I’ll give you the last rites, just in case.” But he told Osborne to fight harder for his life. Then he prayed, for about five minutes.
Osborne rallied. This surprised everybody in that hut.
Most men died quickly when they got that sick, and a lot of men got sick now. Some of them had noticed something at the Easter service: Kapaun looked ill.
Shortly after Easter, Kapaun came to Esensten, looking feeble, hobbling on a stick, in obvious pain.
Esensten touched Kapaun’s leg. Then he pulled up Kapaun’s trouser and saw swelling, blue and black discoloration. He pressed a finger into a foot; the dent did not go away.
Esensten stood up angry. You should have told me, he said. One leg was twice the size of the other.
Kapaun stood silent.
We need to treat this immediately, Esensten said. He said he wanted Kapaun to lie down and stay down.
“No,” Kapaun said.
Funchess awoke one night soon after to the sound of a man being shoved into his hut. The guards had transferred Kapaun here, perhaps to separate him from McClain, another troublemaker they disliked.
Kapaun was in pain. When Funchess saw his leg, he knew this would cause much suffering in a hut where 14 men slept jammed against each other and stepped on each other to get to the latrines at night.
“Would you like my spot next to the wall?” Funchess asked. Because of his injured foot, he had taken that spot weeks before. “The wall will give you protection.”
For once, Kapaun did not argue with a Good Samaritan; he said yes. Funchess lay beside him in the dark, warming the priest’s frail body with his own.
“In order to win the crown of heavenly glory, the saints were expected first to carry a heavy cross in life.” — Father Emil Kapaun
Over the next six weeks, the POWs in the Pyoktong prison camp began a cloaked and daring effort to save Emil Kapaun’s life.
On a rise above them stood the remains of a Buddhist monastery; the guards called it a hospital, but POWs called it “The Death House.”
The Chinese sometimes killed prisoners by isolating them there from food and help. The POWs knew that’s where Kapaun might end up.
In April, weeks after his Easter service irritated the guards, Kapaun’s friends tried to conceal his illness.
Sidney Esensten, a doctor, told fellow prisoners that Kapaun had a blood clot in his leg, probably caused by the many injuries he had endured in battle or in camp. Esensten and Clarence Anderson, another doctor, explained what Kapaun needed: heat on his leg, bed rest, extra food.
So Mike Dowe stole food. William Funchess huddled with Kapaun at night to keep him warm. Men sneaked to the bombedout church where Kapaun gave his Easter service, stole bricks, heated them in fires and gave them to Esensten; he clamped the hot bricks to Kapaun’s leg. Men made a small trapeze to help Esensten elevate the leg.
Kapaun got mad and tried to get up; the doctor and the priest glared at each other. Kapaun wanted to make prayer rounds.
Food and hot bricks turned him around. Then he got dysentery, and that quickly weakened him; he could not sleep for running to the latrine.
Funchess and a resourceful Kentuckian, Gene Shaw, intervened. Shaw sneaked out of the compound and came back with the top half of a pot-bellied stove he had scrounged from a bombed-out house. He and Funchess stuck one of Kapaun’s homemade pans in the bottom and told Kapaun he now had a private commode, no running to the latrine necessary.
And when they saw that he was too weak to mount it himself, they lifted him there — then wiped his bottom for him. This deeply embarrassed Kapaun, but Funchess told him he had seen him do the same for others.
Esensten now hatched a daring plan. He talked to men all over the camp. The result was an outbreak of fake POW dysentery throughout the officers’ compound. Chinese doctors saw dozens of men with “diarrhea.” They gave medicine, and the men smuggled it to Esensten, who gave it to Kapaun — who got better.
But Kapaun still grew weaker. Funchess at night could see him fight spasms of pain. Advanced starvation causes pain deep in the bones, reducing soldiers to tears. It also caused Kapaun and Dowe’s genitals to swell, making it painful to move.
Even in this state, Kapaun reached out to comfort others. Men came to him for his blessing. Funchess, lying beside him at night, asked for his comfort. The priest had just turned 35; Funchess was only 24, a boy in comparison. Kapaun coaxed him away from fear.
“I don’t think I’m going to make it, Father. I can hardly walk on my foot, it’s going to get an infection. I’m starving,” Funchess said.
“No, no,” Kapaun said. “You’re going to get better, you’re going to get out of here. So you just walk on that foot.”
Funchess asked about forgiveness.
“Of course we should forgive them,” Kapaun said of the guards. “We should not only forgive our enemies but love them, too.”
But they shot wounded soldiers, Funchess said. They abused prisoners.
It doesn’t matter, Kapaun said.
“If we fail to forgive, we’re rejecting our own faith.”
Incredibly now, with barely enough strength to breathe, with the POWs trying to conceal him from guards bent on murdering him, Kapaun rallied one day to help Funchess design pots and pans.
This was not as mundane an act as it sounds: Dirty water killed POWs; boiled water kept them healthy.
One day, Funchess, a farmer’s son, asked a question that had nagged all the other farm boys for months.
“You’re the only guy in camp who can take a square piece of roofing tin and make a pan that doesn’t leak out of all four corners,” Funchess said. “How do you do that?”
“You got to know when to crimp an edge inside and when to bend outside,” Kapaun said. He was lying on the dirt floor, with barely enough strength to open his eyes. “I could show you,” Kapaun said.
“No,” Funchess said. “You rest. Wait.”
Funchess left for a few minutes and came back with pencil and scrap paper. For hours, the farm boy from Kansas dictated detailed instructions to the farm boy from South Carolina, who wrote it all down. Funchess at last held the paper before Kapaun’s eyes.
“I think you got it!” Kapaun said.
After that, men made leakproof pans.
Kapaun came down with pneumonia.
Esensten and other officers demanded sulfa powder. Guards said there wasn’t any.
Kapaun made feeble attempts to talk. A POW next door wanted to convert to Catholicism; Kapaun spoke to him. Another POW, Felix McCool, came to say confession; Kapaun sat up and blessed him in Latin, then sank back, delirious. I am going to die, Kapaun told McCool.
Esensten refused to accept this. He said that if they could keep Kapaun warm and fed, he might live. It was late May 1951, and even in this place the breezes of spring touched the faces of men. But then the Chinese came. They came brusquely and rudely in the hut door; Comrade Sun with a pistol, soldiers carrying rifles. They laid a stretcher down, pointed at Kapaun. “No!” Funchess said. “He’s fine with us.” He looked down at Kapaun, who looked so weak that Funchess wondered whether he realized what was happening. “He goes!” a guard said. Things escalated, first to argument, then to pandemonium. Men began to yell, to beg the guards: “Leave him.”
Emaciated Americans — Protestant, atheist and agnostic — hobbled out of the hut, calling for help. The Catholics Ralph Nardella and Walt Mayo came running, and Protestants stepped back to let them lead.
Men so weak they could barely stand hurried to the hut, where voices got louder by the moment. Esensten and Anderson, the doctors, tried to reason with the guards.
Let us take care of him, Esensten pleaded.
The guards glared.
Give us the medicines we need, and we’ll take care of him. He’ll do better with us.
The Chinese stood their ground, rifles in hand. More men crowded around, and Funchess saw one of the skeletal Americans shove a Chinese rifleman; the rifleman shoved back. The Chinese did not yet aim rifles at the POWs, but they grew nervous. There was more shoving, until a voice spoke from the floor. At first, Funchess didn’t hear it. But then men pointed to Kapaun. He was so weak he could barely speak; he was in so much pain his face was contorted. “I’ll go,” he said. “Don’t get into any trouble over me.”
Men sobbed like children. Kapaun handed his gold ciborium to Mayo. “Tell them I died a happy death.” He said he’d keep his purple stole and his little vials of holy oils; perhaps he could help in the hospital. He told a story from Maccabees: A king threatened seven sons unless their mother forsook God; she refused, and cried as her sons died — but the tears were tears of joy.
Nardella bent down when Kapaun beckoned.
“You know the prayers, Ralph,” Kapaun said. He handed back Nardella’s borrowed missal. “Keep holding the services. Don’t let them make you stop.”
Phil Peterson, who had helped Kapaun say rosaries, put a hand on Kapaun’s arm.
“I’m terribly sorry.”
“You’re sorry for me?” Kapaun said. “I am going to be with Jesus Christ. And that is what I have worked for all my life. And you say you’re sorry for me? You should be happy for me.”
Kapaun beckoned to another prisoner.
“When you get back to Jersey, you get that marriage straightened out. Or I’ll come down from heaven and kick you in the ass.”
Dowe by this time was sobbing nearby.
“Don’t take it hard, Mike,” Kapaun 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.”
Americans told the guards they would carry Kapaun themselves. Four POWs, including Nardella and Bob Wood, placed Kapaun on the stretcher. Anderson saw Kapaun smile.
They walked him out, trudged up the hill, past men bent with grief. A Turkish officer named Fezi Bey watched in awe. The Turks were tough men, Muslims who had known little about Christianity before they came here. They respected Kapaun deeply. Kapaun told Nardella to take care of the men and stick to the principles of his faith, “all of them.” They reached the entrance to the Death House; Kapaun raised a hand and blessed the guards. Tears poured down Wood’s cheeks. Kapaun looked at Nardella. In heaven, he said, he would pray for Nardella’s return home. Then he glanced around at the Chinese waiting at the hospital. “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He looked at a Chinese officer. “Forgive me,” Kapaun said. They laid him down alone in a room filthy with feces and maggots.
Wood walked into an adjoining room, where several sick prisoners lay and pleaded with them.
“Father is in a bad way,” he said. “Try to help him if you can.” They looked too weak to help.
Wood, prodded by the guards, walked back to the compound, so distraught he could barely see.
“My God,” he thought. “If God is taking this man, what has he got in store for the rest of us?”
Wood pushed down that thought. Father Kapaun would never think like that. Kapaun lasted two days. Then he died. And that was the end. Or so the guards hoped.
All over the officers’ compound, men sat for days in shock. And then, little by little, unusual things began to happen. In the Death House the teenage Cpl. Bob McGreevy, deathly ill for a month, rolled over one day, soon after he was told Kapaun was dead. He crawled away from the spot on the floor where the Chinese had abandoned him to die. He’d weighed 180 pounds when he was captured at Unsan; he was down to about 100 now.
McGreevy was a former football player from Cumberland, Md. He knew as an athlete that he needed to get his leg muscles moving or they would atrophy, and he would die. He crawled into a corner where he could get his big hands on two walls.
He took a deep breath.
He braced his hands against the walls, gathered his feet, and prayed a prayer he had never prayed before.
A Catholic, he had been taught that when all hope was lost, you prayed to a saint who you thought had the ear of God.
He prayed now to a man who fit that description. For all anyone knows, he became the first person to pray this particular prayer. He would not be the last.
“Father Kapaun,” McGreevy prayed, “Help me.”
And then, for the first time in weeks, McGreevy stood up.
Outside the Death House, in the mud huts of Pyoktong, Funchess continued to defiantly read the 23rd Psalm every night to fellow prisoners. Funchess had read the psalm to himself after Kapaun died; now he read it to other men who had loved Kapaun.
In another mud hut, Mayo hid Kapaun’s gold ciborium so the guards could not confiscate it.
Nardella led prisoners in saying the rosary in forbidden religious services.
They were inches from starving to death. All hope seemed lost. The guards had just murdered their best man.
But little by little, as the first shock wore off, men began to tell and retell the stories of Father Kapaun: his friendship, his jokes, his deeds, his faith.
That frail man, who died alone, who lay now in an unmarked grave, had never told them what to do. He’d never pushed religion on them. But he had somehow taught them to stand up for themselves, to forgive, and to help each other.
It was not long before they rallied; it was not long before the Chinese finally began to feed them a little better. It was not long before they pulled themselves together and told each other that the man who had died for them deserved a gift in return:
“He died because he loved and pitied us. He died that we might live.” — Father Emil Kapaun
The legend of Father Kapaun and the quest to elevate him to sainthood began in September 1953 as soon as Communist guards released prisoners at the end of the Korean War. A little band of fierce-looking Americans, with balding and blunttalking Ralph Nardella at their head, carried Emil Kapaun’s gold ciborium and a rugged wooden crucifix, an inch shy of four feet tall. They had risked their lives in a final act of defiance to bring those items across the fence line; the guards wanted to confiscate them, but Nardella and the others had threatened to stay in North Korea.
They walked directly to foreign correspondents covering the prisoner release and said they had a world-class story to tell. Within hours, wire services were sending it worldwide: the story of Father Kapaun, along with photos of Nardella, Joseph O’Connor and Felix McCool holding the crucifix.
They told how he’d had tobacco pipes shot out of his mouth as he dragged wounded off battlefields. They said he saved men on the Death March, washed the underwear of the sick, made pans out of roofing tin, stole food.
“Maybe I shouldn’t say it,” O’Connor said in a wire-service story that appeared in The Wichita Beacon, “but he was the best food thief we had.”
The stories appeared in papers around the world and made Kapaun an international hero.
Clarence Anderson, a doctor, told how Kapaun asked guards to forgive him even as they prepared his murder.
O’Connor told how Kapaun celebrated Mass under fire, spreading bread and wine on the hood of his jeep, never flinching at explosions.
“I am a Jew,” Sidney Esensten, another doctor, told the reporters. “But I feel deeply the greatness of the man, regardless of religion.”
Nardella said Kapaun had planned to give $1,000 in back pay to the poor in his parish in Kansas. Nardella had pledges from POWs for $1,000. Nardella wanted to deliver it himself.
The stories astonished Kapaun’s grieving family; they had not known the details of his heroism.
They told reporters stories of a kid who played priest when other boys played cowboys; who, as a young altar boy on the way to Mass, got off his bike to pick flowers for the altar.
Strangers thrilled to Kapaun’s deeds. But when reporters asked his mother about Emil, Bessie said she had opposed her son’s return to the Army.
“But he said the boys needed him more than we did — and he went.”
Kapaun would have been upset had he known the risks his friends took to honor him.
Back in the camp, Walt Mayo, after the dying Kapaun handed him the ciborium, had hid it; guards took it anyway. Weeks later, Mayo, Nardella and the others nearly rioted when a prisoner saw the camp commander’s 4-year-old daughter throwing it in the air and catching it. Nardella demanded it; the Chinese refused until war’s end.
In the two years before their release, many prisoners talked about Kapaun day and night. A few weeks after Kapaun died, when a profane Marine Corps fighter pilot named Jerry Fink was brought to camp, Kapaun was nearly all he heard about. Even a tough Muslim POW named Fezi Bey told Fink that Kapaun had awed all the Turks.
“He is not of my religion, but he is a man of God,” Bey said.
Fink was a Jew with little interest in Christianity. He was also an artist, and he hated the guards. When Nardella said he wanted a shrine to honor Kapaun and defy the guards, Fink vowed to do something profound.
What happened became the next chapter in the Kapaun legend: the Jewish warrior carving a sculpture of the crucified Christ in a mud-hut hell.
Fink spent weeks picking over firewood. He selected pieces of scrub oak for the cross and fine-grained cherry wood for the body.
Other prisoners, including Mayo’s buddy Phil Peterson, showed Fink how to tear up old GI boots, removing the steel arches. Fink and Peterson spent weeks filing steel on rocks until they had sharp blades.
Fink made a chisel out of a broken drainpipe; he spent months carving a 47-inch-by-28-inch cross. He carved a 2-foot-long body and a bearded face that others said looked surprisingly like the face of Kapaun.
He twisted radio wire to make a crown of thorns. He sneaked up to the building of the camp commander, smashed a window, and used the ground glass to sand the sculpture.
Guards demanded to know who the face was.
“Abraham Lincoln,” Fink lied. The guards regarded Lincoln as a kindred spirit.
But when at last they saw it was Christ, some guards spat at it; others threw Fink into a punishment hole. But they seemed afraid to touch the sculpture.
Years later, when Fink visited Kapaun’s friends and family in Kansas, he talked of hate. “I can still bring up the hate. It’s what kept me going.”
But what made him carve the cross, he said, was the story of a man who rejected hate, who told all the Jerry Finks of the world to love their enemies. Fink did not emulate that idea — but he risked his life to honor it.
“If the meek shall inherit the earth, it will be because people like Father Kapaun willed it to them,” Fink told reporters in Wichita. “I am a Jew, but that man will always live in my heart.”
Visits by Fink and others brought some peace to the Kapauns; but it was not enough.
Bessie cried every time reporters called. She would sometimes play a recording of Emil’s voice, giving a sermon over Armed Forces Radio in Tokyo not long before he shipped out for Korea. She would listen to her son talk about saints, and how they were tested. And she would cry.
When reporters asked Enos Kapaun about Emil, the old farmer looked at the ground.
“You know,” he said, “since he is gone, I am just no good.”
The Catholic Church saw Kapaun’s potential for sainthood, but for decades did little to push it.
Wichita Diocese Bishop Mark Carroll, Kapaun’s boss when he served as a Pilsen priest, told reporters that Kapaun was a saint soon after POWs revealed his heroism. The diocese began collecting information; books were contemplated.
The church hierarchy decided that because Kapaun was a chaplain, its Archdiocese for the Military Services should lead the investigation.
Decades passed. Eventually, bishops succeeding Carroll realized that the understaffed chaplain service never pressed sainthood to conclusion; the Wichita Diocese decided to take over.
The POWs never gave up.
Kapaun friends including Moose McClain, Mayo, Mike Dowe and others came repeatedly over the next decades to Wichita and Pilsen; they testified on tape, signed affidavits, wrote polite, insistent letters to the Army and the church.
They asked the military to review whether Kapaun should receive the Medal of Honor.
A fellow 8th Cavalry soldier who was awarded that medal said Kapaun should have received it, too.
“Maybe they thought a guy who didn’t carry a gun shouldn’t win the Medal of Honor,” Tibor Rubin said.
No POW did as much for Kapaun after the war as Dowe. Over six decades he was a diplomatic and determined advocate for his friend.
Months after his release, Dowe went to work at the Pentagon, where he told of camps, tortures, heroes, collaborators — and Kapaun.
Army officers, impressed, introduced Dowe to Harold Martin, an editor at one of the nation’s respected media giants, the Saturday Evening Post. Martin, a gifted writer, helped Dowe write a story that on Jan. 16, 1954, brought an extended account of Kapaun’s heroism to a worldwide audience.
“He was a priest of the church, and a man of great piety,” the two men wrote. “But there was nothing ethereal about him, nothing soft or unctuous or holier-than- thou . . . 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. 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 stand up to them and tell them to their faces that they lied.”
Dowe served Kapaun and country: He worked for an Eisenhower presidential commission studying prisoner of war conduct; he turned himself into a nuclear physicist, doing important work with nuclear weaponry and the Star Wars program. All the while, he told people about his great friend.
In 1955, actor James Whitmore played Kapaun in a national television show, “The Good Thief,” wearing an eye patch, stealing food, praying in violation of camp rules. Some script lines came right from Dowe’s story in the Post.
They had made Kapaun a hero; the stories resonated everywhere.
Nardella, when he got a hero’s welcome in New Jersey, was surprised to learn that local newspapers and citizens had already raised the $1,000 Nardella had pledged for the Pilsen poor fund. Before Nardella took it to Kansas, that fund would grow much larger — to $8,300.
The Army by then had awarded Kapaun the Distinguished Service Cross, its second-highest award.
In May 1957, Cardinal Francis Spellman, friend to popes and one of the most prominent religious figures in the U.S., sat with Carroll in Wichita and honored Kapaun as they named a Catholic high school after him, the seed money for which was brought by Nardella.
At dinner that night, they heard impassioned speeches.
“Father Kapaun’s courage had the softness of velvet and the strength of iron,” Mayo told them.
“More than a man,” said Anderson, the doctor. “A hero and a saint.”
Nardella told them that he had nearly died one day from beriberi and pneumonia.
“It was the lowest point in my life,” Nardella said, until Kapaun came to his hut.
“Before you have an Easter you must have a Good Friday,” Kapaun told him.
But the dinner showed how fast the memories of people can fade.
Kapaun’s brother Eugene, as his wife related later, was mystified to hear Carroll and Spellman mispronounce his and his brother’s last name as “KAYpin,” rather than “kuhPAWN.”
For years after, Eugene — who served as a maintenance man in the school that bore his own name — tried to correct people. No one listened. Eventually even people in Pilsen said “KAYpin.”
The diocese as early as the late 1950s was handing out Kapaun prayer cards, one of which went to a two-story house in south Wichita.
There, where two parents and nine kids competed for two bathrooms, Sylvester and Frances Hotze raised a son who knew Kapaun because his parents taped the prayer card to the bathroom mirror; John Hotze saw Kapaun every time he brushed his teeth.
Later, after Hotze was ordained, he asked to serve Kapaun’s parish at Pilsen, an hour’s drive north of Wichita. Hotze felt called.
By 2001, when the diocese decided to step up efforts to investigate Kapaun’s candidacy for sainthood, Hotze became the logical choice to gather information and make a case to the Vatican.
He began to call old soldiers. They were glad to help him.
Kapaun’s war buddies had never given up pressing his case. Over decades, as all hope seemed lost, they kept telling his story, suggesting the Medal of Honor, suggesting their friend belonged in the ranks of saints.
Hotze traveled. He taped interviews with Dowe, William Funchess, Herb Miller, Bob McGreevy and others.
In 2009 they heard news from the U.S. Army.
It made their skin tingle.
“Perfection is acquired through our efforts, and if we try to become saints, someday we will be saints.” — Father Emil Kapaun
Chase Kear does not seem at first glance to be the poster boy for a Vatican investigation involving sainthood. He chews a little dip, hits targets at turkey shoots, listens to country music when he rolls. In his Facebook profile photo he dresses the part of a halfnaked bandito in a sombrero. He’s a self-described redneck; also foolish and drunk and stupid at times in the past, he says, though less so since his accident.
He takes comfort in knowing that Jesus reached out to sinners, and a sinner Chase Kear sometimes is. Jesus loves him anyway.
His life changed when it should have ended on Oct. 2, 2008. A pole vaulter on the Hutchinson Community College track team, he felt something go slack in the flex of his vault pole as he turned upside down in midair. He overshot the mat.
The impact on the ground caved in the right side of his skull. He stopped breathing; paramedics stuck a tube down his throat. His eyeballs stared sightless in different directions. His limp arms and legs would not move when paramedics jabbed them.
“He was dead,” family doctor Joe Davison said later.
Surgeons sawed off the right side of his skull to relieve the brain’s swelling.
Family and friends began chanting Hail Marys, Our Fathers and a prayer to Father Emil Kapaun.
The Kears barely knew who Kapaun was. But reciting the Kapaun prayer before daily Mass is what Catholics do in Colwich. It’s a wisp of a town northwest of Wichita, surrounded by wheat fields. The diocese has handed out Kapaun prayer cards for the sick for decades. Davison, when he learned how bad Kear’s injury was, steeled himself to comfort a grieving family, and secondarily planned for permanent care. If Chase survived, he would surely be an invalid needing diapers. Other doctors made the same predictions to Chase’s parents, Paul and Paula. Paula said they should pray. They and their friends said thousands of prayers to Kapaun. After that something crazy happened. Doctors called it impossible.
Kapaun’s comrades revere him to this day. Some of them pray to him.
Mike Dowe, living in Houston now, has prayed to the soul of his friend every night since Kapaun died.
Bob McGreevy, who revived in the prison camp Death House while praying to Kapaun, went home to Cumberland, Md., after the war and married Marian, the prettiest girl in town. He worked for the Postal Service, raised children and regained enough health to run marathons, including in Boston and New York.
Marian died five years ago; McGreevy still cries. He never cried in the prison camps.
At POW reunions, he and Al Brooks grin sometimes, and tell POWs at the dinner tables that “whatever you do, keep eating.” It is a wry salute to Kapaun, who had demanded that they eat Chinese birdseed to stay alive.
McGreevy has prayed to Kapaun every night since he heard in the Death House that Kapaun died alone there.
“I will say an Our Father and a Hail Mary,” he said. “Then I pray to him: ‘Father Kapaun, thank you so much for giving us the courage to keep going.’ ’’
Doctors told Chase’s parents that he’d probably die either because of the brain damage or because they’d been forced to breach the blood-brain barrier that prevents infection.
When he had hit the ground, his brain had rattled inside his skull in the same way the clapper bangs inside a ringing bell.
When he awakened, doctors were mystified. Science could not explain this. They still predicted death, or life as an invalid. But then the impossible happened. Chase started talking. He started recognizing people. The doctors could barely believe what they saw. After less than a month in the hospital, Chase went home wearing a T-shirt that said “Miracle Man.”
Herbert Miller, when he learned a few years ago that there was an annual Father Kapaun Day in Kapaun’s hometown, drove halfway across the United States with his wife, Joyce.
They reached Pilsen, a town so small he could walk the length of it in minutes, bad ankle and all.
In the decades since Kapaun had shoved aside his executioner, Miller had worked, fished and raised two adopted children. In the big garden in back of his house he raised watermelon, cantaloupe, collard greens, sweet corn, string beans, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and peas. Sometimes, looking at all those good things to eat, he remembered how they had all starved.
He has lived a good life.
Lake Ontario lies only five miles away; he likes to go there, look out over the water.
Sometimes when he mows the lawn his mind wanders. He got to do all those things because Kapaun saved him.
He cries sometimes when he thinks of Kapaun. When he pulls off his sock at night, he looks at a lower leg forever reddish, black and blue, the ankle twisted, the skin pitted from grenade fragments.
In Pilsen that day, Miller, not knowing anybody in town, asked around about Father Kapaun. Pilseners looked at him warily.
So he told them that one day in North Korea, he had lain in a ditch. And a guy had pointed the muzzle of a rifle at his head.
“And then this guy came walking across the road . . .”
At that point, people threw their arms around Miller’s neck. There were still people who remembered Kapaun, still baked kolaches, still spoke the Czech that Kapaun spoke in sermons.
A local caretaker of the Kapaun legacy, Rose Mary Neuwirth, showed the Millers around.
When Miller stepped onto the grounds of the church, he caught his breath.
He stood on his wounded leg and stared at a bronze statue of Kapaun with his left arm around a limping soldier who has a bandage wrapped around his wounded leg.
Chase Kear believes Christ and Kapaun saved him. He knows critics of the church will ridicule this.
After news stories appeared in June about the Vatican investigating him as a Kapaun “miracle,” cybercritics ridiculed his family, his faith.
“I don’t care what they think,” he said.
His neurosurgeon, Raymond Grundmeyer, has said to newspapers and the Vatican that Kear’s survival is miraculous.
Kear says he’s trying to figure out what he’s supposed to do now. Was he spared for a reason? If so, for what? Not many things scare him, he says. That question scares him. In church on Sundays, he no longer mumbles his way through the Catholic prayers. He says them for real. Women hug him. People shake his hand. But what now? “I was given my life back,” Kear says. “There must be a reason. “What is it?”
As early as 1990, Kansas Rep. Dan Glickman asked the military to review whether Kapaun deserved the Medal of Honor. Before the war ended, Kapaun was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his battle deeds, the military’s second-highest award. For that reason, and because so many years had passed, the military rejected Glickman’s request. Glickman’s successor, Todd Tiahrt, took up the cause in 2001. He also got a no. But Kapaun’s friends would not give up; Dowe and the others kept writing letters, telling stories.
Tiahrt, learning that Kapaun’s Distinguished Service Cross had been awarded for his battlefield courage, asked for a review of Kapaun’s deeds in the prison camp.
By coincidence, an instructor at West Point had begun researching a book about Korean War POWs. Lt. Col. William Latham, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, interviewed Dowe, William Funchess, Miller and many other men, and they all told him about Kapaun.
Latham collected a thick file of eyewitness accounts of Kapaun’s heroism. He turned copies of it over to Kapaun’s brother and sister-in-law, Eugene and Helen Kapaun.
They turned it over to Tiahrt, who gave it all to the Army.
Those papers helped spur what happened next.
By this past summer, a large number of Kapaun stories had been collected by the Rev. John Hotze, the judicial vicar of the Wichita Diocese now in charge of the sainthood investigation.
His assignment had taken years. To meet Vatican rules on sainthood, he had needed to find a provable “alleged miracle” to persuade the Vatican to beatify Kapaun as a potential saint. That done, he — and Kapaun — would then need heavenly intervention: a second provable miracle, occurring after beatification.
Had anyone ever miraculously survived a scientifically unexplainable injury or illness after people prayed to Kapaun?
Hotze found the Kears. Then he found a second family in Wichita who decided not to talk publicly; that family’s situation involved a teenage daughter who survived a catastrophic autoimmune disorder.
Last summer, at Hotze’s request, Vatican investigator Andrea Ambrosi visited Wichita and interviewed both families and their doctors. He was surprised at what he learned.
In all his experience at vetting sainthood cases, he’d never seen such promising testimonials from witnesses; several doctors involved with both Wichita families were Protestant, not schooled in the Catholic teachings of sainthood, and they were emphatic that these cases were real miracles.
He told Hotze both cases looked promising and that he would return in 2010.
Hotze had talked to many POWs by then.
The stories he heard enriched the cause, enriched his own life. POW William Hansen, shortly before he died, described to Hotze how he and Kapaun used to sneak into the “hospital” and watch which medicines were passed out by Chinese doctors for dysentery or pneumonia. Then they’d sneak in later, steal the drugs and smuggle them to American doctors.
Tibor Rubin, who won the Medal of Honor for his Korean War exploits, told Hotze how he huddled terrified at the bottom of a foxhole one day, bullets flying. Kapaun jumped in beside him and casually reached inside his jacket.
“Hey,” Kapaun said. “You want an apple? I got an apple.”
Rubin told officials who gave him the Medal of Honor that he won it because his anti-Semitic sergeant tried to murder him by making him defend a hill alone against a mass charge by North Koreans. A survivor of Mauthausen death camp in World War II, Rubin was sometimes a target of anti-Semitism in the Army. Kapaun behaved differently.
“He was nice to everybody. I was a Jewish person, but he always treated me like I was a Catholic person,’’ he said. “It didn’t matter to him who or what I was.”
In one battle, he was knocked out by an explosion, and awakened to see Kapaun giving him the last rites of the Catholic church.
“I was glad to see him.”
Rubin said he wrote a letter to “that Polish pope” years ago, recommending sainthood for Kapaun. He said he’s puzzled why the church never followed his advice.
In the prison camps, Rubin did as Kapaun did: stole food for the hungry. And when he did so, he thought of his mother, who taught him a Yiddish word, “mitzvah” — a “good deed.”
“When you give out mitzvahs, mitzvahs come back to you,” his mother taught him. She had told him: “When you save somebody’s life, you might save an entire nation, you never know.”
Rubin said Kapaun gave out a lot of mitzvahs.
Hotze knows proving miracles won’t be easy. The Catholic Church ruthlessly discounts most alleged miracles.
Since 1858, thousands of sick and desperate people seek miraculous cures every year at the Catholic shrine called Lourdes, in France. Only a few dozen have ever been deemed miracles.
But Kapaun’s candidacy has gone a long way down the sainthood road.
Hotze made helpful discoveries. He and other priests were intrigued, for example, when they read Kapaun’s sermons delivered in Pilsen when he was still a new priest. Kapaun, the son of Czech parents, leading a Czech-speaking congregation, had written some sermons longhand in Czech and typed all of them neatly in English.
The thinker that the priests encountered in these writings surprised them with the rhythmic cadences of his sentences and the originality of his thought.
“The sorrows which we are to encounter on our journey thru life are covered with a veil,” he said one Sunday. “The forgiving of wrongs is the exercising of mercy,” he said on another.
“We must be on our guard that our temptations will not shake us like the wind does the reeds.”
What surprised them most were passages in which Kapaun seemed to predict that he would be severely tested — and seemed to decide how he would act, how he would lead: He would emulate Jesus, who led people by becoming their servant.
In his Palm Sunday sermon on April 6, 1941, Kapaun, only 25 years old, laid out this strategy in simple, vigorous sentences. There was this one:
“Men find it easy to follow one who has endeared himself to them.”
“A man finds it a pleasure to serve one who has saved his life.”
“A great leader exerts a most powerful influence over the hearts and minds of his followers. Though the task of following such a leader is most arduous in itself, yet it becomes sweet and honorable, and comparatively easy in practice when the followers consider the dignity of the leader, the relation of the leader to his followers, the motives which prompt the leader, and the rewards which he offers.”
Those thoughts, Hotze said, were a blueprint not only for sainthood but for how Kapaun steeled himself, nine years after he wrote them, to become the one man whom desperate men would obey when all hope seemed lost.
No one needed to tell the POWs about sainthood.
“We knew in the camp that he was a saint, while he was still alive,” Funchess said. “It was obvious.”
But canonization by the Vatican is a matter that baffles some soldiers. They saw him do heroic things that didn’t seem to fit what the church asks about.
The Vatican asked whether Kapaun lived a life “above reproach.” Soldiers grinned at this, recalling Kapaun swearing at Comrade Sun.
The Vatican wanted to know whether the sick he saved ever recovered “immediately.”
No, they said. It took time.
The church seemed to be looking for upper-case, biblicalsized miracles, like raising Lazarus from the dead.
The POWs never saw that happen in Pyoktong.
What they did see, Funchess said, were the sorts of lowercase miracles that all of us could do if only we had Kapaun’s character and grit.
By that definition, Miller said, “That man’s entire life was a miracle.”
Was it a miracle, Miller asked, when Kapaun shoved his executioner away?
“I was sure that guy was going to shoot both of us,” Miller said. “We were in the middle of a battle. It was a miracle that he did not shoot us. Isn’t that a miracle?”
The POWs say Kapaun saved hundreds of lives — dozens on battlefields, hundreds in the camps by stealing food, making pots to boil water, picking lice out of armpits. The lice were so thick, Funchess said, that they’d bleed a man to death in three days if he let them feast.
By any standard, Funchess said, saving hundreds of lives in those conditions is incredible. The Pentagon estimates that 1,200 to 1,600 of the 3,000 to 4,000 POWs who passed through Pyoktong died that first winter.
Skeptics of miracles could ask: If miracles really exist, if Kapaun really was a saint in the making, why did at least 1,200 men die beside him when Kapaun himself was praying to God every day to spare their lives?
But the men who saw him there say that while he didn’t save all, he saved hundreds. How many saved lives are enough?
Some questions from the church puzzled the old soldiers, who tried to be diplomatic about it.
When Moose McClain, in a 2003 video interview, told Archbishop Philip Hannan of the New Orleans Diocese that he’d watched Kapaun virtually raise POW Chester Osborne from death by cradling him in his arms and praying in a hut one day, Hannan asked whether his recovery was “immediate.”
“No,” McClain told him.
The church also asked these men whether Kapaun won converts to Catholicism, which would be another feather in Kapaun’s sainthood cap if the church could find it.
Yes, they said. Some men converted. But the broader answer is not so simple.
Osborne, according to his granddaughter Laurie Uhlman, came home from the war and told people he’d survived imprisonment because of Kapaun. But he did not convert until 1974, more than 20 years after Kapaun revived him.
Bob Wood, who helped carry Kapaun to the Death House, studied Catholicism when he got back home, but did not convert.
“I never found anyone in the church who could match up to Father Kapaun,” he said.
Funchess stayed Methodist, Miller a Baptist.
McGreevy, born a Catholic, stopped going to Mass years ago after reading about sex scandals and cover-ups involving priests. McGreevy, still devout, could not bring himself to join any other faith.
So in his home in Maryland, he built a shrine. He acquired a small replica of the statue of Kapaun in Pilsen, set it beside his favorite chair, leaned Kapaun prayer cards against it and prayed to his old mentor every day.
The questions from the church, and the 58 years it took for the Vatican to assign an investigator, puzzled POWs like Miller.
“If I could talk to the pope, I’d tell him that if he doesn’t give sainthood to Father Kapaun, he might as well close up the whole thing and never give it to anybody else ever again.”
Should people believe in miracles? Are there really saints?
Kapaun’s friends don’t know the answers to those questions. But they say they know what they saw.
They saw death surround them; they saw little reason for hope. But Kapaun preached about hope until the day he died and made many of them believe in hope, too.
Kapaun’s greatest miracle, Dowe said, was persuading people to believe in hope.
“That kept a lot of us alive,” Dowe said. “When your life is so marginal, little things mean a lot.”
Some of the men he saved did not necessarily believe in miracles; some of them did not even believe in God. But they believed in Father Kapaun.
When they heard the news this October, former POWs felt their skin tingle. The outgoing secretary of the Army wrote Tiahrt that he recommended Kapaun for the Medal of Honor. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concurred. “I’m glad they are doing that for him,” Dowe said when he heard the news. “He sure did a lot for us.” The recommendation will go to Congress, and to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
Gates happens to be a graduate of Wichita’s East High School, located five miles from St. John’s Chapel at Newman University, where Kapaun was ordained in 1940.
If Gates and Congress concur, the recommendation will go to the president.
With other saints, there was a transforming crisis.
Saul the Persecutor became Paul the Apostle when a blinding light struck him down on the road to Damascus.
Augustine slept with women; Francis of Assisi partied until dawn; they became saints only after lives of self-loathing and crisis.
But no one who knew Kapaun ever saw a road to Damascus moment. Hotze, after a decade of study, is sure Kapaun was born whole.
“Everybody I talked to said he was the same way as a boy,” Hotze said. “In school when he finished his lessons he would look how to help other students complete their work. That was the same guy on the battlefield and in prison camps. He just felt compelled to help.”
Kapaun reached his 34th year having done nothing remarkable. He grew up milking cows near a tiny, anonymous town. Fellow soldiers like Jerome Dolan, an 8th Cavalry doctor, said he looked utterly ordinary except in battle; Kapaun had a slight build, a high-pitched voice.
The one recording of his voice is a sermon delivered on Armed Forces Radio two months before he went to Korea. It reveals a voice of high pitch, with the inflections of a rural Kansas farmer, but with a Slavic flavor, with some consonants trilled or clipped off the way some elderly Czech speakers in Pilsen still say them today.
His life until 1950 seems so quaint. The truth is that until the 8th Cavalry Regiment landed on a beach in Korea in July 1950, Kapaun lived a quaint life.
But starting that day, his reckless courage in battle became legend. Joe Ramirez, who fought with the 8th Cavalry all the way up the Korean peninsula, said he and many other soldiers saw Kapaun save wounded soldiers while running through gunfire from rifles, machine guns and sub-machine guns.
“Guys used to say, ‘That man is crazy,’ ” Ramirez said.
American soldiers always tried to rescue their wounded, Ramirez said, but Kapaun would go farther out into enemy gunfire than anyone else dared.
He was kind as well as brave. Dolan said that he and other GIs in a battle one day came upon a North Korean lying in a ditch, holding what looked like a grenade. The GIs wanted to shoot him, but Kapaun stepped forward and held out a canteen.
For a long time, the Korean stared at him as Kapaun gestured with the canteen. Finally, the Korean surrendered. Kapaun had been the one man who saw he was thirsty and hungry.
Raymond Skeehan, a captain in the 8th Cavalry’s medical unit, remembers Kapaun arguing with an officer in mid-battle one day. GIs were preparing to assault a hill full of North Koreans and machine guns.
Kapaun pestered the commander: “Is this necessary? Isn’t it kind of dangerous to attack this hill?”
The officer listened, postponed the attack — then watched the enemy retreat without a fight.
Skeehan, a part-time photographer, took the iconic photo of Kapaun in vestments saying Mass on a battlefield, the blanket-covered hood of a jeep serving as an altar. Skeehan remembers the date: Oct. 7, 1950. Kapaun was captured 26 days later.
“I remember his kindness,” Skeehan said. “I saw him one day with a canvas bag of apples he’d found; he took them to an orphanage.
“None of us ever saw him nod off. We wondered when he slept.”
Dolan remembered that Kapaun, before he was captured, had preached forgiveness when forgiveness seemed impossible.
“The Pacific Stars and Stripes had published a picture of men from the 5th Cavalry Regiment who had been captured, tortured and executed,’’ Dolan said.
“After that atrocity, some of our troops were ready to retaliate in kind. I remember Father’s sermon at the time — that as Christians and as Americans we would betray our heritage if we took revenge on the wounded or on prisoners.”
On Oct. 18, Chase Kear and his family rode to Pilsen and visited the church where Kapaun grew up, where he served as altar boy, where he celebrated his first Mass.
The stone font where he was baptized stood near the altar. Morning light streamed through stained glass, shining through faces of angels.
After Mass, people talked, touched Chase’s hand.
They ate lunch in the church basement: roast beef, cake and Czech kolaches.
Edmund Steiner, 93, one of Kapaun’s boyhood chums, sat a few feet from the Kears. He said he and Emil went to schools run by nuns who whacked bad boys on outstretched palms with a wooden ruler. Not once did Kapaun get whacked. The others got hit all the time.
“He never did anything wrong.”
There was something oddly wonderful about Emil, he said.
“All of us, we would swear and say bad words, but we never swore around him.
“It wasn’t because he told us not to do it. It was because there was something about him. We couldn’t swear around Emil.”
Outside, as Steiner talked, Chase walked alone to the statue where Kapaun had his left arm around a soldier with a lower leg wound.
Kapaun’s right hand was outstretched.
In Pulaski, N.Y., the month before, Herb Miller, who still limps from his wound, told visitors that he had spent a lifetime since Unsan trying to know why Kapaun saved him.
Miller had not become a saint, after all; he had become a calibration technician in a bearings factory in Syracuse.
“I get choked up sometimes thinking about it,” he said.
“Maybe God and Father Kapaun saved me for another reason.”
After the war, he and Joyce adopted a girl and a boy. Those kids turned out real good, Miller said. He loves them; they love him.
“Maybe I was spared so that those two little kids could have a Dad. Was that it? I don’t know.
“I’ve thought about it every day since. “Why me?”
At the Kapaun statue, Chase Kear stood still, morning sun rising over nearby treetops. In the year since he came back to life, Chase has asked himself the same questions that have plagued Miller for 59 years. Why he’s alive. What he’s meant to do now. He has no idea. It bothers him. Do miracles exist? Chase believes they do. He believes in God. And like the old soldiers, he believes in Father Kapaun. At the statue, Chase looked up at the bronze face staring down at him. The face has Kapaun’s wide-set eyes, the cleft in his chin. Chase looked into his face for a moment. Then he reached out and touched the hand of Father Kapaun.