Father Kapaun Memorial Page

Fr Kapaun

Army chaplain Emil J. Kapaun, armed during the Korean War only with the love of God, was described by those who served with him as the best and bravest foot soldier they ever knew. Fr. Kapaun, a Wichita diocesan priest from Pilsen, died in a prison at 35 and was buried somewhere along the Yalu River in North Korea. "If I don't come back, tell my Bishop that I died a happy death," Fr. Kapaun told fellow prisoners as he was carried away to die.

soldiersFr. Kapaun was captured because he refused an order to try to escape through the surrounding enemy after the 8th Cavalry was overwhelmed on Nov. 2, 1950. Fr. Kapaun was seized by the enemy as he administered the last rites to a dying soldier. He was taken to a POW camp run by the Chinese.

"It was obvious, Father said, that we must either steal food or slowly , starve," said fellow prisoner 1st Lt. Mike Dowe, who added that Fr. Kapaun risked his life by sneaking into fields around the prison compound to look for hidden potatoes and sacks of corn. "The riskiest thefts were carried out by daylight under the noses of the Chinese," Lt. Dowe said. "The POWs cooked their own food, which was drawn from an open shed some two miles down the valley. "When the men were called out to make the ration run, Father would slip in at the end of the line. Before the ration detail reached the supply shed, he'd slide off into the bushes. Creeping and crawling, he'd come up behind the shed, and while the rest of us started a row with the guard and the Chinese doling out the rations, he'd sneak in, snatch up a sack of cracked corn and scurry off into the bushes with it." Fr. Kapaun would always put the corn into the communal pot, an example that other men, who would steal food for themselves, were shamed into following.

As the unsanitary conditions and unhealthy diet took their toll on the men, the priest from Kansas was there to help. "Even when they died, he did not abandon them," Lt. Dowe said. "The POWs buried their own dead ... Men dodged this detail whenever they could. But Father always volunteered. And at the grave, as the earth covered the naked body -- the clothing of the dead was saved to warm the living -- he would utter for them the last great plea: 'Eternal rest grant unto him, 0 Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.'"

Fr. Kapaun would often escape to the houses where the enlisted men were held. He would hold a quick service, starting with a prayer for the men who had died in Korea and for their families. "Then he would say a prayer of thanks to God for the favors He had granted us, whether we knew about them or not," Lt. Dowe said., "Then he'd speak, very briefly, a short, simple sermon, urging them to hold on and not lose hope of freedom. And above all, he urged them not to fall for the lying doctrines the Reds were trying to pound into our heads.

Somehow his presence could turn a stinking, louse-ridden mud hut -- for a little while -- into a cathedral, Lt. Dowe said. Fr. Kapaun did much more for the men. He gathered and washed the foul undergarments of the dead and distributed them to men who could barely move because of dysentery.

"He washed and tended these men as if they were little babies," Lt. Dowe said. "He traded his watch for a blanket and cut it up to make warm socks for helpless men whose feet were freezing. The most dreaded chore of all was cleaning the latrines, and men argued bitterly over whose time it was to carry out this loathesome task. And while they argued, he'd slip out quietly and do the job."

Because of their diet, the POWs became sick and weak with many beginning to show signs of starvation. One day, though, their diet was different. "The night before St. Patrick's Day, Father called us together and prayed to Saint Patrick, asking him to help us in our misery," Lt. Dowe wrote. "The next day, the Chinese brought us a case of liver-the first meat we had had-and issued us golian instead of millet. The liver was spoiled and golian is sorghum seed ... but to us they were like manna. Later he prayed for tobacco, and that night a guard walked by and tossed a little bag of dry, straw-like tobacco into our room."

As the prisoners continued to weaken, the communists intensified their propaganda. The prisoners would sit for hours in lectures while Comrade Sun, a fanatic who intensely hated Americans, assailed capitalism. After the lecture the men would have to comment on "the great truths revealed by Comrade Sun." Some men were thrown into a freezing hole for their comments about the lectures, Lt. Dowe said. Others veiled their ridicule: "According to the great doctrines taught us by the noble Stalin, Lenin, Marx, Engels, Amos and Andy..." the men would say.

"Father was not openly arrogant, nor did he use subterfuge," the lieutenant said. "Without losing his temper 'or raising his voice, he'd answer the lecturer point by point, with a calm logic that set Comrade Sun screaming and leaping on the platform like an angry ape." Fr. Kapaun was never punished, although he was threatened and warned. In another incident, two officers who knew him well were tortured into accusing Fr. Kapaun of slandering the Chinese and of displaying a hostile attitude toward his captors, he said: "You never should have suffered a moment, trying to protect me."

Lt. Dowe said after the torture, the men expected a trial in which Fr. Kapaun would never return. "Instead, the Chinese merely called him in and bullied him and threatened him. We realized then what we had known all along. They were afraid of him. They recognized in him a strength they could not break, a spirit they could not quell."

MassOn Easter Sunday, 1951, Fr. Kapaun challenged his captors again, openly flouting their law against religious services. "He could not celebrate the Easter Mass, for all his Mass equipment had been lost at the time of his capture ... He told the story of Christ's suffering and death, and then, holding in his hand a Rosary made of bent barbed wire cut from the prison fence, he recited the glorious mysteries."

The next Sunday, Fr. Kapaun collapsed while holding another service. Although he was weak, he battled dysentery, pneumonia and an infection in one of his legs and eyes. During the last day Fr. Kapaun spent with his fellow prisoners, Lt. Walter Mayo Jr., said the chaplain was in great pain. "His face was contorted with pain every few minutes and we were all pretty much scared."

With tears rolling down his face he began telling the men the story of the Seven Macchabes in the Old Testament. "There was an emperor who had an old woman brought up before him. He told her to renounce her Faith or he would torture and kill her. She replied that he could do anything he wanted, but she would not renounce it. "The emperor then had her seven sons brought in and said he would kill them if she did not do as he said. She still refused and he then put them to death one by one. The old woman was crying and the emperor asked her if she was crying because she was sad. She replied that her tears were tears of joy because she knew her sons were in heaven."

Crucifix"Father then looked at us and said he was crying for the same reason. He said that he was glad he was suffering because Our Lord had suffered also and that he felt closer to Him. "By that time we were all crying," Lt. Mayo said. "Everyone in that room, who had seen scores of people die in the past few months and who thought they were pretty hard." Soon after, the Chinese came to carry Fr. Kapaun to the hospital. "The Chinese saw a good chance to get this man they feared, now that he was helpless. They hated him because he had such an influence over all the prisoners. "Three or four days later," Lt. Mayo said. "Father died among the men he served, up on a hill overlooking the Yalu River in that communist hospital of death."

(Information for this memorial is a compilation of articles written by Christopher M. Riggs of the Wichita Diocese and Dave Jolivet of the Catholic News Service.