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Stories of Father Emil Kapaun

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009, at 2:56 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009, at 3 p.m.

The following are stories about Father Emil Kapaun or the men who knew him in Korea. These were gathered in interviews with former POWs, men who served with Kapaun on the battlefield and from archival material at the Catholic Diocese of Wichita. They were not included in the print series “The Miracle of Father Kapaun” because of space constraints.

***

The telegram announcing news about Father Kapaun’s capture came on Thanksgiving Day 1950, according to the Rev. Joseph Goracy, priest of the Pilsen parish. He knew the Kapaun’s parents would show up for Mass shortly after the telegram arrived. Goracy years later wrote about how they took the news:

“I asked the couple into the rectory, and after inviting them to sit down in the large reception room I calmly told them of the telegram. Mr. Enos Kapaun, already seventy, was a tall man, rather on the slender side. His shoulders were a little stooped as he sat nervously looking around the room. Mrs. Kapaun, fifty-five years of age, was for once without her perpetual smile.

“She asked me to open the telegram and read it to them. It was the usual form: ‘The War Department regrets to inform you that your son, Captain Emil Kapaun, has been reported missing in action. If there is any further news concerning your son, we will inform you at once.’

“It was with quiet resignation that these fine parents accepted the news that their son was missing in action. There were a few tears, but they were quiet tears. I did my best to instill some hope into them, which Mrs. Kapaun was quite willing to accept. Mr. Kapaun had only one statement:

‘I will not see my son again on this earth. I have to wait until I get to heaven.’ ’’

***

On Christmas Eve 1950, prisoners of war Mike Dowe, Moose McClain, Ralph Nardella and two others escaped from Sambakol and hiked south.

They knew it might take weeks to find American lines, but they were starving.

Soon, McClain wrote later, “We were worn out, wet and sweating as we sat down to rest.” They’d come 25 miles in a day.

Freezing, they took a Korean family prisoner in their home. They ate and slept.

A little girl sneaked out and found North Korean soldiers. Hundreds of bullets splintered the house walls. Nardella got the North Koreans to stop firing.

They were taken to a police station, stripped naked, shoved into cells with dead bodies. They were told they faced execution. Dowe boldly demanded an audience with the police chief. He told the chief that if he spared their lives he’d give him something no one else in North Korea had.

The chief agreed; Dowe handed over his West Point class ring. The chief spared their lives, took all four to a restaurant, and to their astonishment, on Christmas Day, fed them.

They were returned to Sambakol, where they resumed starving.

***

From recollections done for the church by Capt. Jerome Dolan:

“The episode for which he (Kapaun) earned his first award, which I believe was the Bronze Star with V for Valor, occurred about July 26 (1950).

“We had been in combat about five days at that pointæ.æ.æ. one of my medics came to tell me that his platoon leader had been wounded in the leg and had ordered his men to leave him because he would burden them and cut their chances of getting out. I promptly told the colonel and he proceeded to command a reconnaissance-in-force, about two squads I believe, to go back and see if they could get out the wounded lieutenant.

“When I turned around, Father Kapaun and his assistant were gone with a litter. When the recon returned, Father Kapaun and the chaplain’s assistant were with them, and they not only had brought out the platoon leader but another wounded man whose buddy had been killed so that no one realized he was missing at that time.

“Whether Father Kapaun intended it or not, his courage in that action created a wonderful esprit de corps in that battalion. Despite several days in combat we had taken relatively light casualties and we had good officers, but it took the baptism of fire to show these green troops who had never seen combat before that they could survive this war if they took care of one another.

“After Yong-dong-ni the rallying cry of that battalion was, ‘No matter what mess you get into, 1st Battalion will get you out!’ And it was Father Kapaun who led the way while the rest of us were a little slower to react.”

***

William Funchess, Mike Dowe and Bob Wood all still have the brass spoons they used to eat those tiny, watery meals of millet and cracked corn in Pyoktong prison camp.

Wood's spoon hangs on his living room wall, in a place of honor. His Silver Star he stores in a drawer.

***

“Father Kapaun was at first an enigma, as all simple men are,” said Clarence Anderson, a doctor who was imprisoned with Kapaun in North Korea. “You wondered why he would do the things he didæ.æ.æ. he was a man without personal motives without any regard for his personal comfort.

“He felt that as long as God wanted him to go on caring for the battle victims, nothing would happen to him.”

***

Before he was captured, when the 8th Cavalry was moving north, an officer named Joseph O'Connor met Kapaun as the chaplain visited men from each regimental battalion, sometimes traveling miles from one battalion to the next.

“He was a very laid back, appealing man," O'Connor told church investigators years later. "He said he'd like to get transportation to one of the companies ... and I said, ‘Well, sure, Father, we'll get you a jeep.’ He says, ‘Now, I don't want to put you out.’ And that was the nature of the man."

***

Joseph O'Connor again, talking about Sambakol:

"Father Kapaun made some little pans with the sheet metal roofs that some of these huts had, and he'd boil water over those fires to help wash the wounds of the wounded, to help in any manner he could, still ministering to us spiritually.

“Every night he'd come around to those three houses or any place he could go and he'd say, ‘Time for night prayer.’ And we'd say the Lord's Prayer, after which we would sing our song, ‘When the Roll is called up Yonder, We'll be there,’ adding a little humor in there.

“And that was it. And Father would help ... anything he could possibly do. No matteræ.æ.æ. he'd wash people that had bowel problems, he'd wash their drawers; he'd do that continually. He would try to hold services. Good Friday, he used my rosary, a rosary that my aunt got me when

I was in high school ... And he used that rosary, and anytime he needed to display a crucifix for prayers or anything, he'd come and pawn my rosary.” ***

From recollections done for the church by Capt. Jerome Dolan:

“After we developed a reasonable defense line on the Naktong River in early August we actually had some dull, peaceful days. Then, either the American Legion or some beer company was sending beer and Coca-Cola over once a week.

“But then the beer suddenly stopped and the rumor was that (someone) pressured President Truman to protect these American soldiers from the demon rum.

“Morale fell, but here came Father Kapaun again, the kid from Kansas, and he came with his pockets bulging with apples. It wasn’t the same as beer, but it was a welcome change from the dirty-mouth taste of C-rations mixed with too many cigarettes. And Father always carried two canteens of water so that you could wash things down if you had not had a chance to fill your canteenæ.æ.æ. Father found a way to build the morale.”

***

POW Joseph O'Connor:

“When they carried Father (to the Death House just before he died) and they asked for volunteers, we had a fight if we wanted to get on that detail, and I lost.

“But as he was leaving he said, ‘Forgive them (the guards), for they know not what they do.’ ’’

***

Father Kapaun’s first assignment as a young priest was to take over his home parish in Pilsen in 1940.

What is not so well known is that he wrote a letter to his bishop in 1944, before he went into the Army in World War II, asking to be removed as Pilsen parish priest.

The reason Kapaun gave was that while he loved his fellow parishioners, he’d come to realize that some of the older ones found it difficult to accept spiritual leadership from a youngster they’d literally watched grow up.

“When I was ordained, I was determined to ‘spend myself’ for God,” he wrote his bishop. “I was determined to do that cheerfully, no matter in what circumstances I would be placed or how hard a life I would be asked to lead. This is why I volunteered for the army and that is why today I would a thousand times rather be working, deprived of all ordinary comforts, being a true ‘Father’ to all my people, then to be living in a nice, comfortable place but with my conscience telling me that I am an obstacle to many.”

***

Not long before his release from the POW camp, Mike Dowe, still grieving for Kapaun and other friends, wrote songs for a POW musical that guards allowed them to perform.

After Kapaun died, the guards had fed POWs better, allowed recreation including ball games. But Dowe’s songs outraged guards. Decades later, Dowe can still sing from memory the lyrics he’d written in defiance of Kapaun’s murderers:

They say now the treatment was lenient Of this we’re no longer in doubt They beat us and kicked us and laughed at our sickness And said that we’d never get out.

That was disrespectful enough. But then came this, which looked innocent on paper, until the POWs in performance used a swear word instead of “bless”:

Bless them all Bless them all The long and the short and the tall Bless all the letters we never did get And all the daikons (turnips) we’ll never forget Now we’re saying goodbye to them allæ.æ.æ.

After the musical, the guards threw Dowe in a punishment hole.

At the fenceline, just before his “release,” guards told Dowe and others that they were being held back as enemies of Communism. They would never go free.

Dowe hopped off the truck and went to a latrine. There, he dropped down, crawled the length of the latrine out of sight, then walked to the fenceline. When a guard with a clipboard tried to stop him, he walked right past him.

Kapaun’s subtle leadership would intrigue Dowe for the rest of his life. In coming years he would meet generals, CEOs and scientists, but seldom saw any leader like Kapaun.

One year after Kapaun’s death, when POWs asked guards to let them do a service honoring Kapaun, the guards refused. “It meant they were still afraid of him,” Dowe said.

***

For years after the war, many of the POWs had nightmares.

William Funchess accidentally hit his wife in bed one night in Clemson, S.C., as he thrashed in his sleep.

For decades, he had nightmares about staring up at hundreds of Chinese aiming rifles at him. Another dream involved being forced back into the camp; in the dream, he ransacked his house looking for nail and hair clippers and other comforts the POWs needed.

In Pulaski, N.Y., one night, Joyce Miller woke up to find her husband, Herb, climbing walls above the bed, trying to run from guards coming to shoot him.

***

A couple of years ago, William Funchess found the yellowing scrap paper on which he'd taken dictation from Kapaun on how to make pans.

He mailed it to the Rev. John Hotze in Wichita. He knew sainthood would make that scrap paper sacred.

***

From recollections done for the church by Capt. Jerome Dolan:

“The last time I saw Father Emil Kapaun was in late October 1950. We had been with one of the first units to cross the 38th Parallel and to capture the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. Our unit was then in reserve as the rest of the 8th Army moved up.

“It was a quiet time, and Father and I each had rooms in what must have been a military academy. By modern standards it was not very elite but after the ground, it was marvelous.

“I went by to see Father in his room and I found him writing letters to the families of the KIAs (killed in action) and the MIAs (missing in action). I offered to help write some letters, but he said, ‘This is the Chaplain’s job.’

“He must have found some ink and paper and envelopes somewhereæ.æ.æ. we had no source of paper, envelopes or ink. My own lovely Parker pen had run dry probably in mid-August.

“But Father was the world’s champion ‘scrounger.’ If you needed something, he would find it. And apparently he did the same thing in the prison camps, from what I heard later from fellows I talked to who had been in the prison camps.

“He did allow me, however, to address the envelopes so I felt that the last time we were together I was of some help to him.”

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