Father Kapaun

December 6, 2009

Father Emil Kapaun: In Korea, Kapaun saves dozens during Chinese attack

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.

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.

Did he?

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.

Part 2 in the series: Father Emil Kapaun: Through Death March, Father Kapaun perseveres and inspires

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