Father Kapaun

December 7, 2009

Father Emil Kapaun: Through Death March, Father Kapaun perseveres and inspires

Father Emil Kapaun was considered an unusual man even before the 8th Cavalry’s 3rd Battalion was overrun at Unsan.

"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.”

“Father 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.”

Part 3 in the series: Father Emil Kapaun: In icy POW camps, Kapaun shares faith, provisions

Related content