Father Emil Kapaun: In icy POW camps, Kapaun shares faith, provisions

07/27/2013 9:31 AM

07/27/2013 9:31 AM

"Christ's works testified to what he was; our works will testify as to what we are." -Father Emil Kapaun


Three weeks after their capture, after 75 miles of marching, the starving survivors of the 8th Cavalry and 19th Infantry straggled into a mud-hut village called Pyoktong, on the banks of the Yalu River, two miles from Manchuria.

They’d barely set foot in the village when American bombers roared in overhead and firebombed it. Horrified villagers spat at the prisoners, threw rocks.

Guards took them south again, 12 more miles. Men and discipline broke down in the snow and ice; men left their wounded to die in ditches, ignoring orders from officers to pick them up. They would not ignore Father Emil Kapaun, though. He walked the line, asking men to help. Many did.

Mike Dowe picked up a stretcher on this march one night, turned around and spoke to the tall soldier carrying the pole behind him.

“Who are you?” he asked.

The soldier reached out a hand. “KuhPAWN,” he said.

Dowe grinned. This was the heroic chaplain that 8th Cavalry prisoners told stories about.

“Father Kapaun! I’ve heard all about you!”

“Well,” Kapaun said, in a self-mocking tone, “don’t tell the bishop.”


The mountain valley was three miles long and included the hamlet of Sombakol. Temperatures dropped below zero; starvation fostered feelings of desperation that worsened every day.

The soldiers still had some fight in them; some, Moose McClain included, sneaked into neighboring fields and arranged cornstalks in piles, spelling P O W, hoping the U.S. Air Force would take notice.

But hunger began to take a toll.

Guards fed them birdseed twice a day— two little handfuls of millet and cracked corn, maybe 300 daily calories at most. The millet made men gag; they could not get enough hot water to boil it soft, so the grain did not digest and scratched their intestines like fine sand.

Some teenage soldiers refused to eat it. Kapaun, upset, began preaching to them, pleading with them to eat no matter how much they gagged.

Hunger and cold made men cruel; they stole from each other. McClain yelled at them for this; Kapaun pleaded with them. McClain sometimes saw Kapaun chide some officers, though, scolding them if they slacked off helping others.

Men noticed, to their delight, that Kapaun sometimes swore at the guards when angry, though he never took the Lord’s name in vain.

Sometimes, to calm youngsters just captured, Kapaun cracked jokes.

“Welcome to our paradise,” he told new arrivals.

Survivors later told author William Maher that when a newly captured young soldier asked what the enemy would do with them, Kapaun cracked a joke that came right out of a GI foxhole:

“They’re going to shoot the officers,” Kapaun said, “and let the enlisted men go.”

Joe Ramirez and Sid Esensten, a doctor, saw him visiting the sick all over the camp, sneaking into huts to avoid the guards, wearing only a light field jacket against intense winter cold.

“Have faith, have faith,” Kapaun told Ramirez and the others. “Don’t give up. We’ll get out of here someday.”

Al Brooks, another enlisted man, was in one of these groups; Kapaun told them to hang on to hope.

“God is on your side.”

Sometimes he’d pass around his pipe, to Edmund Reel or other soldiers; it held the last of Kapaun’s Prince Albert tobacco.

“You guys wanting a little puff of this, you might as well have it now because what I’ve got isn’t going to last much longer.”

In late November a few survivors from Unsan were released to freedom.

Sgt. Samuel Clecker made his way to American lines, telling Army officers and news reporters that he’d seen a chaplain in the enemy camps visiting as many as 200 soldiers a day, treating wounds, saying the rosary.

Clecker said the chaplain had lost a lot of weight.


The POWs began to steal food. The man most insistent about stealing was the chaplain from Kansas.

“Steal, or starve,” Kapaun told them. “It’s obvious.”

He led them out into the countryside at night, sneaking past guards. They came back with bits of wood, ears of corn, red peppers torn from frozen bushes, an old pumpkin. They stole from warehouses where guards stored food.

Kapaun, not feeling comfortable with stealing, lined them up and announced that this sin was sanctioned, and that they should pray to Dismas, patron saint of thieves, the “good thief” who was crucified beside Christ.

Walt Mayo and others, starving but amused, nicknamed Kapaun “Dismas.”

He had surprised them for months with his bravery, and now with his ingenious thieving. A notorious thief, Esensten thought. Incredibly devious.

Kapaun would prowl fields, find potatoes or corn the farmers had hidden. Or he’d conspire with Mayo, who would start an argument with guards at the crib where food was stored, while Kapaun would sneak inside, stuff his pockets with soybeans or salt, then heave a grain sack on his back and sneak out.

Decades later, Pentagon analysts said the Sombakol prison camp had far fewer deaths than others during that period of the war. Esensten said Kapaun was the main reason.


In January 1951, the guards marched prisoners back to Pyoktong. That village had held 1,000 people before the war; now it held hundreds of prisoners.

It was virtually escape-proof: deep inside North Korea, surrounded on three sides by inlets of the dammed-up Yalu River. The march there was carried out in brutal cold; some did not survive, and many more now refused to carry stretchers.

Esensten, a doctor, had spent weeks watching Kapaun become the most popular man in the camps, the only man the POWs seemed eager to please, a man they respected deeply. Esensten asked him before the march to use his influence.

Kapaun walked the line, calling out for help, calling out encouragement. They lost nine lives on that march; Kapaun saved at least four times that number, the doctor thought. But Esensten noticed Kapaun was suffering badly: limping, his sharp nose sticking out from bony cheekbones, in a face now covered with a reddish beard.

But as weak as he was, the Chinese had begun to fear him. Prisoners turned to him for advice and leadership; the guards began to heckle him.

What incensed them most was that they had banned religion, but Kapaun sneaked into huts every night, passed out a few grains of food, passed around his lit pipe, along with a little hope.

“Would anyone care to say a little prayer?”

Some atheists said the rosary with him now.


It was in Pyoktong, in the winter of 1950-51, where temperatures reached 20 and 30 and even 40 below zero, that men began to die every day from starvation, pneumonia and giving up.

It was bad enough in January; by February Pyoktong had become a death camp. Ramirez counted 45 bodies in the enlisted men’s camp one day, and he sat there wondering whether he would be next.

Men did desperate things.

When some of them found POW excrement on the ground and noticed soybean seeds that had passed through someone’s body without being digested, men picked up the seeds and ate them.

One day a dog wandered among the Americans’ huts and let out a bark; Ramirez and others turned him into soup.

The Pentagon, assessing things later, thought that 1,200 of the 3,000 to 4,000 men in Pyoktong and surrounding places died that winter. Esensten counted at least 350 cases of pneumonia every day, and saw symptoms of advanced starvation and vitamin deprivation. Men had scabies, scurvy, beriberi. Bodies piled up outside huts, frozen stiff in death.

To many men it looked so hopeless. But every morning when they woke up they could count on seeing Kapaun outside, doing some chore.

Often they’d awaken to the bang of stone on tin at 5 a.m. and look out to see the bearded priest in his filthy uniform with a stone in his fist. He’d hammer cooking pans out of shredded tin scrounged from bombed-out huts in Pyoktong. Then, with firewood and pans, Kapaun would boil snow into water.

“Hot coffee!” he’d call out.

He wore an eye patch now. He had chipped a sliver into an eye while chopping wood; the eye got infected.

An officer named Felix McCool saw this after inquiring for a priest one day, and men pointed to a ragged man wearing a black eye patch.

Esensten by now had discovered that he felt a strange peace when talking with the priest.

They lived in filth and spent much of each day picking lice out of their clothes. They smelled like excrement; no one had bathed in months. The Jewish doctor would forget all this in long talks with Kapaun about philosophy and religion. Esensten knew nothing about Catholicism, but Kapaun knew Judaism thoroughly.

Esensten teased him, though; Kapaun seemed blindly rigid about religious dogma. This puzzled Esensten, who saw how open-minded Kapaun seemed about all other ideas.

So Esensten argued:

Shouldn’t rules about morals or religious teachings be more flexible in some circumstances, such as when you’re in a prison camp?

“No,” Kapaun said.

But when guards coerced starving Americans to inform, and when other prisoners wanted to harm the informers, Kapaun came instantly to their defense, protecting them.

Esensten thought: Kapaun was rigid about church rules until the moment he saw a sinner needing mercy.


Lt. William Funchess met Kapaun for the first time that winter as the young lieutenant hobbled around the enlisted men’s compound on his wounded foot.

Funchess had falsely told guards he was an enlisted man because he worried they might shoot officers. He hobbled in pain and fear; men died of infections from lesser wounds than his. Like everybody, he ate snow that he scraped off the ground; there was no water.

He saw a man bent to the ground, acting strangely. His cap was a sleeve torn from a GI sweater; he wore an eye patch; he looked like a hobo, filthy and thin.

The man motioned to Funchess.

Funchess hesitated.

The man beckoned. Funchess hobbled over.

The man bent over a tiny fire. Funchess marveled; the guards at that time had forbidden fires. There was a pot made of rusted tin; it steamed.

“Would you like a drink of hot water?” the man asked.

“Yes! I would!” Funchess said. In his Carolina accent, “yes” sounded like “YAY-ess!” He drank. The warmth in his throat felt like bliss. “Did that taste good?” The man had a soft voice. “Yes!” Funchess said. “I’ve not had a drink of water since Nov. 4.” He shook hands. “I’m Father Emil Kapaun,” the ragged man said. “Funchess,” Funchess said. “Where you from?” “South Carolina.” “Kansas,” the priest said. Kapaun said he’d come to the enlisted area to help GIs. Funchess blinked. No wonder the priest behaved oddly, Funchess thought. Kapaun was hiding his little fire, the lighting of which could get him shoved into a freezing punishment hole. To come here, Kapaun had sneaked hundreds of yards carrying wood and a pan.

Funchess was a devout Methodist who concealed in his filthy clothes a small copy of the New Testament. He had not known many Catholics. This one had guts.

He thanked Kapaun. “That was the best drink I ever had in my life.”

The priest grinned.

Funchess felt suddenly and strangely at peace. He would remember this moment all his life.

They would be close friends now. But only for a time all too brief.

Part 4 in the series: Father Emil Kapaun: As hundreds die, Kapaun rallies the POWs

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