“People whose ambitions are confined to the limits of earthly things would be confounded at the beatitude on meekness.” — Father Emil Kapaun
By February 1951 the Allied prisoners at Pyoktong, North Korea, were dying so fast on ground frozen so solid that unburied bodies lay in stacks three to four feet high, 30 to 40 yards long. Men hoarded food or stole it from the weak, and left sick men to die in their own defecation.
Many soldiers were in their teens and early 20s, not mature enough to deal with that level of suffering. Father Emil Kapaun never yelled at them; he let his actions speak.
When men fought over who should dig out latrines, Kapaun dug out latrines. When men argued, Kapaun mediated. When men despaired, Kapaun cracked jokes, said little prayers.
On the farm in Kansas, his father, Enos, had taught him to make or fix nearly anything with his hands. He put those hands to use.
Kapaun watched feeble men carrying water for the camp in two leather bags hanging from a stick draped across their backs. The leaky bags lost half their contents before the POWs could bring them home. One day the bags stopped leaking; Mike Dowe, curious, asked what had happened. Other POWs said they’d watched Kapaun melt down an old rubber boot and make hot patches for the buckets.
He gave away nearly everything he had, even his own food; when he had no food to give, he gave words.
Al Brooks, on a wood detail one day, walked past and saw him grin. “God bless you,” Kapaun said. Brooks never forgot him saying it, or how those three words lifted him. After 59 years, Brooks still chokes up describing that moment.
Kapaun gave away pieces of his own clothing, in a camp where men committed suicide by rolling away from their friends’ body heat. Bob Wood more than once heard a fellow officer say, “I’ve had enough, don’t bother to wake me in the morning.” The next morning, that man was dead.
They died by the dozens in February. William Funchess one night talked to Dick Haugen, who slept beside him. Funchess awoke the next morning and found the men on either side of him dead, including Haugen.
Haugen had loved Kapaun so much that he’d told the priest he’d convert to Catholicism. He never had the chance.
Funchess had liked Haugen, too, but now he stripped off Haugen’s clothes for himself, feeling terrible as he did it.
On most mornings, Kapaun would come home from a foray long before the rest of them stirred, carrying cornstalks he dried in the sun. He lit the stalks in little fires and boiled sorghum or soybeans in a GI sock to make a hot drink.
Dowe, wary at first, was surprised at how good the drink tasted, and how he felt as he drank. Kapaun, if only briefly, made him feel civilized again, made him forget he was in a death camp.
There were nights when men like Bob McGreevy went to sleep at night among a dozen men and awakened to find two or three or four dead. Men lived every day with death hanging over them, the wounded especially.
Don Slagle, a young soldier from Nebraska, went to Kapaun one day, worried about a wound festering on his leg; men often went to Kapaun for what he gave Slagle now: reassurance. “It’ll be OK.” Slagle was a Protestant, but for some reason hearing the priest say things made them seem true.
Kapaun slept with friends like Moose McClain, warming each other. Men slept spoonfashion, with cold feet clamped in the armpits of others.
“The only way we could cling to life was cling to each other,” Funchess said.
When Funchess nearly died that winter, Louis Rockwerk crushed hoarded dried peppers and garlic into the gruel to make it tastier, then fed Funchess like a baby.
Men slept with corpses for days, to trick guards into giving them the rations for the dead. Men ate grain the guards gave them even though worms sometimes wiggled in it. If the men kept dying at this rate, there would soon be no POWs left.
In a few months, as truce talks loomed, China realized this would look embarrassing. The Chinese would feed them better. The extra food would come too late for many.
Kapaun did a thousand things to take care of them, Wood said. Wood watched one day as Kapaun sneaked into the officer’s compound with a bag holding about 100 pounds of rice.
Another POW, David MacGhee, hunted for rice bags in root cellars with Kapaun when the two slipped away from burial details. MacGhee would tease: Isn’t stealing wrong? Men were losing frostbitten fingers or toes, the skin turning black and falling off, leaving bones as dry as sticks poking out. Kapaun brought them to the doctors, who amputated dead bone with a butcher knife they hid from guards.
He got them to recite menus of meals to take their minds off the suffering. He described meals his Czech mother made, including the kolache, a fruitfilled pastry.
On many nights, Kapaun would gather officers after sundown on the porch of a mud hut and ask them to sing: “America the Beautiful” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the Americans; “God Save the Queen” for British officers, who had arrived in late March.
“The Lord will forgive this transgression,” Kapaun replied.
Lice multiplied overnight, congregating in armpits, inside seams, in underwear. Men who failed to kill them died covered with gray swarms; men too starved to care let them die.
But Kapaun would open the shirts of the sick and pick lice from armpits. He made it a game. “Hey, Mac,” he’d say. “I got 75.” “Yeah?” McClain would answer. “I got 90.”
Kapaun looked old at 34. When GIs joked that he looked like Christ with his beard and long hair, he cringed.
He scouted out the wounded and sick, and either helped them himself or brought the American doctors to them.
Upset at how the guards tried to coerce them into collaboration, Kapaun told them to sing loud enough that the enlisted men could hear it. Then he would give a brief sermon about Christ’s insistence on forgiveness in spite of all earthly suffering.
On some nights, Sid Esensten, the doctor, watched the full moon shine down on silent figures standing and kneeling in front of the lone figure of Kapaun on the porch. It looked like a spotlight shining on the man standing before them.
Amid the filth one day, Wood learned that Kapaun could have avoided all this.
Kapaun had served in Burma and India in World War II. After that, Kapaun said, he went back to Masses and baptisms in Kansas. “Then how did you end up here?” Wood asked. “I volunteered.” “Father Kapaun!” Wood almost shouted. “My God, Father! Why did you come back?” “I wanted to come back to men like these,” Kapaun said. “Serving in those parishes . . . it didn’t work out.” Kapaun grinned. “I mean . . . my God, Bob!” Kapaun said. “Have you ever had to deal with one of those women’s committees of a church Altar Society?”
Communist propaganda classes began in April; lecturers denounced Wall Street and Washington, using starvation to entice betrayal.
They isolated black soldiers from white, officers from enlisted men. They tried to break down social bonds; Kapaun fought to keep them, angering guards, who began to heckle him about Christianity.
Kapaun stood up to them: When he learned that some of the Chinese hecklers had learned English in British or American missionary schools, he asked whether their Christian teachers were the deceivers that Communism claimed.
At night he led forbidden prayers; when caught, he was heckled some more.
The guards were afraid of him, Bob McGreevy realized; they would try to argue, and Kapaun would quote books about God and the church and tell them they didn’t know what they were talking about.
Walt Mayo and Ralph Nardella noticed something else: He had captured the imagination of men from every shade of belief.
There was more than one reason why Kapaun did all these things. He detested Communism, but Funchess and Dowe began to realize that he defied the communists because he saw that men, if they sold their souls, might give up and die.
So at the lectures, Dowe said, in full view of other POWs, Kapaun told Communist monitors that they lied.
If the ground thawed, the men would try pitiful burials.
Esensten began poking the dead men’s dog tags in their mouths to aid in future identifications that he knew might never take place. Skeletal men dragged skeletal bodies to the Yalu and crossed the ice to an island. They’d scratch pits two feet deep into the snow and rock and cover the bodies with stones.
Brooks remembers a skinny Kapaun standing at the edge of the Yalu, the Manchurian breeze blowing through his beard, his long hair matted. He was blessing the dead. He looked thin and weak.
Kapaun stripped the bodies, too, including those who died in their own defecation. He’d smash ice holes, wash the clothes in cold water, or boil them. Men watched him spend days drying clothes, which he then gave to other prisoners.
Though he could not easily slip out of the officers’ camp now, though he was growing weaker, he still made his way down to the enlisted men, rallying resistance and hope among the dying.
That winter, McGreevy saw him come in among them at least a dozen times. He told them to ignore the propaganda.
“Crap,” he called it.
“Come on,” he’d say. “We’re going to get out of here.”
He’d gather enlisted men in little huddles. “Do not let your families down,” he told them. “Stay alive! Whatever else you do, keep eating.”
McGreevy had withered from 180 plus to 100 pounds. But like Funchess, he felt a strange thing happen in the presence of Kapaun: He’d forget he was starving, that the Chinese might shoot them someday soon. Two minutes in a huddle with Kapaun, and all the fear melted away.
They prayed with him every night in the huts.
“Here’s a little parched corn you guys can nibble on,” Kapaun would say. “Is there anybody here who needs a little help? Anybody I need to look over?
“Would anybody care to say a prayer?”
That winter, Herb Miller, sleeping amid 14 men in an 8-foot by 8-foot room, would hear a tap on the door. A shadow would creep in. Miller would see a spark; Kapaun would light his pipe. Men desperate for a smoke would pass it around. Kapaun would say a quick prayer, after asking permission. Then he’d slide out the door, after first looking both ways.
“I got to watch where I’m going,’’ Kapaun said. “I got to watch whether they’re watching."
If the guards caught him, which they did sometimes, it meant time in a punishment hole, or standing on ice for hours while stripped to the skin.
MacGhee one night at sundown came upon Kapaun carrying the two leather buckets with the stick between them over his shoulders. MacGhee asked for a drink.
“I’m sorry, David,” the priest said. “I don’t have any water, just the love of Jesus Christ.”
The priest tipped one bucket and then the other. They were empty, a ruse to sneak past the guards. Kapaun said the buckets didn’t fool everybody.
“I am sure that the guard knows also, and God knows about both of us.”
Kapaun kept them alive; he kept them together; he made them laugh.
Years later, Mayo told author William Maher that he and Kapaun cherished a private joke that they carried out nearly every day. Kapaun would walk past Mayo and say a sentence in Latin: “Ne illegitimi carborundum esse.”
Mayo replied in English:
“Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
The miracle of Father Kapaun, Funchess would say later, was not just that he patched leaky buckets or stole food. It was that he rallied men to embrace life when life looked hopeless. When starvation inspired betrayals, Kapaun inspired brotherhood.
One day, as more men stole or hoarded food from each other, Kapaun walked into a hut, laid out his own food and blessed it.
“Thank you, O Lord, for giving us food we cannot only eat but share.”
Soldiers describing that scene to Maher years later, said that act put a stop to much of the stealing and hoarding.
The men loved Kapaun; the guards now hated him passionately. Funchess cringed when he saw how they abused him. They heckled him every day, for what he said, for where he walked, for how he looked.
“Where is your God now?” guards demanded.
“Right here,” he replied.
Mayo one day heard a Chinese officer lecture Kapaun.
“Don’t ask God for your daily bread,” the officer said. “Ask Mao Zedong. He’s the one who provides your daily bread.”
“If this is an example of God’s daily bread,” Kapaun said, “then God must be a terrible baker.”
Mayo watched in delight: Chinese guards, puzzled at American idioms and American sarcasm, did not know what to make of that. Was Kapaun criticizing God?
They do not know what to do with that man, Funchess thought. He deliberately said things to confound them.
But Kapaun lived on a knife’s edge now; camp commanders clearly regarded him as a threat.
“He represented a free people who refused to play along,” Dowe said.
“And they made him pay.”