Father Kapaun

December 10, 2009

Father Emil Kapaun: Leads camp prisoners in quiet acts of defiance

At sunrise on Easter Sunday, March 25, 1951, Father Emil Kapaun startled POWs by donning his purple priest’s stole and openly carrying a Catholic prayer missal, borrowed from Ralph Nardella.

"No sincere prayer is ever wasted." -Father Emil Kapaun

At sunrise on Easter Sunday, March 25, 1951, Father Emil Kapaun startled POWs by donning his purple priest’s stole and openly carrying a Catholic prayer missal, borrowed from Ralph Nardella.

He had talked atheist guards into letting him hold an Easter service, a favor they soon regretted.

No one there would ever forget this day. The most moving sight the POWs ever saw.

At sunrise, 80 officers — bearded, dirty and covered with lice — followed Kapaun up a little rise, to the cold steps of a bombed-out church. They gathered in a circle around him. Kapaun held a crude crucifix made from broken sticks. He looked thin and filthy; except for the black eye patch, he looked to Walt Mayo like one of the ragged apostles.

Kapaun began speaking, and his voice caught; he said he didn’t have the equipment to give them a proper Mass. But then he held up his ciborium, the tiny gold container that before his capture had held communion hosts he had placed on tongues of soldiers.

He opened Nardella’s prayer missal, and as he began to recite from it, the Christians among them realized what a risk he was now taking. He was beginning not from the Easter promise of rebirth but from the dark brutality of Good Friday.

As the guards glared, Kapaun read the Stations of the Cross, describing Christ’s condemnation, torture and death. Captives who had been mocked and tormented and beaten listened as Kapaun spoke of Christ being mocked and tormented and beaten.

Tears flowed.

Kapaun held up a rosary. He asked the non-Catholics to let the Catholics indulge for a bit; they knelt as he said the rosary, recited the glorious mysteries of Christ rising, ascending, defying death for all time.

A voice rose in song. A POW, Bill Whiteside, had a beautiful voice, and he raised it now to sing the Lord’s Prayer, a recital that gave goosebumps to Sidney Esensten, the Jewish doctor.

Kapaun spoke. His theme: forgiveness.

And he said he did not feel qualified to advise them about life because, “I am not any better than you are.”

Then they all sang as Kapaun had taught them: loud so that the enlisted men could hear. Starving men sang at sunrise, the same song Whiteside had sung, the Lord’s Prayer, a song they laced with reverence.


Kapaun had rallied them all.

When guards demanded that Ralph Nardella stand before the prisoners and recite what he had learned about Communism’s founders Marx and Engels, Nardella yelled out with a straight face to fellow captives that he’d learned a lot from “Marx and Engels and Amos and Andy,” the last two being fools from an American radio program. POWs laughed; the guards glared.

There were now hundreds of acts of defiance in the camps every day. Kapaun and a prisoner named William Hansen stole dysentery drugs from the Chinese hospital and smuggled them to Esensten.

Herb Miller, inspired by Kapaun, began to read a pocket Bible, which one of Miller’s fellow prisoners hid from the Chinese by sticking it in a bandage he’d wrapped around his knee. The one place the Chinese would never search on them was a bandage, Miller thought grimly. They let the men die of their wounds.

William Funchess, in the officers’ camp, had taken to reading aloud at night from his own pocket Bible, putting his soul and his syrupy Carolina accent into every tender reading. The men always asked for the 23rd Psalm, and sometimes asked him to read it 15 or 20 times in a row. Funchess would read it to them and feel at peace.

Again and again Mike Dowe and Funchess and the others saw Kapaun defy the Chinese monitors in the propaganda classes. He never raised his voice, but he challenged them every time, and Funchess after a time began to realize he did it not just to rally them to the flag but to rally them to live.

Every time Kapaun defied them, it was a reminder to starving prisoners that standing up was the opposite of giving up.

A Chinese officer one day, outraged by POW defiance, told them he would shoot them all, and bury them “so that your bones will forever fertilize the soil of North Korea.”

There was a brief silence. Then Kapaun spoke:

“What a dumb son of a bitch!”


In private moments, Kapaun would renounce his swearing.

One day, filled with anger at the camp commander, Comrade Sun, Kapaun told Dowe, “When Jesus talked about forgiving our enemies, he obviously did not have Comrade Sun in mind!”

But he recanted after he cooled down.

“We need to forgive our enemies,” he told Funchess. “We need to love them, too.”

The Chinese by this time had removed the North Korean guards, who had guarded the prisoners since the camps opened. The North Koreans hated the Americans who had mauled them so badly before the Chinese entered the war.

The Chinese, embarrassed by all the deaths, took over administration along the Yalu River, though all it really meant at first was that they starved POWs at a slower rate and replaced brutal guards with slightly better guards.

But like the North Koreans, the Chinese hated religion, and Comrade Sun made sure Kapaun knew it. Dowe came across Kapaun one day, and was surprised to see him smiling. Kapaun stared down a road leading south.

“What are you thinking of, Father?” Dowe asked.

He was daydreaming, the priest replied. “Of that happy day when the first American tank rolls down that road.”

Kapaun looked at Dowe.

“Then I’m going to catch that little so-and-so Comrade Sun and kick his ass right over the compound fence.”


There was at least one healing, prisoners said later.

Kapaun one day walked into a hut and took an apparently dying prisoner in his arms. Chester Osborne Jr. was one of Moose McClain and Dowe’s closest friends, but they saw, with eyes trained by experience, that he would die soon. Kapaun cradled Osborne in his arms, laid Osborne’s head on his shoulder. Kapaun then bluntly told Osborne to quit dying.

As a “precaution” he told him, “I’ll give you the last rites, just in case.” But he told Osborne to fight harder for his life. Then he prayed, for about five minutes.

Osborne rallied. This surprised everybody in that hut.

Most men died quickly when they got that sick, and a lot of men got sick now. Some of them had noticed something at the Easter service: Kapaun looked ill.


Shortly after Easter, Kapaun came to Esensten, looking feeble, hobbling on a stick, in obvious pain.

Esensten touched Kapaun’s leg. Then he pulled up Kapaun’s trouser and saw swelling, blue and black discoloration. He pressed a finger into a foot; the dent did not go away.

Esensten stood up angry. You should have told me, he said. One leg was twice the size of the other.

Kapaun stood silent.

We need to treat this immediately, Esensten said. He said he wanted Kapaun to lie down and stay down.

“No,” Kapaun said.


Funchess awoke one night soon after to the sound of a man being shoved into his hut. The guards had transferred Kapaun here, perhaps to separate him from McClain, another troublemaker they disliked.

Kapaun was in pain. When Funchess saw his leg, he knew this would cause much suffering in a hut where 14 men slept jammed against each other and stepped on each other to get to the latrines at night.

“Would you like my spot next to the wall?” Funchess asked. Because of his injured foot, he had taken that spot weeks before. “The wall will give you protection.”

For once, Kapaun did not argue with a Good Samaritan; he said yes. Funchess lay beside him in the dark, warming the priest’s frail body with his own.

Part 6 in the series: Father Emil Kapaun forgives guards, welcomes death

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