Father Emil Kapaun forgives guards, welcomes death

12/11/2009 12:00 AM

07/29/2011 12:25 PM

"In order to win the crown of heavenly glory, the saints were expected first to carry a heavy cross in life." -- Father Emil Kapaun

Over the next six weeks, the POWs in the Pyoktong prison camp began a cloaked and daring effort to save Emil Kapaun’s life.

On a rise above them stood the remains of a Buddhist monastery; the guards called it a hospital, but POWs called it "The Death House."

The Chinese sometimes killed prisoners by isolating them there from food and help. The POWs knew that’s where Kapaun might end up.

In April, weeks after his Easter service irritated the guards, Kapaun’s friends tried to conceal his illness.

Sidney Esensten, a doctor, told fellow prisoners that Kapaun had a blood clot in his leg, probably caused by the many injuries he had endured in battle or in camp. Esensten and Clarence Anderson, another doctor, explained what Kapaun needed: heat on his leg, bed rest, extra food.

So Mike Dowe stole food. William Funchess huddled with Kapaun at night to keep him warm. Men sneaked to the bombedout church where Kapaun gave his Easter service, stole bricks, heated them in fires and gave them to Esensten; he clamped the hot bricks to Kapaun’s leg. Men made a small trapeze to help Esensten elevate the leg.

Kapaun got mad and tried to get up; the doctor and the priest glared at each other. Kapaun wanted to make prayer rounds.

Food and hot bricks turned him around. Then he got dysentery, and that quickly weakened him; he could not sleep for running to the latrine.

Funchess and a resourceful Kentuckian, Gene Shaw, intervened. Shaw sneaked out of the compound and came back with the top half of a pot-bellied stove he had scrounged from a bombed-out house. He and Funchess stuck one of Kapaun’s homemade pans in the bottom and told Kapaun he now had a private commode, no running to the latrine necessary.

And when they saw that he was too weak to mount it himself, they lifted him there — then wiped his bottom for him. This deeply embarrassed Kapaun, but Funchess told him he had seen him do the same for others.

Esensten now hatched a daring plan. He talked to men all over the camp. The result was an outbreak of fake POW dysentery throughout the officers’ compound. Chinese doctors saw dozens of men with “diarrhea.” They gave medicine, and the men smuggled it to Esensten, who gave it to Kapaun — who got better.

But Kapaun still grew weaker. Funchess at night could see him fight spasms of pain. Advanced starvation causes pain deep in the bones, reducing soldiers to tears. It also caused Kapaun and Dowe’s genitals to swell, making it painful to move.

Even in this state, Kapaun reached out to comfort others. Men came to him for his blessing. Funchess, lying beside him at night, asked for his comfort. The priest had just turned 35; Funchess was only 24, a boy in comparison. Kapaun coaxed him away from fear.

"I don’t think I’m going to make it, Father. I can hardly walk on my foot, it’s going to get an infection. I’m starving," Funchess said.

"No, no," Kapaun said. "You’re going to get better, you’re going to get out of here. So you just walk on that foot."

Funchess asked about forgiveness.

"Of course we should forgive them," Kapaun said of the guards. "We should not only forgive our enemies but love them, too."

But they shot wounded soldiers, Funchess said. They abused prisoners.

It doesn’t matter, Kapaun said.

"If we fail to forgive, we’re rejecting our own faith."

***

Incredibly now, with barely enough strength to breathe, with the POWs trying to conceal him from guards bent on murdering him, Kapaun rallied one day to help Funchess design pots and pans.

This was not as mundane an act as it sounds: Dirty water killed POWs; boiled water kept them healthy.

One day, Funchess, a farmer’s son, asked a question that had nagged all the other farm boys for months.

"You’re the only guy in camp who can take a square piece of roofing tin and make a pan that doesn’t leak out of all four corners," Funchess said. "How do you do that?"

"You got to know when to crimp an edge inside and when to bend outside," Kapaun said. He was lying on the dirt floor, with barely enough strength to open his eyes. “I could show you," Kapaun said.

"No," Funchess said. "You rest. Wait."

Funchess left for a few minutes and came back with pencil and scrap paper. For hours, the farm boy from Kansas dictated detailed instructions to the farm boy from South Carolina, who wrote it all down. Funchess at last held the paper before Kapaun’s eyes.

"I think you got it!" Kapaun said.

After that, men made leakproof pans.

***

Kapaun came down with pneumonia.

Esensten and other officers demanded sulfa powder. Guards said there wasn’t any.

Kapaun made feeble attempts to talk. A POW next door wanted to convert to Catholicism; Kapaun spoke to him. Another POW, Felix McCool, came to say confession; Kapaun sat up and blessed him in Latin, then sank back, delirious. I am going to die, Kapaun told McCool.

Esensten refused to accept this. He said that if they could keep Kapaun warm and fed, he might live. It was late May 1951, and even in this place the breezes of spring touched the faces of men. But then the Chinese came. They came brusquely and rudely in the hut door; Comrade Sun with a pistol, soldiers carrying rifles. They laid a stretcher down, pointed at Kapaun. “No!” Funchess said. “He’s fine with us.” He looked down at Kapaun, who looked so weak that Funchess wondered whether he realized what was happening. “He goes!” a guard said. Things escalated, first to argument, then to pandemonium. Men began to yell, to beg the guards: “Leave him.”

Emaciated Americans — Protestant, atheist and agnostic — hobbled out of the hut, calling for help. The Catholics Ralph Nardella and Walt Mayo came running, and Protestants stepped back to let them lead.

Men so weak they could barely stand hurried to the hut, where voices got louder by the moment. Esensten and Anderson, the doctors, tried to reason with the guards.

Let us take care of him, Esensten pleaded.

The guards glared.

Give us the medicines we need, and we’ll take care of him. He’ll do better with us.

The Chinese stood their ground, rifles in hand. More men crowded around, and Funchess saw one of the skeletal Americans shove a Chinese rifleman; the rifleman shoved back. The Chinese did not yet aim rifles at the POWs, but they grew nervous. There was more shoving, until a voice spoke from the floor. At first, Funchess didn’t hear it. But then men pointed to Kapaun. He was so weak he could barely speak; he was in so much pain his face was contorted. “I’ll go,” he said. “Don’t get into any trouble over me.”

***

Men sobbed like children. Kapaun handed his gold ciborium to Mayo. “Tell them I died a happy death.” He said he’d keep his purple stole and his little vials of holy oils; perhaps he could help in the hospital. He told a story from Maccabees: A king threatened seven sons unless their mother forsook God; she refused, and cried as her sons died — but the tears were tears of joy.

Nardella bent down when Kapaun beckoned.

"You know the prayers, Ralph," Kapaun said. He handed back Nardella’s borrowed missal. "Keep holding the services. Don’t let them make you stop."

Phil Peterson, who had helped Kapaun say rosaries, put a hand on Kapaun’s arm.

"I’m terribly sorry."

"You’re sorry for me?" Kapaun said. "I am going to be with Jesus Christ. And that is what I have worked for all my life. And you say you’re sorry for me? You should be happy for me."

Kapaun beckoned to another prisoner.

"When you get back to Jersey, you get that marriage straightened out. Or I’ll come down from heaven and kick you in the ass."

Dowe by this time was sobbing nearby.

"Don’t take it hard, Mike," Kapaun said. "I’m going where I’ve always wanted to go. And when I get up there, I’ll say a prayer for all of you."

Americans told the guards they would carry Kapaun themselves. Four POWs, including Nardella and Bob Wood, placed Kapaun on the stretcher. Anderson saw Kapaun smile.

They walked him out, trudged up the hill, past men bent with grief. A Turkish officer named Fezi Bey watched in awe. The Turks were tough men, Muslims who had known little about Christianity before they came here. They respected Kapaun deeply. Kapaun told Nardella to take care of the men and stick to the principles of his faith, “all of them.” They reached the entrance to the Death House; Kapaun raised a hand and blessed the guards. Tears poured down Wood’s cheeks. Kapaun looked at Nardella. In heaven, he said, he would pray for Nardella’s return home. Then he glanced around at the Chinese waiting at the hospital. “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He looked at a Chinese officer. “Forgive me,” Kapaun said. They laid him down alone in a room filthy with feces and maggots.

Wood walked into an adjoining room, where several sick prisoners lay and pleaded with them.

"Father is in a bad way," he said. "Try to help him if you can." They looked too weak to help.

Wood, prodded by the guards, walked back to the compound, so distraught he could barely see.

"My God," he thought. "If God is taking this man, what has he got in store for the rest of us?"

Wood pushed down that thought. Father Kapaun would never think like that. Kapaun lasted two days. Then he died. And that was the end. Or so the guards hoped.

***

All over the officers’ compound, men sat for days in shock. And then, little by little, unusual things began to happen. In the Death House the teenage Cpl. Bob McGreevy, deathly ill for a month, rolled over one day, soon after he was told Kapaun was dead. He crawled away from the spot on the floor where the Chinese had abandoned him to die. He’d weighed 180 pounds when he was captured at Unsan; he was down to about 100 now.

McGreevy was a former football player from Cumberland, Md. He knew as an athlete that he needed to get his leg muscles moving or they would atrophy, and he would die. He crawled into a corner where he could get his big hands on two walls.

He took a deep breath.

He braced his hands against the walls, gathered his feet, and prayed a prayer he had never prayed before.

A Catholic, he had been taught that when all hope was lost, you prayed to a saint who you thought had the ear of God.

He prayed now to a man who fit that description. For all anyone knows, he became the first person to pray this particular prayer. He would not be the last.

"Father Kapaun," McGreevy prayed, "Help me."

And then, for the first time in weeks, McGreevy stood up.

***

Outside the Death House, in the mud huts of Pyoktong, Funchess continued to defiantly read the 23rd Psalm every night to fellow prisoners. Funchess had read the psalm to himself after Kapaun died; now he read it to other men who had loved Kapaun.

In another mud hut, Mayo hid Kapaun’s gold ciborium so the guards could not confiscate it.

Nardella led prisoners in saying the rosary in forbidden religious services.

They were inches from starving to death. All hope seemed lost. The guards had just murdered their best man.

But little by little, as the first shock wore off, men began to tell and retell the stories of Father Kapaun: his friendship, his jokes, his deeds, his faith.

That frail man, who died alone, who lay now in an unmarked grave, had never told them what to do. He’d never pushed religion on them. But he had somehow taught them to stand up for themselves, to forgive, and to help each other.

It was not long before they rallied; it was not long before the Chinese finally began to feed them a little better. It was not long before they pulled themselves together and told each other that the man who had died for them deserved a gift in return:

Their survival.

Part 7 in the series: POWs call Kapaun "a hero and a saint"

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