Towering in heroism and self-sacrifice on the bloody battlefield of Korea, the full stature of Father Kapaun as a priest, as a soldier, reached majestic maturity as a captive of the Chinese Reds. Marching and carrying the wounded over the rugged frozen terrain of Korea — housed in primitive barracks, slowly starving, lacking medicines and the bare necessities of life — the devoted chaplain, emaciated and sick himself, rallied, comforted, cheered his fellow prisoners — tired men who no longer wanted to live. Father Kapaun became the counselor, the nurse, leader, the provider, the defender of his fellow prisoners, even their thief — for he "stole" food to keep his buddies alive.
His example of exquisite charity to all prisoners welded his men into a closely knit group, both before and after his death, revived in despondent hearts the will to live and kept alive the hope of liberation. He resisted calmly but firmly the brain-washing tactics of the Communists, dared to hold daily religious services, gave his men a deep faith in themselves and in the providence and mercy of God. The following letters speak eloquently of the multifold, untiring services of Father Kapaun. He was not to come back, but his fortitude in every trial was the chief factor in the survival and ultimate freedom of hundreds of his fellow P. O. W.'s.
1539 Thalia Avenue
February 1, 1954
"Dear Father Tonne:
"I first met Father Kapaun when he was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, in the fall of 1949. He was the Catholic Chaplain, and Chaplain Carter was the Protestant Chaplain. These two gentlemen, of different faiths, worked together and were exceptionally good friends. They had charge of conducting the character guidance program in the battalion and Father Kapaun was responsible for molding the lives of many boys. All the men looked forward to hearing his talks on the right and wrong approach to life. Men of all faiths would go to him with their problems. I mentioned Chaplain Carter because he was a man like Father Kapaun. Those of us who have been in the Service for some time used to comment how remarkable it was to have these two fine chaplains in the same organization. Both worked for God and all men, and Church attendance improved so that in some cases 100% of the companies would attend their religious services.
"Father Kapaun always talked in language the men understood. He knew their problems and his advice was always the best for all individuals or groups concerned. He visited the sick in hospitals, places where the men went, football games, basketball games, etc. His only interest was serving God and his fellow men.
"Father Kapaun carried on his great work until he died, and of course you know the story about how he stayed with the wounded when he was captured and the story of what he went through. Never once did he think of himself; instead he was always trying to make things just a little more pleasant for his fellow men. When others were complaining, he took everything in stride and p182 never mentioned his worries or sickness. On many occasions it was quite obvious that certain individuals would take advantage of his generosity, but he never complained.
"His guidance was probably the contributing factor in many of us coming back. I used to ask Father why he didn't rest. He was not getting enough to eat to keep him going for the amount of work he was doing. He would reply 'I enjoy helping people that need help; my reward is happiness' (or words to that effect).
"After he became sick and was lying prostrate, slowly starving, with such pain in his leg that only God knows how he suffered, people would seek his advice, but he never complained. I was captured about the same time he was, slept beside him in the same room, ate with him, worked with him, and had many inspiring talks with him. It is difficult for me to find words to express my admiration for him. We used to talk for hours at a time about people and why some acted one way and others acted differently about their fellow men. He used to say, 'there is good in all men'; and when some of us could not find the good, Father Kapaun would always find it.
"I know I haven't given you very much information, but I can assure you, Father Tonne, whatever is said about Father Kapaun will never be enough, and if I can be of any help to you in getting more information, don't hesitate to write. Perhaps there is some particular incident of which you might have some knowledge on which I could elaborate.
"I sincerely hope that a movie can be made to portray this wonderful man, as I believe it would contribute to the nation, in these days of turmoil and unrest, a real story that would be heart-warming and give the people a chance to see the sacrifices that were made to keep this country of ours free from the terrors of Communism.
p183 "Hoping that I can be of more service to you, I remain,
William A. McClain,
Captain Joseph O'Connor wrote his recollections February 15, 1954:
"Am most sorry that I did not have an opportunity to answer your request previous to this time. Have been in the hospital since my return and kept very busy with public appearances, when physically able, and recuperation from the rigors of 34 months of captivity. There is quite a lot that I would like to add to previous published accounts of Father Kapaun. However, my limited ability restricts such writings. How can one express in words what one feels in his heart for the man who had contributed life and values to one? Father Kapaun actually did that to me by his example, his sermons, and above all, through his heart to heart talks that he and I personally had at times when I was ready and willing to give up.
"My first recollection of Father Kapaun as a fearless individual, that is, fearless of man‑made obstacles, occurred in September of 1950. He came to me when I was in charge of setting up headquarters and asked if he could say Mass for the men in that area at that time. I said, 'Father, things are pretty hot here at present and I don't think you should be up here.' We had been getting interdicting artillery fire in and around that position for with few hours previously. Father said, 'Then I think we need a Mass, Captain, and if you can spare the men for a few minutes, I'll say it.' I finally told him that I'd go along and allow as many Catholics as possible to attend, and picked out a spot in an abandoned Korean houseyard and asked him if that would be satisfactory. He said that p184 it would, and he proceeded to offer Mass. I attended. During the Mass the North Koreans opened up on us with artillery. Rounds were hitting the top of the hill about 150 yards to the rear of us. We didn't know if we were under actual observation or not, but assumed as much, and all of us were highly nervous and ready to seek cover, but Father continued the Mass. The look on his face — a look I can't describe, a look of saintliness or maybe one of unassumed dignity — one of a man so engrossed in the Holy Sacrifice that he was oblivious of what was happening — dispelled our fears. Not a man moved. Had we been under direct observation, and I believe we were, we had what is known in the service as a bracket of us, and it was only a small matter for the enemy to make the proper range adjustment to eliminate us. A heavy barrage of fire hit about 400 yards to the left and then ceased. I think that this barrage was intended for us and through some miraculous power was deflected. After Mass, Father Kapaun thanked me and asked if I could find him a ride to the next battalion. He had lost his jeep in enemy fire. He hated to impose on me. I gladly managed to find a jeep and sent him happily out of that area.
"Another noteworthy incident that I'm sure such a humble man as Father would never want repeated because it had a tendency to glorify him as an individual, and he never wanted that, follows:
"This happened in Anson, South Korea. Anson had been occupied by the North Korean Communist Forces from about early July, 1950, until our battalion was liberated in the latter part of September, 1950. Previous to the Communist capture of Anson, there were quite a few Christian missions there and one of them was a lovely (comparatively speaking) Catholic Mission. We secured the town late that evening and the following morning p185 Father Kapaun held Mass in the Catholic Mission which had been ransacked by the Commies. All things of value, all holy pictures, and all furniture had been removed. Father set up his field Mass equipment on the old altar. Many townspeople were in attendance. After he finished Mass, which I believe I served that day, we were in what used to be the vestibule, and heard a commotion. The native Koreans were coming to thank Father. In their own language and in their own way, they wanted to express their feelings toward him and the U. N. for restoring their right to worship. Many kissed his feet and his garments and wept over him. Father was embarrassed beyond words and happy to the point that he began to weep. After he gave them his blessing, they left. Father then told us how fortunate he was to be able to restore something to those people that they thought they had lost, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. He also expressed his feeling in the faith these people maintained during their occupation. He told us to let it be an example to us that we should never lose our faith. Little did I realize that later I would be put into a position where, had it not been for his example and teachings, I could very easily have lost faith in God and mankind.
"Another point was Father's attitude toward those men who died in the earlier stages of the war. After we had occupied Pyongyang, North Korea, and had thought the war was over, Father was attached to our battalion for rations, etc. Normally, when he was in our outfit he would be around taking care of the spiritual and moral needs of the men. During this period he was conspicuous by his absence and quite frequently was late for, or missed his meals. I was naturally curious and asked him what was going on. He said he had a lot of administrative work to do. I asked him if I could get one or two of the men to help him. He refused, saying that this was something p186 he had to do personally. Shortly after, I found him in a dilapidated and abandoned Korean hut adjacent to the large building the battalion occupied. He had an old ammo crate for a desk and an ammunition box for a seat. He had approximately five or six hundred cards of men who were killed or who had died while in combat. Also, on each card he had the address of the next of kin and a notation as to whether or not he had administered the last rites to the individuals. He was writing a personal letter to each of the next of kin. This, to the best of my knowledge, is definitely not required of an Army Chaplain. Father Kapaun and the Protestant Chaplain, Captain Carter, were taking it upon themselves to do this so as to better ease the minds of friends and relatives of the deceased. The building Father used had holes in it and was extremely cold. I asked him why he didn't request office space from me in battalion headquarters. He thought I was too busy and he didn't want to interfere with my work. That is the type of man that he was. He would ask for nothing, and give everything, even his life.
"Father, if you are in contact with Father Kapaun's parents tell them they had a son they can be proud of and that I remember them and him in my prayers. I will write them a personal letter in the near future.
Joseph L. O'Connor
Arch & Cedar Streets
Spring City, Pennsylvania
From Captain Robert E. Burke, Alexandria, Virginia, February 8, 1954:
"Your recent letter was forwarded to me by my wife at our home in West Virginia and I was pleased to learn of your plan to write the life of our dear friend, Father Kapaun.
p187 "Unfortunately, I have been unable to do any reading as I went almost completely blind from lack of vitamins due to malnutrition while in captivity. My sight returned slightly when I first returned home, but then leveled off and lately there has been no change so that is why I am at this present locale, Walter Reed Hospital, on quarters status while awaiting action of the Retirement Board as I am to be medically retired with disability pension in the near future. I realize, too, that you are not writing a story about me, but I felt that an explanation was necessary since I have not read any of the articles about our very dear priest but it certainly isn't because of lack of interest on my part. I feel that everything has been said about Father Kapaun that could possibly be said. However, I'll relate a few salient points that impressed me most.
"Father Kapaun gave you a good impression upon first meeting and if you lived to be a hundred, your opinion would never change. I met him in late November, 1950, after five days of torturous marching in bitter cold weather. Upon arriving at a small valley completely exhausted, half-frozen, half-starved and thorough disheartened, and possessed with the idea that death would be so welcome, much better than our present existence, at this very critical point as we approached the house where we were to be interned, the sun appeared and soon the clouds completely disappeared. The sun referred to was to the celestial body but the warm, friendly greeting of this man of God. With a big, broad grin he extended his hand and said, 'My name is Kapaun, glad to have you share our paradise.' His calm, easy manner and winning smile soon relaxed us and his words of encouragement gave us new hope and the clouds of dismay and disappointment soon disappeared, and our heavy hearts became lighter, our aching feet and numb fingers and tired bodies didn't seem to hurt so much now. His help in getting us p188 fed and bedded down were just a few of the many kindnesses and considerations displayed by him that night. We all knew that this man was a real friend. We weren't wrong, because in the tough times that followed we could always look to our priest for guidance, leadership and encouragement. He kept our spirits bright and our morale high. He gave us many a laugh when laughter was hard to come by, with his witty remarks and his methods for obtaining more chow to supplement our starvation ration. We very affectionately honored him with the title 'best thief in the compound'. He was forever sticking his neck out to 'borrow' extra food, to visit the men further down the valley and give them moral support in these very trying times.
"Later, by February and March, the majority of us had turned into animals, were fighting for food, irritable, selfish, miserly, etc. The good priest continued to keep a cool head, conduct himself as a human being, and maintain all his virtues and ideal characteristics. When the chips were down, Father proved himself to be the greatest example of manhood I've ever seen in my life. At trying times like these, the men are separated from the boys, the weeds from the wheat, and, although not every man slipped into primitive and savage existence, our good priest stood head and shoulders above everyone.
"When most of us were down on our backs and a siege of dysentery swept the area, our benevolent padre would go out into the sub‑zero temperatures at 5:30 searching for small twigs and pieces of wood, build a fire and carry water to fill the pans he diligently made of old pieces of sheet iron and then remove dirty trousers from the men who no longer could control their natural functions. After boiling this clothing and getting it dry, he would dress the pathetic hulks of skin and bones. The faint heart would become a little more audible, a spark of life light p189 up in their hollow eyes and the 'death stare' would vanish as the corner of their mouths would turn up and a smile would appear on their tortured faces. A movement of the Adam's apple on a scrawny neck would give away the lump in the throat that comes when one experiences a sentimental moment; one would swallow hard and with tears in his eyes, would manage to offer, 'Thanks, Father.'
"Gestures like this repeated morning after morning, washing clothes, bathing the body and a few well chosen words (he always knew just the right thing to say at the right time) nursed countless men back to health and today these men are home with their mothers and fathers, their sweethearts, their wives and children, their families. I'm sure these families and loved ones all know the story. Every man is proud to say, 'I knew Father Kapaun — he saved my life, he made me fight to stay alive when dying was so simple; it was easier to die than live in those days; death was a welcome relief. We owe our present happiness to that heroic man who gave us his all, who sacrificed himself for his fellow man, who worked himself to death. Although ailing himself, he labored to comfort the sick; he now lies in a shallow, rocky grave in far off stinking Korea.'
"He was an inspiration to men of all races, nationalities and creeds; even those who professed to be atheist held him in their hearts and affectionately called him 'Father'. Those who had strayed from their church and religion were brought back to God and certainly must now be stout Christians, who remember their beloved priest in their prayers. Whether they be recognized popular prayers or simple ones in crude language, I'm sure they all ask our Lord to look after 'Our Buddy' up there, and although it's not said in flowing terms, the Almighty knows what is in the hearts of these men.
"This man who was held in such high esteem, respected, admired and loved, was a real threat to our Communist p190 captors. They could bully us around and practice their theory of 'the means justifying the end, etc.' They didn't know quite how to handle the priest, because he could not be scared, threatened, cajoled, or humiliated. On the contrary, they feared this man whom they couldn't break, they trembled at the control and influence he had with all the men. It worried them that this man could be so powerful with just his mild manner and soft speech where they resorted to screaming, threatening with all forms of sadistic torture known to these barbarians, and still couldn't influence us like this man of God.
"They couldn't take him out and shoot him because they feared a rebellion, so they waited until illness and over-work finally got the best of this stalwart soul. They took him off to the hospital, (I use the word hospital very loosely) where he was murdered because they denied him the medicine he needed, although it was available for the traitorous collaborators who played into their hands and sold themselves to the devil.
"So ends the epic of the greatest man I ever knew, the 'guy' that we all rank above our own father, as much as we love our parent, the man who was tops in everybody's book, the man whom no man can say anything against, can say nothing but good about — our beloved chaplain. The man of the cloth who treated all men alike, administered the last rites to the dying — Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish — because they wanted Father's blessing as they left this earth; the man who taught Catechism to those in earnest, some of whom were baptized by him in a simple ceremony, one in particular who lived for the day when he could walk into the church with his pretty Catholic wife and lovely twin daughters and make them so happy that their loved one had joined the church of their faith. This convert has often remarked that it was the greatest thing that ever happened to him. I personally p191 am proud of this convert because I'm his Godfather. Another officer, now deceased, was his 'Godmother', and, with Father now gone, it leaves just the two of us from this memorable ceremony of Easter Sunday, 1951. The same Sunday Father heard our confessions and cried as he apologized for not being able to give us Communion.
"This is how I remember the finest man I ever knew, the most outstanding priest I've ever seen, the hero of heroes, and to put it simply, 'the most unforgettable character I've ever met', that diamond in the rough that we all would be proud to call Dad, the man we respect and admire and cherish in our hearts — our beloved Father Kapaun.
"I regret that I cannot phrase the thoughts and feelings I'm trying to convey and with all due respect to you, Father Tonne, you cannot possibly portray this priest as gloriously and illustriously as to do him justice. There are no words to describe the magnitude of this brilliant shining star, our guiding light.
"I sincerely hope that this information will in some small way help you, and I consider it a real honor and pleasure that you wrote me. If I can be of assistance in the future, please don't hesitate to call on me. May His Soul Rest in Peace and God Bless Him!
Robert E. Burke"
From another prisoner, Felix McCool, comes this letter:
"Dear Father Tonne:
"Father Kapaun would hold evening devotions for all of us, and would always preface it with: 'Gentlemen, Evening prayer!' An immediate hush would fall and everyone would listen to the 'Our Father Who art in Heaven, — give us this day our daily bread.' Here p192 one would remember bread as we had known it. I remember how my mother used to say, 'Sonny, don't waste your bread for someday you may be in need!' The prayer would continue to the Catholic ending and then to the Protestant ending. He was for all of us and showed it in all his actions. He went to the death house and gave the last rites to all of the dying men, men who might have been saved had they had proper food. Father Kapaun would care for the extremely sick in the death house and then come back with sticks that he had picked up from the debris for heating water. The dysentery could be whipped in this manner only — hot water and quiet. A lot of the runs were caused by a psychological reaction. Men just couldn't accept the fact that they were prisoners. I had just arrived from a •300‑400 mile hike to this place, Pyockdong Hi #5 Korea.
"One day I asked Walt Mayo, the boy from Boston College: 'Say old man, is there a Catholic priest here in the camp? I haven't been to confession for a long time and it doesn't look as if I will.'
"Mayo replied: 'Look over there in that burned out building. You'll see a man rummaging around in the debris. That's Father Kapaun. He was the Chaplain in the outfit that I was captured in.'
"I looked and saw the priest he was talking about. He had a black patch over one eye and a stocking cap over his ears. It was bitter cold. I approached him and said, 'Father!' He looked up and smiled. His eyes were watering from the blackened soot or from emotion, as he said to me:
" 'Look here in this cellar. There is a water crock. We can keep water in that and have it boiled and sanitary. Maybe so many men won't die from drinking filthy water.'
"The crock had a dead rat in it but that wasn't anything p193 to us. It could have been a dead Korean and not made any difference.
"Wait a minute, Father,' I said, 'I'll drop down into the hole and pull it out for you, as you don't look as if you can do it.'
"I dropped into the hole but it was to small for the crock to come out as the bombing had twisted the cellar out of shape. I looked up; the sky was cold, clear blue and his face was framed in the hole, looking down with a woe‑begone expression. I assured him:
" 'It isn't so bad. Pull off some of these boards and dirt, so I can maneuver the crock through the hole.' He began, but the dirt started falling into the hole, nearly covering me up. Then catastrophe — a large rock started to fall. He tried to stop it by deliberately placing his foot in its path. It bruised him horribly, and may have been the start of the clot that later formed in his leg. The rock came crashing through and hit the rim of the crock, cracking off a portion. What a disappointment for him! He called Hank . Between them they were able to clear the hole so that I might get out. We worked the balance of the afternoon carefully removing the debris and were finally able to remove the crock. It wasn't as good as we had hoped, but it served the purpose. Father Kapaun would boil warm water and place it in this container so that the sick could have a drink of pure water. The well men had to fend for themselves, but could always mooch a drink off Father by giving him some sticks to burn.
"I saw his helmet liner lying in the yard and I asked him about it. It still had the Cross marked on the front in white lettering. He explained:
" 'Mac, if I wear it, it will only antagonize the Chinese, so I won't; but the fact that it is lying on this garbage heap, causes every man to see it and it reminds them of p194 their God. You know, Mac, I often wonder just how many silent prayers are offered at this old heap. God moves in strange ways.'
"The hamlet liner lay through the cold weather and the spring rains, rolling and turning in the wind and rain; I could see it from the door. He left us to go to his God, but the old liner lay there. I finally kicked it around the house and broke it up, tearing the cross from the broken parts, and hid it. I brought it home and sent it to the Father Kapaun Memorial Fund, 58 Ellison Street, Paterson, New Jersey. Ralph Nardella said he'd see that it got to his church.
"He was a man of God. He ministered to all — Catholics, Protestants, Mohammedans and Jews. He would hold evening prayers, wash the clothes of the sick and hear confessions. All this while he was slowly being eaten by disease caused by lack of proper food, sanitation and clothing.
"In his last hour he heard my confession and told me to dedicate my life to the Blessed Virgin Mary, that she would intercede for me to Jesus, her Son. He told all of us the story of the Seven Macabees. A mother had seven children, all of whom refused to repudiate God to the king. One by one they were killed. She cried, not tears of pain and privation, but tears of joy. Her children were with God. As he told us this, his own eyes were filled with tears of agony, I knew — and he knew I knew!
Father Kapaun said, 'As you see, I am crying too, not tears of pain but tears of joy, because I'll be with my God in a short time.'
"Before they took him away, he made a request of me which I never told his close friends as they all had such a protective attitude toward him that I felt it might hurt their feelings — his requesting a thing of that magnitude from one who was almost a stranger and a Marine. I p195 know you understand. It is quite close to me. The request was this: 'When I die, say the last rites over my grave.' They never let me. They spirited him away. He died in agony, the agony of Christ on the Cross. We never had the privilege of knowing where he was buried in that cold ground, not even the comforting thought of a coffin.
"After his death, we grew into a solid group — Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Mohammedans, and men of all races — fighting the Communists.
"Lt. Ray M. Dowe, Jr., 3221 Arlington Blvd., Arlington, Virginia, was the officer whom Father Kapaun spoke last to just as they carried him out of the yard. He said, 'Mike, I'll come back and kick the so‑and‑so out of you,' just kidding. Mike remembers him so vividly that if one mentions Kapaun, tears come to his eyes.
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