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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 11

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Story of Chaplain Kapaun

Arthur Tonne

published by
Didde Publishers
Emporia, KS, 1954

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 13

 p166  Chapter Twelve

A Lieutenant Reflects

Brave men were numerous in those horrible hours. Among these was Lt. Walter Mayo, "the boy from Boston College", as his buddies called him. Peter Busatti describes Mayo as "the best combat officer I ever saw." The Lieutenant masterfully directed the defense of the small circle of Americans who were completely surrounded. In four letters​a written with painstaking accuracy and profound sorrow, yet with unbounded admiration, Lt. Mayo creates a picture of Father Kapaun, before and after his capture, that is nothing short of heart-rending:

February 5, 1954

"Dear Father Tonne:

"I was very happy to receive your letter and will try to give some additional data on Father Kapaun.

"I first met Father about the 2nd of September when we were fighting outside of Taegin.º I was an Artillery Observer. We were attacking hill Number 401 and were having a difficult time. I was up in a forward position trying to get artillery on the hill when I turned around and there, sitting right behind us exposed to a sniper's bullet, was a chaplain 'carrying' a carbine. I said 'hello' and warned him of the snipers but he did not get excited. He merely moved a few feet down into the gully and asked where he could find some of the wounded. He spent the remainder of the afternoon and evening taking the wounded back, constantly under fire.

"From then on I saw him pretty often, as I went to  p167 Mass on one side of a hill with the top under fire and the enemy only about 400 yards away. He was always burying the dead enemy soldiers and helping graves registration with ours when things were quiet.

"Always with his pipe or a cigar in his mouth, he was an inspiration to everyone, being so calm and cheerful in a difficult situation.

"You know of the incidents in which his assistant had been killed and his Mass Kit lost at Pong‑dong and of his riding around on a bike when he could not get a jeep. Wherever and whenever there was action, he was always there to help the wounded and give solace and the last rites for the dying. It was the same all the way up from Taegenº to Seoul to Kaeseng to Pyengyang to Anju and then to Unsan.

"On the morning of November 1st, 5 miles southeast of Unsan, the Third Battalion 8th Cavalry was in a small valley approximately fifty miles from the Yalu River. Father Kapaun said Mass that morning as he had on most previous mornings since we had come up from Pyengyang four days before.

"That night the Chinese hit us and hit us hard. They were right in amongst us. Half hour later, at 1:00 A.M. on the 2nd, I went over to a dugout by the side of the road where Battalion Headquarters were situated. It was covered with logs and dirt and was large enough to hold about 40 men. Everything was mixed up. Chinese everywhere! But in that dug‑out, Father had gathered about 30 men and was tending them. We guarded the entrance and gathered more men and fought Chinese until morning when they started to drop mortars right into the entrance which was about wide enough to drive a truck down. By that time we had gathered about 20 more wounded and put them down there.

"All the while, Father was carrying them down into  p168 comparative safety. He refused to leave them when we had to leave at dawn to fall back into the field behind and establish a perimeter defense.

"He showed up later at about 10:00 A.M. and was crawling out into the open and dragging out wounded back into the perimeter all day long. He would sit up on a parapet scanning the field in full view of the snipers who were knocking the men off fast.

"His pipe was shot out of his mouth but he put adhesive tape on it and continued to smoke. He must have dragged about fifteen or twenty men out of that field into our trenches.

"When night was approaching, he told us he was going back to the dug‑out which was about 150 yards from our outposts. He said he had to be with those 50 wounded. And back he went.

"That night the Chinese attacked us in force and it was hand to hand fighting at times. We knew that they must have gotten into the dug‑out. That was the night of the 2nd.

"I found out that the Chinese had thrown two grenades down into the dug‑out and killed some of the wounded. But then a wounded Chinese officer that we had captured and put into the dug‑out with the Americans went out and stopped the Chinese from killing anyone else and brought them down into the dug‑out. They took Father along with about 25 wounded who could walk. Father had cared for this Chinese officer and sent him out to stop the grenading.

"The next day was the 3rd of November and we were still surrounded on the valley floor. We could not get out of our positions and find out what happened to Father. We held out, about 250 of us plus 150 more wounded, that night and next day.

 p169  "We were almost out of ammo and had had no food for two days so we had to get out. We could not carry the wounded, so Captain (Dr.) Clarence Anderson volunteered to stay with the 150 wounded.

"On scouting a way out of the trap, I went to the dug‑out and the wounded who were left told me what had happened to Father.

"I was captured four days later. I saw Father when we were at Pyoktong, after being bombed and on the way to a small valley 10 miles southwest. It was the evening of the 20th of November and I never was so glad to see anyone in my life. He was carrying a stretcher and he carried it for the ten miles. We were carrying about 40 of our men on improvised litters up and down mountains. We would take turns carrying, but Father carried all the way.

"We arrived at this small valley the next morning and all the officers were put into a small Korean farmhouse at the top of the valley. The Chinese and Koreans would not let us go out to see the men but Father would get out and sneak down to the sick and wounded first and then to see the men and say prayers.

"When they died he would get on the burial detail and dig the grave out of the rocky, frozen ground. He did that continuously.

"We were pretty hard up for food and were starving, so Father would go on ration run to get our cracked corn, millet and soy beans. Before he went, he would say prayers to St. Dismas, the Good Thief. They helped, because Father would steal, or get away with, sometimes two one‑hundred-pound sacks of grain plus pockets full of salt which was very scarce. Pretty soon all of us were praying earnestly to St. Dismas, but Father succeeded much better than the rest of us.

 p170  "Some of the officers would trade their watches, which they managed to save, to the Koreans for tobacco. They would give Father a lot of the tobacco but the next day he would be smoking dried garlic leaves, oak leaves, etc. He had given it all away to the sick and wounded on his visits.

"The Chinese and Koreans always were after him and tried to catch him down the valley. They said he was an agitator and that the men did not want to see him and requested the Chinese to stop his coming. They no more stopped him from going down there than did the men request the Chinese to stop him.

"Every night we held prayers and he prayed not only for deliverance of us from the hands of the enemy, but also prayed for the Communists to be delivered from their atheistic materialism. On January 21, 1951, we were moved back to Yoktong."

A second letter from Lt. Walter Mayo, Jr., on February 11, 1954:

"Dear Father Tonne:

"I believe I left off last time where Father Kapaun was in Pyoktong, Camp 5, and making pots out of sheet iron with a stone as a fashioner. He would then gather scraps of wood, corn shocks and splinters and build fires to boil water to soak the wounds and to drink.

"This was in February of 1951, when it was bitterly cold, about 20° below zero F. He would be up at five or six every morning in the dark and when the whistle blew for us to get up at 7:00 A.M., he would stick his head in the door and holler 'hot coffee' and hand us a nice hot cup of boiled water. People were dying at the rate of ten to twenty a day in the camp. As often as he could he would sneak down past the guards to the enlisted men's section of the camp.

 p171  "When our officers were dying he would tend them day and night. He converted Lt. Richard Hangen and baptized him before he died, along with several others. Captain Chester Osborne was converted and baptized with a male Godfather, and a male 'Godmother', Lt. Robert Burke, USAF.

"He always said, however, that he would never try to force anyone or high-pressure anyone to become a Catholic if he thought that there were doubts and reservations in that person's mind.

"By March, 1951, Father had a full-fledged beard and was using a sleeve from a G. I. wool-knit sweater for a stocking cap. His face was drawn and he was very thin. We used to kid him by saying that he looked like one old, bearded Patriarchs.

"Every evening he went to the five houses in which the officers lived and offered evening prayers. He prayed for our daily material and spiritual needs, for our deliverance and liberation and for the enemy, the Communists, that they be delivered from that terrible scourge and false philosophy.

"He went on like this until April. In their indoctrination program the Chinese would yell and scream about American capitalists and warmongers.

"Father would sit on the mud floor of the farm house and in a soft, calm voice, refute their statements one by one.

"They taunted him by saying:

" 'Where is your God now? Ask Him to get you out of this camp. See if He can feed you. You should thank Mao Tse‑Tung and Stalin for your daily bread. You cannot see or hear or feel your God, therefore, he does not exist.'

"Father would reply: 'One day the good Lord will  p172 save the Chinese and free them from the scourge that has set upon them. The good Lord, as He fed the thousands on the mountain, will also take care of us. Mao Tse‑Tung could not make a tree or a flower or stop the thunder and lightning.'

"He also told them that his God was as real as the air they breathed but could not see, as the sounds they heard but could not see, as the thoughts and ideas they had and spoke but could not see or feel. After a while, they let him alone since they were afraid of his arguments. He would shame a lot of the English-speaking interpreters (knowing they were missionary-trained) by chastising them when they said religion exploited the masses, etc., and asking them if their missionary teachers had done such things as they alleged.

"Our guards told the enlisted men that he was an agitator and a capitalist propagandist and to have nothing to do with him. The men, God bless them, told the Chinese off in their own inimitable way. The Chinese obstructed Father in every effort to conduct services, but he always managed.

"It was Easter, April, 1951, a cold, raw day, with the wind blowing from Manchuria over the Yalu. The ice was just breaking on the Reservoir. Father had Easter Sunrise Services with the Rosary, Memorare, Stations of the Cross, Mass Prayers, and readings from the Bible and hymns. I will never forget that service as long as I live.

"Father was limping and had a cane, plus a black patch over one eye that had become infected. About 85 officers were sitting on the steps of a bombed‑out church in our area. The steps were all that was left of the church. Catholic, Protestant and Jew were all there, plus some that had no religion at all, but were starting to find one. There were very few officers whose eyes were not  p173 damp by the time it was over.

"The Chinese raised a stink with Father about it but he told them that they professed freedom of religion and after a while they dropped it.

"Father had his ciborium and corporal, plus his stole and holy oils. He heard many a confession during these months. He held Catholic services on Sunday and then Protestant services. He ministered to all and neglected no one. He rarely complained and when he did it was always about some injustice suffered by someone else. He corrected those who were using profanity and helped to cure many of that habit.

"After the Easter Services we noticed that Father was limping badly and had difficulty moving around. We asked him many times what the matter was, but he would always smile and say that it was just old age creeping up on him.

"We finally had Doctor (Capt.) Clarence Anderson of Long Beach, California, and Doctor (Capt.) Sidney Esensten of Minneapolis, Minnesota, corner him and examine his leg. They found that he had a blood clot in it and that it was swollen from above the knee to the toes and had turned yellow and black.

"They forced him to lie on the floor and put his leg in a makeshift suspension. He lay that way for over a month, never complaining except that he thought he was a burden to people — he that had given everything for everyone else.

"During the six weeks that he lay immobilized he was always cheering the other sick officers and doing everything he could, physically and spiritually, to help them and us.

"We constructed a makeshift toilet inside the building for Father and two other sick people. He had to be  p174 carried to it, inside a closet. He would stay there inside that cold closet for an hour rather than ask anyone to help him. For that reason, we had to be watchful and make sure that he was not left inside.

"The days were growing warmer. It was around May 19. Father's leg was getting a little better. Our doctors said it would be all right to take him outside into the sun. That we did. After a few hours Father grew tired and asked us to bring him back into the room.

"It was about 5:00 P.M. and we were eating our evening bowl of corn when one of the officers came up to the kitchen area where we were eating and told me Father was pretty sick and that he was calling for me.

"I went down to the house and into the room. He was lying on the floor with his head propped up and eating. Doctors Esensten and Anderson were there with Captain Ralph Nardella and W. O. Felix McCool. Father was breathing heavily and talking strangely but rationally. His face was contorted with pain every few minutes and we were all pretty much scared.

"He kept talking about different subjects for about half an hour. He recognized everyone.

"Then Father's face was contorted and the pain must have been terrific because he started to cry. About a minute later he looked up, the tears still rolling down his painracked face, and told us the story of the Seven Macchabees in the Old Testament.

" 'There was an emperor who had an old woman brought up before him. He told her to renounce her Faith or he would torture and kill her. She replied that he could anything he wanted, but she would not renounce it.

" 'The emperor then had her seven sons brought in and said he would kill them if she did not do as he said. She still refused and he then put them to death one by one.  p175 The old woman was crying and the emperor asked her if she was crying because she was sad. She replied that her tears were tears of joy because she knew her sons were in heaven.'

"Father then looked at us and said he was crying for the same reason. He said that he was glad he was suffering because Our Lord had suffered also and that he felt closer to Him.

"By that time we were all crying, everyone in that room, who had seen scores of people die in the past few months and who thought they were pretty hard.

"Doctors Anderson and Esensten went out the room for a minute and I went with them. They said Father was all right except that he had become over-tired, and the leg had started to cause a great deal of pain.

"About that time, a Chinaman, an English-speaking officer, and a short, fat Communist, came running into the room and told us they were going to take Father to the hospital.

"First of all, we did not want to let Father go because we were taking care of him and he was getting better. However, the Chinese said he must go. The hospital was a place where they took people to die. Only about five officers out of sixty had ever come back from there.

"The Chinese saw a good chance to get this man they feared, now that he was helpless. They hated him because he had such an influence over all the prisoners. He was a power for good and they hated and feared any power but their own, not to speak of a power exercising good.

"We refused, argued, threatened, pleaded, but to no avail. About half an hour later they came down with a makeshift stretcher. Father knew as soon as this Chinaman named Ku appeared, that he was going to the 'hospital'.

 p176  "As they were putting this makeshift stretcher on the ground and telling us to hurry, Father gave me the ciborium, corporal and a list of people he baptized. He said he was keeping his stole and holy oils because he probably would have use for them at the 'hospital'.

"We carried him out of the room and put him on the stretcher. There were two English-speaking Chinese interpreter officers, Sun and Ku. All of us were so mad we would have strangled both of them were it not for Father. We were all crying. Six of the officers were going to carry him on the stretcher. As they raised him up on their shoulders, Father said to me, 'Wait, if I don't come back, tell my Bishop that I died a happy death.' We all told him that he would be back with us soon but he sort of smiled and shook his head and asked us to say a few prayers for him.

"Standing there watching Father being carried off down the hill on that stretcher, I realized I would never see him alive again. I also realized that he knew that more than anyone else.

"Three or four days later, on the 23rd of May, Father died among the men he served, up on a hill over­looking the Yalu River in that communist hospital of death."

A third letter from Lt. Mayo, February 23, 1954:

"Sorry to be delayed but we just spent the last week on maneuvers and things were in a rather distraught state. I will pick up the details of the ciborium now.

"When Father was taken away with his holy oils and stole, I kept the corporal and ciborium in my possession. About a week after his death, I attempted to get the holy oils back. I even had a written permission of one of the Chinese interpreters to go to the so‑called hospital. However,  p177 this turned out to be a typical commie run‑around as they told us up at the 'hospital' that they did not have Father's holy oils nor his stole.

"I later heard that a G. I. had taken them but to this day I still do not know what happened to them. In all probability, the Chinese took the oils for the valuable gold vials as they were doing with all the rings and valuables of the dead Americans.

"I kept the ciborium and corporal until around the 20th of August when I was thrown in solitary for having a movie camera and taking pictures. Someone had informed the Chinese.

"Anyway, Lt. Henry Pedicone of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, a good friend of mine, took the ciborium and corporal and hid them until late October, 1951, when the Chinese found them and took both away from him. This was the time when all the officers were moved to a different camp.

"When I rejoined the officers on October 27, 1951, at Camp 2, I started to ask the Chinese for the ciborium. Lt. Nardella assisted me and we hounded the Chinese. The Chinese insisted that it was Father Kapaun's personal property. We insisted that it belonged to his Bishop. However, our efforts availed us nothing except the Chinese warning us that we were hostile. The next step was solitary.

"In April, 1952, we were outside the building at Camp 2 when the camp commander's daughter walked by. Buy this time we had more or less given up hope of obtaining the ciborium. In her hands, however, was the same ciborium filled with marbles. Lt. Robert McTaggart and myself tried to take it away but she cried and we had to beat a hasty retreat as her guard was only a few feet away. The girl was only about three or four years old.

"This time we really raised a stink. Lt. Nardella circulated a petition. We hounded the Chinese until finally  p179 a month later, the camp commander told Lt. Nardella that he would return the ciborium when we were repatriated.

"We threw up to them the fact that they proclaimed religious freedom and yet were violating their own words. Being very sensitive about that point helped, I think, to force a show of impartiality.

"That was the last I heard of the ciborium until August, 1953, when it was returned to Lt. Nardella. I was moved from the Officers' Camp 2 and put in an annex with other officers in October 1952.

"In August, 1953, they brought us together to take us south to the parallel. It was then that Lt. Nardella had the ciborium given him by the Chinese.

"The corporal disappeared and was never seen after October, 1951. Bishop Griffiths of New York told me that Lt. Nardella gave him the ciborium in November, 1953.

"I had the list of names Father had given me of people he had converted and baptized. This list was to be turned over to the Military Ordinariate. Out of approximately sixty officers who were with him (non‑Catholics) about fifteen have, or are being, converted. They all said it was due to Father's very subtle influence. He never tried to force Catholicism on them. However, they said that if a man could live and die that way, then that religion must be the best and only one.

"That's about all, Father. If there are any particulars that you wish elaborated, please let me know when the book is being published."

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Capt. Ralph Nardella, Capt. Joseph L. O'Connor, Lt. Walter Mayo. Taken by A. P. Photographer Frank Noel, in POW Camp #2, early part of 1952. Not seen are W. O. McCool and Capt. Anderson, at this "pow‑wow" on the Father Kapaun Memorial Fund and discussion of religious activities.

Thayer's Note:

a The opening paragraph of this chapter does mention four letters; the chapter itself, however, only reproduces three of them: February 5 February 11 February 23, 1954.

Careful reading would seem to disclose that the "second" letter, of February 11, is in fact the third, the second having been skipped: the account of Fr. Kapaun making pots out of sheet iron in the opening paragraph of the Feb. 11 letter, referred to as having been told, is nowhere given in this chapter.

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