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"Father Kapaun began physically to look like Christ," is the surprising statement made by Major David MacGhee, in an article in Collier's Magazine for January 22, 1954. Major MacGhee, American airman, prisoner for thirty months, described Chaplain Kapaun as "by far the greatest man I ever met," and adds that "he came close to saintliness."
Major MacGhee, a staunch Unitarian, admits: "Until I met this tall, slender First Cavalry Division chaplain from Kansas, I had, if anything a slight anti-Catholic bias."
He supports the statements made by scores of other prisoners that Father "gave himself unsparingly to his fellow men"; carrying a wounded man on a stretcher for •more than 100 miles; holding religious services despite dire threats, washing the clothes of the sick; bathing their bodies; giving of his own meagre food allowance; assisting the dying of all denominations; sharing the pipe tobacco which he enjoyed so much.
The Major tells how the Communists persecuted the priest more than others, adding: "As time went by, a strange transformation occurred in the chaplain's appearance, he began physically to look like Christ.
"His features became more and more ascetic through emaciation, and his long straggly hair and beard actually changed to reddish-brown. The resemblance was not the p197 produce of any one man's imagination; it was so pronounced that the men kidded him about it." The chaplain would turn away "in an agony of embarrassment."
Of Father Kapaun's death he says: "He ruptured a vein in his leg and a blood clot formed. He went to the hospital and Anderson and Esensten, our two doctors, begged the Chinese to let them amputate. They refused: 'Let God save him! He's a man of God!' "
"The most unselfish man I've ever known," is the description of Father Kapaun given by Master Sgt. Gilbert Christie, a non‑Catholic from Montezuma, Indiana, and a fellow prisoner with the priest in "Death Valley", provisional camp between Unsan and Pyoktong.
"It made no difference to Father Kapaun whether a man was Protestant or Catholic," said Christie. "He was just as good to me as to others. When winter got extremely cold he gave me some of his own clothing.
Toward the end, Father Kapaun grew a beard. I've heard men remark he looked just like pictures they had seen of Christ."
Other men, later released, including non‑Catholics, testified in similar terms of Father Kapaun's Christ-like kindness and appearance. "We shall always reverently cherish his memory," is the ever-recurring praise of the men who knew him.
In a personal interview in Wichita, Frank Noel, famous war correspondent for the Associated Press, gave Bishop Carroll a most vivid, realistic account of Father Kapaun's heroic charity in the Korean compound, where both were prisoners. He spoke of the untiring self-sacrifice of the p198 saintly priest and of his incredible skill in fashioning utility vessels of every description.
Noel explained to Bishop Carroll how American prisoners were systematically and ingeniously tortured. "The Communists were too subtle," he said, "to take a man out and shoot him. Instead they attempted to get the same results by malnutrition, withholding of medicines, and by psychological punishment."
"Lack of salt was the worst thing," continued Noel. "I didn't knew how hungry the body could get for salt. Lack of tobacco causes a few bad days. You don't notice a lack of sugar, and coffee doesn't mean anything. But without salt you get pellagra, beriberi and ulcers."
"Father Kapaun's death," Noel said, "could have been prevented if he had been given even fundamental medical care. The chaplain had two strikes against him to begin with. Of all the prisoners of war, he was treated the worst. Prisoners who refused to embrace the Communist philosophy were often put in a 'hole' (solitary), a pit so small that it was impossible for any human to stand or sit in comfort. I know this from bitter experience."
"He was constantly out among the enlisted men," declared Lt. Mayo. "He gave the last rites to many dying men. He buried the dead with or without the permission of the Communists.
"One Chinese interpreter who had been educated in an Episcopalian college used to call him 'Father'. The Communists didn't like it and removed the man."
Captain Sidney Esensten from Minneapolis, Army Doctor with the 7th Infantry Regiment, the "Wolfhounds", told about Father Kapaun's death:
"I am a Jew, but I felt the greatness of the man, regardless of religion. About the second week of April, his leg became swollen. He forced himself to walk, but p199 with much pain. He didn't come to see me until two weeks after the onset. When I saw him, he had phlebitis, a blood clot. I insisted that he rest his leg. In two or three weeks, the swelling went down.
About ten days before he died, he could stand and take a few steps. But four or five days later, he got dysentery. We put him back to rest. The dysentery subsided, but then he got a pain in his chest and fever. It was pneumonia. The Chinese insisted on moving him to the 'hospital' away from our care. He died there May 23.
"I didn't get to know Father Kapaun as well as did Dr. Anderson, but I wholeheartedly agree with him. Father Kapaun was a great spiritual leader and a terrific moral influence in our group."
Captain Clarence L. Anderson, Army doctor from Long Beach, California, had served with Father Kapaun in the same battalion and had been taken prisoner in the same action. Not a Catholic, he describes the priest in these words:
"More than a human being, a hero, a saint — Father Kapaun was at first an enigma, as all simple men are. You wondered why he did the things he did.
"The day they carried him away to the hospital to die, you would never have known he was in pain. His face was serene, his voice calm. But as his doctor, I knew he was suffering. He was a man without personal motives, without any regard for his personal safety or comfort. He simply did what his moral and ethical code told him was his duty.
"He totally disregarded danger. He felt that as long as God wanted him to go on caring for the battle victims nothing would happen to him. His perfect peace of mind was a tremendous influence on the morale of the troops before and after capture. With just a few words of p200 assurance and with his constant example of devotion to the men's welfare, he was especially effective among those whom imprisonment had demoralized.
"He knew he was going to die when he was taken off to the hospital. He went out with a smile on his face and waved to the fellows standing around. He must have had constant severe pain, but he did not utter a word of complaint.
"To my knowledge, there's no one who ever heard him speak harshly of any person. When he died we all had a marked feeling of loss. He hated Communism, and he hated what the Communist ideology made the Chinese do. p201 But he did not hate the Chinese. As he left, he asked the Chinese officer in charge, a snaky-looking and acting person who could provoke only revulsion — he asked this fellow to forgive him whatever wrongs he might have done. I could not understand why Father Kapaun would ask this fellow's forgiveness, until I figured out that, after all, it hadn't been easy for him not to hate his captors. He is a man I cannot even think about without a profound feeling of reverence."
Among the members of the ten‑man committee who pledged during their imprisonment to establish a memorial for the revered priest, Doctor Anderson gave no hint that he himself voluntarily accepted capture in order to be with the wounded and that his fellow POWs have lavishly lauded the doctor's devotion and bravery. Captain Anderson's black hair is gradually returning, after turning white during captivity.
Bishop William R. Arnold is responsible for the beautiful tribute to Father Kapaun published in the 1953 Annual Report (November) of the Catholic Military Ordinariate in New York City.
"When one year ago we reported, we gave the last available information concerning Father Emil J. Kapaun of the Diocese of Wichita. We knew that he had been taken a prisoner of war about 3 November, 1950. Some twenty of the soldiers who had been taken prisoner with him were able to escape and get back to United Nations lines. These soldiers recounted that Father Kapaun also might have escaped with them. However, he had chosen to stay with his brother captives. We cannot say that he did not know the fate which was awaiting him. His knowledge of Red techniques was already fairly broad. Yet undaunted, he went with his men on the death march. Without sufficient food or clothing, he plodded along with p202 them ever northward, in the bitter winter, wondering when they would reach their final rat hole of a prison. When they ultimately came to the sub‑arctic concentration point, Father Kapaun was happy to be with his incarcerated men. He suffered all their privations. He was recognized as a spiritual leader, and as such, was ridiculed and even penalized. Secretly, he conducted religious services, (overtly on Easter 1951), for his fellow prisoners to keep operative their faith and hope in God; fanning the spark of future liberation.
"For six months he lived the life of the early catacombs with men who will never forget his example. Bit by bit he was beaten down physically. His strength began to ebb. His men saw him slipping from them. When he could no longer stand, his captives decided that he should be shifted to the filthy lazaret which they called a 'hospital'. Father Kapaun had but few treasures left — the sacred pyx, which he kept close always to his priestly breast on the battlefield — his holy oils — daily missal from which he read prayers, the epistles and gospels to his fellow prisoners. He took the pyx and handed it to Captain Nardella from Paterson, New Jersey, and requested him to bring it back to the Military Ordinariate.
"Through all the days of durance along the Yalu River, the Captain managed by some clever maneuverings to cherish and preserve the gold pyx. Just about a month ago he brought it through the gates of Freedom Village in Panmunjom and a few weeks ago placed it in our hands at the Military Ordinariate. He told us how Father Kapaun had passed away in pain and loneliness, spiritually unassisted, in May 1951 by the banks of the Yalu River. As we accepted the pyx, we felt that we were receiving a relic just as sacred as though it had come from the blood‑spattered hands of a Polycarp or an Irenaeus. For martyr's blood was on the battered gilded cup."
p203 Thus another martyred shepherd who had intimately known his own — even as they knew him — laid down his life for his sheep. Father Kapaun's body lies in a common, unmarked grave somewhere near the 'hospital' where his valiant and saintly soul met his divine Commander-in‑Chief in eternal embrace.a
a According to research shared in a report in the December 2010 Newsletter of the Korean War Ex‑POW Association, now removed from the Web, the approximate coördinates of Camp 5 (the "old Pyoktong camp"), where Father Kapaun and his fellow soldiers were interned, are 40°37′30″ N, 125°26′00″ E; the approximate coördinates of the nearby sickhouse where Capt. Kapaun died, are 40°37′30″ N, 125°26′02″ E.
I did have the foresight to keep a copy of the 2010 newsletter, which copyright restrictions prevent me from publishing or reproducing online, but I'll be glad to share it privately, of course.
In March 2021 the U. S. Department of Defense declared that they had identified Capt. Kapaun's remains among those of unknown Korean War soldiers buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. They have since been moved to a tomb in Wichita's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
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Page updated: 2 Mar 23