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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 14

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 16

 p204  Chapter Fifteen

We called it "Christ in Barbed Wire"

Those who had loved ones captured in the Korean Conflict, constantly wondered and pondered over their fate. Little did they realize the full impact of sadistic brutality upon our American Prisoners of War. The barracks which housed them were but filthy hovels; the food fit only for animals; the medicine, none; ordinary comforts of life, absent completely. Above all, little did they think that our Prisoners would be daily subjected to Communistic brain-washing. Captain Ralph A. Nardella states that classes were held almost daily from 8:00 to 12:00 noon and from 2:00 to 5:00 P.M. in Communistic philosophy. Broken physically, many of these soldiers had to have a strong mind and virile faith not to have collapsed completely before a terrific barrage of lies about the American economic system, and other vital social questions.

Then, too, there was the pain of prolonged separation from the loved ones at home. Imagine, not even a post-card or a letter of encouragement from the home front in three years. Our Prisoners of War were not permitted to write, even of the fact that they were alive. Always the dull and monotonous routine of every day — whistle to awaken the men, the roll call, the two meals of corn which seldom varied, Communistic classes, and then welcome sleep after a dull, listless day.

At last there were the hopeful indications of a truce between the Reds and representatives of the United  p205 Nations. Peace talks were planned and these dragged on for many months before an amicable agreement could be reached. As these peace talks sputtered and stalled, there were varied and vague reports about how many Prisoners would be returned to the United States Armed Forces. Parents, wives and sweethearts in an agony of waiting were hopeful that their loved ones had the mental and physical stamina to survive Communistic brutality.

Finally came the happy day of the truce and the negotiations for the exchange of prisoners. Freedom Village was constructed to receive our repatriated soldiers. Food, clothing, delicacies, medicines were prepared in abundance to welcome to freedom once more — tired, emaciated, broken men.

When the Big Switch operation began, millions of Americans listened with rapt attention to hear over the radio the litany of heroic men who had survived. As names were announced by radio commentators, there was, of course, unbounded joy in the homes of those whose dear ones came back — in other homes only gloom, sorrow and bitter disappointment.

Among the sorely distressed were Enos and Elizabeth Kapaun. These dear parents loved their son deeply. He was always the ideal boy, the reverent son, one who during his life had never given them a moment of worry. As a student, as a priest, as a soldier, he had kept in close touch with his parents through the medium of numerous letters. From the fact that Father Kapaun had not written them since October of 1950 (almost two years had elapsed) they were quite certain that their son was dead. Yet day after day they went to the rural mailbox which is just a few feet away from their home on a Kansas farm road, always confident that there would be some message of hope. Finally came that dread telegram of death: "I am writing you concerning your son, Chaplain (Captain) Emil  p206 J. Kapaun, missing in action . . . . Chaplain Kapaun died May 4, 1951, at Pyoktong, North Korea . . ." Despite their strong Catholic faith, Enos and Elizabeth Kapaun were grief stricken. Dark clouds of sadness settled over their minds and hearts.

Mr. and Mrs. Kapaun were consoled by the thought of the Crucified Christ all during their long agony of waiting. Christ indeed had placed a heavy cross on their shoulders because the death of their Chaplain son was the first in their immediate family. The clouds of sadness and sorrow were to be dissipated by one of the most unusual memorials ever given to mortal man. Because Father Emil had "spoken, acted and looked like Christ", his grateful family of soldiers decided to carve a crucifix in hallowed memory of their Chaplain. There have been many beautiful memorials erected to Chaplains before — there is the statue of Father Abram Ryan of Civil War fame — Father Duffy of the Fighting 69th of New York — the beautiful Chapel honoring the four heroic Chaplains who went down on the Dorchester. These fitting memorials to truly great men were completely overshadowed by the simple memorial dedicated to Father Kapaun — conceived and completed in a North Korean Prison Camp — a crucifix!

That exquisite crucifix was brought into Freedom Village on the last day of the prisoner exchange by four close friends of Father: Captain Ralph Nardella of Norfolk, Virginia; Captain Joseph O'Connor of Spring City, Pennsylvania; Lt. Paul O'Dowd of Berkeley, California; and W. O. Felix McCool, Marine of Glendale, California.

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Capt. O'Connor, Warrant Officer McCool and Capt. Nardella, carrying the crucifix into Freedom Village. (Wide World Photo)

Garbed in POW baggy blue, the quartet walked as a unit, with Nardella carrying the threefoot crucifix, a privilege accorded him by common consent, as he had taken over religious services after Father's death. The Communist captors had hated this layman just as much  p208 as they hated the priest. Nardella had been captured about the same time, and was with the priest-hero almost to the day he died. When Father realized that his last illness was upon him, he asked Nardella to continue the religious services, especially saying the Rosary and missal prayers in the prison camp. Nardella promised. He kept his sacred promise! The other prisoners of all faiths and beliefs and of no belief gave him full cooperation. Admiration for their priest friend and respect for his memory bound them together as one family.

In tribute to their chaplain, they decided to carve a crucifix. The work was done by Major Gerald Fink, a Marine fighter pilot of Chicago. Fink, a Jew, has unbounded esteem for Father Kapaun. In a recent letter, Nardella tells about this precious memorial:

"The crucifix was made out of firewood and it took Gerry Fink about two and a half months to complete it. Before embarking on this project, Gerry had to fashion his own tools. He made a knife out of the steel arch support of a discarded army boot, a chisel out of a drain pipe bracket, and a mallet. The wood was selected from the pile, which we used for fuel, after many days of searching for a suitable piece. The corpus stands about 26 inches high and is made from scrub oak. The cross stands about about 40 inches high and is made from cherrywood. His crown of thorns, resembling barb wire, was made from old scrap pieces of radio wire. We entitled it 'Christ in Barbed Wire'. Most of the carving was done during daylight hours and without the permission of the guards.

"Ever since the crucifix was made, I used it, suspended from the ceiling, during our services. Some Chinese showed it respect. Others, who had no Christian contacts, just gaped at it. The Communists were unwilling to let me bring it along. I had to haggle and argue to get it  p210 out. They referred it to 'higher headquarters' before I got permission."

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Carved in a Communist prison camp by a Jew in memory of Father Kapaun

It is gratifying to hear these heroic men praise one another. Gerry Fink says of Nardella:

"He was always doing something helpful. He got the idea of making a stethoscope for our doctors. He found wood with resonant quality. We swiped some tubing from the Chinese and made a stethoscope that the doctors put to good use.

"Ralph was also in charge of making baseballs. We got some Korean corkwood and leather from worn out army boots and woolen threads from old sweaters. We made six professional style balls before we ran out of old boots. We also built a wheelbarrow for the kitchen, but the Chinese took it away from us. Nardella did all the brain work. He is one of the finest Christian officers I've ever met. It took a real man to practice his religion in a prison camp in face of constant opposition."

 p211  But Fink's own brains and hands were not idle. According to one POW he fashioned a wooden leg for a colonel whose limb was shot off in battle. The officer walked around on it quite comfortably. Fink also carved out some baseball bats. But the remarkable feat of Fink is that this officer so laboriously whittled, with primitive tools, a corpus of the crucified Christ and gave it the expression of a master craftsman.

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Major Fink, the Marine
who did the carving

Equally notable is that this splendid soldier, on October 31, 1953, enrolled Father Kapaun in the Jesuit Seminary Association and had the following certificate sent to the priest's parents:

"This is to certify that Perpetual Member­ship in the Jesuit Seminary Association of the Chicago Province of the society of Jesus has been granted Father Emil J. Kapaun, who will share perpetually the spiritual benefits of the association."

The certificate and a letter of explanation from Father McBride, S. J., Director of the Association, gave a great deal of consolation to the bereaved parents.

When the Communists took Father from the prisoner hut to the so‑called hospital, he had insisted upon taking along his oil stocks and stole. He thought he might have need of them. The oil stocks are cylindrical metal containers of the three holy oils, especially the oil for anointing the dying. The stole is a two or three inch wide strip of colored linen worn over the shoulders of the priest in administering the sacraments.

Captain Nardella and his companions had managed to hide the pyx, the small, gold-plated container for the Sacred hosts which Father had carried constantly on his person for several months before he was captured. But the Communists had discovered the pyx and taken it away.

Later, seeing the daughter of the Chinese camp commander playing with it, efforts were made to retrieve it.  p212 When these efforts failed, a solemn protest was made and the Chinese finally promised that the pyx would be returned at the proper time. Just before the last prisoners left the camp, the pyx was handed over.

Nardella, O'Dowd, O'Connor and McCool brought it with them into Freedom Village. Within a half hour after their arrival, they went to confession, assisted at Mass and received Holy Communion from this very pyx.

Carried through proper channels, the pyx finally reached Francis Cardinal Spellman, Military Ordinary, spiritual leader for Catholics in the United States Armed Services.

Another relic of the martyr priest was a little prayer-book used in the prison camp for the Stations of the Cross. Captain O'Connor pointed out the prayer for the Fifth Station, which tells how Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus carry His cross. It reads:

"Lord, make me worthy to carry the cross of truth with Thee and to walk in the ways of truth with Thee to death."

"That fits Father Kapaun," O'Connor declared.

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Page updated: 25 Dec 13