Bravery, piety in the face of death
© Didde Publishing Company
The first authentic reports of Father Kapaun’s ordeal as prisoner of war and his edifying death were gleaned from repatriated American soldiers, after their release from prison camps during the “Big Switch” operation at Panmunjom.
The Chaplain was mentioned constantly by those who knew him in battle and later in the prison compounds. He was their hero — their admired and beloved “Padre”. No one could say enough about his bravery, his constancy, his love and kindness and solicitude for his fellow prisoners.
A Korean correspondent for the Associated Press sent the following dispatch to the United States — a simple, yet eloquent and unanimous expression of grateful fellow P.O.W.’s, “We remember Father Kapaun for his great humility.
No task seemed impossible to him, and he never got disturbed about the amount of work that was always his. His constant cheerfulness reflected his inner piety and devotion. One would never guess that he was a very educated man.
“In the first exciting weeks in which the 1st Cavalry Division was in combat, when we were not sure if we were going to last it out or not, we were all impressed by the untiring activity of Father Kapaun. He said Mass for the men of the 8th Cavalry Regiment under all sorts of conditions.
“On one occasion his Mass kit was completely destroyed by enemy fire. We provided him with another kit flown in from Japan. But a few days later, this Mass kit, too, became the victim of shrapnel. Msgr. Sherry picked up altar equipment from the Korean priests and placed the same in a portable typewriter case. But to Father Kapaun the going was too uncertain to risk leaving the kit in a jeep, when he might have to take cover from in-coming shells, so he placed the articles for Mass in his combat jacket.
“Sometime in October of 1950, Father Kapaun took the wheel of a jeep loaded with wounded men when the driver was killed, and drove the patients over fire-swept roads to safety. This was just another day’s job for him and he became a legend to the men of the 8th Cavalry Regiment. In those early days, equipment was lost faster than it could be replaced, so that Father Kapaun just borrowed a Korean bicycle when his jeep was destroyed and proceeded on his rounds on the Taegu perimeter.
“During the Red attack, Father Kapaun went back into the fighting to assist Dr. Clarence L. Anderson of Long Beach, California, and was captured. We heard from him almost daily for about three weeks from various men who had managed to escape. Some 1,200 had been taken prisoner at that time. The weather had turned extremely cold when the Red Chinese attacked and the last report we received was that his feet had become badly frozen. However, he was still administering to the sick and wounded.
“His Regiment had recommended Father Kapaun for the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for valor. Whether he received this award or not, all who knew him are agreed that he was Distinguished in the Service of Christ.”
Unsolicited testimony comes from Peter V. Busatti. He titles it, “My Chaplain Was a Saint.”
“I never knew my chaplain until the night of Nov. 1, 1950. My regiment, the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division, was ambushed and surrounded by the Chinese at Unsan, Korea. All hell broke loose on this night, mortars were falling in on us, machinegun fire broke out from all sides, men were running and screaming at us from all directions.
“It was a massacre too difficult to describe in detail. Almost all of the group I was with were killed or captured. I moved across the valley to where I heard the most firing, figuring at least I would have someone to fight with. I finally found myself within yards of this G.I. stronghold, awaiting the proper opportunity to make a run for it.
“As I was lying in a large foxhole getting ready to go, someone came flying into my foxhole. This was my first meeting with Father Kapaun. He asked me my name and how I felt. I told him my leg was stiff and my back hurt; an old shrapnel wound in my back had reopened.
“He ripped open my shirt and put some liquid on it. I asked him if he was a Catholic Chaplain and he said ‘Yes’. He said an Act of Contrition with me and blessed me. He told me I was about 50 yards from the G.I. Perimeter, and that I had better get out there fast. A few minutes later I made a run for it and jumped over the sandbags which encircled the area.
“Lt. Mayo, whom I consider the best combat officer I’ve seen, stood in the middle of the perimeter and was shouting orders to all the men in this defense set-up. I believe this was the last organized resistance of the battle. Mayo placed me in a position just right of the perimeter.
“During the fighting, someone shouted, ‘there goes the chaplain’. We looked over arid saw a few Commies running down the road with the chaplain. Lt. Mayo shouted, ‘Shoot them gooks’. A few men directed their fire on the captors and the chaplain got away.
“This didn’t stop him though — he was still administering last rites and taking care of the wounded all around the area. Lt. Mayo, who was directing the defense masterfully, picked four men, Larry ‘Duffy’ Nolan, two other G. I.s whose names I do not know, and myself. He told us to get some North Koreans who were in a ditch preparing to set up a machinegun.
“All I can remember is that all four of us were screaming ‘Banzai’ and getting the gooks. Larry Nolan and I got back into the perimeter; the other two were killed. Just about this time my mind sort of snapped and I don’t remember what happened until the next day when I found myself in a large covered hole full of wounded men. Some G.I.s told me later that the chaplain had pushed me into this hole.
“That same night we were captured. The closest one to me was John Palma of Brooklyn and Captain ‘Doctor’ Anderson who was doing a tremendous job of administering aid to the men. I don’t know how Father Kapaun was captured the second time. We didn’t see the chaplain until a few days later, during the march to the prison camp. A few G.I.s offered to help the chaplain who found it difficult to walk because his feet were frostbitten.
“I next saw Father when we arrived at Pyoktong. This last meeting with him I shall never forget. It was early morning, about 7 or 8 a.m. We were standing outside a hut. Father Kapaun walked over to me and asked, ‘How do you feel, Pete?’ I was amazed that he remembered my name.
“He said these words which remain in my mind up to this day: ‘Pete, you won’t have to worry too much now.’ I asked why I didn’t have to worry, and he said, ‘Because you’ll be going home very soon.’ I laughed, because it seemed so preposterous.
“I said, ‘It’s OK, Father, I’m not scared, because you’re around, and if I die, I might get to heaven.’ He patted my shoulder and told me that was a good attitude and hoped that I would be the same after I arrived home. Some other fellows gathered around and our conversation ended. I couldn’t get his words out of my mind. I prayed to God that Father was right, though it did sound fantastic to me.
“A few weeks after this incident, two days before Thanksgiving 1950, about 2 a.m., a most unusual thing happened. We were all clustered in our groups, trying to sleep. Between the cold and the body lice, we found it quite difficult.
“All of a sudden, a light flashed in the midst of our group. The guard looked at the paper he had in his hand and read my name from it. While I was putting on my combat boots all kinds of thoughts passed through my mind. The main one was that they were going to kill me.
“Then the thought of what Father had said flashed across my mind. I was scared and happy at the same time, mostly scared. I tried to memorize as many names as I could, just in case they didn’t kill me.
“After the Chinese guard started walking, I saw other G.I.s with guards. Well, Father Kapaun was right. The Commies picked 27 wounded men to be released for propaganda. We arrived in our lines Thanksgiving Eve 1950.
Another unsolicited letter to Bishop Carroll speaks for itself:
1400 Kyoto, Japan
Feb. 28, 1951
“Father Kapaun and I landed at Po Hong Dong with the 1st Cavalry Division on the morning of July 18, 1950.
“On the hot days of July and August by the bank of the Naktong River, a G.I. could come almost any day and find a simplified, home-made altar on the hood of a jeep. There was Father Kapaun saying Mass in the extreme heat almost ready to pass out from the heavy, warm garments being worn.
“About 35 miles south of the Manchurian border on the first day of November, near Unsan, Korea, we were all feeling in deep sorrow at the close of Father’s Mass. We were completely surrounded and everyone knew it. Thinking of our loved ones back home, of ourselves. Would we live to see daylight again? No one knew, but everyone prayed, and prayed hard, hoping that God would help us out.
“Little by little the enemy was closing in on us. We had to do something, but what? If we could hold out till morning we would get some reinforcements. We couldn’t possibly hold out that long. There were too many of them. Col. Walton, our Battalion Commander, finally gave us the order to withdraw.
“By 11 p.m. that night, we were surrounded three times, and had broken through each time. All the while this was going on we became very disorganized. I ran into Father Kapaun as we were withdrawing. About a mile or two down the road Father and I were helping out the Medics with the wounded.
“All of a sudden machine-guns, burp guns, and what not, opened up on us. There we were, in the middle of an ambush. That, sir, was just the beginning of a horrible nightmare. But that is where I also lost contact with Father Kapaun. That night there were 995 dead, missing and wounded in our 8th Cavalry Regiment alone.
“‘Newsweek’ magazine came out with an article about what happened titled, ‘The Halloween Party,’ but the battle is well known as ‘Bugle Valley’ to the men who made it out alive.
“Later on, I tried to locate Father Kapaun. This is what I gathered:
“Lt. Curry, a medical officer, and a good friend of Father Kapaun, was last seen giving first aid to some wounded men. By his side was Father. One G.I. told them to run, practically screaming at them, but they wouldn’t leave the wounded for anything in the world.
“I have prayed many a time for the safe return of Father Kapaun. The first Mass said at our Battalion by Father Lynch was offered up for Father Kapaun, who is still listed as missing in action.
“I’m sure there are hundreds of G.I.s who will never forget what Father Kapaun has done for them. In their hearts they will always remember how he kept up the G.I.s’ morale, and most of all how he helped a lot of men to become good Catholics.
Pfc. Ernest J. Ritter.
Pfc. Patrick J. Schuler of Cincinnati, Father’s assistant and driver, had this to say:
“Father and I had our pup tent in a cornfield near the Third Battalion aid station and CP (command post). Father had said four Masses on All Saints’ Day. We went to bed early but got up on the alert to move out, about 11 that night. We loaded the jeep and trailer and moved forward to join up with the First and Second Battalions. They were trying to get out by turning onto another road. The road behind us wasn’t safe.
“But we ran into a Communist roadblock ahead and had to turn the vehicles around. Father and I picked up a lot of wounded, put them on the jeep and trailer, and came back to the Third Battalion CP. The medics took care of the wounded on the road. ‘Stay with the jeep and say your prayers,’ Father Kapaun told me. ‘I’ll be back.’
“A few minutes later the Chinese attacked us right there. I set fire to the jeep and ran looking for Father. I shouted his name but could not find him. Then I went back across the river with two others. I figured that Father would leave, too.”
Sgt. Alfred Joseph Patrnode of Providence, R.I., confirmed:
“I had seen Father Kapaun on the early afternoon of November 1. He was preparing to say Mass for the boys around the Third Battalion CP. That night I ran into him again near the CP. We knew the Chinese were coming at us.
“Then suddenly everything opened up. We went back about 500 yards and crossed the river. Father Kapaun and Dr. Anderson came across, too, but when somebody said he’d seen one of his buddies getting hit, Father Kapaun said he, was going back in. Dr. Anderson went with him. That was after 3 o’clock in the morning.
“Father Kapaun had several chances to get out but he wouldn’t take them,” declared Warrant Officer John H. Funston of Brooklyn. “He could have left with the regimental CP earlier that night. Later, when he did get out, he went back and he stayed to the end, when the last uninjured men were leaving the perimeter.”
Back in the combat area, before dawn on Nov. 3, L Company had formed a perimeter or small defense zone. Inside this they dug holes where they sheltered the wounded.
“I was with K Company on the hill,” said Pfc. Clarence Matlock of Phillipsburg, N.J. “The Chinese hit us about 3 in the morning of Nov. 2. We got our men off the hill, and when I reached the perimeter down below, I saw Father Kapaun there. I left on the night of the third.”
“I saw Father the evening of the third,” said Sgt. James R. Petergall of Pittsburgh, Pa. “The perimeter was about 50 yards wide — in an open field. He was in the center, going from hole to hole, taking care of the wounded. He was under small arms fire and heavy mortar fire all the time.
“Next day we had orders to withdraw. Any wounded who thought they could make it could leave with us. I was told that Father Kapaun and Dr. Anderson were going to stay behind with the other wounded. When we left, the area was under artillery fire. The Reds were dropping white phosphorus on us. That’s the last I saw of Father Kapaun.”
“I can’t imagine his leaving when there were wounded men there,” said Chaplain (Capt.) Donald F. Carter of the Church of the Brethren from Long Beach, California, a Protestant chaplain with the 8th Cavalry and a good friend of Father Kapaun.
Major Moriarty relates:
“Once, in the Taegu area, I saw him going around on a push bicycle; he had lost his jeep, and for six weeks he rode that Korean bicycle to visit the battalions and companies.
“When we were fighting on the 38th parallel, a jeep ambulance had loaded two wounded men when the driver was killed at the wheel. Father Kapaun went up, dragged the dead man to one side and drove the wounded back, under mortar and machine gun fire.”
“Going north, our convoy ran into resistance about 8 one morning,” said Pvt. Pat Schuler. “Father Kapaun left in the jeep and when he hadn’t returned six hours later, I drove up front to look for him. There he was, quite calm, under machinegun fire.
“‘I broke my pipe,’ was all he said. ‘A sniper opened up on me and I had to crawl to reach a wounded man … I broke my pipe.’
“He’d sit there, just as calm,” said Schuler. “What a man!”
This snapshot was taken during the terrific struggle that followed a North Korean “banzai” charge through Tabu-dong valley. In the awful battle the Communists outnumbered the defenders 45 to 1.
Isolated from their supply lines, put up a stubborn and heroic defense, even though the enemy had far larger numbers and certain points of vantage in the terrain.
Fighting cold and heat and hunger and hills and hordes of North Koreans for nine days, the Americans finally beat them back enough to get their wounded out to safety.
In the picture, Captain Jerome A. Dolan of the Medical Corps is holding the right arm of the battle-weary soldier, name unknown. Likewise unidentified is the soldier to the extreme left. The man being helped has been on the firing lines for weeks without any relief, very little sleep, little food, and always surrounded by a fanatic enemy.
Even then, we are told, this lad did not want to leave, but had to be pulled out of line. After a few days’ rest he said he wanted to go back.
Supporting this G.I.’s left arm is Father Kapaun himself, “our battalion chaplain and one of the finest men it has been my privilege to meet,” according to Captain Dolan, who then relates how Father Kapaun and Doctor Anderson elected to stay with the wounded, though they knew that capture meant certain death.
For some unknown reason, they were not killed when taken prisoner, possibly because the Communists expected to win them over and through them, win others. The G.I. behind Father is Sgt. Floyd Johns of Tampa, Florida.
Last modified June 26, 2013