• Last modified 2209 days ago (July 3, 2013)


Chaplain inspired other POWs

© Didde Publishing Co.

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 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:

Dear Father Tonne:

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

On the morning of Nov. 1, 5 miles southeast of Unsan, the Third Battalion 8th Cavalry was in a small valley approximately 50 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 a.m. on Nov. 2, 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 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 a.m. and was crawling out into the open and dragging our 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 15 or 20 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 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.

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 Capt. 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 Nov. 20 and I never was so glad to see anyone in my life. He was carrying a stretcher and he carried it for 10 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 100-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.

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 Jan. 21, 1951, we were moved back to Yoktong.

In February of 1951, when it was bitterly cold, about 20 degrees below zero, he would be up at 5 or 6 every morning in the dark and when the whistle blew for us to get up at 7 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 10 to 20 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.

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. Capt. 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 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 he looked like one of the 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 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 there, plus some that had no religion at all, but were starting to find one. There were very few officers whose eyes were not damp by the time it was over.

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 Capt. Clarence Anderson of Long Beach, Calif., and Capt. Sidney Esensten of Minneapolis, Minn., 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 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 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 Capt. Ralph Nardella and W.O. Felix McCool. Father was breathing heavily and talking strangely but rationally. His face was contorted with pain and we were all 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 pain-wracked face, and told us the story of the Seven Macchabes 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 do 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. 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 of 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.

We did not want to let Father go because we were taking care of him and he was getting better. The hospital was a place where they took people to die. Only about five officers out of 60 had ever come back.

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.

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’.

As they were putting this makeshift stretcher on the ground and telling us to hurry. Father gave me his 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, ‘Walt, 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 May 23, I think, Father died among the men he served, up on a hill overlooking the Yalu River in that communist hospital of death.

Last modified July 3, 2013