Former prisoner of war visits Kapaun Museum
Joseph Ramirez was baptized by Chaplain Emil Kapaun
A picture of Joseph Ramirez, of Houston hangs in the Kapaun Museum at Pilsen, and tour guides tell his story to visitors.
They say they were thrilled to meet the 87-year-old veteran Monday when he came to Pilsen with his wife, daughter, and son-in-law to tour the museum Monday.
“Having Joe here was exciting,” Harriet Bina said. “We always tell his story, and now we got to meet him in person.”
Ramirez is a Mexican-American who was baptized by Chaplain Emil Kapaun on the battlefield during the Korean War. They were captured by the North Koreans and Chinese in November 1950.
He said he was the only member of his family not baptized as an infant. With the threat of death looming, he said he was happy to be baptized.
Ramirez spent 33 months and one day as a prisoner of war. When the men were released, he weighed 87 pounds.
He re-enlisted after he returned home. He said he felt nobody understood what he had gone through, so he returned to the military. The first time he entered the army barracks, he saw 30 others of his fellow POWs and felt like he had come home.
“They understood me,” he said.
He served another 22 years.
Ramirez said he had nightmares for 28 years after his return as a prisoner.
He said the POWs lived in constant fear of being placed in a small cage or a hole in the ground. Ramirez said he also was placed in a cage by his captors.
The guards had been educated in America and spoke fluent English, so the men had to watch what they said. They couldn’t huddle in small groups without being punished.
Living on millet, barley, cracked corn, and turnips, they talked a lot about food and dreamed up menus.
Ramirez got emotional when he talked about Father Kapaun. Every time he saw him, he was smiling, Ramirez said. Kapaun spoke softly and never raised his voice.
Kapaun stole food for them, boiled water for them to drink, cared for them when they were sick, and kept them thinking about home.
“Other men got meaner, but Father got kinder,” Ramirez said. “He gave everything for us.”
After Kapaun’s death in May 1951 from malnutrition and starvation, a Jewish man, Major Jerry Fink, was imprisoned with them at the camp. He was so impressed with how the men had learned to work together to survive in brutal conditions, that he built a wooden cross that was used for two-and-half years in Christian religious services.
After the war ended and the men were released, they walked out of the camp carrying the cross high, Ramirez said. The original cross hangs in Kapaun Mount Carmel High School in Wichita, and a replica hangs in the Pilsen church.
He prizes a certificate of baptism he received several years after his release. The certificate states that he received First Communion on July 19, 1950. It was signed and sealed March 4, 1954.
Museum tour guides presented Ramirez with several handmade gifts. Kelly Krch created a rosary from Czech crystal beads and Rose Mary Neuwirth made a small, metal crucifix with a barbed-wire ring around it.
Tracy Hett of Trace of Copper in Marion created a foot-high cross of barbed wire with a sunflower and two stems of wheat attached at the foot and dog ties hung on the crossbars. Harriet Bina wrote a poem to go with the cross.
Ramirez says he plans to return to Pilsen someday with his son, Brigadier General Joe Ramirez, Jr., a Distinguished Military Graduate.
Last modified March 28, 2019