• Last modified 2136 days ago (July 18, 2013)


Soldiers labor in memory of chaplain

© Didde Publishing Co.

Maj. David MacGhee made a surprising statement in an article in Collier’s magazine, Jan. 22, 1954: “Father Kapaun began physically to look like Christ.” MacGhee, a prisoner for 30 months, described Chaplain Kapaun as “by far the greatest man I ever met,” and adds that “he came close to saintliness.”

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 meager 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 product 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 saying, ‘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, Ind., 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.

“When others were getting meaner, the priest was only kinder. The longer we were in the valley the rougher it got, and the rougher it got, the gentler Father Kapaun became.

“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 Mark K. 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 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 know 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.”

Capt. Sidney Esensten from Minneapolis, a 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 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 10 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 in May 1951.

“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.”

Capt. Clarence L. Anderson, Army doctor from Long Beach, Calif., 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 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. 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 10-man committee who pledged during their imprisonment to establish a memorial for the revered priest, 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. 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.

They called it ‘Christ in Barbed Wire’

At last, there were the hopeful indications of a truce between the Reds and representatives of the United 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 U.S. 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 of numerous letters.

From the fact that Father Kapaun had not written them since October 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 (Capt.) Emil J. Kapaun, reported missing in action. Chaplain Kapaun died May 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: Capt. Ralph Nardella of Norfolk, Va.; Captain Joseph O’Connor of Spring City, Pa.; Lt. Paul O’Dowd of Berkeley, Calif.; and W.O. Felix McCool, Marine of Glendale, Calif.

Garbed in POW baggy blue, the quartet walked as a unit, with Nardella carrying the three-foot 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 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 Maj. 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 40 inches high and is made from cherry wood. His crown of thorns, resembling barb wire, was made from old scrap pieces of radio wire. We titled 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 out. They referred it to ‘higher headquarters’ before I got permission.”

Fink, on Oct. 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.

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. 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, 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 U.S. Armed Services.

Another relic of the martyr priest was a little prayer book used in the prison camp for the Stations of the Cross. 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.

Last modified July 18, 2013