Fellow POWs remember Kapaun

© Didde Publishing Co.

Towering in heroism and self-sacrifice on the bloody battlefield of Korea, the full stature of Father Kapaun as a priest, as a soldier, reached majestic maturity as a captive of the Chinese Reds. Marching and carrying the wounded over the rugged frozen terrain of Korea — housed in primitive barracks, slowly starving, lacking medicines and the bare necessities of life — this devoted chaplain, emaciated and sick himself, rallied, comforted, cheered his fellow prisoners — tired men who no longer wanted to live. Father Kapaun became the counselor, the nurse, the leader, the provider, the defender of his fellow prisoners, even their thief — for he “stole” food to keep his buddies alive.

The following letters speak eloquently of the multifold, untiring services of Father Kapaun. He was not to come back, but his fortitude in every trial was the chief factor in the survival and ultimate freedom of hundreds of his fellow P.O.W.’s.

Capt. Joseph O’Connor wrote his recollections on Feb. 15, 1954:

Dear Father:

How can one express in words what one feels in his heart for the man who has contributed life and values to one? Father Kapaun actually did that to me by his example, his sermons, and above all, through his heart to heart talks that he and I personally had at times when I was ready and willing to give up.

Anson had been occupied by the North Korean Communist forces from about early July, 1950, until our battalion was liberated in the latter part of September 1950. Previous to the Communist capture of Anson, there were quite a few Christian missions there ,and one of them was a lovely (comparatively speaking) Catholic mission. We secured the town late that evening and the following morning Father Kapaun held Mass in the Catholic Mission which had been ransacked by the Commies. All things of value, all holy pictures, and all furniture had been removed.

Father set up his field Mass equipment on the old altar. Many townspeople were in attendance. After he finished Mass, which I believe I served that day, we were in what used to be the vestibule, and heard a commotion. The native Koreans were coming to thank Father. In their own language and in their own way, they wanted to express their feelings toward him and the U.N. for restoring their right to worship. Father then told us how fortunate he was to be able to restore something to those people that they thought they had lost, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Another point was Father’s attitude toward those men who died in the earlier stages of the war. After we had occupied Pyongyang, North Korea, and had thought the war was over. Father was attached to our battalion for rations, etc. Normally, when he was in our outfit he would be around taking care of the spiritual and moral needs of the men.

During this period he was conspicuous by his absence and quite frequently was late for, or missed his meals. I was naturally curious and asked him what was going on. He said he had a lot of administrative work to do. I asked him if I could get one or two of the men to help him. He refused, saying that this was something he had to do personally. Shortly after, I found him in a dilapidated and abandoned Korean hut adjacent to the large building the battalion occupied. He had an old ammo crate for a desk and an ammunition box for a seat.

He had approximately five to six hundred cards of men who were killed or who had died while in combat. Also, on each card he had the address of the next of kin and a notation as to whether or not he had administered the last rites to the individuals. He was writing a personal letter to each of the next of kin. This, to the best of my knowledge, is definitely not required of an Army Chaplain.

Father Kapaun and the Protestant chaplain, Capt. Carter, were taking it upon themselves to do this so as to better ease the minds of friends and relatives of the deceased. The building Father used had holes in it and was extremely cold. I asked him why he didn’t request office space from me in battalion headquarters. He thought I was too busy and he didn’t want to interfere with my work. That is the type of man that he was. He would ask for nothing and give everything, even his life.

Father, if you are in contact with Father Kapaun’s parents, tell them they had a son they can be proud of and that I remember them and him in my prayers. I will write them a personal letter in the near future.

Gratefully yours,

Capt. Joseph L. O’Connor, infantry

Capt. Robert E. Burke, Alexandria, Va., wrote on Feb. 8, 1954.

Dear Father Tonne:

Father Kapaun gave you a good impression upon first meeting and if you lived to be a hundred, your opinion would never change. I met him in late November 1950, after five days of torturous marching in bitter cold weather. Upon arriving at a small valley completely exhausted, half-frozen, half-starved and thoroughly disheartened, the sun appeared and soon the clouds completely disappeared. The sun referred to was not the celestial body but the warm, friendly greeting of this man of God. With a big, broad grin he extended his hand and said, “My name is Kapaun, glad to have you share our paradise.”

His calm, easy manner and winning smile soon relaxed us and his words of encouragement gave us new hope and the clouds of dismay and disappointment soon disappeared and our heavy hearts became lighter, our aching feet and numb fingers and tired bodies didn’t seem to hurt so much now. His help in getting us fed and bedded down were just a few of the many kindnesses and considerations displayed by him that night.

We very affectionately honored him with the title “best thief in the compound.” He was forever sticking his neck out to “borrow” extra food, to visit the men further down the valley and give them moral support in these very trying times.

When most of us were down on our backs and a siege of dysentery swept the area, our benevolent padre would go out into the sub-zero temperatures at 5:30 searching for small twigs and pieces of wood, build a fire and carry water to fill the pans he diligently made of old pieces of sheet iron and then remove dirty trousers from the men who no longer could control their natural functions. After boiling this clothing and getting it dry, he would dress the pathetic hulks of skin and bones. The faint heart would become a little more audible, a spark of life light up in their hollow eyes and the “death stare” would vanish as the corner of their mouths would turn up and a smile would appear on their tortured faces.

Gestures like this repeated morning after morning, washing clothes, bathing the body and a few well chosen words (he always knew just the right thing to say at the right time) nursed countless men back to health and today these men are home with their mothers and fathers, their sweethearts, their wives and children, their families.

He was an inspiration to men of all races, nationalities and creeds; even those who professed to be atheist held him in their hearts and affectionately called him “Father.”

Those who had strayed from their church and religion were brought back to God and certainly must now be stout Christians, who remember their beloved priest in their prayers. Whether they be recognized popular prayers or simple ones in crude language, I’m sure they all ask our Lord to look after “Our Budd” up there, and although it’s not said in flowing terms, the Almighty knows what is in the hearts of these men.

This man who was held in such high esteem, respected, admired and loved, was a real threat to our Communist captors. They could bully us around and practice their theory of “the means justifying the end, etc.” They didn’t know quite how to handle the priest, because he could not be scared, threatened, cajoled, or humiliated. On the contrary, they feared this man whom they couldn’t break, they trembled at the control and influence he had with all the men. It worried them that this man could be so powerful with just his mild manner and soft speech where they resorted to screaming, threatening with all forms of sadistic torture known to these barbarians, and still couldn’t influence us like this man of God.

They couldn’t take him out and shoot him because they feared a rebellion, so they waited until illness and over-work finally got the best of this stalwart soul. They took him off to the hospital, (I use the word hospital very loosely) where he was murdered because they denied him the medicine he needed, although it was available for the traitorous collaborators who played into their hands and sold themselves to the devil.

This is how I remember the finest man I ever knew, the most outstanding priest I’ve ever seen, the hero of heroes, and to put it simply, “the most unforgettable character I’ve ever met,” that diamond in the rough that we all would be proud to call Dad, the man we respect and admire and cherish in our hearts — our beloved Father Kapaun.

Respectfully,

Robert E. Burke

From another prisoner, Felix McCool, comes this letter about Father Kapaun:

Dear Father Tonne:

Father Kapaun would hold evening devotions for all of us, and would always preface it with: “Gentlemen, evening prayer!” An immediate hush would fall and everyone would listen to the “Our Father Who art in Heaven, — give us this day our daily bread.”

Here everyone would remember bread as we had known it. I remember how my mother used to say, “Sonny, don’t waste your bread for someday you may be in need!” The prayer would continue to the Catholic ending and then to the Protestant ending. He was for all of us and showed it in all his actions.

He went to the death house and gave the last rites to all of the dying men, men who might have been saved had they had proper food. Father Kapaun would care for the extremely sick in the death house and then come back with sticks that he had picked up from the debris for heating water. The dysentery could be whipped in this manner only — hot water and quiet. A lot of the runs were caused by a psychological reaction. Men just couldn’t accept the fact that they were prisoners. I had just arrived from a 300- to 400-mile hike to this place.

I saw his helmet liner lying in the yard and I asked him about it. It still had the Cross marked on the front in white lettering. He explained, “Mac, if I wear it, it will only antagonize the Chinese, so I won’t; but the fact that it is lying on this garbage heap, causes every man to see it and it reminds them of their God. You know, Mac, I often wonder just how many silent prayers are offered at this old heap. God moves in strange ways.”

The helmet liner lay through the cold weather and the spring rains, rolling and turning in the wind and rain; I could see it from the door. He left us to go to his God, but the old liner lay there. I finally kicked it around the house and broke it up, tearing the cross from the broken parts, and hid it. I brought it home and sent it to the Father Kapaun Memorial Fund. Ralph Nardella said he’d see that it got to his church.

Yours,

Felix McCool

 

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