They are all in their 80s now — these former POWs during the Korean War.
One recalls in rapid-fire bursts how Father Emil Kapaun sneaked out of the barracks at night, risking his life to bring back morsels of food for his fellow prisoners.
Another remembers seeing the young American priest use a rock and a piece of metal to form a pan and then collect water to wash the hands and faces of the wounded.
A third chokes up when he tells of being injured and having an enemy soldier standing over him, rifle pointed; Kapaun walked up, pushed aside the muzzle and carried off the wounded man.
The military chaplain did not carry a gun or grenades. He did not storm hills or take beaches. He picked lice off of men too weak to do it themselves and stole grain from the Korean and Chinese guards who took the American soldiers as prisoners of war in late 1950.
Kapaun did not survive the prisoner camps, dying in Pyoktong in 1951. The man originally from tiny Pilsen, Kan., has been declared a “servant of God” — often a precursor to sainthood in the Catholic Church. And on Thursday, President Obama will posthumously award Kapaun a Medal of Honor. On hand will be Mike Dowe, 85; Robert Wood, 86; and Herbert Miller, 86.
“People had lost a great deal of their civility,” Wood says of life in the POW compound. “We were stacking the bodies outside where they were frozen like cordwood and here is this one man — in all of this chaos — who has kept . . . principles.”
Kapaun (pronounced Ka-PAWN) was so beloved that U.S. prisoners of war who knew him began calling for him to receive the military’s highest honor on the day they were released from their North Korean POW camp 60 years ago.
“The first prisoners out of that camp are carrying a wooden crucifix, and they tell the story at length,” says Roy Wenzel, a reporter at the Wichita Eagle who wrote an eight-part series and a book about Kapaun. “He was internationally famous and made the front page of newspapers.”
But Kapaun’s story soon faded from all but the memories of the men whom he served and the small church in rural Kansas that he had pastored.
“POWs come and tell stories of him,” said Father John Hotze, who serves in Wichita, an hour south of Kapaun’s home town. “They talked about how they would never have been able to survive had it not been for Father Kapaun, who gave them hope and the courage to live.”
In the heart of the battle
In the memories of his comrades, the chaplain is stuck in time, 34 years old and slight, with an angular chin that jutted out from the helmet he wore pushed down over his ears. At the sound of gunfire, GIs saw Kapaun heading in the direction of front-line troops in the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, on an old bicycle, his only form of transportation after his Jeep was lost.
He spoke with a Midwestern lilt and shared the lessons he learned on the 80-acre central Kansas farm where he was raised in a community of Czech immigrants. Family members recall a story Kapaun’s mother loved to tell involving her son, an old bonnet and a cow. It was usually her chore to milk the family’s only cow — but on this day it fell to young Emil. The cow kicked and fidgeted and wouldn’t let him get near. That is, until Emil went back into the farmhouse and put on one of his mother’s bonnets and a dress. He walked back to the barn, mimicking his mother’s walk. The cow obliged, and the chore got done.
Kapaun grew up to be a quiet man and was ordained a priest when he was 24.
Soon after the news broke in the summer of 1950 that North Korea had invaded the Republic of Korea, Kapaun was among the 300,000 U.S. servicemen called to war. He was initially sent to the fighting on the Pusan perimeter and marched north with the troops, celebrating Mass from the hood of his Jeep.
Two months after the war began, Kapaun was awarded a Bronze Star for running through enemy fire to drag wounded soldiers to safety. It was a brutal conflict with little information getting through to troops on the ground, some of whom did not know that the Chinese military had entered the war alongside North Korea.
“The Army was in terrible shape,” Wood said. “Our weapons didn’t work. Our men weren’t physically conditioned. We had malaria and dysentery. Father Kapaun was a constant example.”
On the front lines, the priest would “drop in a shallow hole beside a nervous rifleman, crack a joke or two, hand him a peach, say a little prayer with him and move on to the next hole,” Dowe recalled.
On Nov. 2, 1950, the 8th Cavalry was encircled by Chinese and North Korean troops at Unsan. The men had thought they would be home by Christmas. They did not have winter clothes, Wood said. Now they were prisoners.
On that day, Kapaun performed an act of heroism commemorated in a bronze sculpture that stands in front of the church in Pilsen. The other man in the statue, which depicts Kapaun helping a wounded soldier, is Herbert Miller.
Miller, a platoon leader, found himself standing under a small bridge in a dry creek encircled by enemy troops on a dark night.
“You could reach right out and touch them. The bullets was flying,” Miller recalled in an interview. “I moved 30 feet and I got hit with a hand grenade.”
The blast broke Miller’s ankle; he lay in the ditch until daylight, unable to escape. When he saw enemy troops coming up the nearby mountain, he tried to hide by pulling the body of a Korean soldier on top of him. But he was spotted and soon found himself being held at gunpoint.
“About that time, I saw this soldier coming across the road. He pushed that man’s rifle aside and he picked me up,” Miller said.
For a time, Kapaun carried Miller on his back.
That was the first time he met Kapaun. Both men began what would become known as the Tiger Death March, a trek of more than 80 miles to the North Korean POW camp.
‘The good thief’
Entering the camp in winter, when temperatures dipped below freezing, was brutal, Dowe, Miller and Wood recall. Each day, the men were fed a few grams of cracked grain that looked like birdseed. The soldiers were packed into such small quarters that they had to sleep on their sides so that everyone could lie down. There was more room by spring because so many did not survive the winter.
“We were at the point where if you decided you weren’t going to hack it anymore, the guys would say, ‘Don’t bother me in the morning.’ And you’d go to wake them up in the morning and they were dead,” Wood said. “You get your body reduced to a certain level and it doesn’t take much to snuff out the spark.”
Kapaun pressed on, trading his watch for a blanket, which he cut up to make socks for men whose feet were freezing. He told jokes and said prayers and gave his food away.
He earned the wartime nickname “the good thief” because of his ability to steal food for atrophic soldiers after he and others were captured.
“It was obvious, Father said, that we must either steal food or slowly starve. . . . So, standing before us all, he said a prayer to St. Dismas, the Good Thief, who was crucified at the right hand of Jesus, asking for his aid,” Dowe wrote in the Saturday Evening Post 59 years ago. “I’ll never doubt the power of prayer again. Father, it seemed, could not fail.”
Kapaun took ill himself, recovering from bouts of sickness before getting weak again. The camp guards noticed and ordered the chaplain to an isolated room they called “the hospital.” The U.S. servicemen called it the dying room.
“They said in no uncertain terms he was going,” Wood said, recalling the protests from the POWs. “They wanted volunteers to carry him up there. I was one of those who carried him up there.”
Unable to walk, Kapaun reassured the soldiers that he was going to a better place. Wood remembers that the priest then turned to the guards and said, “Forgive them, oh Lord, for they know not what they do.”
Kapaun died days later, on May 23, 1951, at age 35, one of the more than 40,000 U.S. servicemen who died or were declared missing in what some came to call “the Forgotten War.”
Emil Kapaun’s nephew Ray Kapaun, 56, will accept the Medal of Honor on his uncle’s behalf. Ray has heard about the push to have his uncle awarded the medal since he was a child. It was in the past few years that the military’s leadership investigated the stories told by surviving POWs. Typically, medals must be awarded within two years of the acts of valor, but lawmakers from Kansas shepherded legislation that waived that requirement.
“It has taken a long time, but the flame of the Korean War just can’t be extinguished, and this is an outstanding example of that,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), one of the lawmakers involved in the decades-long effort. Obama, who has relatives from Kansas, signed the legislation this year.
Ray Kapaun has watched aged men’s eyes fill with tears as they spoke of his uncle’s role in their lives. Ray’s middle name is Emil, and he sometimes wonders whether he’s worthy of it.
“I look at my life and then you look and see what Father Emil did by just being who he was,” Kapaun said. “The reality of it is so hard to put your hands around, just hard to describe.”