Prisoner in the Death House: Father Emil Kapaun

It was Thanksgiving, so he knew where to find them. The postman made for the local Catholic Church. Fearing the worst, he handed the telegram to the parish priest. After Mass concluded, its contents were read out privately to those to whom it was addressed:

The Secretary of State of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your son Captain Emil J. Kapaun has been missing in action in Korea since Nov. 2nd ’50…

The parents of the man now missing listened in stunned disbelief. Thereafter, there was only silence in the room.

*

While this news was being delivered, Fr. Emil Kapaun was many miles away with many others on what came to be known as a ‘death march’, having been taken prisoner in the aftermath of the battle of Unsan.

On 1 November 1950, All Saints Day, Fr. Kapaun had celebrated Holy Mass for the soldiers of the battalion he served in. At this point, the Korean War looked to be all but over with the North Korean Communist forces routed by America and her allies. The soldiers had started to think of home. Then, in the early hours of the following morning, All Souls Day, something changed. By dawn the battalion was overrun, decimated, with many killed and many more taken prisoner. The speed and numbers of those attacking that night surprised everyone. What had been picked up by outlying radio operators, but too late to warn the camp, was summed up in one word that had been repeated frantically over and over again through the crackling static: ‘Chinese.’

Emil Kapaun

Fr. Emil Kapaun celebrates Mass

The Americans had fought bravely. They had no choice: 3,000 men faced an invasion of 20,000. As the other battalions tried to flee south, Fr. Kapaun’s men were left to fight a rear-guard action against the Chinese. Aerial support for the beleaguered battalion followed quickly; but as USAF jets screeched overhead in ever more desperate bombing raids, they only added to the noise and confusion as the illuminated night sky revealed beneath it a relentless enemy force intent on breaking through American lines.

That night Fr. Kapaun was as active as any of his comrades. Running from foxhole to foxhole, he dragged the wounded out, gave the Last Rites to the dying, and was even observed hearing Confessions amid the gunfire.  He was urged to escape, to save himself; he refused; he was captured well beyond the American lines trying to drag an injured man back to safety. Somehow, in the confusion he escaped. It was to be a short reprieve; when the battle finally ceased, he was prisoner once more.

The Chinese entry into the Korean War was to prove decisive, ending any advances the Allies had made. Now they faced a formidable opponent, not just in weaponry and numbers but also in ideological zeal. With the debris of battle strewn all around, Kapaun and the other Prisoners of War were marched away. They were luckier than most as the Chinese started to torture and kill any wounded POWs that remained.

The trek that would become known as the ‘death march’ was largely made at night and without food. Any prisoner failing to keep up, through illness or fatigue, was shot. Seeing a fellow POW struggling, Fr. Kapaun picked him up and started to carry him on his back. As he did so, he urged the able-bodied POWs to do likewise. The man told the priest to put him down…’you can’t keep this up’.

‘We’ll keep going,’ was Kapaun’s only reply as shots were once more heard from the rear of the march.

After several days, and seventy miles, the survivors arrived at a prison camp. They were starving, and soon after found themselves being starved. Immediately, Fr. Kapuan organised raids on the camp’s food supplies – as he explained to the men: steal or starve to death. Quickly in other ways he rallied his fellow inmates, and, in so doing, just as quickly earned the suspicion of the armed guards that watched the captured Americans at all times. What incensed the guards most, however, was how the chaplain assembled the men for nightly prayers: atheist and believer, black and white, enlisted and officer all came together to join in the Rosary.

That Christmas a number of POWs escaped. As a consequence, those prisoners left behind were marched through the freezing snows to a camp further away: one deemed ‘escape proof’. That winter as the snows fell ceaselessly, temperatures dropped to 40 degrees below zero. But the prisoners continued to be starved; pneumonia swept through the camp and so too did despair. By February, as unburied frozen bodies of prisoners were stacked all around the camp, some started to give up; no longer simply a prison camp, instead, this had become a Death Camp.

Nevertheless, amongst the prisoners, there was one, even though his voice was just as weak as the others, who repeatedly told them to stay true to their faith and those back home who cared for them. God was with them, he said, they must not give up. When Kapaun had finished speaking: bearded, dirty, and standing in lice infested tattered clothing, just like all the rest, he did something many remembered for a long time afterwards. He raised his now skeletal hand high and, over all the prisoners gathered there, made the Sign of the Cross. One prisoner, a Protestant, many years later still recalled that blessing, identifying it as the moment when he was given strength to go on.

Inevitably, time in the Death Camp brought matters into sharp relief for all held captive there. One of the POWs asked Kapuan to baptise him, the priest did as he was asked; the man died shortly afterwards. The corpse lay for days. It was a ploy by prisoners not to report such deaths so that the dead man’s rations would come to them.

Day by day, Kapaun knew exactly what the real enemy was. When the enlisted men refused to carry out tasks, he would do them. When POWs argued with each other, he mediated; when gloominess was in the air, he cracked jokes; but, more importantly, he was praying constantly for these men.

One of the prisoners, intrigued by the priest, asked how he had come to be in this living hell. The chaplain replied: ‘I volunteered’. Born in 1916, he grew up on a farm in Kansas before becoming a military chaplain, serving in Asia during the Second World War. Returning to civilian parish life, he found that ‘it didn’t work out’ for him. When another war was declared, with the permission of his bishop, he left his homeland to serve once more, feeling there should be a priest with those who faced death on a foreign battlefield.

One of the features of the camp was the Marxist indoctrination that all were forced to undergo, including Fr. Kapaun. He was having none of it though. When asked how Marx had influenced him, he replied about as much as any comedian. This infuriated the Communist guards, especially when they heard the other prisoner’s laughter. They became even more enraged when in the middle of their ideological droning the priest would turn to the men cowed before the guards and tell them ‘not to believe a word of this crap’.

The guards began to hate Kapaun. He knew that, and still preached openly to the men about forgiving one’s enemies. Public prayers were soon banned. Nevertheless, he continued to pray with his fellow prisoners. When caught doing so it meant time in the punishment hole, or stripped naked, made to stand for hours on an ice block.

‘Where is your God now?’ his captors would taunt the priest.

‘Right here’, was the reply.

The POWs grew to love their chaplain.

On Easter Sunday, 1951, as the sun rose over the melting snows of the infernal Death Camp, a curious spectacle was observed within it. There stood a man wearing the purple stole of a priest, holding a Roman Missal.

Somehow Kapaun had asked for and received permission for an Easter service. That morning the incredulous prisoners started to gather around him. He told them he did not have the means to say Mass but, to the surprise of those assembled, he opened the missal and began to recite the words of the Good Friday service. Next, he read out a meditation on the Stations of the Cross. As he did so some of those stood listening started to weep. When he had finished reading, he held a Rosary aloft, and invited those present to join him in its saying. At its conclusion, and as the guards looked on suspiciously, defiantly one of the POWs started to sing the Lord’s Prayer, and as he did so the whole body of men joined in. Many years later, a Jewish POW could still recall how much that morning meant to all those caged behind barbed wire, starved, shivering and sick with the ever-present guns trained on them.

Eventually, like so many others in the camp, Kapaun’s health broke. The starvation and deprivations at last took their toll. There was a place where the sick were taken. The Communists claimed it was a ‘hospital’, but, instead, it was known and feared as the ‘Death House’. Prisoners were ill treated there or just left to die. When the guards came to remove the ill chaplain to the ‘hospital’, POWs had to be held back at gunpoint as they tried to prevent it. As he was taken away, one of the POWs started to sob, Kapaun turned to him and said: ‘I’m going where I always wanted to go…’

As the priest was stretchered away, in his hand, held more tightly than ever, was his purple stole…

Without food and water, he lasted two days. The final words of Fr. Kapaun before he entered the Death House, and heard by the POWs who had carried him there, were: ‘Father forgive them, for they know not…’

Just before he had been led away, the priest had given his Missal to another POW and urged him to continue to hold prayer services. On 23 May 1951, as news of the chaplain’s death spread through the camp, and in defiance of their gaolers, that night the 23rd Psalm was read aloud in one hut, in another the Rosary was said…

*

Eventually, the news was broken to the Kapauns. His mother said nothing. For many nights after, with silent tears, she would play over and over a gramophone recording of her son preaching to soldiers en route to Korea. Months later, when asked by reporters about his loss, Mr. Kapaun’s only comment was that since the news had come through he felt ‘just no good’.

In the months that followed, the couple received a letter from an American officer who had been a POW with their son, but had managed to make it back to American lines, and it was from there not knowing of Kapaun’s fate, that he wrote.

6 Oct 1951

We were taken prisoner by the Chinese Communist Army on the same day…we were together in a prison camp in the interior of North Korea…

May I say your son is one of the bravest men I have ever met. He showed great courage and devotion to his country and faith under the most hazardous of conditions. I have seen him stand unflinchingly in the face of fire in order to bring comfort and aid to some of the soldiers that had been wounded or to deliver last rites in some instances. He kept up the morale of those that had been taken prisoner by his kindness and words of hope and faith.

I sincerely wish… and hope that you receive even more glad and important news than I can give.

*

To this day he lies in an unmarked grave in Korea.

But just as in life, Fr. Kapaun could not be confined in death as his reputation for sanctity grows with each passing year. What the Communist Death House had tried to extinguish in killing one man and all that he represented, paradoxically, only seemed to have the opposite effect. His witness sustained many through the war, and, subsequently, as his story was told, many more besides.

The snows fall each winter through the dark valleys and across the frozen mountain ranges of a land that still does not know freedom. It falls, too, upon that makeshift communal grave. Falling softly where the final reveille is awaited, when, at last, in the bright light of a new morning, a train of emaciated men shall come forth into the freedom of the Children of God with at their head, Fr. Emil J. Kapaun.

Editor’s note: The Miracle of Father Kapaun: Priest, Soldier, and Korean War Hero is available from Ignatius Press and Amazon

K. V. Turley

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KV Turley writes from London

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  • MotherGinger

    Speechless.

  • David P. Rundle

    Obama bestowed the Medal of Honor on him. Two miracles are under investigation to declare him a saint!

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