Former POWs Recall Chaplain at Medal of Honor Events
By Terri Moon Cronk
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 28, 2013 An Army chaplain who posthumously received the nation’s highest military honor earlier this year was inspirational, courageous in battle, and someone who talked the talk and walked the walk, a group of former Korean War prisoners of war said in a recent interview with Army Television.
Army Chaplain (Capt.) Emil Kapaun, a Roman Catholic priest and a Korean War POW, was awarded the Medal of Honor in an April 12 White House ceremony and was inducted into the Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon the next day, 62 years after his death.
Several of the chaplain’s fellow POWs attended the Medal of Honor events.
“In prison camp, he was an inspiration to everyone,” recalled Robert Wood, a former Army infantry first lieutenant. “He never failed to inspire me with his courage and his own devotion -- bathing the sick and wounded and scavenging for us. He was a good thief. He would steal rations for us from the Chinese.”
It was the winter of 1950-51 when Kapaun, Wood and hundreds of other U.S. troops were captured by the North Koreans and handed over to Chinese camps as POWs. Wood vividly remembers his first meeting with battalion chaplain Kapaun.
“When got to Korea the first time, we came in contact with the enemy [when] we were on one hill and another battalion was on another hill, running out of ammunition,” Wood said. “I volunteered to carry some ammo over to them. I headed out and all of a sudden, there’s Father Kapaun standing next to me, carrying ammo with a pipe clenched in his teeth. I said, ‘Where are you going, Father?’ and he said, ‘I’m going with you, son.’ We took off up the side of a hill with no cover -- just a ditch alongside the trail. We came under machine gun fire, and we both [dived] into the ditch.
“I looked over my shoulder at Father Kapaun, and all he had was the stem of the pipe still in his mouth. They’d shot the pipe right out of his mouth,” he continued. “I said ‘Father, do you really want to go?’ and he said, ‘Go on son, just go on.” He only increased my admiration, because in combat he was extremely courageous.”
Joe Ramirez, then an Army corporal, experienced a different introduction to Kapaun.
“We landed in South Korea July 18, 1950,” he said. “There were skirmishes. Father Kapaun came around to ask if anyone wanted to be baptized. I was the only one to raise my hand. We went to the river and he baptized me there.”
Ramirez said he has “everything ever written” about Kapaun in an album, which he refers to every week and shares with his children and grandchildren.
“[Father Kapaun] had a lot of influence, especially on the younger guys, of which I was one,” he noted. “He would say, ‘Don’t believe what [the Chinese] tell you. You’re all Christians,’ because they were trying to convert us to communism. He was against it, and that’s why the Chinese hated him.”
Ramirez credits Kapaun with giving the prisoners a reason to live amid the harsh conditions of the prison camp. “He gave us a lot of encouragement, talked to us and said prayers. In the winter it was 50 below zero,” he said. “A lot of us didn’t have winter clothing; we had summer clothing. He said, ‘Keep the faith -- we’re going to get out of here one of these days.’”
“He was more than a religious leader,” said Ray “Mike” Dowe Jr., an Army first lieutenant and platoon commander. “He taught people to have faith in their own beliefs, to maintain their integrity, to maintain faith in their country and their god, and by so doing, it gave people a will to live.”
After nightly “ration runs,” as he called them, Kapaun taught the other prisoners not to hoard food, but to share it, Dowe recalled.
“He would volunteer to carry the dead on stretchers every time,” he said. “He’d take the clothes off the dead, wash them and distribute them to the wounded, and take care of the sick. He’d have to escape from the officers’ compound to do it.”
Kapaun had the gift of emboldening the prisoners. “He was an inspiration to hundreds and hundreds of people who survived, and wouldn’t have survived that ordeal without him … [Survival] only comes from instilling the will to live, which comes from your beliefs, your country and resisting the enemy,” Dowe said.
Despite the conditions that go with captivity during a war, the chaplain tried to keep the prisoners’ spirits up and help them think positively, Wood recalled.
“The first months were horrible. During the first winter there was bitter cold, starvation, and we were all sick, but he would go around and lead us in prayer. Jews, Protestants and Catholics were saying the rosary,” he said.
Kapaun became stricken with a blood clot in spring 1951, but POW doctors were able to treat it. The chaplain then developed pneumonia, Dowe said. As he began to recover, the Chinese became restless over his survival.
“When he started to get well, they couldn’t tolerate it,” Dowe said. “They came down with bayonets and troops, and we tried to resist them. The doctors told [the Chinese] not to take [Kapaun], but they took him to what they called a hospital. We were in tears. He turned to me and said, ‘Mike, don’t cry. I’m going to where I always wanted to go and when I get there, I’ll say a prayer for all of you.’”
Rather than putting him in the hospital, Dowe said, the Chinese put Kapaun in a building with other prisoners who were beyond medical help. “It was just filled with every kind of bug, and feces,” he said. “[The Chinese] didn’t feed them. They [placed him] in a 7-by-7-foot [room] after his death, they threw his remains into a pile.”
Dowe said he later spoke with people on teams that were on a recovery mission in North Korea. They told Dowe they found that area and recovered some of Kapaun’s remains.
“We lost something when we lost him -- [he was] a constant reminder, a ray of hope that we were going to get out of this thing eventually, and he was someone who retained his civility and devotion,” Wood said.
Wood was one of the prisoners who had to carry the chaplain to “the death house,” he said.
“We all knew taking him up there was a death sentence, yet he was calming everyone around him, saying he was going to a better place and that he’d pray for us, and not to be upset. What really stunned me was he was blessing the Chinese who were killing him,” Wood said, becoming emotional. “I had tears in my eyes when he was doing it. I could never do that.”