CNS dispatch from 1951: Fighting men on Korean front describe heroism of missing Catholic chaplain

Father Kapaun in an undated photo. (CNS photo/courtesy The Catholic Advance)

Father Kapaun in an undated photo. (CNS photo/courtesy The Catholic Advance)

This afternoon’s White House Medal of Honor ceremony recognizing the heroic efforts of Army chaplain Father Emil Kapaun on the battlefield during the Korean War prompted us to look in our archives and find original news reports on the famed Wichita diocesan priest and candidate for sainthood.

Here is a story from March 1951, when Father Patrick O’Connor, a correspondent for CNS’ predecessor, the N.C.W.C. News Service, interviewed soldiers who knew Father Kapaun and last saw him ministering to soldiers before he was taken prisoner. The record shows that the 35-year-old chaplain had the chance to fall back to safety during a battle between U.S.and Chinese forces but instead chose to stay and was captured along with dozens of men.

NCWC NEWS SERVICE (Foreign) 3/5/51




By Rev. Patrick O’Connor, Society of St. Columban  (Correspondent, N.C.W.C. NEWS SERVICE)

WITH THE U.S. FORCES IN KOREA, March 3. — On the frozen hillsides of Korea, men of the Eighth Cavalry Regiment often talk about Father Kapaun. They saw him last on that fiery midnight when the Eighth suffered its heaviest losses of the war. That was up near Unsan, where on November 2 the Chinese Communists first attacked American troops.

When the regiment regrouped after withdrawal, Father Kapaun was missing. Later on, the first American soldiers released by the Chinese reported that Father Kapaun was a prisoner in a camp on the Korean side of the Manchurian border. He was helping to take care of his wounded fellow-prisoners and was saying Mass.

A CNS dispatch on Father Kapaun from 1951. (CNS photo)

An original CNS dispatch on Father Kapaun from 1951. (CNS photo)

The Rev. (Capt.) Emil J. Kapaun, 34, from Wichita, Kan., was the Catholic chaplain with the 8th cavalry. He came to Korea with the regiment last July and served all the way from Taegu up to the 38th parallel and far beyond it, until he was captured that November night on the North-West front.

Piecing together the accounts of that night, told by survivors, I found a clear picture of heroism. Father Kapaun’s successor, the Rev. (Capt.) Robert Lynch of New York, brought me over the icy roads and fields to meet the men who could tell the story.

The Chinese attacked the First and Second Battalions early that afternoon. Father Kapaun was with the Third Battalion.

“Father and I had our pup-tent in a cornfield near the 3rd battalion aid station and CP (command post),” said Pfc. Patrick J. Schuler of Cincinnati. Pat was Father Kapaun’s assistant and driver. “Father had said four Masses on All saints’ Day. we went to bed early but got up on the alert to move out, about eleven that night. We loaded the jeep and trai1er and moved forward to join up with the First and Second battalions. They were trying to get out by turning on to another road. The road behind us wasn’t safe.

“But we ran into a communist roadblock up ahead and had to turn the vehicles around. Father and I picked up a lot of wounded, put them on the jeep and trailer and came back to the 3rd battalion CP. The medics took care of the wounded on the road. “Stay with the jeep and say your prayers,’ Father Kapaun told me. ‘I’ll be back.’

“A few minutes later the Chinese attacked us right there. I set fire to the jeep and ran looking for Father. I shouted his name but could not find him. Then I went back across the river with two others. I figured that Father would leave, too.”

Major Veale Moriarty of Jacksonville, Fla., who was in the CP, could tell where Father Kapaun went.

“I saw him with Dr. Anderson working on a wounded man in our aid station, which was also the third battalion CP, about 2 a.m.,” he said. “The doctor brought the man in because we had light in the CP. The attack was breaking on us then. I believe they were both getting ready to leave later on, as planned, but they heard of someone being injured and they went back.” Dr. (Capt.) Clarence L. Anderson is from Long Beach, Calif.

Sgt. Alfred Jos. Patrnode of the St. Charles Parish in Providence, R.I., confirmed that. “I had seen Father Kapaun on the early afternoon of November 1,” he related. “He was preparing to say Mass for the boys around the third battalion CP. That night I ran into him again near the CP. we knew the Chinese were coming at us. Then suddenly everything opened up. we went back about 500 yards and crossed the river. Father Kapaun and Dr. Anderson came across, too, but when somebody said he’d seen one of his buddies getting hit, Father Kapaun said he was going back in. Dr. Anderson went with him. That was after 3 o’clock in the morning.”

“Father Kapaun had several chances to get out but he wouldn’t take them,” declared W/O John H. Funston of the St. Thomas Parish in Brooklyn. “He could have left with the regimental CP earlier that night. Later, when he did get out, he went back. And he stayed in the end, when the last uninjured men were leaving the perimeter.”

Back in the combat area, before dawn on November 3, L Company had formed a perimeter or small defense zone. Inside this, they dug holes where they sheltered the wounded.

“I was with K Company on the hill,” said Pfc. Clarence Matlock of Philipsburg, N.J. “The Chinese hit us about three in the morning of November 2. We got our men off the hill and when I reached the perimeter down below, I saw Father Kapaun there. I left on the night of the third.”

“I saw Father the evening of the third,” said Sgt. James R. Petergall of Pittsburgh, Pa. “The perimeter was about 50 yards wide, in an open field. He was in the center, going from hole to hole, taking care of the wounded. He was under small arms fire and heavy mortar fire all the time.”

“Next day we had orders to withdraw. Any wounded who thought they could make it, could leave with us. I was told that Father Kapaun and Dr. Anderson were going to stay behind with the other wounded. When we left, the area was under artillery fire. The Reds were·dropping white phosphorus on us. That’s the last I saw of Father Kapaun.”

“I can’t imagine him leaving when there were wounded men there,” said Chaplain (Capt.) Donald F. Carter, of the Church of the Brethren, from Long Beach, Calif., a Protestant chaplain with the Eighth Cavalry and a good friend of Father Kapaun.

“You couldn’t say anything about Father Kapaun that wasn’t good,” said Major Moriarty. “Lots of people in this regiment could tell you stories about him.

“Once, in the Taegu area, I saw him going around on a push bicycle. He had lost his jeep and for six weeks he rode that Korean bicycle to visit the battalions and companies.”

“When we were fighting on the 38th parallel,” continued the Major, “a jeep ambulance had loaded two wounded men when the driver was killed at the wheel. Father Kapaun went up, dragged the dead man to one side and drove the wounded back, under mortar and machine-gun fire.”

Some say that Father Kapaun once had his pipe shot out of his mouth.

“Going north, our convey ran into resistance about eight, one morning,” said Private Pat Schuler. “Father Kapaun left the jeep and when he hadn’t returned six hours later, I drove up front to look for him.  There he was, quite calm, under machine-gun fire.

“‘I broke my pipe,’ was all he said. ‘A sniper opened up on me and I had to crawl to reach a wounded man. … I broke my pipe.’”

“He’d sit there, just as calm,” said Schuler. “I’m for him.”

—3-em dash—

      It had been previously reported that Father Kapaun was awarded the Bronze Star in September for carrying a wounded soldier to safety under intense machine-gun fire when no litters were available. He was reported missing in Korea since November 2.

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