Iron Mike – Gruntworks contributing blogger
You know the drill by now. You sit with your slack-jaws open while I grace you with awe-inspiring tales of manliness and motivate you to be better men. Most of you will probably just blow me off and do fuck-all to improve yourselves, but fuck me If I won’t reach a few of you. Today we’re going to talk about the virtue of Loyalty. Loyalty isn’t very prevalent in our society any more. Professional athletes trade teams every few seasons trying to bolster their odds of playing for a championship. ‘Social Justice Warriors’ abound trying to turn every conceivable difference into a point of contention and strife to further seeds of division and resentment against the American way and our values in order to spread Communism. The average marriage lasts slightly over a few years. Bottom line: people just don’t fucking value loyalty to one another anymore. Loyalty to the fighting man however, is one of the supreme virtues of manhood by which we righteously judge one another. Loyalty means more to us than anything else, even at times our own lives. Without Loyalty to the chain of command, the unit fails its mission. Without Loyalty to the cause, the unit fails its mission. Without Loyalty to one another, the unit fails its mission… A unit failing its mission means death and dishonor to those in it. Those who have been overseas to the two-way rifle range know the truth about combat. It’s not about mom, home, and apple pie in the middle of a firefight; it’s about the man next to you. Some of the most harrowing examples of this harsh truth were found during America’s involvement on the Korean Peninsula over half a century ago.
The Korean War is called “The Forgotten War” by many historians. Most Americans can’t tell you anything about it at all. High School history teachers rarely ever broach the subject to their students and as a result, most American children can’t even locate Korea on a world map. The war is ‘forgotten’ for a number of reasons… It didn’t have the significant numbers of Draftees that World War II or Vietnam did. It was during a period of Civil Rights activism and social change in the United States that most historical educators would rather cover. It was dwarfed in scale by the second World War just 4 and a half years earlier. The most likely reason though? It was not a decisive US victory like the previous 3 major wars this nation had fought before it. In fact, Korea would be the site of some of the worst defeats in American history; including the failure to even end the war. To this day the Republic of Korea (ROK/South Korea) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK/North Korea) are still in a de facto state of war on opposites sides of the most heavily militarized border in the world. One of these defeats would be the starting point for today’s story of courage, conviction, and loyalty of one officer to his soldiers. Today’s story is about US Army Chaplain (Captain) Emil Kapuan and the men of the 8th Cavalry Regiment.
In the years following the second World War, America saw some of its most rapid technological and economic growth of its history. The Atomic Age was ushered in at Hiroshima and had the potential to be the future of mankind’s energy and defense needs; a new National Aeronautics and Space Administration was working to put a man in orbit; millions of Americans got a college education on the GI Bill; and automobiles ran smoothly along President Eisenhower’s highway expansion and improvement projects. No one was terribly concerned about a small peninsula on the northeast corner of the Asian continent between China and Japan. The whole world soon would be as the first flash point of the Cold War became extremely hot. In the waning days of World War 2, the Korean peninsula was still occupied by the Imperial Japanese. In an agreement with the Soviet Union (that shared a small border with Korea) the peninsula was divided into zones of occupation to facilitate the transfer of sovereignty between Japan and a free Korea. The line of demarcation would be the now infamous line of latitude of 38 Degrees North; AKA “The 38th Parallel”. Between 1945 and 1949 two distinctly opposite governments formed in Korea. The North was led by Communist revolutionary Kim Il-Sung and the Communist Party, and the South led by Syngman Rhee as a western-style free market democracy. Both sides viewed themselves as the legitimate government of the entire Korean people. The North had most of the industrialized factories, railways, ports, and infrastructure left behind by the Japanese, the South was mostly rural and agrarian. Both sides began building armies, with the north having a distinct advantage in men and material. The newly formed United Nations and their chief backer the United States began building the South Korean military while the Soviet Union and (to a lesser extent) Communist China built the north’s. With conflict on the peninsula inevitable the US and South Koreans were confident that they would demolish any aggression by the communist North; they had no idea how wrong they were…
In the initial attack, the North Koreans stormed across the 38th Parallel with hundreds of thousands of well-equipped soldiers. Their Commanders were experienced from years of partisan fighting against the Imperial Japanese and some had been trained in Moscow by the Soviets. They crushed the initial ROK defenses and steamrolled past the ROK Army. The Americans put together an emergency force called Task Force Smith out of the nearest major US Command; the Army of Occupation in Japan and Okinawa, but these troops were poorly trained, poorly led, and as a force they had physical fitness problems and lacked discipline after years of light duty and laxed standards in Japan. Sound familiar? Task Force Smith would be rolled over by the Communist juggernaut too. The entire future of the Republic of Korea hinged on a small defensive pocket around the last major port city under UN/ROK control: Pusan. The Battle of the Pusan Perimeter had begun, and it is here we start our story of a rural Kansas boy turned Catholic Priest and Army Chaplain.
Emil Kapuan was born in the tiny town of Pilsen, Kansas on April 20th, 1916. The son of devoutly Catholic Czech immigrants young Emil had known his whole life he would grow up to serve the faith. He graduated Pilsen High School in 1930 and went on to attend Catholic Seminary at Conception Abbey Seminary and Kenrick Theological Seminary both in Missouri. He graduated from both institutions and was ordained a Catholic Priest on June 9th, 1940 at what is today Newman University in Wichita, Kansas. In January of 1943 he was appointed an auxiliary Chaplain at Herington Army Airfield in Kansas. He would later enter service in the US Army Chaplains Corps at Fort Devens, Massachusetts in 1944 and would remain in the service for the next two years. After duty at Fort Wheeler, Georgia ministering to nearly 20,000 servicemen. Father (and First Lieutenant) Kapuan was sent to the India/Burma theater from April, 1945 to July, 1946. He covered over 2,000 miles of undeveloped frontier in south-central Asia providing religious ministry to thousands of servicemen of all allied nations as well as local missions scattered throughout the countryside. He left active duty in July, 1946 as a Captain to pursue a Master of Arts Degree in Education on the GI Bill from the Catholic University of America; where he graduated in 1948. In September that same year Captain Emil Kapuan returned to active duty as a Chaplain at Fort Bliss, Texas. In December of 1949 he said goodbye to his family and boarded a ship bound for Japan. It would be the last time he would ever see them.
Kapuan arrived in Japan in January of 1950 (tours overseas took a while to get to back then) and was stationed with the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division near Mt. Fuji. In June, the screaming Communist hordes of the North would come raging across the 38th Parallel and reduce the joint UN/ROK forces to the Pusan Perimeter. On July 15th, the 1st Cavalry Division shipped out to reinforce the struggling defensive position on the Korean Peninsula. The men of the 8th Cavalry Regiment would be in the thick of the fighting with the rest of the 1st CAV from the breakout of Pusan until early 1952 totaling nearly two years of direct combat by the end of it.
In the thick of the fighting with the men on the line was their Chaplain. Who ministered to the men in their foxholes, brought small refreshments to the men on watch, and helped carry the wounded from the line even while under direct enemy fire. Father Kapuan would be awarded the Bronze Star for Valor for his actions in this capacity. Near Kumchung while the 1st CAV was driving back the North Korean Army in its push northward, Father Kapuan recovered a badly wounded man of his own volition and evacuated him while under enemy fire. He was under no obligation to do so and (according to his BSM citation) “With total disregard for personal safety, Chaplain Kapuan and his companion went after the wounded man.” Father Kapuan would repeat this feat of valor and loyalty to the men of the 8th Cavalry numerous times throughout the campaign.
On October 9th, 1950, the 1st Cavalry Division crossed the 38th Parallel heading North. The 1st CAV led by the 8th Cavalry Regiment would be the first American unit into the North Korean Capital of Pyongyang on October 19th. The North Koreans were in full retreat, victory looked certain for the UN/ROK forces and Communism would assuredly be eradicated from the Korean Peninsula. Operational planners, politicians, and Generals all began making plans for rebuilding a unified Korea as a Capitalist western-style Republic… there was just one small problem; no one had bothered to consult the Chinese.
After the 1st CAV had entered Pyongyang on the 19th of October a secret Chinese force began pushing into North Korea across the Yalu River. The ‘People’s Volunteer Army’ had begun its advance South. This force was over 300,000 strong and consisted of “volunteers” according to the Chinese Government. Miraculously they were all wearing People’s Liberation Army (Chinese Army) uniforms and carrying equipment stamped by the Chinese Government… These were not ‘volunteers’ but battle-hardened Communist soldiers ordered in secret by Chairman Mao Zedong himself to intervene on behalf of his North Korean allies. The Chinese could simply not allow such a vital border region (The Yalu River between the DPRK and China) to be controlled by non-communist neighbors. These experienced Chinese forces were disciplined and led by communist generals who had fought the Japanese occupation of China and then the bloody Chinese Civil War from 1945 to 1949. Aided by an elaborate and effective intelligence network and the arrogance of UN commanders blinded by their own success; the Chinese slipped undetected into Korea with a bloodlust in their eyes.
On October 28th, General Frank Milburn ordered the 1st CAV to conduct a passage of lines through the ROK 1st Infantry Division and begin an attack through the North Korean village of Unsan as part of the UN Thanksgiving Offensive to “Win the War”. The 8th Cavalry Regiment in Lead the Division established positions around Unsan. Father Kapuan was moved from the Regimental Chaplain to the Battalion Chaplain of 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry. He would move up with them to the far left of the American line around Unsan. The 1st and 2nd Battalions would be on their left thinly stretched along a ridge just northwest of the town itself with 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment guarding their rear. The Chinese were already in skirmishing actions with the ROK units in the area (Chinese forces were under strict orders not to engage the Americans) but poor communications between the ROK forces and UN forces prevented the US Commanders from adequately assessing the precarious situation they were in. In the 8th Cavalry Perimeter to the North and West of Unsan there were several large gaps where the line was simply unmanned. The remainder of the Division had not yet moved up to reinforce this position and a mile-long gap in the defensive line appeared between 1st and 2nd Battalion. On October 29th 1950, the PVA attacked and obliterated the ROK 6th Infantry Division to the East of Unsan and as the Americans occupied the town elements of the ROK 11th Infantry Regiment and 1st Infantry Division were pulling out. The 8th Cavalry had become the northernmost salient in the UN frontline with only the ROK 15th Infantry Regiment dug in to their right and a single battalion of the US 5th Cavalry behind them. For many of the men, the muddy hills around Unsan would become their graves.
The Chinese were initially discovered when a patrol from 1/5 CAV spotted elements of the 343rd Regiment near Bugle Hill to the West of Unsan on the afternoon of November 1st. However, by the time the trap was discovered it was already being sprung. Upon their discovery, the Chinese 117th Division immediately launched human wave attacks and obliterated the ROK 15th Infantry Regiment to the right of the US forces. The 8th Cavalry was now alone and effectively surrounded. On November 1st and 2nd 4 Battalion of the Chinese 116th Infantry Division had pushed through the gap between the 1st and 2nd battalions of the 8th Cavalry. Those two battalions were immediately engaged in heavy fighting as the Chinese unleashed waves of attackers and supporting rocket artillery. Chinese forces pushed into the rear and established blocking positions behind the US units. Realizing the disaster in progress as the 1/8 and 2/8 CAV ran low on ammunition and upon hearing the news of the destruction of the ROK units to the American right; Major General Hobart Gay the Commanding General of the 1st Cavalry Division gave the order for the 8th Cavalry Regiment to withdraw before they were annihilated. Meanwhile disaster had struck the 3rd Battalion… A company force of Chinese infiltrators had donned ROK Army uniforms and been allowed to pass a key bridge near the American position disguised as ROK soldiers. These infiltrators then launched a surprise attack on the 3/8 CAV Command post resulting in high casualties, including the Battalion Commander. Hand-to-hand fighting raged across the American lines as the first two battalions attempted to break contact and withdraw. The 3rd Battalion would bring up the regimental rear as they had been hit the least hard in the initial fighting… They would not be able to comply. As the Chinese surrounded the decimated American force and attempts to relieve them failed, the mortally wounded American Commander of 3/8 CAV, Major Ormund issued his last orders: Any man still able to fight should attempt to breakout, evade capture, and return to allied lines on his own. Less than 200 men would do so. On November 6th 1950, after more than 5 days of constant and bloody fighting, the 3rd Battalion of the 8th Cavalry Regiment ceased to exist as a unit.
Through the Battle of Unsan, the Chaplain of 3/8 CAV would be there beside his fellow soldiers at the front line. He administered Last Rites to the dying. He helped evacuate the wounded, and assisted with first aid at the CP. He would be a litter-bearer and counselor to the wounded and dying men and did whatever possible to ease their suffering. On November 2nd, Kapuan was with a contingent of wounded soldiers that were surrounded by the Chinese as the Americans were withdrawing. The wounded men begged the Chaplain to escape, he instead chose to greet capture with the wounded men unable to evacuate and remain by their side through whatever trials awaited them. He found a wounded Chinese officer and convinced him to help negotiate the surrender of the wounded Americans Father Kapuan had remained behind with. In the face of the worst loss suffered by an American Cavalry Unit since the Battle of Little Bighorn, one officer who had never fired a shot in anger chose to stay by his men to the bitter end of his own volition out of loyalty to the men he served with… and the bitter end of the battle would only be the beginning of their suffering. The Chinese and their North Korean compatriots marched the prisoners captured in the initial stages of the Chinese intervention 85 miles North to prisoner of war camps deep in communist territory. Along the march the Communists executed men to weak or too wounded to continue. Father Kapuan would not stand for this, and despite orders from his captors not to do so he began to carry the wounded on his back. He also inspired others to help him in this endeavor. Officer and enlisted alike, anyone who could stand to do so was encouraged to help a man who could not walk in order to spare the wounded from one last communist bullet… Kapuan Himself pushed aside a Chinese soldier preparing to execute SFC Herbert A. Miller and picked up the man himself. Calmly walking away and carrying Sergeant Miller with him.
After arriving at a frigid camp somewhere near Pyoktong, North Korea Father Kapuan assigned himself the duty of being the morale officer and spiritual counselor of all the men in the camp. The Communists subjected the men to torture, mistreatment, ideological “reconditioning” (brainwashing with communist propaganda), and starvation. Any ideology contrary to the teachings of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, or Mao were forbidden. Worship in public was punishable by beatings and loss of rations. Every aspect of these camps was designed to break the men’s spirits, cause them to lose hope in their cause, and to turn on one another. Standing up the communists at every turn was Father Emil Kapuan.
When the men were subjected to starvation, Father Kapuan gave up his own rations to the sick and dying. When the men were forced to listen to communist propaganda, Father Kapuan turned it into a joke. When forced to watch films on the teaching of Marx, one Communist agent singled out Father Kapuan to make an example of him. The Communist Officer asked the Chaplain to tell the men gathered how Marx influenced him personally, Kapuan responded “About as much as any other comedian.” Which resulted in laughter from the Americans and abuse from the North Koreans…
Father Kapuan always worked beside the men; digging latrines, building shelters, and always encouraging the men not to break faith with one another or God. He openly prayed with the hopeless and desperate men despite the threats of his captors to punish him for doing so. The Communists managing the camp (both Chinese and North Korean) feared him for his ability to unify the men regardless of rank, faith, race, or nationality. Father Kapuan ministered to the dead and dying for months on end with his unrelenting faith. One soldier requested he be baptized on his deathbed, to which Father Kapuan agreed and the man passed away shortly after receiving his baptism. Father Kapuan would repeatedly make efforts to steal food and a small pot to cook in to provide the starving men with some extra rations. He would also take small parcels of tea or coffee he swiped from the guards to the men as he made his rounds between their shelters. The lowly Catholic Priest also mediated disputes and prayed with the men in bold defiance of the dirty Commies who had forbid such gatherings and used the situation in the camp to turn men on each other or become informants for the guards. Perhaps his greatest feat was smuggling anti-dysentery medications into the camp for the camp doctor to treat the prisoners suffering from debilitating diarrhea, doubtlessly saving countless lives in the process.
Captivity had unfortunately worn away on Captain Kapuan, and his health rapidly deteriorated after months in the POW camp and harsh treatment by his captors. He developed a blood clot in his leg and pneumonia sometime in late spring 1951 that left him unable to make his daily rounds through the camp, but still invited the men to gather around him for prayer. The men of the camp were shocked however as dawn broke on Easter Sunday, 1951 to see Father Kapuan in his purple priest’s stole and holding a missal… He would lead Easter Sunday Mass in front of the entire camp despite the threats from the guards and his failing health. He recited some Psalms and the stages of the cross and closed in prayer for the salvation of the men gathered before him. Survivors say some of the men openly wept.
A short time later, the months of abuse, starvation, and disease did to Father Kapuan’s body what the Communists could not do to his soul… He was carried away from the camp to a so-called hospital (that was really just an empty and unheated building where sick prisoners were left to die) by the North Korean guards. His last words according to those present were prayers of forgiveness to his captors: “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.” from the scriptures of Luke 23:34. Father Kapuan died in captivity on May 23rd, 1951. He was buried in a mass grave somewhere along the Yalu River, his final resting place known but to God.
Father Kapuan’s memory served as a galvanizing force to the men of the camp who used it to continue resisting the influence of their communist overlords. Two years later when they were released in 1953 as part of the Armistice, the survivors recanted the deeds and valor of the humble chaplain. One Jewish soldier carried with him a Roman Catholic crucifix he had carved in memory of Father Kapuan after witnessing his many acts of compassion and loyalty to his fellow troopers. From the testimony of those who served in captivity with him, Father Kapuan was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his action on November 2nd, 1950 – that was later upgraded to the Congressional Medal of Honor and presented to his nephew by President Obama in 2009. Father Kapuan was declared ‘Servant of God’ by Pope John Paul II in 1993 and as of 2016 has an open case for canonization as a Saint of the Catholic Church proceeding forward. He remains the most decorated Chaplain in US military history.
The moral of this story is that the virtue of loyalty is one of the most important aspects of manhood. Loyalty built by shared suffering and faith in one another can carry you through trials and tribulations unthinkable to the average person. A humble Kansas priest would become the foundation for men starving in a fetid communist POW camp and inspire them to continue on in the worst days of their lives out of nothing but his own compassion and loyalty to his fellow man. He never broke his faith in God or Country and those who knew him will be forever touched by his deeds. Be like Father Kapuan… never break faith with your fellow service members. Live a life of virtue and purpose to the end and never compromise your values no matter how terrible your situation. You don’t need to be a righteous badass to display supreme valor, you just need to be righteous; like the man who fought communism without firing a shot and saved the lives and souls of hundreds of men in the process. Go for a nice long run and think about the words emblazoned on the 8th Cavalry Regimental Crest: “Honor and Courage”. Stop being a bitch when it comes to volunteering for things too, remember there are men much better than you who volunteered for far worse…
“He who pursues righteousness and loyalty finds salvation, righteousness and honor.” Proverbs 21:21