Korean War POW recalls Army chaplain's heroic acts
May 15, 2014
FORT SILL, Okla. (May 15, 2014) -- When retired Col. Ray Dowe spoke at the Fort Sill National Day of Prayer Luncheon May 8, he grabbed the audience's attention right from the start.
"I really feel at home here at Fort Sill. It's a fantastic privilege to be here and wonderful to be back with the Army again," he said.
In 1950, Dowe was a freshly minted lieutenant, having just graduated from West Point three months prior to taking command of a platoon of the 19th Regiment, 24th Infantry Division in Korea. He had learned all of the schoolbook things at the Academy, and when he got to the front, he sat his platoon on a hillside.
"I told them how happy I was to have them under my command. The platoon sergeant popped up and said 'Yeah, lieutenant, we're glad to have you too. We hope you last longer than the previous two commanders.'' Dowe said. "I didn't know what to say."
"My company commander, Louis "Rocky" Rockwerk, was a seasoned veteran. He had been one of the 'Battling Bastards of Bastogne' in World War II. His first sergeant, Sergeant Point, had been in World War I and World War II. "Rocky" told [him], 'I want you to look out for that young lieutenant,'" said Dowe.
Then Dowe quickly cast the spotlight away from himself onto the greatest person he said he has ever known, Chaplain (Capt). Emil Kapaun.
"As much as anybody, he's responsible for me being around today. He helped save more than 300 Soldiers who survived that first winter in the Korean War, the winter of 1950-'51," Dowe said. "It was one of the worst winters Korea has ever had, with temperatures ranging between minus 20 and minus 40 degrees. When your Soldiers are in summer uniforms, that's not very pleasant.
"We had defeated the North Korean army and driven them back to the Yalu River. Each of the companies in our battalion had sent somebody back to Japan to prepare for the victory parades that were going to take place that Thanksgiving. Didn't quite turn out as we planned."
When the Chinese entered the conflict in late October 1950, the 19th Infantry was pulled up north on the right flank of the 1st Cavalry to cover for Republic of Korea forces on the Yalu River; Point told him "this silly by-the-book deployment is not going to work at all. All they're going to do is come down, go around us and hit us from the rear. That was exactly what they did," Dowe said.
Point was shot and killed while attempting to escort some people back from an outpost, but the sergeant's advice and tough demeanor stayed with Dowe all these years.
"After we were captured, we were put in with the 1st Cavalry elements, injured Soldiers who had stayed behind. With them was Father Kapaun and a doctor named Anderson, who had volunteered to stay back with the wounded. From there we started one of the death marches. There were several of them. Anytime one of the Soldiers dropped out, the Chinese would turn them over to the North Koreans. They would drop back and then you would hear the 'bang' and know that that guy was gone. So it became imperative to keep as many Soldiers moving as we could, in any way that we could," Dowe said.
"We marched all the way north to the Yalu River, to a town called Pyoktong, where the prison camp was supposed to be. There we were greeted by the U.S. Air Force, who firebombed the town and burned it to the ground. We sat on the hillside, watching and cheering. Our captors didn't know what to think about that. They moved us into the valleys, where we were from mid-November until mid-January. During that time, there were three camps - Mining Camp, Death Valley and Kapaun, or Happy Valley, with a doctor in each," he said.
Dowe said that roughly 10 times more prisoners died in the other two valleys than in Kapaun Valley, because Father Kapaun gave those prisoners a positive outlook.
"He gave them hope and helped them maintain their faith in their God and in their country, and through that, faith in themselves. As long as the prisoners had hope and purpose, they would fight for their lives," Dowe added. "That will to live meant all the difference, because somebody could easily decide during the night it wasn't worth it and he would be dead the next morning. That was the kind of margin people were living on."
"You really did have to fight to live, with the rations being about three hundred grams of grain a day. But Father Kapaun became a great thief and would lead scrounging expeditions, stealing bags of food. He also foraged through the North Korean areas, getting food there. He then distributed the food up and down the valley, and helped take care of the wounded, washed their bandages, helped the doctors dress their wounds and ministered to the dying," Dowe said.
By early March 1951 Kapaun had grown a scraggly beard, wore a stocking cap he made for himself and, because he developed an eye infection, he sported a black patch over that eye.
"He truly looked like a fearsome pirate coming at you from a distance, but boy, the minute he started talking, you just felt the empathy from him. It was just hard to explain.
"The enemy was afraid of him. A lot of prisoners were taken out, tortured, thrown into holes in the ground that were made so you couldn't sit or lay in them. The extreme cold and other elements made it very unpleasant. But, they wouldn't torture Kapaun because they were afraid of him. He had a special control over them that they couldn't understand." Dowe said.
"He finally wore himself down by taking care of everybody else. After delivering an Easter service in a broken-down church, he developed a blood clot in his leg. The doctors treated him and he recovered, but like a lot of us, he developed pneumonia. He was just getting over that when the Chinese decided this was their chance to get rid of him.
"Despite the doctor's and our protests, they took him away, literally at bayonet point. Instead of placing him in the dispensary, they tossed him in a small death house and gave him no food. Under those conditions he was dead in a couple of days," Dowe said. "His remains were tossed in a pile of other remains near the death house. We went back there looking for his remains and those of other prisoners."
Dowe was in captivity for 34 months and was released Sept. 6, 1953. He has spent years trying to verify Kapaun's remains so they can receive a proper burial.
"They may be in Hawaii now. I'm hoping they are, because I think that would be a very fitting memorial for him. The chief of chaplains told me he will have his place on Chaplains' Hill in Arlington (National) Cemetery once we can get him back," Dowe said.
Kapaun posthumously received the Legion of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross in 1951, and more recently was awarded the Medal of Honor April 11, 2013, for heroic efforts in helping save over 300 Soldiers in the POW camps.