WASHINGTON, D.C. (Army News Service, July 31, 2013) -- Two Korean War prisoners of war recently recalled the heroism of Medal of Honor recipient Chaplain (Capt.) Emil J. Kapaun, who gave his life while helping others survive the harsh conditions of captivity.
Former POWs Mike Dowe and Joe Ramirez were in the nation's capital, July 26, to attend events surrounding the 238th anniversary of the Army Chaplain Corps. The events included a memorial service for Kapaun, who died a prisoner of war in May 1951.
Both Ramirez and Dowe said Kapaun was fearless in his efforts to defy his captors, boost spirits, and minister to and protect Soldiers, many of whom were wounded, sick or dying.
As communist Chinese forces encircled the 3rd Battalion of the 8th Cavalry Regiment during the Battle of Unsan in November 1950, Kapaun seemed to dodge bullets on the battlefield while aiding Soldiers, Ramirez said.
Bullets were "flying everywhere," he said.
But despite the danger, Kapaun was in the line of fire carrying the wounded back, administering last rites and providing first aid until medics arrived, he said.
With artillery and bullets coming in from all directions, Ramirez, then a corporal, remembered thinking "God, the Lord, is watching over him."
After they were captured, Soldiers were forced on a death march north to the prison camps. Those who dropped out were shot dead by the Chinese, Dowe said.
It is on a march where Dowe first met Kapaun, as they were carrying wounded on stretchers.
"It was imperative to keep the people, as many as you could, going. He was material in that," said Dowe, then a first lieutenant.
Ramirez had been baptized by Kapaun in July 1950 in Korea. He met up again with the chaplain on the death march.
"He was carrying a Soldier on his back. I think he carried him for about two or three miles and then I relieved him," said Ramirez, of Houston, Texas. "I looked at him and he looked very tired."
KAPAUN INSTILLS HOPE IN PRISON CAMPS
Dowe and Ramirez said the conditions were terrible at the camps, men were ill and starving to death, and diseases were rampant. Temperatures were sub-zero.
Kapaun, they said, did everything he could to bring hope to the Soldiers. He put his life at risk to sneak around the camp and secure extra food for the starving Soldiers. He washed the clothes of the dead and gave them to the men who were freezing.
"There were people dying every night there. He would minister to them," said Dowe. "One person I knew in particular virtually came back to life to receive the last rites and he baptized him."
Prisoners lived in camps in three valleys, from November 1950 to January 1951, Dowe said.
"In the valley that (Kapaun) lived in, the death rate was about one-third what it was in the other two, just because of the way he instilled a spirit of cooperation, will to live, and resistance to the enemy," he said.
"He was just an ordinary guy. He would shun any recognition of himself," Dowe said.
Both Dowe and Ramirez said Kapaun did everything he could to make sure others around him were cared for.
"Father would get up in the morning, ahead of everybody else, in 20-below zero, start a fire and heat water and then come around saying 'hot coffee,'" said Dowe, who lives in both Spring, Texas, and New York, N.Y.
IRRITATING THEIR CAPTORS
"The Chinese just couldn't put up with the image that he created of resistance to them: the spirit of confidence of a free man dedicated to his country and his religion," said Dowe.
When Kapaun fell ill, the Chinese had an excuse to separate him from the other prisoners. They brought him to the "death house," which Dowe described as a tiny, ten-foot by ten-foot building with "nothing in it but bugs and vermin."
"He said 'don't worry about me, Mike. You guys take it easy. I'm going to where I always wanted to go. When I get there, I'll say a prayer for you,'" Dowe recalled.
The Chinese already didn't provide much for prisoners, Dowe said. They provided even less for those living out their last days on earth in the "death house."
"They didn't feed him and anyone who went in there was within 24-48 hours of dying -- so they killed him. They just couldn't stand him," said Dowe. "He was a martyr. He did more to raise the spirit of GIs and everybody, sneaking out around the camps and helping everybody he could."
It was May 23, 1951, when Kapaun passed on.
"We got word, everybody felt very bad because he was a man that gave us encouragement so that we would come back," said Ramirez.
Dowe and Ramirez, who were both captured in November 1950 and held prisoners of war for nearly three years, said the memory of Kapaun helped them survive.
The bravery, resolve and strength of the chaplain resonate with Soldiers today, Dowe said.
"I think it's so important to pass on the legacy of Father Kapaun to the Chaplains Corps, to the chaplains, and to Americans in general. That's why I think the Medal of Honor was so important," Dowe said.
Dowe, who lobbied over the decades for Kapaun to receive the Medal of Honor, said he really can't encapsulate the whole story of Kapaun in words.
"I can't do Father justice," Dowe said. "There are stories about him that just go on and on."
Ramirez, who still has his baptismal certificate, said he looks at an album of Kapaun photos every day.
"To this day, I have him in my heart," he said.