Place: Unsan, North Korea – just south of the Chinese border.
Date: 1950 – October 31st through November 2nd.
The Battle of Unsan.
United Nations & South Korean forces have pushed north, well past the 38th Parallel, under the direction of Gen. MacArthur. The troops are informed that there is a relatively small group of lightly armed (“pistols and swords” were terms used to describe the armaments) Chinese Army headed south that will be engaged.
It has been a difficult road to this point since the North Korean invasion of South Korea earlier that summer. It is about to get much, much worse.
The Chinese Army unit turns out to be a sizeable force of well armed, well-trained soldiers. Swords and pistols? Try more like mobile rocket launchers.
The result is a complete debacle. The UN troops are completely over-run, casualties are high, and there are many soldiers taken prisoner during the retreat. There are countless acts of bravery and heroism. The map of the battle shows the Chinese flanking and surrounding the UN positions (See This Article from Wikipedia for more info). Men who escaped the battle continued to work their way back from behind enemy lines for days after the battle ended, hiding during the day and walking at night.
But the story of one man stands out.
Father Emil Kapaun – Capt. Kapaun was a Chaplain serving with the 8th Cavalry Division, US Army.
You’ve never heard of Father Emil Kapaun? That’s okay, but it changes today. Because he is being posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor – almost 60 years after his death – on April 11th.
Fr. Kapaun was tireless in his efforts to help the wounded and weary back from the front lines of the battle with little or no worry for his own safety.
A few days into the battle, there was a last-ditch effort to break through enemy lines and retreat for any stranded soldier who had been unable to retreat up to that point. But there were many wounded who would not be able to get free. Despite the urging of the wounded soldiers to escape while he could, Fr. Kapaun stayed with those troops, knowing full well he would be captured by the Chinese.
[stextbox id=”black”]Kapaun and the other troops were marched through frigid conditions over 80 miles to a POW camp just south of the Chinese border. Along the way, he put himself between injured soldiers and the Chinese captors about to shoot them, carried those who could not walk, and prayed with those who had no hope.[/stextbox]
If the story ended here, you’d be awestruck by his heroism and dedication to his fellow-man (including the wounded Chinese soldier that he had assisted to a foxhole before being captured). You’d be glad to hear that he was allowed to leave once he helped the troops to the camp.
But that isn’t how the story ends.
Fr. Kapaun and the others were imprisoned in the Pyoktong, North Korea prison camp. Winter conditions in the camp were terrible. The prisoners were all dirty, weary, sick, cold, and hungry. But Father Kapaun worked tirelessly to help the soldiers in any way he could. He bathed them, stole food and supplies to keep them fed and warm, and kept their spirits up through prayer and song.
Just six short months after he was captured with the other troops, Fr. Emil Kapaun died in the prison camp on May 23rd, 1951. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in the fall of 1951.
The imagery associated with Fr. Kapaun is very powerful. There are images of him having Holy Mass on the hood of his jeep, helping soldiers in need, and doing everyday tasks like writing letters and working on his bicycle. While the story is indeed powerful, the images speak just as loudly.
This article isn’t meant to be a biography or a study of Fr. Kapaun, but simply an opportunity for you to learn more about him.
Father Emil Kapaun was a hero in the truest sense of the word, dedicating his and ultimately giving his life in the service of others.
A simple Google search will find a great deal of information about Kapaun, but I can suggest a couple of really good articles.
And my Father (who participated in this battle) recommends:
I’d like to dedicate this article to the men who were at Unsan on that fateful day. My Father was one of them, and his stories of the battle and the aftermath are terrifying. We all deal with frightening experiences in our lives, but I truly hope that none of us ever have to experience anything like the nightmare these soldiers endured. If you ever have the chance to visit Washington, DC – be sure to take the time to visit the Korean War Memorial. Then return at night – it is utterly haunting to walk the paths among the soldiers there.
Photos from the army.mil article linked above.