Two months after the war began, Kapaun was awarded a Bronze Star for running through enemy fire to drag wounded soldiers to safety. It was a brutal conflict with little information getting through to troops on the ground, some of whom did not know that the Chinese military had entered the war alongside North Korea.
“The Army was in terrible shape,” Wood said. “Our weapons didn’t work. Our men weren’t physically conditioned. We had malaria and dysentery. Father Kapaun was a constant example.”
On the front lines, the priest would “drop in a shallow hole beside a nervous rifleman, crack a joke or two, hand him a peach, say a little prayer with him and move on to the next hole,” Dowe recalled.
On Nov. 2, 1950, the 8th Cavalry was encircled by Chinese and North Korean troops at Unsan. The men had thought they would be home by Christmas. They did not have winter clothes, Wood said. Now they were prisoners.
On that day, Kapaun performed an act of heroism commemorated in a bronze sculpture that stands in front of the church in Pilsen. The other man in the statue, which depicts Kapaun helping a wounded soldier, is Herbert Miller.
Miller, a platoon leader, found himself standing under a small bridge in a dry creek encircled by enemy troops on a dark night.
“You could reach right out and touch them. The bullets was flying,” Miller recalled in an interview. “I moved 30 feet and I got hit with a hand grenade.”
The blast broke Miller’s ankle; he lay in the ditch until daylight, unable to escape. When he saw enemy troops coming up the nearby mountain, he tried to hide by pulling the body of a Korean soldier on top of him. But he was spotted and soon found himself being held at gunpoint.
“About that time, I saw this soldier coming across the road. He pushed that man’s rifle aside and he picked me up,” Miller said.
For a time, Kapaun carried Miller on his back.
That was the first time he met Kapaun. Both men began what would become known as the Tiger Death March, a trek of more than 80 miles to the North Korean POW camp.
‘The good thief’
Entering the camp in winter, when temperatures dipped below freezing, was brutal, Dowe, Miller and Wood recall. Each day, the men were fed a few grams of cracked grain that looked like birdseed. The soldiers were packed into such small quarters that they had to sleep on their sides so that everyone could lie down. There was more room by spring because so many did not survive the winter.
“We were at the point where if you decided you weren’t going to hack it anymore, the guys would say, ‘Don’t bother me in the morning.’ And you’d go to wake them up in the morning and they were dead,” Wood said. “You get your body reduced to a certain level and it doesn’t take much to snuff out the spark.”