The Battle of UnsanROY WENZL & TRAVIS HEYING
November 1 is All Saints' Day on the Catholic Church calendar. On that day in North Korea in 1950, U.S. Army chaplain Father Emil Kapaun celebrated four Masses for soldiers in the Third Battalion of the Eighth Cavalry Regiment and went to bed early in his pup tent south of the village of Unsan.
With him in the little tent was his assistant and driver, Pfc. Patrick J. Schuler, a young guy from Cincinnati.
All around them, as Third Battalion bedded down in a cornfield, were clues that foretold the disaster about to overtake them. With the North Koreans on the run, the Eighth Cavalry's distant commanders, in Seoul and in Japan, all seemed to think the war was as good as won. Some of the men had been told to pack their belongings and get ready for a victory parade in Tokyo. The generals insisted that the Chinese would not enter the war. The generals were wrong.
Lt. Bob Wood went into the hills on patrol and listened to enemy officers talking to one another on his radio. When he asked a South Korean what the enemy was saying, the Korean said, "Chinese."
Herb Miller, a tough little sergeant who had fought in World War II, had taken a patrol north and come back with a farmer who told Third Battalion intelligence officers that the surrounding mountains hid tens of thousands of Chinese. The intelligence officers scoffed. Miller, disgusted, watched the farmer go home, then stuffed his pockets with grenades.
Early on November 2, All Souls' Day, Miller took out another patrol to the top of a little rise and bedded down in the dark. By then, although he didn't know it, the First and Second Battalions were already being overrun; the Third Battalion was next.
After midnight, he heard a whistle downslope that sounded like a birdcall. Miller punched the GI sleeping next to him. "That's no birdcall!" he said. "We are in for it!"
They got out of there and headed back to the battalion. But then they saw hundreds of figures moving in the dark, and a bugle blew, and then another, accompanied by the ghostly calls of sheep horns blown by Chinese peasant soldiers. Then machine guns sprayed pink tracer bullets, and mortars began thumping. Wild music broke out in the night, war songs from bugles and thousands of throats.
Kapaun and Schuler had scrambled out of their tent long before this; word had come that First and Second Battalions had already folded and were on the road headed for the rear.
GIs fired flares into the night sky and caught their breath: They saw thousands of Chinese soldiers coming at them. A nineteen-year-old corporal named Bob McGreevy, dropping mortar shells down a tube, saw a forward observer come running.
"Get the hell out of here!" he yelled.
Twenty thousand Chinese, who the generals said were not in North Korea, had rushed out of the hills at the three thousand men of the Eighth Cavalry; the First and Second Battalions withdrew south.
Kapaun and Schuler, driving north, loaded a few of the wounded and brought them south. Then they went back for more, but this time they ran into a Chinese roadblock.
"Stay with the jeep and say your prayers", Kapaun told Schuler. "I'll be back."
He ran to find more wounded, but the Chinese attacked. Schuler, frantic, yelled Kapaun's name again and again. In desperation as the Chinese crept closer, he set the empty jeep on fire to destroy it. He never saw Kapaun again.
Most of the First Battalion would escape; some of the Second Battalion, too. But the eight hundred men of Third Battalion covered the withdrawal, and they were overrun.
Miller, running for cover, found GIs in a ditch quivering like puppies. "Get up!" Miller yelled, kicking them. "Get out of here!" They would not move.
All the GIs had to do to kill Chinese was point a rifle in any direction and shoot. Waves of Chinese reached the heart of the Third Battalion; men fought hand to hand. A machine gunner, Tibor Rubin, shot Chinese by the dozens but saw hundreds more keep coming.
GIs saw Kapaun running from foxhole to foxhole, dragging wounded out, saying prayers over the dying, hearing confessions amid gunfire, ripping open shirts to look at wounds. Men screamed at him to escape, but he ignored them. He had repeated chances to escape, as did Dr. Clarence Anderson, but the priest and the doctor repeatedly ran into the gunfire to drag men into the relative safety of the American perimeter.
Kapaun called McGreevy and others into a huddle.
''I'm going to give you guys the last rites," he said, "because a lot of you guys are not going to make it home." McGreevy noticed how calm Kapaun looked. The priest called out the sacred words in English, not Latin; the GIs were from all shades of belief.
On the Chinese came. GIs fired bazookas into their own trucks in their own camp and machine-gunned Chinese by the light of the fires. Warplanes dropped napalm, incinerating hundreds of Chinese.
For days, the Third Battalion fought off mass charges of Chinese. They ransacked bodies for weapons and bullets when they ran low.
By that time Kapaun and Anderson had set up an aid station in a sandbagged dugout.
The GI perimeter shrank. Several soldiers who had escaped said their last view of Kapaun came when the American perimeter had shrunk to only about fifty yards across; the men in there were surrounded on all sides by thousands of Chinese. Kapaun was in the middle of it, unhit as of yet, and running from foxhole to foxhole to treat the wounded. He refused to stay in there, though: Lt. Walt Mayo saw Kapaun run three hundred yards outside the lines to drag stray wounded inside.
During one of those runs, Kapaun was captured and led away at gunpoint. But GIs rose up and fired at Kapaun's captors, allowing him to escape.
McGreevy heard officers yell at Kapaun to leave the battlefield.
"No", Kapaun called back.
The officers yelled again.
"No," Kapaun said, "my place is with the wounded." The priest looked as calm as he did at Mass.
By this time, Kapaun and Anderson had about forty wounded in the dugout, which lay exposed far outside the GI perimeter. The Chinese were digging trenches while advancing, protecting themselves as they moved in. McGreevy could see dirt flying out of the Chinese trenches.
Lt. William "Moose" McClain watched this and thought of Custer's Last Stand.
Once in a while, when a group of Chinese got close, he tossed a grenade, then played dead again. When he ran out of grenades, a nearby wounded GI threw him a few more and Miller tossed them at the Chinese.
The Chinese were all around him now, shooting at the shrinking perimeter. Miller pulled a dead enemy body on top of himself. Soon an enemy soldier sat down in the ditch, his boot touching Miller's arm.
By then, the Chinese had crept near the dugout where Kapaun and Anderson tended the wounded; they fired mortar rounds in there, killing some of the wounded.
Surrender seemed like suicide. The GIs had heard stories of atrocities in Korea. Kapaun had written a friend weeks before that "the Reds were not taking prisoners. So we resolved to fight them to the finish because we would not have a chance if we chose to surrender."
But in the dugout now, Kapaun made a bold move: He approached a captured and wounded Chinese officer. He said he would surrender and appeal to Chinese humanity.
That officer yelled outside. The Chinese stopped shooting at the dugout. They took Kapaun and fifteen or so of the wounded who could walk as prisoners. They also agreed not to shoot the rest of the wounded.
Anderson thought Kapaun's negotiations saved forty lives in the dugout.
Kapaun, under guard, stepped out of the dugout, over dead men piled three high. Down by the road, he saw an enemy rifleman take aim at a GI lying in a ditch.
That rifleman had found Miller hiding under a dead body. He put his rifle muzzle to Miller's head; Miller thought the muzzle looked big enough to crawl into. He would die now. Then he heard footsteps. So did the soldier about to kill him. The soldier, distracted, looked toward the dugout, his rifle still touching Miller's forehead. Miller turned to look.
They saw an American officer walking toward them. He was tall, skinny and unarmed, and he walked as calmly as a man about to pay his grocery bill. Kapaun had walked away from his captors, in the middle of a battle, risking a bullet in the back. But his captors held their fire.
Kapaun walked to the rifleman and shoved him aside, brushing the rifle barrel away from Miller's head with his arm.
"Let me help you up", he said. His voice was calm. He got Miller up on one foot; then helped him onto his back.
Miller turned around to look. The soldier who had wanted to shoot him aimed his rifle but did not fire. He looked puzzled. With Miller on his back, Kapaun walked toward the Chinese who had taken him prisoner at the dugout. Miller waited for death. But his would-be executioner just let him go.
"He didn't know what to do", Miller said. "Father Kapaun had that effect on those guys."
Miller, with his arms around Kapaun's skinny shoulders, wondered how far the priest could carry him.
The Miracle of Father Kapaun (DVD)
The Inspiring True Story of an American Spiritual and Military Hero
read the Introduction of The Miracle of Father Kapaun here.
Roy Wenzl and Travis Heying. "The Battle of Unsan." chapter one from The Miracle of Father Kapaun Priest, Soldier and Korean War Hero (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2013): 17-23.
Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press.
Travis Heying, a photographer, reporter and war correspondent for the Wichita Eagle, earned acclaim for his series on Afghan detainees. He is the co-author of The Miracle of Father Kapaun Priest, Soldier and Korean War Hero and produced and directed the film documentary The Miracle of Father Kapaun.
Copyright © 2013 Wichita Eagle
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