Doctors said Chase Kear's survival was impossible.
After he hit his head on the ground in a pole vaulting accident last year, they sawed off a third of his skull to relieve the pressure on his swelling brain.
They told his family that all hope was lost.
But Chase's family lives near Wichita, where a farm kid named Emil Kapaun was ordained a priest 69 years ago. The Kears prayed thousands of prayers to the soul of Father Kapaun, asking him to bend the ear of God. They chanted his name like a mantra.
And Chase woke up.
And he arose and walked.
His baffled doctors said his survival defied medical science. They told the Vatican later that it was a miracle.
So Chase became the latest chapter in the improbable story of Emil Kapaun, dead since 1951.
The story might become more improbable: The Army has recommended Kapaun for the Medal of Honor. The Vatican might make him a saint — if it decides he performed miracles.
Mike Dowe and William Funchess starved and shivered with Kapaun in a North Korean prisoner of war camp. So did Herb Miller and Bob Wood and Robert McGreevy.
They say Kapaun sometimes swore like a soldier. They say he gave away his own food as he starved.
They say that when all hope seemed lost, he rallied hundreds of filthy and ragged men to embrace life and forgive their enemies.
They don't consider themselves experts on miracles.
But they know what they saw.
Nov. 1 is All Saints Day on the Catholic calendar.
On that day in North Korea in 1950, Father Emil Kapaun celebrated four Masses for soldiers in the 3rd Battalion of the 8th Cavalry Regiment and went to bed early in his pup tent south of the village of Unsan.
All around him, as his battalion bedded down in a cornfield, were clues that foretold the disaster about to overtake them. With the North Koreans on the run, they thought the war was as good as won. And the generals had 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 3rd 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 Nov. 2, All Souls Day, Miller took out another patrol, to the top of a little rise and bedded down in the dark. By then, though he didn't know it, the 1st and 2nd Battalions were already being overrun; the 3rd Battalion was next.
After midnight, he heard a whistle downslope that sounded like a bird call. Miller punched the GI sleeping next to him. "That's no bird call!" 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 jumped out of his tent.
GIs fired flares into the night sky and caught their breath: They saw thousands of Chinese soldiers coming at them. A 19-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 3,000 men of the 8th Cavalry; the 1st and 2nd Battalions withdrew south.
Kapaun and a private named Patrick Schuler drove toward the fighting, then ran into enemy soldiers blocking the road. Kapaun and Schuler loaded a few of the wounded and brought them south.
"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, and Schuler in desperation set the empty jeep on fire to destroy it. He never saw Kapaun again.
Most of the 1st Battalion would escape; some of the 2nd Battalion, too. But the 800 men of 3rd 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 3rd 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.
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 3rd Battalion fought off mass charges of Chinese. They ransacked bodies for weapons and bullets when they ran low.
Kapaun and Clarence Anderson, a doctor, set up an aid station in a sandbagged dugout.
The GI perimeter shrank to 50 yards end to end, but Lt. Walt Mayo saw Kapaun run 300 yards outside it to drag wounded inside.
During one of those runs to help the wounded, Kapaun was captured and led away at gunpoint. But Mayo, as he told author William Maher later, shouted a command and GIs rose up and fired, killing the captors.
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 40 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 trenches.
Lt. William "Moose" McClain watched this and thought of Custer's Last Stand.
* * *
The sergeant who had heard that first bird call now lay in a ditch not far from Kapaun's aid station. Miller's ankle had been shattered by a grenade. He had spent hours playing dead.
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 15 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 40 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 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 picked him up piggyback.
Miller turned around to look. The rifleman who had wanted to shoot him aimed his rifle but did not shoot. He looked puzzled.
Kapaun walked toward the Chinese soldiers who had taken him prisoner at the dugout. Miller waited for death. But his would-be executioner just watched them walk away.
"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.
"Men find it easy to follow one who has endeared himself to them." -Father Emil Kapaun
Father Emil Kapaun was considered an unusual man even before the 8th Cavalry’s 3rd Battalion was overrun at Unsan. Many devout Christians believe, for example, that they must overtly preach Christianity, but Kapaun by all accounts never lectured, never forced it. What he did instead was scrounge food for soldiers, write letters to their families, pass his tobacco pipe around for a few puffs, and run through machine gun fire, rescuing wounded. If he brought up religion in foxholes, he asked permission first: “Would you care to say a prayer with me?” He treated Protestants, Jews and atheists the same way he treated Catholics — and he treated Catholics like loved ones. Some GIs did not like some chaplains. They loved this one.
Survivors at Unsan broke out and fought south through the hills. Most were captured. Chinese soldiers stole their watches, rings, helmets and boots. Some of them thought this was the end, that they’d be shot now. The enemy in Korea frequently murdered prisoners. Sgt. Herb Miller, his ankle shredded and bleeding, rode away from slaughter on Kapaun’s back.
Lt. Walt Mayo, who had saved Kapaun the first time he was captured at Unsan, escaped from the perimeter with his friend Phil Peterson, running across a road covered with dead Chinese. They were captured three days later. Mayo, who spent four months in a German prisoner of war camp in World War II, would spend 34 months in a camp more deadly.
Bob McGreevy, who had watched Kapaun bless men with the last rites, briefly escaped over a carpet of hundreds of dead Chinese in a stream bed, their limbs burned and twisted from napalm.
Lt. Ralph Nardella, a toughtalking Italian from New Jersey, was captured before he got out of the perimeter. In six months, Nardella would risk his life to save Father Kapaun.
Kapaun carried Miller north, under guard with other prisoners. The Chinese let the priest keep his ciborium, the threeinch-wide gold container for communion hosts.
Miller got a good look at him: wide-set gray eyes, a sharp nose, a cleft chin and thinning, sandy hair. The priest said he was from Kansas; Miller told him he was a farm kid from western New York.
The guards yelled at them if they talked, so they couldn’t say much more. The Chinese herded them along, mostly without food, mostly at night, in a three-week trek in the cold that survivors later called the Death March. At least, Kapaun told Miller, if they kept walking like this, they’d stay a little warmer.
Korean winters can be bitter cold, especially in the mountains; this would prove fatal to many. Along the way, shivering men who had not eaten in days began to refuse to carry wounded comrades, a move that meant death for the wounded.
Joe Ramirez, a soldier whom Kapaun had baptized literally on the invasion beach when the 8th Cavalry landed in Korea in July, was carrying wounded even though he had been hit five times himself.
He saw Kapaun begin to move up and down the line, “practically begging men to carry the wounded.” Some did; others hid from officers and the priest.
Other streams of prisoners would join theirs; some of them, including Kapaun, would ride part of the way in captured trucks. But for part of the way, Miller rode on the priest’s back, amazed that they were both still alive.
“You should put me down,” Miller said. “You can’t keep this up.”
“We’ll keep going,” Kapaun said.
Sometimes Miller heard shots from the back of the column. He suddenly realized: The Chinese were shooting those who could not keep up.
On Nov. 4, 1950, while the 8th Cavalry was being overrun to the northeast, Lt. William Funchess of the 19th Infantry had one of those frustrating conversations that happened a lot at that time in Korea.
Funchess was staring from a hilltop at hundreds of soldiers stripping naked on the bank of the freezing Ch’ongch’on River. They carried clothes and rifles above their heads as they waded across. They marched four abreast in the direction of the battalion headquarters of Funchess’ commanders.
Funchess had radioed a commander at headquarters to say the soldiers he saw were not dressed like North Koreans. “They are Chinese.”
“You are mistaken,” the commander said. “There are no Chinese in North Korea.”
Not long afterward, Funchess heard gunfire coming from headquarters. A short time later, Funchess and Lt. Mike Dowe and the two platoons they commanded were fighting hundreds of Chinese.
In only a few weeks, they would become two of Kapaun’s closest friends; they would try to save his life. But first they had to save each other.
Dowe and Funchess retreated at last, leading a dozen survivors, and saw soldiers in the distance. Dowe and Funchess told everybody to be quiet, but a GI cupped his hands.
“Don’t shoot! We’re GIs!”
But the soldiers were Chinese, and they sent bullets spattering against the rocks, knocking men down, tearing a hole through Funchess’ right foot.
“You’re not going to leave me here, Mike?” Funchess asked.
“No,” Dowe said.
They tried to run up a small mountainside, with Dowe dragging and carrying Funchess along.
They came face to face with a Chinese soldier firing a submachine gun, shredding scrub pine needles all around them. They shot back and kept going.
They made their way to a ravine, where they looked up at dozens of Chinese aiming rifles at them, a vision Funchess would see for decades in nightmares. They were captured.
The Chinese, herding them along, came across half a dozen wounded GIs. When they saw the GIs were too hurt to stand up, the Chinese rolled them over and shot them in the back of the head, one at a time, as Funchess watched.
They tied them up, binding Dowe with a loop around his neck that choked him if he moved. Dowe watched a Chinese soldier try to remove a ring from the finger of a wounded GI. When the ring stuck, the Chinese cut the finger off with a knife.
Another soldier put a pistol to Dowe’s head and pulled the trigger. The pistol was empty; the Chinese soldier laughed.
Hours later, they crowded the Americans into a schoolhouse to rest. In the building were wounded from the 8th Cavalry. They told Dowe a heroic 8th Cavalry chaplain had saved many lives.
Riding Kapaun’s back, Miller felt guilty. He had never attended the priest’s Masses in camp or on the battlefield, though he knew the guy was well liked. Miller had never met him until the priest stopped his execution.
Sometimes other people helped carry Miller, and the priest carried others, or urged men to carry stretchers, which they made from tree branches and rice sacks scrounged from nearby farms.
The branches would dig into the men’s shoulders. Sometimes, when carriers would set the stretcher down to change positions, the Chinese would yell to move along, and the wounded soldier was left to die.
Kapaun one night rode in a captured American truck, buried under wounded GIs. He didn’t move for fear he would hurt the wounded atop him. When the truck stopped and Kapaun got out, he collapsed, his legs stiff with cold. When he checked his feet he saw frostbite. He limped after that.
But when he found men refusing to pick up the wounded, he picked up stretcher poles himself. Men who had refused to do this for their officers did it when he asked.
At the schoolhouse where Funchess and Dowe spent their first night as prisoners, Funchess shoved his compass and his pocket-sized copy of the New Testament into the sock of his undamaged left foot.
Dowe heard prisoners from the 8th Cavalry say that the reason so many of them were alive was that they’d been saved by a doctor named Anderson and a recklessly brave chaplain. Dowe heard the 8th Cavalry men say the priest’s name. “KuhPAWN.”
Funchess, Dowe and other prisoners from the 19th Infantry joined the long line of POWs that included Kapaun, Miller and the 8th Cavalry. Other streams of prisoners joined theirs; they were given little or no food, ate snow for water.
Funchess stumbled forward, the bones of his right foot mangled. Dowe had saved his life, but now, with men being carried in the rice-bag stretchers, Funchess rode that way for a while. After soldiers dropped him several times, he walked.
During the days that followed, Chinese soldiers noticed Funchess stumbling and motioned him to sit down. Funchess thought they wanted to shoot him, so he pretended not to understand.
Kapaun kept moving up and down the line, limping, carrying stretchers, comforting men. Sometimes he would carry Miller.
When he got tired he would let Miller slide down his back, and Miller would hop on one foot with one of the priest’s arms around him. Miller did not want to wear out the priest, but hopping made his ankle bleed badly, so Kapaun or somebody else would carry him some more.
Miller had parachuted into Normandy on D-Day six years before; he had fought many battles, but he had never seen anybody like this priest.
Miller could feel Kapaun’s skinny back. There did not appear to be a lot of muscle there, but the guy seemed to be made of iron. He kept going hour after hour, living on nothing but the little ball of millet they got once a day from the guards.
“Father,” Miller said. “You need to put me down.”
Kapaun shook his head.
“If I put you down, Herb, they will shoot you.”