April 3, 1946 Death March

Mario “Motts” Tonelli hoped to fulfill his one years’ commitment and return to the Cardinals for the ’42 season, but it wasn’t meant to be. The radio crackled to life at 2:30am local time on December 7. “Air raid on Pearl Harbor. This is no drill!”

The game was November 27, 1937.  Late in the 4th quarter, Notre Dame was tied 6-6 with Southern California. The “Fighting Irish” needed a miracle. Notre Dame fullback #58 Mario Tonelli took the hand-off deep in Notre Dame territory and ran the ball 70 yards back before being tackled. Seconds later, the 5’11”, 195lb Tonelli, scored the game winning touchdown.

In some ways, Mario Tonelli himself was the miracle. At the age of 6, “Motts” Tonelli had been burned over 80% of his body, when a trash compactor toppled over on him. Mario’s immigrant father Celi, a laborer from a northern Italian marble quarry, refused to believe the doctor who said his son would never walk again. Fixing four wheels to a door, the elder Tonelli taught his first American-born son to move about with his arms. By 1935, Mario Tonelli was a football, basketball and track star at Chicago’s DePaul Academy.

TonelliAfter a year coaching at Providence College in 1939 and a year playing professional football for the Chicago Cardinals in 1940, Tonelli joined the Army in early 1941, assigned to the 200th Coast Artillery Regiment in Manila.

Tonelli hoped to fulfill his one years’ commitment and return to the Cardinals for the ’42 season, but it wasn’t meant to be. The radio crackled to life at 2:30am local time on December 7. “Air raid on Pearl Harbor. This is no drill!”

Bataan1Military forces of Imperial Japan appeared unstoppable in the early months of WWII, attacking first Thailand, then the British possessions of Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong, as well as US military bases in Hawaii, Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines.

The United States was grotesquely unprepared to fight a World War in 1942, and dedicated itself to beating Adolf Hitler first. General Douglas MacArthur abandoned the “Alamo of the Pacific” on March 11 saying “I shall return”, leaving 90,000 American and Filipino troops without food, supplies or support with which to fight off the Japanese offensive.

bataanOn April 9, 75,000 surrendered the Bataan peninsula, beginning a 65 mile, five-day slog into captivity through the heat of the Philippine jungle. Japanese guards were sadistic. They would beat the marchers and bayonet those too weak to walk. Japanese tanks  swerved out of their way to run over anyone who had fallen and was too slow in getting up. Some were burned alive. Already crippled from tropical disease and starving from the long siege of Luzon, thousands perished in what came to be known as the Bataan Death March.

Exhausted, sunburned and aching with thirst, Tonelli still refused when a Japanese soldier demanded his Notre Dame class ring. As the guard reached for his sword, a nearby prisoner shouted “Give it to him. It’s not worth dying for”.

Mario Tonelli RingMinutes later, a Japanese officer appeared, speaking perfect English. “Did one of my men take something from you?” “Yes”, Tonelli replied. “My school ring”. “Here,” said the officer, pressing the ring into his hand. “Hide it somewhere. You may not get it back next time”. Tonelli was speechless. “I was educated in America”, the officer said. “At the University of Southern California. I know a little about the famous Notre Dame football team. In fact, I watched you beat USC in 1937. I know how much this ring means to you, so I wanted to get it back to you”.

Nearly 700 Americans and over 10,000 Filipinos died on the Bataan death march. For the survivors, the ordeal was only the beginning. For 2½ years, Tonelli suffered starvation, disease and endless beatings in the squalid prison camps known as O’Donnell, Cabanatuan, and Davao. Tonelli kept his ring throughout, buried in a soap dish. He’d take it out from time to time to remind himself:  life used to be better than this. It gave him something to hope for.

tonelli2The hellish 60-day journey aboard the filthy, cramped merchant vessel began in late 1944, destined for slave labor camps in mainland Japan. Tonelli was barely 100 pounds on arrival, his body ravaged by malaria and intestinal parasites. He was barely half the man who once played fullback at Notre Dame Stadium, Soldier Field and Comiskey Park.

Arriving at Nagoya #7 prison camp, Tonelli was handed a piece of paper. Scribbled on it was a 58. He was prisoner number 58, the same number he once wore on his football Jersey. “From that point on,” he said, “I knew I was going to make it”.

An American military tribunal conducted after the war held Lieutenant General Homma Masaharu, commander of the Japanese invasion forces in the Philippines, guilty of war crimes. He was executed by firing squad on April 3, 1946.

Mario Tonelli always hoped to meet the officer who’d returned his ring, but it wasn’t meant to be. He probably didn’t survive the war. Tonelli still had that ring when he passed away, in 2003.

Last year, nearly 10,000 gathered in New Mexico, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Bataan death march. 7,200 retired and active duty military personnel and civilians gathered to run the 26.2 “Death March” through the hilly desert terrain of the White Sands Missile Range, a race described by DoD.mil as “one of the toughest marathon-length events in the U.S.”

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Bataan Death March survivor retired U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Harold Bergbower, 97, shakes hands with 2018 Bataan Memorial Death March participants at the race’s finish line. DoD photo by Army Staff Sgt. Bruce Petitt

Ed Broadnax of El Paso, Texas, ran the course in full uniform, boots and 45-pound backpack. “As a veteran who served 26 years in the US Army and deployed three times to combat and experienced the horrors of war, I feel pain for the men and women who suffered intensely under the deadly Japanese Imperial Forces, as they were marched through the Philippine jungle. This is what drives me to run in their honor.”

Hundreds of others walked a 14.2 mile course, including Bataan Death March survivor Ben Skardon, who turned 100 last July.  Mr. Skardon walked 8½.  “The word hero doesn’t apply to me, at all”, Skardon said.  “As I said in my talk, ‘no greater love hath any man, than to lay down his life for his friends’.  That’s in the bible”.

Seven survivors of the Death March of 1942, turned out for the March 31, 2017 event.   The 2018 edition held on March 25, had one fewer.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

January 27, 1945 Cabanatuan

The Japanese atrocity at Palawan sparked a series of raids at Santo Tomas Internment Camp, Bilibid Prison, Los Baños and others.  The first such behind-enemy-lines rescue, was Cabanatuan.

Today, Cabanatuan calls itself the “Tricycle Capital of the Philippines”, with about 30,000 motorized “auto rickshaws”.  Seventy-three years ago, the place was home to one of the worst POW camps of WWII.

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1942 was a dreadful year for the allied war effort in the Pacific.  The Battle of Bataan alone resulted in 72,000 prisoners being taken by the Japanese, marched off to POW camps designed for ten to twenty-five thousand.

pows-cabanatuan20,000 died from sickness or hunger, or were murdered by Japanese guards on the 60 mile “death march” from Bataan, into captivity at Cabanatuan prison and others.

Cabanatuan held 8,000 prisoners at its peak, though the number dropped considerably as the able-bodied were shipped out to work in Japanese slave labor camps.

Cabanatuan-prisoncamp-report_555Two rice rations per day, fewer than 800 calories, were supplemented by the occasional animal or insect caught and killed inside camp walls, or by the rare food items smuggled in by civilian visitors.

2,400 died in the first eight months at Cabanatuan, animated skeletons brought to “hospital wards”, nothing more than 2’x6′ patches of floor, where prisoners waited to die.

A Master Sergeant Gaston saw one of these wards in July 1942, saying: “The men in the ward were practically nothing but skin and bones and they had open ulcers on their hips, on their knees and on their shoulders…maggots were eating on the open wounds. There were blow flies…by the millions…men were unable to get off the floor to go to the latrine and their bowels moved as they lay there”.

The war was going badly for the Japanese by October 1944, as Imperial Japanese High Command ordered able bodied POWs removed to Japan.  1,600 were taken from Cabanatuan, leaving 500 weak and disabled prisoners.  The guards abandoned camp shortly after, though Japanese soldiers continued to pass through.  POWs were able to steal food from abandoned Japanese quarters; some even captured two water buffalo called “Carabao”, which were killed and eaten.  Many feared a trick and never dared to leave the camp.  Most were too sick and weak to leave in any case, though the extra rations would help them through what was to come.

Palawan_Massacre_POW_Burial_Site_1945On December 14, some fifty to sixty soldiers of the Japanese 14th Area Army in Palawan doused 150 prisoners with gasoline and set them on fire, machine gunning or clubbing any who tried to escape the flames.   Some thirty to forty managed to escape the killing zone, only to be hunted down and murdered, one by one.  Eleven managed to escape the slaughter, and lived to tell the tale.  139 were burned, clubbed or machine gunned to death.

The atrocity at Palawan sparked a series of raids at Santo Tomas Internment Camp, Bilibid Prison, Los Baños and others.  The first such behind-enemy-lines rescue, was Cabanatuan.

Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci of the United States Army’s elite 6th Ranger Battalion selected Captain Robert Prince to plan the rescue. “We couldn’t rehearse this”, Prince said. “Anything of this nature, you’d ordinarily want to practice it over and over for weeks in advance. Get more information, build models, and discuss all of the contingencies. Work out all of the kinks. We didn’t have time for any of that. It was now, or not”.

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6th Ranger Battalion Capt. Robert Prince

On the evening of January 27, 1945, a 14-man advance team formed from the 6th Ranger Battalion and a special reconnaissance group called the “Alamo Scouts”, separated into two groups and began the 30-mile march behind enemy lines to liberate Cabanatuan.

The main force of 121 Rangers moved out the following day, meeting up with 200 Filipino guerrillas, serving as guides and helping in the rescue.

Other guerrillas assisted along the way, muzzling dogs and corralling chickens so that Japanese occupiers would hear nothing of their approach.  Japanese soldiers once again occupied the camp, with 1,000 more camped across the Cabo River outside the prison.  As many as 7,000 more were deployed, just a few miles away.

On the night of the 30th, a P-61 Black Widow piloted by Captain Kenneth Schrieber and 1st Lt. Bonnie Rucks staged a ruse.  For 45 minutes, the pair conducted a series of aerial acrobatics, cutting and restarting engines with loud backfires while seeming to struggle to maintain altitude. Thousands of Japanese soldiers watched the show, as Rangers belly crawled into positions around the camp.

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Filipino Guerilla fighters of Captain Juan Pajota

Guard towers and pillboxes were wiped out in the first fifteen seconds of the assault.  Filipino guerrillas blew the bridge and ambushed the large force across the river while one, trained to use a bazooka only hours earlier, took out four Japanese tanks.

In the camp, all was pandemonium as some prisoners came out and others hid, suspecting some trick to bring them out in the open.  They were so emaciated that Rangers carried them out two at a time.

The raid was over in 35 minutes, POWs brought to pre-arranged meet-up places with dozens of carabao carts.   A long trek yet remained, one POW said “I made the Death March from Bataan, so I can certainly make this one!”  Over three days, up to 106 carts joined the procession, their plodding 2 MPH progress covered by strafing American aircraft.

Two American Rangers were killed in the raid, another 4 Americans and 21 Filipinos wounded, compared with 500-1,000 Japanese killed and four tanks put out of action.  One prisoner died in the arms of a Ranger, before leaving the gate.  Another died of illness on the long trip back.  464 American soldiers were liberated, along with 22 British and 3 Dutch soldiers, 28 American civilians, 2 Norwegians and one civilian each of British, Canadian and Filipino nationalities.

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Carabao cart, similar to the ones used after the raid on Cabanatuan

Edwin Rose was a civilian, a purser on a ship plying the Singapore – Hong Kong run, when the war broke out.  He was caught in Manila and spent 929 days in captivity.  One of the longest-held POWs of the war in the Pacific. Rose awoke the night of the raid, and “heard all the shooting”.  He “knew the Americans had arrived” but he rolled over and went back to sleep, thinking they were there to stay. On awakening the following morning, Rose found he had “Cabanatuan all my own.”

POWs_celebrateHe dressed and shaved, put on his best clothes, and walked out of camp.  Passing guerrillas found him and passed him to a tank destroyer.  Give the man points for style.  A few days later, Edwin Rose strolled into 6th army headquarters, a cane tucked under his arm.

The Cabanatuan raid of January 30, 1945 liberated over 500 allied prisoners, the Americans among them representing virtually every state in the Union. Begging pardon for any mistakes in rank and/or spelling, the following represents those from my home state of Massachusetts:

  • Lieutenant Commander Robert Strong, Jr., Arlington
  • Captain John Dugan, Milton
  • 2nd Lieutenant John Temple, Pittsfield
  • Sergeant Richard Neault, Adams
  • Sergeant Stanislaus Malor, Salem
  • Private, 1st Class Joseph Thibeault, Lawrence
  • Private Edward Searkey, Lynn
  • USN C/QM Martin Seliga, Fitchburg
  • USN 1/C PO J.E.A. Morin, Danvers
  • USN AC MM Carl Silverman, Wareham

I hope I didn’t leave anyone out.  These guys have earned the right to be remembered.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it too. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

December 15, 1979 Iranian Revolution

Aside from some of the most dismal economic conditions in American history, the Iranian hostage crisis did more than anything else to doom Jimmy Carter, to a single term.

Ruhollah Mousavi, the name translates as “inspired of God”, was born in the Iranian village of Khomein, on September 24, 1902.  Born into a family of Shi’ite religious scholars, Mousavi was raised by his mother and aunt after his father was murdered while the boy was still an infant.  The mother and the aunt died in a cholera outbreak when he was 16. After that he was raised by his brother, Seyed Mourteza.

The family claimed to be directly descended from Muhammad, and both brothers were avid religious scholars, attaining the status of Ayatollah: Shi’ite scholars of the highest knowledge.

As King of Persia (Iran) since the 1920s, Rezā Shāh Pahlavi weakened the powers of religious leaders and pushed for a more secularized country.  Pahlavi’s reign was largely a force for modernization, but was often despotic, and failure to modernize a large peasant population paved the way to the Iranian Revolution.

Mohammad_Reza_Pahlavi
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi came to power in 1941, following the Commonwealth/Soviet invasion of the Empire of Iran which forced the abdication of his father.

The years following WW2 saw a “growing nationalist mobilization against foreign domination” across the Middle East.  In Iran, increasingly politicized Shiʿite “Islamic Fundamentalist” sentiment took the form of the Fadā’iyān-e Islam, literally “Self-Sacrificers of Islam”, an activist organization founded by theology student Navvab Safavi and dedicated to “purifying” Islam through the assassinations of leading intellectual and political leaders.

Prime Minister Haj Ali Razmara was assassinated by Fadā’iyān-e Islam radicals in 1951, the organization’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Abol-Qassem Kashani becoming Speaker of the National Parliament.

In the early 50’s, secular Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh enjoyed an alliance of convenience with the hard-liner Kashani, mentor to the future Ayatollah Khomeini, at the same time seeking to blunt the political power of the Shah, believing that the Persian King should “reign, but not rule” in the manner of the constitutional monarchies of Europe.

In 1901, Mozzafar al-Din Shah Qajar, King of Persia, granted a 60-year petroleum search concession to British investor William Knox D’Arcy for £20,000, equivalent to $166 million in 2016.  By the WW2 period, support was building for state control of foreign-owned oil assets, many believing such policies to be the way forward to greater wealth and self-determination. Mossadegh attempted to negotiate a 50/50 split of oil profits, but the British controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) balked.

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Mohammad Mossadegh

Contrary to the American position at that time, the UK government began plans to undermine and overthrow the Iranian government.

AIOC refusal to submit to audit of its books led to the “Nationalization Crisis” of 1951, and the near-unanimous vote in the majlis to nationalize Iranian oil assets. Foreign-owned oil executives were expelled from the country, the British government enforcing an Iranian oil embargo while Prime Minister Mossadegh talked of a “cruel and imperialistic country” stealing from a “needy and naked people.”

With the United States fighting a war in Korea, the American government was deeply entrenched in a cold war mindset. Mossadegh had lost the support of Islamist hardliners by this time, for his failure to move the nation toward sharia-based theocratic government.

The communist-supporting Tudeh party began to infiltrate the Iranian military, persuading American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that the Iranian government was “falling” to the Soviet Union.

Iranian Revolution 5
Tehran University students, in the time of the shah

Before long, economic and political isolation severely weakened the Mossadegh government, as the American government switched sides on the question of Iranian overthrow.  Two UK/US-backed coup attempts followed in 1953, along with the temporary expulsion of the Shah. The government was done for good that August. Mohammad Mossadegh would spend the rest of his life under house arrest.

Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

Ayatollah Khomeini had formed very different views by this time from those of his teachers, concerning the separation of church and state.  Khomeini dedicated himself to teaching, cultivating a group of dedicated students who would one day become his staunchest supporters.  By the time of JFK’s election to the Presidency, Shi’ite Iranians regarded Khomeini as “Marja-e Taqlid”.  A person to be imitated.

Khomeini gained prominence in 1962, opposing a law which would remove the requirement that elected officials be sworn in on the Qu’ran. In 1963, he gave a speech suggesting the Shah could leave if he didn’t like the political direction of the country, a speech which earned him a stay in prison.

Khomeini was arrested again in 1964, after pronouncing his belief that Jews would take over Iran, and that the US considered all Iranians to be little more than slaves.  Khomeini was deported to Turkey, later taking up residence in Iraq because Turkish law prevented him from wearing the traditional clothes of a Shi’ite cleric and scholar.

During his years in exile, Khomeini developed his ideas on the structure of an Islamic state, which he called “Velayat-e faqeeh”.  He would lecture on his religious theories, videotapes of which were smuggled into Iran and sold at bazaars, making Khomeini the leader of Iranian opposition to the Shah’s government.

Iranian Revolution 4Military force had to be called out in 1975, to dispel crowds at a religious school in Qom.  Khomeini declared it the beginning of “Freedom and liberation from the bonds of imperialism”.  By this time Khomeini was too hot to handle even for the Iraqis, and he moved to Paris.  It was only a few short months before his triumphant return.

Thousands were killed in riots and demonstrations throughout 1978, which the Shah first tried to quell, and later to embrace.  “As Shah of Iran as well as an Iranian citizen”, Pahlavi said on November 5, “I cannot but approve your revolution”.

It was too little, too late.  Weeks later the Shāhanshāh, the “King of Kings”, left his country for good.

Iranian Revolution 2Khomeini re-entered Iran in February, as the Shah went from country to country, looking for a place to stay.  With the now-former King of Kings suffering from a form of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, President Jimmy Carter reluctantly allowed the Shah into the US for surgery. Pahlavi left on December 15, 1979 for Panama.

Iranian Revolution 1Meanwhile, now “Grand Ayatollah” Khomeini was denouncing what he saw as an American plot.  Revolutionaries stormed the American embassy and seized 66 hostages.  13 women and black Americans were released.  Richard Queen, a white man sick with Multiple Sclerosis, was released nine months later.  The remaining 52 hostages would be 444 days in captivity, paraded before television cameras in blindfolds as Khomeini denounced “The Great Satan”.

The US attempted a rescue on April 24, 1980.  “Operation Eagle Claw” ended in collision between aircraft and the death of eight American servicemen, an Iranian civilian, and the destruction of two aircraft.

Iran-hostagesAside from some of the most dismal economic conditions in American history, the Iranian hostage crisis did more than anything else to doom Jimmy Carter, to a single term.

Iranian revolutionaries wanted the Shah to stand trial for atrocities committed by his secret police, the SAVAK, but the Islamic Republic of Iran would easily match the worst of the Shah’s reign when it came to brutality.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is gone now, but his influence is very much alive.  If you want a fun read sometime, download the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Khomeini is personally named in the document.  Three times.

There is a quote, attributed to the Ayatollah, which says “We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world”.

A 2007 article in the Economist calls the authenticity of this quote into question, noting that the Mullahs like to build up bank accounts in Dubai and Switzerland, behavior hardly consistent with such an apocalyptic world view.

As South Korean intelligence officials warn of a madman neighbor to the north “bartering” nuclear weapons for oil, the previous administration concluded a comprehensive “Nuclear Agreement” with Iran, replete with secret side deals, including $400 billion in cash flown into Tehran in the middle of the night.

While the current administration mulls over the re-certification of that deal, it would be nice to settle the authenticity question on that Khomeini quote, once and for all.

November 19, 1904 Another Man’s Shoes

We rarely hear about the work of the spy or the saboteur in times of war. They are the Heroes who work behind enemy lines, with little to protect them but their own guts and cleverness.

We rarely hear about the work of the spy or the saboteur in times of war. They are the Heroes who work behind enemy lines, with little to protect them but their own guts and cleverness. Their work is performed out of sight, yet there have been times when the lives of millions hung in the balance, and they never even knew it.

One such was Iacob Somme, a Norwegian who was caught, tortured and executed by the Gestapo, for his role in sabotaging the Nazi heavy water plant in Telemark, in 1943. We can only imagine a world in which Nazi Germany was the first to build a nuclear bomb.  We might thank this man that that world remains entirely imaginary.

Sven SommeAnother such man was his brother Sven, born this day, November 19, 1904.

Like his brother Iacob, Sven Somme joined the Norwegian Resistance to fight the Nazis who had occupied his country since 1940. He photographed strategic German military bases using a covert camera, sending tiny maps, photographs and intelligence reports to the Allies hidden under the stamps on letters.

In 1944, Somme was caught taking pictures of a German U-boat base on the island of Otteroy. Guards saw the sun glint off the camera’s lens, and they came running. Sven tried hiding the tiny camera under a rock, but the Germans quickly found it and he was put in cuffs.

That night, Somme managed to slip his handcuffs and creep past his sleeping guard. What followed was a two months-long race between life and death.

Sven Somme, treeThe Norwegian had barely an hour’s head start, and the Nazis couldn’t let this guy get away. He knew too much. Somme was pursued through streams and ravines as he worked his way into the mountains.

He wore a pair of beat up dress shoes and certainly would have succumbed to frostbite in the mountains, had he not been taken in for a time by a friendly family. He couldn’t stay for long, but this family’s 19-year-old son Andre gave him the pair of mountain boots that saved his life.

Somme would wade through icy streams to avoid leaving tracks in the snow, or leap from one tree to another, a technique he had learned as a kid. He trekked 200 miles through the mountains in this manner, dodging bears and wolves, all the while being pursued by 900 German soldiers and a pack of bloodhounds.

news-graphics-2007-_655294aSomme finally made it to neutral Sweden, where he was taken to England. There he met the exiled King of Norway, and the woman who would one day become his wife and mother of his three daughters, an English woman named Primrose.

Sven Somme passed away in 1961 after a fight with cancer.  Primrose died not long after. It was only in going through her things after she passed, that the three girls discovered their father’s history. The photographs, the letters, even an arrest warrant written out in German and Norwegian.

Somme had written a memoir about his escape, calling it “Another Man’s Shoes”. In 2004, his daughters used the book to retrace their father’s epic flight across the mountains. They even met the family who had sheltered him and, to their amazement, they still had his old shoes. The book is still in print as far as I know.  It has a forward by his daughter Ellie, describing their emotional meeting with the family who had sheltered her father.

It must be one hell of a story.

November 2, 1950 A Shepherd in Combat Boots

Reporting on Kapaun’s Medal of Honor, the NY Times wrote “The chaplain “calmly walked through withering enemy fire” and hand-to-hand combat to provide medical aid, comforting words or the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church to the wounded, the citation said. When he saw a Chinese soldier about to execute a wounded comrade, Sgt. First Class Herbert A. Miller, he rushed to push the gun away. Mr. Miller, now 88, was at the White House for the ceremony with other veterans, former prisoners of war and members of the Kapaun family”.

image (1)Emil Joseph Kapaun was the son of Czech immigrants, a farm kid who grew up in 1920s Kansas. Graduating from Pilsen High, class of 1930, Kapaun spent much of the 30s in theological seminary, becoming an ordained priest of the Roman Catholic faith on June 9, 1940.

Kapaun served as military chaplain toward the end of WWII, before leaving the army in 1946 and rejoining in 1948.

Chaplain Kapaun was ordered to Korea a month after the North invaded the South, joining the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division, out of Fort Bliss.

The 8th Cav. entered combat at the Pusan perimeter, moving steadily northward through the summer and fall of 1950.  Father Kapaun would minister to the dead and dying, performing baptisms, hearing first confessions and offering holy communion.  He would celebrate mass from an improvised altar, set up on the hood of a jeep.Kapaun2

Kapaun once lost his mass kit to enemy fire. He earned a Bronze Star in September that year, running through intense enemy fire to rescue a wounded soldier. His was no rear-echelon ministry.

A single regiment was attacked by the entire 39th Chinese Corps on November 1, and completely overrun the following day.  For the US 8th Cavalry, the battle of Unsan was one of the most devastating defeats of the Korean War. Father Kapaun was ordered to evade, an order he deliberately defied. He was performing last rites for a dying soldier, when he was seized by Chinese communist forces.

Prisoners were force marched 87 miles to a Communist POW camp near Pyoktong, in North Korea. Conditions in the camp were gruesome. 1st Lieutenant Michael Dowe was among the prisoners.  Through him that we know much of what happened there. Dowe later described Father Kapaun trading his watch for a blanket, only to cut it up to fashion socks for the feet of prisoners.

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Fr. Kapaun holds a pipe, shot out of his mouth by an enemy sniper

Father Kapaun would risk his life, sneaking into the fields around the prison compound to look for something to eat. He would always bring it back to the communal pot.

Chinese Communist guards would taunt Kapaun, during daily indoctrination sessions, “Where is your god now?” Before and after these sessions, he would move through the camp, ministering to Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Kapaun would slip in behind every work detail, cleaning latrines while other prisoners argued over who’d get the job. He’d wash the filthy laundry of those made weak and incontinent with dysentery.

Starving, suffering from a blood clot in his leg and a severe eye infection, Father Kapaun led Easter services in April, 1951. He was incapacitated a short time later. Guards carried him off to a “hospital”, a fetid, stinking part of the camp known to prisoners as the “death house”, from which few ever returned. “If I don’t come back”, he said, “tell my Bishop that I died a happy death.”Kapaun1

Scores of men credit their survival at Pyoktong, to Chaplain Kapaun.

In the end, Father Kapaun was too weak to lift the plate holding the meager meal his guards left him. US Army records report that he died of pneumonia on May 6, 1951.  His fellow POWs will tell you that he died on May 23, of malnutrition and starvation. He was 35.

In 2013, President Barack Obama presented Kapaun’s family with a posthumous Medal of Honor for his heroism at Unsan. The New York Times reported that April, “The chaplain “calmly walked through withering enemy fire” and hand-to-hand combat to provide medical aid, comforting words or the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church to the wounded, the citation said. When he saw a Chinese soldier about to execute a wounded comrade, Sgt. First Class Herbert A. Miller, he rushed to push the gun away. Mr. Miller, now 88, was at the White House for the ceremony with other veterans, former prisoners of war and members of the Kapaun family“.

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The naming of a Saint of the Roman Catholic church is not a process taken lightly.  Pope John Paul II named Father Kapaun a “Servant of God” in 1993, the first step toward Sainthood. On November 9, 2015, the Catholic Diocese of Wichita submitted a 1,066 page report on the life of Chaplain Kapaun, to the Roman Curia at the Vatican.

A team of six historians reviewed the case for beatification. On June 21, 2016, the committee unanimously approved the petition. Two days later, the Wichita Eagle newspaper reported that Father Kapaun was one step closer to sainthood.  At the time I write this, Father Emil Joseph Kapaun’s supporters continue working to have him declared a Saint of the Roman Catholic Church, for his lifesaving ministrations at Pyoktong.

Emil Kapaun

October 8, 1942 “Once!” 

Knowing he was about to die, Harl Pease uttered the most searing insult possible against an expert swordsman and self-styled “samurai”.  Particularly one with such a helpless victim. It was the single word, in Japanese.  “Once!”.

The Municipal Airport in Portsmouth NH was opened in the 1930s, expanding in 1951 to become a Strategic Air Command (SAC) base. The name was changed to Pease Air Force Base in 1957, in honor of Harl Pease, Jr., recipient of the Medal of Honor and Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism that led to his death in World War II.

The Japanese war machine seemed unstoppable in the early part of the war.  In 1942, that machine was advancing on the Philippines.

United States Army Air Corps Captain Harl Pease was ordered to lead three battered B-17 Flying Fortresses to Del Monte field in Mindanao, to evacuate General Douglas MacArthur, his family and staff, to Australia. One of the planes was forced to abort early, while the other developed engine trouble and crashed.  Pease alone was able to land his Fortress, despite inoperative wheel brakes and used ration tins covering bullet holes.

Harlan Pease
Captain Harl Pease, Jr.

MacArthur was horrified at the sight of that beat up aircraft, and refused to put his wife and son on board. The family would wait two more days before MacArthur made his famous exit, saying, “I shall return”.

Harl Pease wasn’t supposed to go on the “maximum effort” mission against Rabaul, since his aircraft was down for repairs. But he was determined. Harl Pease and a few volunteers grabbed an old trainer aircraft on August 7, too beat up for combat service. Its engines needed overhaul, some armament had been dismounted, and the electric fuel-transfer pump had been scavenged for parts. Pease had a fuel tank installed in the bomb bay and a hand pump was rigged to transfer fuel.  In fewer than three hours, he and his crew were on their way.Cmoh_army

Captain Pease’ Medal of Honor citation tells the story: “When 1 engine of the bombardment airplane of which he was pilot failed during a bombing mission over New Guinea, Capt. Pease was forced to return to a base in Australia. Knowing that all available airplanes of his group were to participate the next day in an attack on an enemy-held airdrome near Rabaul, New Britain, although he was not scheduled to take part in this mission, Capt. Pease selected the most serviceable airplane at this base and prepared it for combat, knowing that it had been found and declared unserviceable for combat missions. With the members of his combat crew, who volunteered to accompany him, he rejoined his squadron at Port Moresby, New Guinea, at 1 a.m. on 7 August, after having flown almost continuously since early the preceding morning. With only 3 hours’ rest, he took off with his squadron for the attack. Throughout the long flight to Rabaul, New Britain, he managed by skillful flying of his unserviceable airplane to maintain his position in the group. When the formation was intercepted by about 30 enemy fighter airplanes before reaching the target, Capt. Pease, on the wing which bore the brunt of the hostile attack, by gallant action and the accurate shooting by his crew, succeeded in destroying several Zeros before dropping his bombs on the hostile base as planned, this in spite of continuous enemy attacks. The fight with the enemy pursuit lasted 25 minutes until the group dived into cloud cover. After leaving the target, Capt. Pease’s aircraft fell behind the balance of the group due to unknown difficulties as a result of the combat, and was unable to reach this cover before the enemy pursuit succeeded in igniting 1 of his bomb bay tanks. He was seen to drop the flaming tank. It is believed that Capt. Pease’s airplane and crew were subsequently shot down in flames, as they did not return to their base. In voluntarily performing this mission Capt. Pease contributed materially to the success of the group, and displayed high devotion to duty, valor, and complete contempt for personal danger. His undaunted bravery has been a great inspiration to the officers and men of his unit”.

Pease was presumed lost, until Father George Lepping was captured, finding him and one of his airmen languishing in a Japanese POW camp. Captain Pease was well respected by the other POWs, and even some of his Japanese guards. “You, you ah, Captain Boeing?“, they would say.  Pease would stand up straight and say, “Me, me Captain Boeing.

Japanese officers were a different story.  They would beat the prisoners savagely on any provocation, or none at all.

On October 8, 1942, Captain Harl Pease, Jr. was taken into the jungle along with three other Americans and two Australian prisoners. They were given picks and shovels and forced to dig their own graves.  And then each was beheaded, by sword. Captain Pease was 25.

Decades later, an elderly Japanese veteran passed away, and his family found his war diary.  This man had been one of the guards ordered along, on the day of Pease’ murder.

Pease_planeThe diary tells of a respect this man had for “Captain Boeing”. Beaten almost senseless, his arms tied so tightly that his elbows touched behind his back, Captain Pease was driven to his knees in the last moments of his life. Knowing he was about to die, Harl Pease uttered the most searing insult possible against an expert swordsman and self-styled “samurai”.  Particularly one with such a helpless victim. It was the single word, in Japanese.  “Once!“.

September  26, 1965 Rocky

In a July 8, 2002 ceremony in the East Room of the White House, President George W. Bush awarded Captain Humbert Roque Versace the Medal of Honor, posthumously.  The first time the nation’s highest honor was bestowed on a POW, for courage in the face of captivity.

Humbert Roque Versace was born in Honolulu on July 2, 1937, the first son of Colonel Humbert Joseph Versace.  Writer Marie Teresa “Tere” Rios was his mother, author of The Fifteenth Pelican.  If you don’t recall the book, perhaps you remember the 1960s TV series, based on the story.  It was called The Flying Nun.

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“Captain Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace receives his 90-day combat infantry badge from his father, Colonel Humbert Joseph Versace”. H/T http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net, for this image

Like his father before him, Humbert, (“Rocky”), joined the armed services out of high school, graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, in 1959.

Rocky earned his Ranger tab and Parachutist badge the same year, later serving as tank commander with the 1st Armored Cavalry regiment in South Korea, then with the 3d US Infantry.  The “Old Guard”.

Versace attended the Military Assistance Institute, the Intelligence course at Fort Holabird Maryland, and the USACS Vietnamese language Course at the Presidio of Monterey, beginning his first tour of duty in Vietnam on May 12, 1962.

versacekids070302In his spare time, this Green Beret, Army Ranger and Special Forces warrior would volunteer to work in the countless orphanages of South Vietnam.

By the end of October 1963, Rocky had fewer than two weeks to the end of his second tour.  He had served a year and one-half in the Republic of Vietnam.  Now he planned to go to seminary school.

Rocky intended to become a Priest of the Roman Catholic faith, and return to Vietnam to help the nation’s orphaned children.  He’d already received his acceptance letter.

It wasn’t meant to be.

On October 29, Rocky was assisting a Civilian Irregular Defense force of South Vietnamese troops, to remove a Viet Cong command post in the Mekong Delta, when the unit was ambushed by an overwhelming force of  VC .

This was a daring mission in a dangerous place.  It was unusual for anyone to come forward for such a hazardous assignment, particularly one with his “short-timer’s stick”, but Rocky had volunteered.

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POW Rocky Vesace

Under siege and all but overwhelmed, himself suffering multiple bullet and shrapnel wounds, Versace put down suppressing fire, permitting his unit to withdraw from the kill zone.

Another force of some 200 South Vietnamese arrived too late to effect the outcome.  Communist radio frequency jamming had knocked out both main and backup radio channels.

Their position overrun, Captain Versace, Lieutenant Nick Rowe and Sergeant Dan Pitzer were captured and taken to a North Vietnamese prison, deep in the jungle.

For much of the next two years, 2’x3’x6’ bamboo “Tiger” cages would be their home.  On nights when the netting was taken away, the mosquitoes were so thick on their shackled feet, that it looked like they were wearing socks.

Tiger cage
H/T United States Army Heritage and Education Center (USAHEC) at Carlisle Barracks, photographer John Messeder, for this image.

Years later, President George W. Bush would tell a story, about how Steve Versace described his brother.   “If he thought he was right”,  Steve said, “he was a pain in the neck.  If he knew he was right, he was absolutely atrocious.”

There in the East Wing of the White House, the line was met with great laughter.  In 1964, Vietnamese interrogators were learning what Steve Versace could have told them.  These people were not going to break his brother.

MOH_VersaceRocky attempted to escape four times, despite leg wounds which left him no option but to crawl on his belly.   Each such attempt earned him savage beatings, after which he’d only try harder.

Fluent in French and Vietnamese as well as English, Rocky could quote chapter and verse from the Geneva Convention and never quit doing so.  He would insult and ridicule his captors in three languages, even as they beat him senseless.

Incessant brutalization and repeated confinement in “isolation boxes” earned his tormentors nothing but an invitation to “Go to Hell”, in three languages.

Communist indoctrination sessions had to be brought to a halt in French and Vietnamese, because none of his interrogators could effectively argue with this guy.  They certainly didn’t want villagers to hear the man blow up their communist propaganda in their own language.

Finally, Captain Versace was separated from the rest of the prison population, and placed in an isolation box.  He responded by singing, the lyrics of popular songs replaced by messages of inspiration to his fellow POWs.  He was last heard belting out “God Bless America” at the top of his lungs.

Versace, playing ballRocky was murdered by his captors, his “execution” announced on North Vietnamese “Liberation Radio” on September 26, 1965.  He was twenty-eight.

Versace’ remains were never recovered.  His name is inscribed on panel 1E, line 33 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  The headstone bearing his name in memorial section MG-108 of Arlington National Cemetery, stands over an empty grave.

If you’re ever in Alexandria, Virginia, pay a visit to the Mount Vernon Recreation Center. There in the central plaza, a sculpture by artist Antonio Tobias Mendez, depicts a Special Forces warrior.  With hands on their shoulders, he is coaching two Vietnamese kids, how to play ball.

This American hero of Italian and Puerto Rican heritage was nominated for the medal of honor in 1969, an effort which culminated in a posthumous Silver Star.

vietnam-memorial

In a July 8, 2002 ceremony in the East Room of the White House, President George W. Bush awarded Captain Humbert Roque Versace the Medal of Honor.  The first time the nation’s highest honor was bestowed on a POW, for courage in the face of captivity.

Let Rocky’s Medal of Honor citation, tell his story.

Cmoh_army

Humbert Roque Versace
Rank and organization: Captain, U.S. Army, Intelligence Advisor, Special Operations
Place:  Republic of Vietnam
Entered service at:  Norfolk, VirginiaBorn:  Honolulu, Hawaii
Citation:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while a prisoner of war during the period of October 29, 1963 to September 26, 1965 in the Republic of Vietnam. While accompanying a Civilian Irregular Defense Group patrol engaged in combat operations in Thoi Binh District, An Xuyen Province, Republic of Vietnam on October 29, 1963, Captain Versace and the CIDG assault force were caught in an ambush from intense mortar, automatic weapons, and small arms fire from elements of a reinforced enemy Main Force battalion. As the battle raged, Captain Versace fought valiantly and encouraged his CIDG patrol to return fire against overwhelming enemy forces. He provided covering fire from an exposed position to enable friendly forces to withdraw from the killing zone when it was apparent that their position would be overrun, and was severely wounded in the knee and back from automatic weapons fire and shrapnel. He stubbornly resisted capture with the last full measure of his strength and ammunition. Taken prisoner by the Viet Cong, he demonstrated exceptional leadership and resolute adherence to the tenets of the Code of Conduct from the time he entered into a prisoner of war status. Captain Versace assumed command of his fellow American prisoners, and despite being kept locked in irons in an isolation box, raised their morale by singing messages to popular songs of the day, and leaving inspiring messages at the latrine. Within three weeks of captivity, and despite the severity of his untreated wounds, he attempted the first of four escape attempts by dragging himself on his hands and knees out of the camp through dense swamp and forbidding vegetation to freedom. Crawling at a very slow pace due to his weakened condition, the guards quickly discovered him outside the camp and recaptured him. Captain Versace scorned the enemy’s exhaustive interrogation and indoctrination efforts, and inspired his fellow prisoners to resist to the best of their ability. When he used his Vietnamese language skills to protest improper treatment of the American prisoners by the guards, he was put into leg irons and gagged to keep his protestations out of earshot of the other American prisoners in the camp. The last time that any of his fellow prisoners heard from him, Captain Versace was singing God Bless America at the top of his voice from his isolation box. Unable to break his indomitable will, his faith in God, and his trust in the United States of America and his fellow prisoners, Captain Versace was executed by the Viet Cong on September 26, 1965. Captain Versaces extraordinary heroism, self-sacrifice, and personal bravery involving conspicuous risk of life above and beyond the call of duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Army, and reflect great credit to himself and the U.S. Armed Forces.

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