March 2, 1864 A POW story

Four men, each of whom played a part in the most destructive war, in American history.  Without any of these four, I wouldn’t be here to tell their story.

In the early days of the Civil War, the government in Washington refused to recognize the Confederate states’ government, believing any such recognition would amount to legitimizing an illegal entity.  The Union refused formal agreement regarding the exchange of prisoners. Following the capture of over a thousand federal troops at the first battle of Bull Run (Manassas), a joint resolution in Congress called for President Lincoln to establish a prisoner exchange agreement.

In July 1862, Union Major General John A. Dix and Confederate Major General D. H. Hill met under flag of truce to draw up an exchange formula, regarding the return of prisoners. The “Dix-Hill Cartel” determined that Confederate and Union Army soldiers were exchanged at a prescribed rate:  captives of equivalent ranks were exchanged as equals.  Corporals and Sergeants were worth two privates.  Lieutenants were four and Colonels fifteen, all the way up to Commanding General, equivalent to sixty private soldiers.  Similar exchange rates were established for Naval personnel.

My twice-great grandfather, Corporal Jacob Deppen of the 128th Pennsylvania Infantry,  was paroled in such an exchange.

President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation of September 1862 not only freed those enslaved in Confederate territories, but also provided for the enlistment of black soldiers.  The government in Richmond responded that such would be regarded as runaway slaves and not soldiers.  Their white officers would be treated as criminals, for inciting servile insurrection.

The policy was made clear in July 1863, following the Union defeat at Fort Wagner, an action depicted in the 1989 film, Glory.  The Dix-Hill protocol was formally abandoned on July 30.  Neither side was ready for the tide of humanity, about to come.

The US Army began construction the following month on the Rock Island Prison, built on an Island between Davenport Iowa and Rock Island, Illinois. In time, Rock Island would become one of the most infamous POW camps of the north, housing some 12,000 Confederate prisoners, seventeen per cent of whom, died in captivity.

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On this day in 1864, the first prisoners had barely moved into the most notorious POW camp of the Civil War, the first Federal soldiers arriving on February 28.

The pictures at the top of this page were taken at Camp Sumter, better known as Andersonville.  Conditions in this place defy description. Sergeant Major Robert H. Kellogg of the 16th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers, entered this hell hole on May 2:

“As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect;—stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed with earnestness. “Can this be hell?” “God protect us!” and all thought that he alone could bring them out alive from so terrible a place. In the center of the whole was a swamp, occupying about three or four acres of the narrowed limits, and a part of this marshy place had been used by the prisoners as a sink, and excrement covered the ground, the scent arising from which was suffocating. The ground allotted to our ninety was near the edge of this plague-spot, and how we were to live through the warm summer weather in the midst of such fearful surroundings, was more than we cared to think of just then”.

Over 45,000 Union troops would pass through the verminous open sewer known as Andersonville. Nearly 13,000 died there.

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Andersonville

Now all but forgotten, the ‘Eighty acres of Hell’ located in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago was home to some forty thousand Confederate POWs between 1862 and 1865, seventeen per cent of whom, never left.  No southern soldier was equipped for the winters at Camp Douglas, nor the filth, or the disease. Nearby Oak Woods Cemetery is home to the largest mass grave, in the western hemisphere.

Union and Confederate governments established 150 such camps between 1861 and 1865, makeshift installations of rickety wooden buildings and primitive sewage systems, often little more than tent cities.   Some 347,000 human beings languished in these places, victims of catastrophically poor hygiene, harsh summary justice, starvation, disease and swarming vermin.

The training depot designated camp Rathbun near Elmira New York became the most notorious camp in the north, in 1864.  12,213 Confederate prisoners were held there, often three men to a tent.  Nearly 25% of them died there, only slightly less, than Andersonville.   The death rate in “Hellmira” was double that of any other camp in the north.

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“Hellmira”

Historians debate the degree to which such brutality resulted from deliberate mistreatment, or economic necessity.

The Union had more experience being a “country” at this time, with well established banking systems and means of commerce and transportation.  For the south, the war was an economic catastrophe.  The Union blockade starved southern ports of even the basic necessities from the beginning, while farmers abandoned fields to take up arms. Most of the fighting of the Civil War took place on southern soil, destroying incalculable acres of rich farm lands.

The capital at Richmond saw bread riots as early as 1862.  Southern Armies subsisted on corn meal and peanuts.  The Confederate government responded by printing currency, about a billion dollars worth.  By 1864, a Confederate dollar was worth 5¢ in gold.  Southern inflation exceeded 9000%, by 1865.

Captain Henry Wirz, commandant of the stockade at Camp Sumter, was tried and executed after the war, only one of two men to be hanged for war crimes.  Captain Wirz appeared at trial reclined on a couch, advanced gangrene preventing him from sitting up.  To some, the man was a scapegoat. A victim of circumstances beyond his control. To others he is a demon, personally responsible for the hell of Andersonville prison.  I make no pretense of answering such a question.  The subject is capable of inciting white-hot passion, from that day to this.

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Family cemetery, Scotland County, North Carolina.  Note the peaked tops of Confederate stones.  It’s said they were shaped that way, so no Yankee could sit on them.

On a personal note:

There are many good reasons to study history, among which is an understanding of where we come from.  How do we know where we’re going, if we don’t understand where we’ve been.

Should our ancestors be towering historical figures or merely those who played a part, the principle applies on the micro, as well as a larger scale.

Among those farmers who laid down their tools were the four Tyner brothers of North Carolina:  James, William, Nicholas and Benjamin.  My twice-great Grandfather, Private James Tyner, 52nd North Carolina Infantry, was captured at Spotsylvania Courthouse and imprisoned at “Hellmira”.  He died in captivity on March 13, 1865, less than a month before General Lee surrendered at Appomattox.  Nicholas alone survived the war, to return to the Sand Hills of North Carolina.

Corporal Jacob Deppen of the 128th PA Infantry re-enlisted with the Army of the James, after his parole.  He and Nicholas Tyner would lay down their weapons at Appomattox, former enemies turned countrymen, if they could only figure out how to do it.

William Christian Long was Blacksmith to the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry, and survived the war.  His name may be found on the Pennsylvania monument, at Gettysburg.

Archibald Blue of Drowning Creek North Carolina wanted no part of what he saw as a “rich man’s war” and ordered his five sons away.  He was murdered for his politics in 1865.  The killer was never found.

Four men, each of whom played a part in the most destructive war, in American history.  Without any of these four, I wouldn’t be here to tell their story.

Rick Long

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February 16, 1973 Cherry

“I spent 702 days in solitary confinement…At one time I was either tortured or in punishment for 93 straight days.” Fred Vann Cherry, Sr.

Fred Vann Cherry was born March 24, 1928, the child of poor Virginia dirt farmers.  Cherry had all the disadvantages of a black child growing up in the Jim Crow-era, but he stuck to his studies.  As a boy, Cherry attended racially segregated public schools in Suffolk Virginia, later attending the historically all-black Virginia Union University, and the United States Air Force Aviation Cadet Training Program.

An Air Force fighter pilot, Cherry flew 52 combat missions over North Korea, before going on to serve during the Cold War period, and the American war in Vietnam.

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Fred Vann Cherry, Sr.

On October 22, 1965, then-Major Cherry’s F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bomber was hit by anti-aircraft fire, fifteen miles north of Hanoi.  “The plane exploded and I ejected at about 400 feet at over 600 miles an hourIn the process of ejection, I broke my left ankle, my left wrist, and crushed my left shoulder. I was captured immediately upon landing by Vietnamese militia and civilians.”

Any fool can judge a man by the color of his skin.  Most fools, do.  Fred Cherry’s North Vietnamese captors were no exception.  The first American of African ancestry to fall into the hands of these people, Cherry was told things could go easier.  If only he spoke out about racial discrimination, in the United States.

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Porter Halyburton

When that failed to produce the propaganda victory they wanted, jailers assigned Cherry a cellmate, the self-described “southern white boy”, Naval aviator Porter Halyburton.

I guess they thought if they had a Southern white boy taking care of a black man, it would be the worst place for both of us,” Halyburton told the Washington Post. “It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Halyburton looked after his injured cellmate, changing the dressings on his infected wounds, feeding him, bathing him and watching over him. “He said I saved his life, and he saved my life. . . . Taking care of my friend gave my life some meaning that it had not had before.

For eight months, the two men lived in a series of putrid, stinking cells, 10-by-10-foot compartments with nothing to sleep on but filthy straw mats, or the floor.

I was so inspired by Fred’s toughness,” Halyburton said. “He had grown up in the racial South [and] undergone a lot of discrimination and hardship. But he was such an ardent patriot. He loved this country. It inspired me, and it inspired a lot of others.”

The two cellmates were separated in 1966, in what Halyburton remembers as “one of the saddest days of my life.”   Cherry recalled “I spent 702 days in solitary confinementAt one time I was either tortured or in punishment for 93 straight days.”

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Fred Cherry speaks to the press on February 16, 1973, following 2,671 days in captivity

The pair didn’t see each other again until 1973, when the two met at the military hospital at Clark Air Base in the Philippines following release from captivity.

Colonel Cherry and Commander Halyburton gave a number of joint talks at military institutions and colleges, and toured in 2004 to promote a book about their story, “Two Souls Indivisible: The Friendship That Saved Two POWs in Vietnam,” by James S. Hirsch.

Fred Cherry died on this day in 2016 at the age of 87, forty-three years to the day, from the news conference photographed above.  The Washington Post remembered in his obituary, what Colonel Cherry wrote in a 1999 collection of POW stories:

 “I was always taught to love and respect others and forgive those who mistreat, scorn or persecute me. . . . [This] allowed me overcome the damages of discrimination, Jim Crow, and the social and economic barriers associated with growing up a poor dirt farmer. . . . My standard for making decisions is based on doing what is right.”

It’s an inspiring message.  One worth remembering.

HOMECOMING
Former POW and U.S. Air Force Colonel Fred Vann Cherry waves to the public and press there to greet the plane load of former POWs flown in from Clark Air Base. Colonel Cherry was released by the North Vietnamese in Hanoi February 12, 1973.
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.

February 3, 2010 The Last Great Act of Defiance

The POW is faced off through barbed wire, with one of the most powerful men of the Third Reich. As if to demand of this former chicken farmer turned wannabe Ubermensch, “Who are YOU, you Son-of-a-Bitch”.

World War II was a short affair for Joseph Horace “Jim” Greasely.  Conscripted on the first draft, the Ibstock, Leicestershire native trained for seven weeks with the 2nd Regiment, 5th Battalion Leicestershire, landing in France at the end of that eight-month mobilization period known as the “Sitzkrieg”.  The “Phoney War”.

Over 80,000 British, French and allied troops were taken into captivity during those calamitous days in June 1940, leading up to the final evacuation from Dunkirk.  On May 25, 1940, Horace Greasely became one of them.

He would spend the next 5 years as a German POW.

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Abandoned war materiel in the wake of the Dunkirk evacuation.  H/T DailyMail

When he was eighty-nine, Greasely wrote the story of those five years with the help of “ghostwriter” Ken Scott. The book is called “Do The Birds Still Sing In Hell?” It tells the story of a 10-week death march across France and Belgium and into Holland, followed by a three-day train trek into captivity in Polish Silesia, then annexed to Germany.

Stalag VIIIB 344, Greasely’s second PoW camp, was a marble quarry/labor camp near Lamsdorf, where PoWs worked marble to form German headstones.  There he met Rosa Rauchbach, the 17-year old daughter of the quarry’s owner. Rosa was a German girl working as camp interpreter, successfully hiding her Jewish roots in the Belly of the Beast.  Greasely was 20 and single, at the time.  The pair was soon romancing under the nose of prison guards, snatching time for trysts in camp workshops and anywhere else they could find.

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French and British captives, force marched to the Belgian border, 1940.  H/T DailyMail

Later on, Greasley was transferred to an annex of Auschwitz called Freiwaldau, 40 miles away. The only way to carry on the romance was to break out of camp, so that’s what he did.  He met Rosa no fewer than two hundred times in the nearby woods, creeping back to camp under cover of darkness, every time.

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Rosa Rauchbach, H/T AllthatInteresting.com

There is some dispute about whether Greasely “escaped”, or not. This particular camp was so remote that security was lax, the guards believing escape to be suicidal.

Furthermore, while Nazi captivity was notoriously savage toward eleven million victims of the holocaust and Russian POWs, German attitudes seemed relatively benign toward fellow signatories to the Geneva Conventions of 1929, particularly their fellow “Anglo-Saxon”.

British historian Guy Walters has called the escape story “fantasy”, citing ‘old men with failing memories teaming up with sharp-elbowed ghost-writers to ‘recall’ increasingly fantastical stories of ‘derring-do during the war’.

Walters goes on to explain that “Working camps for NCOs such as Greasley were not the tightly-guarded places conjured up by our collective imagination, which is weaned on images from Colditz and The Great Escape. In fact, bunking out of one’s camp to fraternise with local girls was hardly unusual, and certainly not ‘escaping’ in the sense most of us understand it.”

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Lamsdorf POW Camp, date uncertain

The camp to which Greasely was assigned was liberated on May 24, 1945. He later heard that Rosa had died in childbirth, along with the baby.  He would never learn, if the baby was his.

There is a striking image of a prisoner of the era. Skinny and bare chested, a lone captive glares in defiance through barbed wire into the eyes of Heinrich Himmler.

On seeing the 1941 photograph, Greasley asked: “Who is that with me?” There is some question as to whether the image is Greasely’s, the cap is Russian, but Ken Scott insists it is he.  Greasely’s widow Brenda agrees, explaining that POWs wore whatever they could get.  Besides, she says, “Although he was very thin then, I definitely recognize Horace without his shirt on!”

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Brenda Greasely, H/T BirminghamLive

The identity of the man in the image may never be known, for certain. Horace Greasely passed away on February 3, 2010.  In a greater sense, it may not matter. 

The image may be captioned “The Last Great Act of Defiance”.  Whoever it is has summoned the totality of all contempt and engraved it across his face.  The man is symbolic, the POW faced off through barbed wire, with one of the most powerful men of the Third Reich. As if to demand of this former chicken farmer turned wannabe Ubermensch, “Who are YOU, you Son-of-a-Bitch”.

The Telegraph newspaper, would seem to agree.   The Himmler image was published with the former POW’s obituary, along with the caption: “Greasley confronting Heinrich Himmler (wearing the spectacles) in the PoW camp”.  Once one of the most feared visages of the thousand-year Reich, the Nothing had returned, to Zero.

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Afterward

American film producer/director Stratton Leopold, executive producer of Mission Impossible III and The Sum of All Fears is working on a film with Silverline Productions, depicting the Jim Greasely story.  Ghostwriter Ken Scott tells the UK Mirror:  ‘I can say it will be a mix of German and British actors and they are A-listers’.  I’ll keep an eye out.  That’ll be fun to watch.

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.

 

November 2, 1950  The Shepherd wore Combat Boots

Chaplain Kapaun once lost his Mass kit to enemy fire. He earned a Bronze Star in September of 1950, when he ran through intense enemy fire to rescue a wounded soldier. His was no rear-echelon ministry.

Kapaun5Emil Joseph Kapaun was the son of Czech immigrants, a farm kid who grew up in 1920s Kansas. Graduating from Pilsen High, class of 1930, he 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.

Father 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.

His unit entered combat at the Pusan perimeter, moving steadily northward through the summer and fall of 1950. Kapaun would minister to the dead and dying, performing baptisms, hearing first confessions, offering Holy Communion and celebrating Mass from an improvised altar set up on the hood of a jeep.

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

Kapaun2A single regiment was attacked by the 39th Chinese Corps on November 1, and completely overrun the following day. For the 8th Cav., the battle of Unsan was one of the most devastating defeats of the Korean War. Father Kapaun was ordered to evade, an order he 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 Lt. Michael Dowe was among the prisoners, it’s 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.

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.

Kapaun4Chinese Communist guards would taunt him 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 defied his communist captors to lead Easter services in April, 1951. He was incapacitated a short time later. Chinese 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.”

Kapaun1In the end, he was too weak to lift the plate that held the meager meal the guards left for him. US Army records report that he died of pneumonia on May 6, 1951, but his fellow prisoners will tell you that he died on May 23, of malnutrition and starvation. He was 35.
Scores of men credit their own survival in that place, to Chaplain Kapaun.

In 2013, President Barack Obama presented Kapaun’s family with the Medal of Honor, posthumous, 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”.

Pope John Paul II named Father Kapaun a “Servant of God” in 1993, the first step toward Roman Catholic 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.

The Medal at Last
In this photo provided by Col. Raymond A. Skeehan, Father Emil Kapaun celebrates Mass using the hood of his jeep as an altar, as his assistant, Patrick J. Schuler, kneels in prayer in Korea on Oct. 7, 1950, less than a month before Kapaun was taken prisoner. Kapaun died in a prisoner of war camp on May 23, 1951, his body wracked by pneumonia and dysentery. (AP Photo/Col. Raymond A. Skeehan via The Wichita Eagle)

The Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the committee of cardinals which makes recommendations concerning sainthood to the Pope, have taken the position that Kapaun would not be declared a martyr, a step which would have greatly accelerated the Pilsen, Kansas native toward sainthood.  Fellow prisoners and Korean War veterans have argued passionately, (I personally know one of them) that Kapaun was killed by Chinese Army prison guards, for standing up for his faith.  Vatican officials counter that no one actually saw Kapaun die.  Witnesses only saw the Father being carried away and, ever watchful over the credibility of its own sainthood investigations, the matter continues under Church review.

Wichita Bishop Carl Kemme believes that full canonization will not take place until 2020, at the earliest.

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October 29, 1963 Rocky

With hands tied behind his back and a rope around his neck, even then this man still spoke in three languages, of God, and Freedom, and American democracy. The effect was entirely unacceptable to his Communist tormentors. To the people of these villages, this man made sense.

originalHumbert Roque Versace was born in Honolulu on July 2, 1937, the oldest of five sons born to 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.

Like his father before him, Humbert, (“Rocky” to his friends), 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 Cavalry in South Korea, then with the 3rd US Infantry – the “Old Guard”.

Rocky 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.

versace1He did his tour, and voluntarily signed up for another six months.  By the end of October 1963, Rocky had fewer than two weeks to the end of his service.  He had served a year and one-half in the Republic of Vietnam.  Now he planned to go to seminary school.  He had already received his acceptance letter, from the Maryknoll order.

Rocky planned to become a Priest of the Roman Catholic faith, and return to the country to help the orphaned children of Vietnam.

It was a bright and shining future, one which was never meant to be.

Rocky was assisting a Civilian Irregular Defense (CIDG) force of South Vietnamese troops remove a Viet Cong (VC) command post in the Mekong Delta.  It was unusual that anyone would volunteer for such a mission, particularly one with his “short-timer’s stick”.  This was a daring mission in a very dangerous place.

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In happier times, Colonel Humbert Joseph Versace pins insignia on the uniform of his son, Captain Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace

On October 29, an overwhelming force of Viet Cong ambushed and overran Rocky’s unit.  Under siege and 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 alter 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 most of the following two years, a 2’x3’x6’ bamboo cage would be their home.  On nights when their netting was taken away, the mosquitoes were so thick on their shackled feet, it looked like they were wearing socks.

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 to audience laughter, “he was a pain in the neck.  If he knew he was right, he was absolutely atrocious.

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In 1964, Vietnamese interrogators were learning what Steve Versace could have told them, if only they’d asked.  His brother could not be broken.  Rocky 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, but that only made him try harder.

Fluent in French, Vietnamese and 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 to within an inch of his life.

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Incessant torture and repeated isolation in solitary confinement did nothing to shut him up.  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 him blow up their Communist propaganda in their own language.

For five months in 1964, reports came back through intelligence circles, of one particular prisoner. Paraded in chains before local villagers, with hair turned snow white and face swollen and yellowed with jaundice. With hands tied behind his back and a rope around his neck, even then this man still spoke in three languages, of God, and Freedom, and American democracy.

pg1verThe effect was entirely unacceptable to his Communist tormentors. To the people of these villages, this man made sense.

In the end, Versace was isolated from the rest of the prison population, as a dangerous influence.  He responded by singing at the top of his lungs, the lyrics of popular songs of the day replaced by messages of inspiration to his fellow POWs.  Rocky was last heard belting out “God Bless America”, at the top of his lungs.

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

Rocky’s remains were never recovered.  The headstone bearing his name in the Memorial section MG-108 at Arlington National Cemetery, stands over an empty grave.  The memory of his name is inscribed on the Courts of the Missing in the Honolulu Memorial at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, and on Panel 1E, line 33, of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

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This American hero of Italian and Puerto Rican heritage was nominated for the medal of honor in 1969, an effort culminating in a posthumous Silver Star.  In 2002, the Defense Authorization Act approved by the United States Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush, awarded Versace the Medal of Honor.

In a July 8, 2002 ceremony in the East Room of the White House, the President of the United States awarded the Medal of Honor to United States Army Captain Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace.  Dr. Stephen Versace stood in to receive the award, on behalf of his brother.  It was the first time the nation’s highest honor for military valor was bestowed on a POW, for courage in the face of captivity.

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This statue of Medal of Honor recipient and Ranger Hall of Fame inductee Captain “Rocky” Versace stands in a plaza bearing his name in Alexandria, Virginia. With him are the likenesses of two Vietnamese children, along with sixty-seven gold stars, each representing one of the 67 soldiers, sailors and airmen from Alexandria who were KIA or MIA, in the war in Vietnam.
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.

July 15, 1864 The Great Shohola Train Wreck

Note the pointed tops of the Confederate grave markers, different from the arc-shapes at the top of Federal stones.  Rumor has it that the point was there to “stick it” to any Yankee, dumb enough to sit on a Confederate gravestone.  No Rebel would ever be so disrespectful.

The wood burning steam locomotive #171 left Jersey City, New Jersey on July 15, 1864, pulling 17 passenger and freight cars. On board were 833 Confederate Prisoners of War and 128 Union guards, heading from Point Lookout, Maryland to the Federal prison camp in Elmira, New York.

Engine #171 was an “extra” that day, running behind a scheduled train numbered West #23. West #23 displayed warning flags, giving the second train right of way, but #171 was delayed while guards located missing prisoners.  Then there was the wait for the drawbridge. By the time #171 reached Port Jervis, Pennsylvania, the train was four hours behind schedule.

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Telegraph operator Douglas “Duff” Kent was on duty at the Lackawaxen Junction station, near Shohola Pennsylvania. Kent had seen West #23 pass through that morning with the “extra” flags.  His job was to hold eastbound traffic at Lackawaxen until the second train passed.

He might have been drunk that day, but nobody’s sure. He disappeared the following day, never to be seen again.

Erie Engine #237 arrived at Lackawaxen at 2:30pm pulling 50 coal cars, loaded for Jersey City.  Kent gave the All Clear at 2:45, the main switch was opened, and Erie #237 joined the single track heading east out of Shohola.

Only four miles of track now lay between the two speeding locomotives.

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The two trains met head-on at “King and Fuller’s Cut”, a section of track following a blind curve with only 50’ of visibility.

King and Fullers Cut
King and Fullers Cut

Engineer Samuel Hoit at the throttle of the coal train had time to jump clear, and survived the wreck.   Many of the others, never had a chance.

Historian Joseph C. Boyd described what followed on the 100th anniversary of the wreck:

“[T]he wooden coaches telescoped into one another, some splitting open and strewing their human contents onto the berm, where flying glass, splintered wood, and jagged metal killed or injured them as they rolled.  Other occupants were hurled through windows or pitched to the track as the car floors buckled and opened. The two ruptured engine tenders towered over the wreckage, their massive floor timbers snapped like matchsticks. Driving rods were bent like wire. Wheels and axles lay broken.” The troop train’s forward boxcar had been compacted and within the remaining mass were the remains of 37 men”. [Witnesses] saw “headless trunks, mangled between the telescoped cars” and “bodies impaled on iron rods and splintered beams.”

Pinned against the split boiler plate and slowly scalded to death, engineer William Ingram lived long enough to speak with would-be rescuers. “With his last breath he warned away all who went near to try and aid him, declaring that there was danger of the boiler exploding and killing them.”

Frank Evans, a guard on the train, describes the scene: “The two locomotives were raised high in air, face to face against each other, like giants grappling. The tender of our locomotive stood erect on one end. The engineer and fireman, poor fellows, were buried beneath the wood it carried. Perched on the reared-up end of the tender, high above the wreck, was one of our guards, sitting with his gun clutched in his hands, dead!. The front car of our train was jammed into a space of less than six feet. The two cars behind it were almost as badly wrecked. Several cars in the rear of those were also heaped together.”

51 Confederate prisoners and 17 Union guards were killed on the spot, or died within a day of the wreck. Five prisoners escaped in the confusion.

shohola2Captured at Spotsylvania early in 1864, 52nd North Carolina Infantry soldier James Tyner was a POW at this time, languishing in “Hellmira” – the fetid POW camp at Elmira, New York.  “The Andersonville of the Northern Union.”

Tyner’s brother William was one of the prisoners on board #171.

William was badly injured in the wreck, surviving only long enough to avoid a mass grave alongside a train track, in Shohola. William Tyner was transported to Elmira where he died three days later, never regaining consciousness.

I’ve always wondered if the brothers were able to find one another, that one last time.  James Tyner was my own twice-great Grandfather, one of four brothers who went to war for North Carolina, in 1861.

We’ll never know.  James Tyner died in captivity on March 13, 1865, 27 days before General Lee’s surrender, at Appomattox.  Of the four Tyner brothers, Nicholas alone survived the war.  He laid down his arms on the order of the man they called “Marse Robert”, and walked home to pick up the shattered bits of his life, in the Sand Hills of North Carolina.

Family Plot
Memorial for the brothers Tyner is located on the old family farm, in North Carolina.  Note the pointed tops, which are different from the arc-shapes at the top of Federal grave markers.  Rumor has it that the point was there to “stick it” to any Yankee, dumb enough to sit on a Confederate gravestone.  No Rebel would ever be so disrespectful.

“About 56,000 soldiers died in prisons during the war, accounting for almost 10% of all Civil War fatalities. During a period of 14 months in Camp Sumter, located near Andersonville, Georgia, 13,000 (28%) of the 45,000 Union soldiers confined there died. At Camp Douglas in Chicago, Illinois, 10% of its Confederate prisoners died during one cold winter month; and Elmira Prison in New York state, with a death rate of 25%, very nearly equaled that of Andersonville”.  H/T Wikipedia

 

Afterward

Burial details worked throughout the night of July 15 until dawn of the following day. 

Two Confederate soldiers, the brothers John and Michael Johnson, died overnight and were buried in the congregational church yard across the Delaware river, in Barryville, New York.

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Last resting place of the brothers John and Michael Johnson, killed in the Great Shohola Trainwreck

The remaining POW dead and those about to die were buried alongside the track in a 75′ trench, placed four at a time in crude boxes fashioned from the wreckage.  Conventional caskets arrived overnight.  Individual graves were dug for the 17 Federal dead, and they too were laid alongside the track.

As the years went by, memorial markers faded and then disappeared, altogether. Hundreds of trains carried thousands of passengers up and down the Erie railroad, ignorant of the burial ground through which they had passed.  

11df509e6d89fc150e76c8192efc5975The “pumpkin flood“ of 1903 scoured the rail line, uncovering many of the dead and carrying away their mortal remains.  It must have been a sight – caskets moving with the flood, bobbing like so many fishing plugs, alongside countless numbers of that year’s pumpkin crop.

On June 11, 1911, the forgotten dead of Shohola were disinterred, and reburied in mass graves in the Woodlawn national cemetery in Elmira, New York. Two brass plaques bear the names of the dead, mounted to opposite sides of a common stone marker.

The names of the Union dead, face north. Those of the Confederate side, face south. To my knowledge, this is the only instance from the Civil War era, in which Union and Confederate share a common grave. 

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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