March 25, 1951, the Catholic priest mounted the steps of a partially destroyed church, and turned to face his congregation, some 60 men – gaunt, foul-smelling, in tattered clothing.
Fr. Emil Kapaun raised a small, homemade, wooden cross to begin a prayer service, led the men in the Rosary, heard the confessions of the Catholics, and performed a Baptism. Then, he wept because there was no bread or wine to consecrate so that the men could receive the Eucharist....
Hundreds of U.S. prisoners were marched northward over snow-covered crests. Whenever the column paused, Fr. Kapaun hurried up and down the line, encouraging the men to pray, exhorting them not to give up. When a man had to be carried or be left to die, Fr. Kapaun, although suffering from frostbite himself, set the example by helping to carry a makeshift stretcher. Finally, they reached their destination, a frigid, mountainous area near the Chinese border. The poorly dressed prisoners were given so little to eat that they were starving to death.
For the men to survive they would have to steal food from their captors. So, praying to St. Dismas, the “Good Thief,” Fr. Kapaun would sneak out of his hut in the middle of the night, often coming back with a sack of grain, potatoes or corn. He volunteered for details to gather wood because the route passed the compound where the enlisted men were kept, and he could encourage them with a prayer, and sometimes slip out of line to visit the sick and wounded. He also undertook tasks that repulsed others, such as cleaning latrines and washing the soiled clothing of men with dysentery.
Fr. Kapaun’s faith never wavered. While he was willing to forgive the failings of prisoners toward their captors, he allowed no leeway in regard to the doctrines of the Church. He continually reminded prisoners to pray, assuring them that in spite of their difficulties, Our Lord would take care of them. As a result of his example, some 15 of his fellow prisoners converted to the Catholic Faith.