Keynote Remarks by Andi Wolos
Director, AII POW-MIA
Our Lady of Chantal POW-MIA Liturgy
Long Island, NY
Good Afternoon Honored guests, Clergy, ex-POWs, Family Members, Veterans, ladies and gentlemen.
All too often I am asked to speak during a secular observance, and I must restrict my sentiments at those times to the appropriateness of the gathering. Today I am permitted the opportunity to speak from the heart and openly about two of the most important aspects, for me, of the POW-MIA issue... Faith and Hope.
What is it that keeps us, all of us, going in an issue that tries our patience, our sanity and strength everyday? It is Faith. What is it that permits us to get up every morning, write letters, speak before thousands of people, fight with whomever we need to do battle with and continue on in an issue that so often seems hopeless? It is Hope.
Faith and hope are the cornerstone of what we do with respect to the POW-MIA issue. And, it is faith and hope that have brought millions of men and women in uniform through the darkest hours of battle, tens of thousands of POWs through the nightmare of captivity and the countless loving families who wait through the endless days, months, years and decades of not knowing.
Ask any former POW what kept him going... during the terror of capture, the depravity of torture, the darkness of solitary confinement, and ultimately, freedom. It is all too frequently the Faith and Love that was instilled in him in his life. Love of God, love of country, love of family. The ability to find comfort and some consolation in what ever form his Faith took. It was also his faith that his government would not abandon him nor his family and his faith in knowing that somewhere, someone had left a light on in the window until he came home.
Ask them how it was they could look forward to another day... whatever misery that day would bring... and they will answer that it was hope. Hope that one day he would be free. Hope that he would return to his family, friends, to his country and life without fear and as a free man.
Fortunately, we have amongst us, many of those who suffered through combat, through captivity, and by the grace of God, are with us today. Sadly, all too many Prisoners and Missing are not.
Their place at our table is empty yet their place in our hearts will forever by nurtured by OUR hope and faith. Hope they will return, faith they will not be forgotten... by us, even when our own government does.
One story, showing the best of human nature under the worst of circumstances, is that of Father Emil Kapaun, United States Army, Korea. Known as the POW Priest, he was a symbol of love and faith in a prison and war of hate.
During the Korean War, armed only with the love of God, he is remembered as one of the best and bravest of men. A simple, humble Army Chaplain, Father Kapaun died as a POW at the age of 35 and was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere along the Yalu River in North Korea. But I do not wish to speak of his death and the fact he is one of the 8,100 unaccounted-for from the Forgotten War, Korea, I wish to speak about his life and love for his fellow man while a POW.
On November 2nd, 1950, the 8th Cavalry was overwhelmed by enemy forces. Father Kapaun refused a direct order to escape by breaking lines, his reason? He was administering the last rites to a dying soldier. While he offered the sacrament, he was captured, beaten and taken to a POW camp run by the Communist Chinese.
Captivity did not end his charitable acts and the work of God. At night he would sneak around the prison compound, rooting out vegetables, potatoes and sacks of corn to help nourish starving POWs.
When the men were called out to make the ration run, the Father would slip in at the end of the line. Before the ration detail reached the supply shed, he'd slide off into the bushes. Creeping and crawling on his belly, he'd come up behind the shed, and while the rest of the POWs started an argument with the guard and the Chinese doling out the rations, he'd sneak in, snatch up a sack of cracked corn and scurry off into the bushes with it.
Death and disease were everywhere, yet the good Father never failed to minister to his POW flock. Even when they died, he did not abandon them,... The POWs buried their own dead ... Men dodged this detail whenever they could. But Father Kapaun always volunteered. And standing graveside, as the earth covered the naked body -- the clothing of the dead was saved to warm the living -- he would utter for them the last great plea: 'Eternal rest grant unto him, 0 Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.'
He would frequently escape to the barracks where enlisted men were held captive and offer a quick service beginning with prayers for the men who had died in Korea and a prayer for their families. He would close with a prayer of thanks for all the favors the Lord granted the POWs, whether the POWs realized those graces or not. His sermon would always be about love, freedom, not losing hope or faith.
The POWs who knew him said he could turn a stinking, mud filled, vermin infested hut into a cathedral.
He hand washed filthy garments and distributed them to sick and weak men. He traded his watch for a blanket and then cut it up to make socks for the men whose feet were freezing in the arctic chill of North Korea. He nursed and comforted the sick and dying.
With his vestments and bible confiscated, Father Kapaun could not hold a formal mass, yet endlessly challenged his captors and their brutal rule against religious services.
In one sermon, forver remembered by returned POWs, he told the story of Christ's suffering and death, and then, holding in his hand a Rosary made of bent barbed wire he had cut from the prison fence, he recited the glorious mysteries. This was Easter Sunday, 1951. A week later, during bright week, Father Kapaun collapsed, ravaged by dysentery, pneumonia and infections.
Dying, in agony, his last words were, a sermon. The sermon of the Seven Macchabes in the Old Testament... About an emperor who had an elderly woman brought up before him. He told her to renounce her Faith or he would torture and kill her. She replied that he could do anything he wanted, but she would never renounce it.
The emperor then had her seven sons brought before him and said he would kill them if she did not renounce her faith. She still refused and he then put them to death, one by one. The mother was crying and the emperor asked her if she was crying because she was sad. She replied that her tears were tears of joy because she knew her sons were in heaven. and had gone home.
Several days later, Father Kapaun passed into eternal memory... lying side by side with the men he had served so well in faith and in love.
Father Kapaun gave hope where there was none... he instilled faith where there was only fear, hunger and no end to the misery that was the Korean War.
In his life and in his death he triumphed. His captors were afraid of him, his fellow POWs were given the gift of strength and hope.
It is appropriate that his last words were of the Macchabe sons, who died because of faith. We understand that message all too well because too many of our sons, our brothers, fathers, grandfathers and friends have also made the ultimate sacrifice while serving a greater good.
The lesson that Father Kapaun leaves us with is that no matter what adversity we face, whatever the enemy, be it an outside force or our own internal failings and fears... our love of our fellow man, our families and friends, our faith in ourselves and a higher power will give us the strength and hope we need to continue the job we have set out to accomplish.
We have faith that we are on the right path, to bring our nation's sons and daughters home. We have hope, that whatever it takes, however long it takes, we will accomplish that task regardless of the obstacles in our path.
May God Bless our Prisoners of War and Missing in Action, our Armed Forces and America.
May He Grant Peace, Comfort and Strength to All Families.
May He Grant Perseverance to All of Us Who Wait For Answers.