His unit made better progress than anticipated, pushing through forests and small towns until they found themselves only 25 or 30 miles from the Chinese border. Funchess had 12 South Korean soldiers in his unit and, through them, he was able to get scattered information from people in the villages they passed through. Reports of armed Chinese soldiers became more and more common the further north they went.
Suddenly he received orders to stop his advance and begin an immediate withdrawal. His unit retreated to the town of Anju, where they joined companies A and B and prepared to engage. Funchess’ Company C had the rearmost position.
“My commander said, Funchess – you’ve been in Korea longer than anyone here. We’re going to put you in the rear,” he remembers. “I said don’t do me any favors! I had been there long enough to have learned they didn’t hit you head-on. I dug all my fox holes pointing south. The other officers started laughing at me - said old Funchess there doesn’t know which way the front is. But I was very concerned.”
Rightfully so, it turned out. The Chinese army swarmed across the river and leveled a fierce attack on the Americans from the South. Funchess and his men dug in and fought with everything they had to halt the Chinese advance.
Former U.S. Army 1st Lt. William H. Funchess, 89, who endured 34 months as a prisoner of war during the Korean War, describes how he fired an M1 carbine rifle as he and his platoon fought until they were overwhelmed and taken captive by Chinese soldiers, Sept. 21, 2016.
A bullet tore through his right foot as he and his surviving soldiers finally attempted to fall back and join the rest of the battalion. The machine gunner that shot him was so close he heard the bolt go back. Soldiers behind him were all killed by the spray of bullets. Two soldiers grabbed him under his arms and tried to carry him, but one was shot and fell away. Funchess and his remaining companion limped through the snow until they reached the edge of a canyon. They could go no further. Dozens of Chinese soldiers surrounded them.
Funchess and his men had held their position just long enough for the rest of the battalion – about 700 men – to escape. They would pay a very high price for their stand.
His voice is steady but his eyes focus somewhere else as he recounts the events of that day.
“The rest of the battalion never had a shot fired at them, but I lost my entire platoon – either killed or captured.”
Funchess was one of hundreds of prisoners taken. They were forced on a 17-night death march, north through the mountains, in the bitter cold. Those that fell out were executed.
Walking on one foot with a hole blasted through it, Funchess was the very last in line. Time and again his Chinese guards encouraged him to quit, but he knew what that meant. He pretended not to understand them and kept walking.
“I tore up my knees and my elbows and the palms of my hands from falling. It was absolutely horrible,” he said. “But I knew I had to keep going because I did not want to suffer the alternative. I hadn’t been married very long and I was determined to get back to my wife, Sybil.”
The prisoners were offered no water and very little food. They survived by eating snow.
After a few days his unit was merged with prisoners from the 8th Cavalry Regiment, who had been fighting about 25 miles to the east. They were marched en masse to a cluster of mud huts and dirt paths on the frozen banks of the Yalu River, near the city of Pyoktong.
This would be their home for longer than any of them dared imagine.
CARING FOR A SAINT
Funchess survived the first weeks in the camp by eating ice, snow, and millet. Three months into his captivity, he got his first real drink of water.
“I was hobbling around on my bad foot, looking for anything I could find to eat or drink or use in any way,” he remembers. “I saw an old man huddled over a small fire. He had a piece of tin with the edges turned up and he was melting snow. This man called out to me – would you care for a drink of hot water? He gave me about a half cup of warm water.”
Even today Funchess’ eyes close gently as he remembers that drink.
“It tasted so good.”
His eyes open. “That man was Father Emil Kapaun.”
Kapaun, an Army chaplain, was already revered among the other prisoners when Funchess met him. During the thick of the fighting, Kapaun had repeatedly walked into direct lines of fire to comfort and retrieve wounded soldiers. When an evacuation was ordered, he stayed behind to tend to the wounded and comfort the dying even after the enemy broke through the lines and hand-to-hand combat broke out all around him. As he was being led away, he saw a Chinese soldier about to execute a wounded American. Father Kapaun pushed the enemy soldier aside, picked up the wounded man, and carried or supported him until they reached the camp.
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. On April 11, 2013, President Barack Obama awarded the legendary chaplain, credited with saving hundreds of soldiers during the Korean War, the Medal of Honor posthumously. (Photo by U.S. Army Col. Raymond A. Skeehan)
Kapaun continued to care for and comfort soldiers in the Pyoktong camp any way he could, like he did for Funchess that day. Temperatures dropped to minus 28 F, but Kapaun would sneak out at night to steal food and firewood to feed and warm his fellow prisoners. He dressed wounds, offered words of encouragement and said prayers with any soldier who needed it despite brutal retaliations from his captors, who had open contempt for Kapaun’s galvanizing effect on the prisoners.
When Kapaun himself became deathly ill, he was thrown into the same mud hut as Funchess and 14 other officers. Funchess cleared a space on the floor next to him and cared for Kapaun as the chaplain’s health declined.
“There were no Catholics in my room, and I think that’s the reason they put him in with us. They thought we would not take care of him,” Funchess said. “I took it upon myself to take care of him and it was just about like taking care of a baby. I had to spoon feed him. When he’d mess up his clothes I’d take off his pants and put them outside for five or ten minutes and it would freeze. I’d either beat it up against a wall and shake the dried fecal matter off or take a stick and scrape it off. There was no water to wash things with and even if there had been it would have been frozen. The human mind can not comprehend how primitive it was.”
Funchess cared for Kapaun for six weeks, day and night.
“He was from a farm in Pilson, Kansas, so we had a lot in common. When he got cold and shivering I’d wrap my arms around him. Sometimes he’d wrap his arms around me and we’d talk about our boyhood days on the farm. We became very, very close friends.”
The communists were not happy to see Funchess caring for Kapaun. One day, eight Chinese soldiers burst into the hut unannounced and declared they were taking Kapaun to the hospital.
“We knew what the hospital was,” said Funchess. “It was an abandoned Buddhist monastery on the mountain that we called the death house. Very, very few returned from there.”
The POW’s scuffled with the Chinese soldiers, pleading with them to let Kapaun stay.
“But of course they prevailed because they had the guns.”
Kapaun died on May 23, 1951. Funchess’s eye-witness accounts of Kapaun’s acts of gallantry and compassion were used to qualify him for the Medal of Honor, which was awarded in 2013. The citation reads in part: “Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun repeatedly risked his own life to save the lives of hundreds of fellow Americans. His extraordinary courage, faith and leadership inspired thousands of prisoners to survive hellish conditions, resist enemy indoctrination, and retain their faith in God and country.”