Each week we’ll take a step back into the history of Great Bend through the eyes of reporters past. We’ll reacquaint you with what went into creating the Great Bend of today, and do our best to update you on what “the rest of the story” turned out to be.
This week in 1953, readers of the Great Bend Tribune were learning daily of the atrocities Prisoners of War in North Korea had faced as the North Koreans began to release these men as part of the prisoner exchange negotiations towards the end of the Korean War.
One story by United Press staff correspondent Rutherford Poats, told of Liberated American soldiers who had witnessed American prisoners of war “pushed off a cliff and left there to die” while on a Korean death march, as well as stories of Chinese guards deliberately bayoneting prisoners at a prison camp. These were some of the first reports United Nations liaison officers had heard of the conditions in the Korean POW camps, and became a major cause of concern as prisoners were released at a steady trickle over the following days.
In “POWs Tell of Murders by the Reds,” Earnest Hoberecht wrote,
“Allied war prisoners freed from Red prison camps told today how many of their buddies died under skull-crushing blows from rifle butts wielded by North Korean guards and from lack of medical care on forced “death marches"...
“And many reported that the Reds still are holding some of the most critically wounded and the most seriously ill. Their reports were individual and unofficial, but they added up to an ugly facet in the repatriation of sick and wounded.”
In addition to reports of abuse and brutality, there were reports of starvation and rampant disease among the prisoners, which weakened and sickened them and ultimately led to many deaths.
In the UP story “40 Americans Returned by Foe; More to Arrive,” the soldiers reported the death of at least 753 Americans on forced marches or in prison camps in North Korea, bringing the estimated death count to nearly 3,000.
The news inflamed Americans, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur declared a threat to bomb Red China in order to force the Russians to “settle the Korean war and all pending global issues on equitable terms,” according to the UP story “Claims Threat To Bomb China Might End War.”
The exchanges would continue through to the end of the year when the last of the POWs were released. It was among these prisoners that the men that were held with Army Chaplain, Father Emil Kapaun, were released. They immediately went to the media and began to tell his story, which would be published in the Saturday Evening Post in Jan. 1954.
On Jan. 17, 1954, the story “Would Memorialize Father Kapaun, Former Parish Priest at Timkin” by Tribune Staff Writer William E. Stanfill ran on the front page, accompanied by a famous photograph of Father Kapaun delivering mass on the hood of a jeep in a field. The editor’s note read.
“For his exploits as a chaplain of the 8th Cavalry Regiment, he earned the Bronze Star with the Valor “V” and for his heroism at the time of his capture he was awarded, posthumously, the Distinguished Service Cross. Born on a farm near Marion, Kansas...(he served in) World War II as a chaplain in the China-Burma-India theater. After six months as parish priest at Timken, he returned to the Corps of Chaplains in 1948. He died in a Korean prison camp in Mary of 1951 at the age of 35.”
It took over 60 years, but his fellow soldiers and family never forgot him, and on April 11, 2013, he was awarded posthumously the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama. He is also being considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church.
For an in-depth look at how Father Kapaun inspired other POWs in the North Korean camps, in 2011, Wichita Eagle reporter Roy Wenzel authored a seven-part series, http://www.kansas.com/2009/12/06/1085753/father-emil-kapaun-in-korea-kapaun.html.
Even as the wounded were returning with these tales, young men from Great Bend were entering the military. One can only wonder what their thoughts were when they heard these reports. As the reports about forced death marches made the pages of the Tribune, so did the announcement that Harold Arnall and Leslie Kite had just finished basic training and would be shipped to other air force bases for specialized training in the Air Force. As one flips through the pages of the paper of that time, several young, confident faces peer back, ready to serve their country.
But the world didn’t stop for war, and neither did Great Bend. Reports of the start of construction of what would become the Sears building on North Main Street between 17th and 18th. was reported. It was completed later that summer.
“Dan E. Brack, sr., contractor took out the permit for the new building, one of the two major units in the new $1.5 million shopping center on north Main, this afternoon. The value of the building was set at $150,000.” The other store would be the J.S. Dillon and Sons building. Six houses were cleared away for the construction to proceed.
Also, the Tribune reported the finishing touches were put on a dike project at the Cheyenne Bottoms. Twenty-three miles of dikes were needed to form the outline of the five great pools into which the Bottoms is divided, it was reported. The seeding of the slopes of the dikes by a botanical party from the fish and game commission office at Pratt would be completed by the end of the week. Bulrushes would need to be seeded when the ground was wet and covered with water, but it was too dry at the time to take that last step. In April 2009, the Kasnas Wetlands Education Center would open with a mission of “providing a better understanding of wetland communities and their importance through interpretive exhibits, educational programs and research,” according to the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism website. On April 27, 2013, the Bottoms will be the location for the “Wild Goose Chase” 5K and one mile fun run.