Called to Korea Never to Return


The Catholic bishop had wrapped the straw rope around his waist, and the Methodist missionary tied himself to the other end. The two men shuffled along the pass in Korea's Kang Nam mountains, shivering in their summer clothes, leaning against each other for support. The snow along the trail was smeared with blood where the bishop's shoes had worn through.

In front of them were more than 750 American soldiers. Behind were 57 other foreign civilians, including a 9-month- old baby and an 82-year-old priest, struggling to keep up.

All during that terrible day, as more and more young GIs fell to the side of the path, Bishop Patrick James Byrne pleaded with them to resume the march. Many of the soldiers were wounded and exhausted. Few had shoes or adequate clothing for the fierce cold and the wind whipping through the mountains. As he walked by men collapsed along the trail, the bishop repeated his favorite prayer, the "Our Father," over and over. Then he blessed them.

Soon, he heard the gunshots. After the last of the straggling column had passed, North Korean guards began killing the soldiers who could not keep up. When it was silent again in the echoing hills, the guards kicked over the littered bodies and left them to be buried by the falling snow. They pushed the other prisoners on again, many to die another day.

That cruel march took place 50 years ago, soon after the start of the Korean War. For those who survived, it was the beginning of three years of harsh captivity. This month, many veterans will begin a commemoration of that conflict, which took the lives of 37,000 Americans and 3 million Koreans. Called the Forgotten War by historians, it remains less vivid in the collective memory than the moral crusades of the world wars or the bitter defeat of Vietnam. Korea was America's first war to end in a stalemate, almost exactly where it began.

Even now, a half-century later, it is not yet over. The border is still guarded by the North and South Korean armies, staring across the demilitarized zone at one another, while 30,000 American soldiers are stationed just south of the line. Tomorrow, the two Korean presidents will meet in Pyongyang, capital of the North, to discuss increased cooperation.

The U.S. government will be watching with interest, for North Korea is the world's most isolated regime, closed off for decades to all but its Communist allies. After talks had stalled for months, U.S. and North Korean officials agreed last week to resume efforts to recover America's war dead.

Byrne, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Korea, was my great-uncle. Buried on the side of a remote hill, he never returned from the country where he was held prisoner. When I was 8 years old, I did a show and tell for school. We had to climb into an old washing machine box that had been cut to look like a television set and present our report to the class. I held up a book called "Ambassador in Chains," a biography of Byrne written by a Maryknoll bishop, and I told them his tale. I don't remember how my classmates reacted, but the nuns were enthralled. That copy of the book went home to the convent that day.

Thirty years later, I became curious about how Byrne had lived and died. A portrait of him had hung above my parents' bed back home in Pennsylvania, and it had always intrigued me. As a photojournalist at The Sun, I started to explore his past. I found people who had shared his ordeal in Korea and talked with members of a group called the Tiger Survivors, most now in their 70s and 80s, their memories still vivid about the little-known march. Some remembered Byrne's compassion and strength; others who knew him, including priests and family members, described him as a lively and generous spirit.

"You knew that this man was special," my father said. In 1998, the Korean Catholic Church asked the Vatican to consider Byrne for canonization.

I came to know him only through the memories of others, of course. But they told the story of a man who lived a remarkable life, fulfilled by work that took him to a faraway place, where he perished in a long-ago war.

A natural missionary

Before the death march, Byrne and the other prisoners had been moved north by train, toward the Chinese border, away from advancing United Nations troops. As they rumbled through the countryside, Byrne noticed churches and schools he had built a quarter-century before, when he arrived in Korea as a young priest.

Byrne was a natural as a missionary -- curious, worldly and witty, as comfortable talking to a peasant as to the president of Korea. He had been an excellent student and was devout, of course, but he was not a stern, solemn sort of priest. Instead, he loved being a pioneer in an exotic country -- riding a dog sled over the frozen Yalu River to preach at a remote village, clambering up on a rooftop to hammer away at a new school, starting language classes for other missionaries.

From his assignments in Korea and, later, Japan, Byrne would regale friends and relatives with his exploits. He started a newsletter called the "Bamboo Wireless" and wrote comical letters about fancy dinners, struggles with a new language, a vandalized Pontiac and misadventures with his menagerie -- a succession of dogs, parrots and a monkey named Jonnie.

To a nun in Brooklyn, N.Y., he explained the skills required for mission work: "A missioner must above all be an extrovert, having the faculty of seeing persons and things objectively. (An introvert on the missions will quickly become a crackpot, or a lazy loafer.)" He would comment on affairs back home, too. After a Catholic magazine criticized a nun for speaking publicly at Columbia University in 1926, he was incensed. "Pardon me for saying it, but the editors of America are skunks," he wrote her. "I think it is a good thing for me that I wasn't near New York. I'm sure I couldn't have resisted calling Father Parsons, and telling him of his close resemblance to the polecat, and then apologizing to the cat." Those who knew him say he followed his own advice -- to take one's work seriously but not oneself.

Byrne was born in Washington on Oct. 26, 1888, in a house that was later torn down to make way for the Supreme Court building. (He delighted in referring to the court as "The Old Homestead.") He was the fourth son of Patrick and Anna Byrne, who had come to America from Ireland as children.

It was a boisterous household. The elder Byrne, who headed the bindery at the Government Printing Office, would lead his seven children around the living room, using a broomstick as a baton and singing marching tunes. But Patrick was sent away to live with a childless aunt in Auburn, N.Y., when he was 5, staying until he was 16. Though his aunt was kind, the boy longed for his family. It was then that he discovered reading, the solace of many solitary children, and began to dream of going away to foreign countries as a missionary.

That dream became a resolve after a devastating loss. On a summer weekend in 1908, Patrick, then 20, and his brother Ernest, 16, went sailing on the Chesapeake Bay off St. Mary's County. Local boaters warned that a storm was coming, but the two city boys ignored them. Neither could swim. As the winds shifted, the boom knocked Ernest overboard. Patrick, clinging to the side of the boat, saw his brother sink below the surface. After the tragedy, Byrne told his parents he wanted to devote his life to helping others, according to his biographer.

After being ordained at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore in 1915, Byrne entered the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, commonly known as Maryknoll, in Ossining, N.Y.

He was the first Maryknoller to go to Korea to establish a mission, in 1923. He bought land, built churches and schools, preached the gospel -- and learned to hate the bitter winter cold. In 1934, he was assigned to start a mission in Kyoto, Japan. In the next few years, Byrne led efforts to expand the Catholic Church and build a sanitarium for Japanese with tuberculosis.

After Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941, Americans and other foreigners were rounded up and interned or imprisoned. Because of his efforts and reputation, Byrne, then 53, instead was placed under house arrest.

For four years, he passed a monotonous existence. He could venture outside and weed the garden only rarely. Most days, he studied Japanese grammar or walked in circles in his rented house, carrying a bundle of wood under each arm to keep up his strength. Tall and thin, he lost weight on the meager war rations and developed a stoop.

After the surrender of Japan in 1945, Byrne was asked by the archbishop of Tokyo to speak on the radio to reassure the Japanese people about the American occupying forces. Newspapers back home started calling Byrne Japan's "No. 2 American," behind the "No. 1" spot held by Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

"In the early days of the occupation, when everything was in confusion, Father Byrne was of great help to us," the general said later in published reports. "He was resourceful and courageous. He was looked up to by everybody."

The two men shared the stage a few years later, in 1948, at the inauguration of Syngman Rhee, the first democratically elected president of South Korea. Byrne, by then a bishop, had been assigned to Seoul, and spoke out against communism at the ceremony. Korea, which had served as a military base for the Japanese during World War II, had been divided at the 38th parallel at the end of the war, with the Soviet Union receiving the surrender north of that line, and the Americans to the south. Soon, Korea became a center of Cold War rivalry, and the 38th parallel one of the flash points.

Catching the South by surprise, the North Koreans pushed across the border on June 25, 1950. Within hours, the invaders had taken Seoul, the capital. Like other foreigners, Byrne and his secretary, Father William Booth, were forced into hiding. Two weeks after the attack began, the 62-year-old bishop was spotted by two North Korean soldiers on a balcony as he sought relief from the scorching heat inside.

The priests were taken to a warehouse and crammed into the basement with hundreds of prisoners. It was dark and stifling. Captives subsisted on barley and water. Above, they could hear the screams of South Korean prisoners being tortured and executed.

Finally, the North Korean army put the bishop on trial. According to written accounts by Booth, 500 people were called to attend the proceedings, and act as jury.

The judge asked Byrne why he came to Korea.

"I came to teach religion," he replied.

"Kill the American!" the crowd shouted.

At the end of the trial, the judge declared, "Either Bishop Byrne will broadcast by radio a denunciation of the United States, the United Nations and the Vatican or he must die."

The bishop did not waver. "There remains only one course to me," Byrne said. "That I die."

Prison ambassador

Years later, when any of the survivors would gather, it was "the Tiger" they always remembered. The Tiger was the one who drove them north, toward the border with China, away from United Nations forces defending South Korea. It was the Tiger who would show no mercy. It was the Tiger who was the instrument of their suffering.

They never knew the North Korean major's real name or much else about him. He was tall for a Korean, with scars on his face. One of the GIs gave him the nickname, inspired by his protruding teeth and fierce manner. He was dressed in a white uniform with jodhpurs buttoned at the calf. They knew immediately that he was a man to be feared.

Before coming under his command, Byrne and the other civilians -- 59 missionaries, diplomats, journalists and businessmen with their families -- were imprisoned for several months at a schoolhouse in Pyongyang, about 120 miles north of Seoul.

The Rev. Larry Zellers, then a 26-year-old Methodist missionary who taught English, remembers the night Byrne joined them. On July 19, 1950, the bishop was dragged into the room and thrown to the floor. He was "half dead," Zellers recalls, and gasping for water.

The school had been built during the Second World War by the Japanese, with windows along the length of it. When the Americans started to bomb Pyongyang, the prisoners would remove the windows, sit cross-legged on the floor and watch the show in the sky. They could see the pilots, Zellers remembers, who would sometimes wag their wings at them. "It reassured us that we hadn't been forgotten," he says.

Byrne, however, would sit facing the far wall until the bombing was over. The others never asked why, Zellers says, but they believed the bishop objected to any cheering over bloodshed.

During those days, Byrne emerged as a leader. He and a Methodist missionary entertained the prisoners, telling stories about their adventures. Byrne and Kris Anders Jensen, the missionary, would pace the floor, come to the wall, turn around simultaneously, repeating the process over and over. The wooden floor squeaked under their feet.

"They both knew a lot of people in high places," Zellers recalls. The bishop "had all these people that he remembered and wrote these wonderful letters to. ... Their conversations were absolutely fascinating."

Commonsense rules

Byrne was a pragmatic man; he suspended practices among his fellow Catholics that he considered too grueling. Some French Carmelite nuns insisted on a prayer regimen that took hours every day, saying it was the rule. "The only rule that applies here is the rule of common sense," he replied.

Byrne acted as ambassador among the diverse groups of foreigners, Zellers says. The prisoners -- including Russians, Tatars, British, French, South Koreans -- often quarreled with one another. Zellers remembers that he or another American would ask for help with a chore and be faced with a cold stare. Byrne became the mediator. He would talk and laugh with the alienated prisoners, and soon everyone was cooperating.

"He was always offering to work, go for water or something else," Zellers recalls. "He would pour oil on the troubled waters. He would walk among the group, and all eyes would be on him."

In early September, the prisoners were herded aboard a train, where they first saw the soldiers who would become their companions in misery. They were the battered remnants of the Army's 24th Infantry Division.

When the Korean War began, the nearest U.S. troops were stationed in Japan on occupation duty. Five hundred men from the 24th were rushed into battle on July 4, 1950. They were outnumbered 10-to-1. In the days that followed, more men from the 24th followed. Many were green -- kids of 18 or 19 who had never seen combat. Others were poorly trained and out of shape from the easy duty in Japan. They lacked the ammunition and weapons to face the modern, Russian-built tanks rolling through the country.

By July 20, many of the 24th Infantry's 7,000 men had been killed or wounded. More than 750 soldiers were taken prisoner.

They were loaded onto the train like cattle, riding in open cars. The soldiers were weak and disheveled. Many had combat wounds. Their uniforms were in tatters and many were barefoot. Some soldiers would tear off the bottoms of their pant legs and wrap them around their feet. They could barely walk.

The train traveled only in the dark. It was during one of these nights, under the red glow of flares from American B-26s, that Byrne and Booth noticed the rubble of the churches and schools they had helped build. When daylight would come, the prisoners moved to hillsides. The train would be hidden in a tunnel from the U.S. bombers.

After a week, the train reached Manpo, a town on the Yalu River. The prisoners were quartered in an old quarantine station, and for six weeks, given better rations.

Then they met the Tiger. On Oct. 31, he threw open the door and announced that they would be marching north.

Some of the civilians protested, saying that many would die.

"Then you will march till you die," he shouted.

Death march

They set out on the last day of October, as dusk fell. The group was disorganized, the guards unsure, the soldiers already struggling to keep up. After walking five miles in confusion, they ended up back where they had started, outside Manpo. A light snow had begun to fall, and most of the prisoners had only lightweight clothing. Byrne had been captured with only cotton trousers and a T-shirt.

Villagers were forced to feed them from their own meager stores of millet, which sickened the POWs with diarrhea. At night, they slept in the open, huddled in small groups for warmth.

At dawn the next morning, they started out again. The soldiers went first, followed by Byrne and Jensen leading the civilian contingent. The Tiger warned that everyone had to keep up. The guards kept shouting, "Bali, bali, bali!" which meant hurry! Soon, American soldiers began to falter. Some dropped, unable to continue. The Tiger stopped the group. Who is in charge of these men? he demanded.

Five section leaders stepped forward. Through a civilian interpreter, the Tiger told them that they had disobeyed orders and that he had the authority to shoot them all, Zellers and others recounted. Four of the men bowed, pleading for their lives.

The Tiger asked whose platoon had the most men drop out. Lt. Cordus H. Thornton -- a 34-year-old with a wife and daughter in Longview, Texas -- stepped forward. The Tiger lifted the officer's cap and fired his pistol, killing him instantly.

When the march resumed, the prisoners would walk for an hour or two along the steep mountain trail, then rest for 10 minutes. Many would sprawl on the ground in exhaustion. The bishop spent the rest periods in prayer. Zellers remembers the first time he saw Byrne's knees and the evidence of a lifetime of religious devotion.

"It couldn't have been just from his daily Mass," Zellers says. "Those calluses! I had never seen that on anyone before."

Soon, soldiers started slipping back to kneel with Byrne. At the end of the second day, Byrne sent word that he would give general absolution. They congregated on the side of the hill, and Byrne knelt with them. Zellers had to help him up.

"Larry," the bishop said, "I have a great burden."

Within days, the guards grew suspicious. The GIs became more careful, but they still kept coming to see the bishop. A soldier would drift over to Byrne, stand back to back as though talking to someone else, and give his confession.

During the eight days of the march, through rugged terrain, more and more prisoners lost their lives. Byrne and others tried to encourage those who had collapsed or fallen behind, but soon they would hear the gunshots. A Russian woman, widow of a diplomat, refused to keep going; the others never saw her again. On the third day, a French Carmelite sister, 76-year-old Mother Beatrice, trailed the column, supported by a young nun who wouldn't leave her side. Finally, Mother Beatrice pushed her away. Two North Korean guards shot the older woman, then shoved her body down the mountainside.

The marching was terrible, but the nights were worse. Temperatures dropped well below freezing, and it snowed regularly. The only way to survive was to press against someone; the 9-month-old's parents clutched him to their chests. Sometimes the guards built a bonfire, but they drove back the prisoners who ventured too close. The death toll grew.

Jay Rye of Pasadena, Md., still remembers those nights. A tough 30-year-old sergeant when taken prisoner in Korea, he'd already survived one forced march. Eight years before, he was among the 70,000 Allied soldiers captured by the Japanese on the Bataan peninsula in the Philippines. Nearly 10,000 died on a five-day march through 55 miles of jungle. The two marches, Rye says, were equally horrific. In Bataan, it was the heat and thirst that killed men. In Korea, it was the rugged terrain and unbearable cold.

Joseph DiMeo, a corporal in L Company of the 24th Division, awoke one morning with the hand of his buddy on his shoulder. When he moved the hand, he realized his friend had frozen to death. After another frigid night, 10 soldiers were found dead and eight more were unable to walk. The Tiger told villagers to bury all 18.

Finally, on Nov. 8, 1950, the march came to an end. The group, 756 soldiers and 59 civilians, had walked about 110 miles. During the trek, 98 soldiers and 2 civilians died. For Byrne and the other survivors, the misery would continue.

Frozen toes and pliers

That winter was unusually harsh all across North Korea. The Americans and other U.N. troops found themselves trudging through deep snow and slowed by inadequate equipment. They were sorely outnumbered. They never penetrated deep enough into the North , a hill-covered nation about the size of Pennsylvania, to come close to the villages where Byrne and the other prisoners were held.

The Tiger moved his captives into primitive huts or schools commandeered from local peasants. Conditions were abysmal. Dr. Alexander Boysen, a member of the 24th Division, remembers that there were no medical supplies available to treat the soldiers' wounds and dysentery. The camp was infested with lice, and many of the men suffered frostbite.

"Some soldiers lost toes," Boysen said. "We would just whack them off with a pair of pliers."

More than 200 prisoners died that winter, and 200 more in the spring. Of the 756 American soldiers, less than 250 remained alive at war's end, in July 1953. Of the 59 civilians, 34 survived.

If a prisoner was able to endure that first year of captivity, he probably made it to freedom, Zellers says. Byrne, though, was one of the casualties.

By the time the march was over, he was exhausted and sick. His face was bright red, feverish with the pneumonia afflicting the prisoners. The civilians were jammed into an unheated schoolhouse in a village called Chunggang. Several nights, Byrne slept against a gaping hole that left him exposed to the frigid air.

Each morning, the Tiger would force the prisoners to exercise. Byrne, barely able to walk, made his way into the courtyard with a thin sheet wrapped around his shoulders. The Tiger forced him to leave it behind. In the raw cold, the bishop performed calisthenics with the others.

A week later, on Nov. 16, the group moved to the village of Hanjang-ni. The next day, the prisoners were forced to sit on the snow-covered ground for three hours while the Tiger lectured. It was so cold, Zellers says, that the moisture inside his nose froze.

After a week, Byrne could not stand. The other civilians, who had been hiding the sick, reluctantly carried him to a hut the guards called the "People's Hospital." It had no heat and no medicine. The walls were caked with ice. The prisoners called it "The Morgue."

Monsignor Thomas Quinlan, an Irish priest, and Zellers wrapped Byrne in a blue wool blanket picked up along the march after a weary civilian dropped it. They covered the bishop in rice bags they had scrounged and tried to make him comfortable on the straw floor. Zellers had to get permission from a guard to bring the patient some watery soup.

During his last days, Bishop Byrne prayed, using black rosary beads that had belonged to Mother Beatrice, the nun shot on the march. His rosary had been left behind when he was captured in Seoul. He never complained, his companions say, and knew that his only hope for survival was to be rescued by plane.

"He may have been in that icehouse for a week," Zellers recalls. "He regarded me as his aviation expert, and he would ask me about those planes. The Yalu River was about 300 or 400 feet away, and was frozen over. He asked me, 'Larry, can a hospital plane land on a frozen river?' It was as though he was on that airplane," Zellers says.

Kris Jensen saw Byrne the day before he died. It was Nov. 24, four months after the war began.

"After the privilege of my priesthood," Byrne told his friend, "the greatest privilege of my life is to suffer for Christ with all of you."

At the edge of the village, the men chose a site for the grave. It was on the side of a grassy hill, in the burial ground where the other civilians were laid. The soldiers had their own impromptu cemetery farther up the hill. Zellers noted that Byrne's grave would be about 300 feet from the village well and near a dirt road where enemy soldiers often transported supplies.

The ground was frozen, and it was difficult to dig the grave. The prisoners lacked proper tools, and few had the strength for the work. Zellers remembers that they burned millet stalks to soften the earth, then dug about 6 inches, repeating the process several times. They piled dirt and rocks on the grave, arranging them in the form of a cross. Quinlan conducted a brief service.

They buried the bishop in the priest's cassock that Quinlan had worn throughout his captivity. The garment had metal buttons covered with red cloth and red piping. The prisoners knew the buttons would last, and could help identify Byrne's body if it were ever recovered.

"Do you think you could remember this place?" Quinlan asked.

Zellers didn't hesitate. "I could never forget it."

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