Called to Korea Never to Return

Ordeal: In the early days of the Forgotten War, a brave American priest helped a battered group of prisoners on a bitter march through hell.

June 11, 2000|By Eileen Ryan | Eileen Ryan,Sun staff

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.

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