Month of September is an important month in modern American History as well as the history of many Asian countries, including my motherland South Korea. On September 2nd, Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Far East, read his speech to all on board USS Missouri, accepting Emperor Hirohito’s “unconditional surrender to the allied forces” that had been broadcasted all over the world two weeks earlier, August 15th, and ending with a hopeful tune: “Let us pray that peace be restored to the world and that God will preserve it always.”
Six days later, on Sept. 8th, the first American troops landed on South Korea to prevent the Russians from taking the entire peninsula. Russian troops had entered North Korea on August 8th, with request of Kim Ilsung, Kim Jong-un’ grandfather, to “disarm” Japanese occupation forces while Nagasaki was still smoldering from atomic bombs dropped hours earlier.
The U.S. American troops quickly established the Temporary U.S Army Military Government in Korea in Seoul and faced many angry Koreans, most of whom had just returned from all over the Pacific, China, Manchuria, and Japan, where they fought against the Allied, wearing Japanese military uniforms or worked as forced laborers, including women who were forced into sex-slavery.
Overland Park resident John Hanse, 91, didn’t serve in the Temporary US military government at the time but played an important role in Korean history. As a Navy Lieutenant, Hanse and other Naval officers boarded USS LST 1039 and headed for Saipan to rescue thousands of Korean conscripts, forced laborers, and military sex-slaves abandoned by their Japanese masters, like war-debris. Of the thousands people waiting to be rescued, Hanse’s group brought back about 650 of the Koreans and some Japanese soldiers hiding in their deep caves, some not knowing that the war had ended, and delivered them to their beloved homelands.
Most Americans know that the United States helped South Korea at the crucial time of her history between 1945, particularly during the war (1950-1953) and the post war period, but not too many Americans know about the spiritual investments the U.S. and the European religious leaders made in Korea during the same period.
Before Korea’s liberation from Japan in 1945, while Korea was one nation, the northern part of the peninsula had far more Christians, churches, and schools operated by Western religious leaders, including Roman Catholic priests and nuns. And as soon as Korea was liberated from Japan, a new flock of Christian missionaries from all over the world migrated to Korea. About that point of Korea’s history, only one percent of 30 million Koreans were Christians, in the country that had accepted Buddhism and Confucian philosophy as ideal way of life centuries earlier.
The U.S. military government in Korea lasted three years, ending in 1948, and the American troops were evacuated from Korea, but the missionaries remained. When 95,000 North Korea troops invaded the South two years later, on June 25, 1950, with Russian tanks, rockets, and battle vehicles, 10,000 “Political Criminals” including missionaries, diplomats, professors, scientists, and engineers, regardless of their nationalities, were forced into the “Death March” to the POW camp along the Yalu River, a foot journey that took more than three months between August to November, including on frozen mountain roads.
In fact, 66 years ago, about this time of the year, many of the POWs on march had died on while walking, and the rest of them were still marching, only at night because their captors were afraid that American fighters planes might spot them and kill them all.
Among the 250 foreign missionary priests and nuns forced into the Death March was Bishop Patrick Byrne, a member of Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America (Maryknoll) who was serving in Seoul as the first Apostolic Delegate to Korea since a year earlier, in 1949. He died in a North Korean prison camp in November that year from exhaustion and the pneumonia he had contracted during the Death March, and was buried in an unmarked grave along the Yalu River.
In the same Death March was 34-year-old Father Emil Kapaun, from the Wichita Diocese, who received a Medal of Honor in 2011 from President Barrack Obama himself in the White House, and the Vatican was considering canonizing him for his extraordinary courage and his Christ-like love toward his fellow American inmates, which inspired thousands of American POWs to survive the inhumane treatment and still sustain their faith both in God and in their country. He died in May 1951, in an unheated room where all sick POWs were left to die, without food and water.
And how many orphans and refugees Catholic missionaries rescued from the streets of Korea and sheltered, fed, clothed them?
Today South Korea boastes that more than 10.5 percent of the total population of 50 millions are Roman and 4901 priests (as of 2014) are serving in 1,668 parishes, which amounts to approximately 3 priests in every parish.
Without the material, spiritual, and military help Americans had given us, South Korea would not stand where she does today. During this month, I will give special thanks to all those who fought in Korea and pray that the remains of Americans still buried in North Korean soil would soon unite with their families.