Martyrs of the Korean Deathmarch
During the Korean war, the Communists of the North arrested missionaries from the Catholic, Anglican, Methodist and Salvation Army Churches and some diplomats from foreign legates.. They were held in prison and were indoctrinated with Marxist ideas. They even told them once, “The most potenet weapon of the west held against its enemies was not the atom bomb, but religion.” They were told that since religion was non sense, the purpose of the missionaries in Korea were for being political agents. One Carmelite nun who was kidnapped even wrote in her diary that she overheard one of the soldiers shouting, “There is nothing but to destroy Rome and the Vatican. . . We are going to kill all the priests and nuns tonight!”
Those who were arrested included a group of Belgian and French Carmelite nuns, who were arrested for refusing to leave their Korean sisters instead of returning to their native lands for safety. Also imprisoned was Bishop Patrick Byrne, an American Maryknoll missionary who was the apostolic delegate of the Pope to Korea. All lived at death’s door in the camp, had it not been for a Korean priest who risked his life by bringing the necessities of the foreign prisoners.
Camp life in the North was quite hard, especially for the Catholic priests. Some of them were imprisoned by the Japanese soldiers and were allowed to perform the Mass. But they were not allowed to in the hands of their Korean captives. They were all being prepared for the death march, where the captives would be forced to march from South Korea to the Yalu River in the North. The march would begin on October 31, 1950. The snow was deep at that time. One of the Salvation Army missionaries, Herbert Lord, pleaded for mercy, “These people will die if they have to march”” But the commanding officer said, “Then let them march until they die. This is a military order.”
The commander of the marching line, “The Tiger,” knew about the conditions of his prisoners. Some of them were even sick. One of the Carmelite nuns was blind. But he did not allow one to fall out from the march. When some prisoners fell out, the American officer in charge of the group was executed. In order to bring peace to the hellish atmosphere of the march on a cold and snowy November, Bishop Byrne passed the word down the line that he would give a General Absolution to all Catholics. All of them feared death. During nights, the prisoners stayed in open fields or were crowded in buildings. Some of them even died in the buildings in a standing position. Tiger told them that they were to be brought to government hospitals, which did not happen.
The guards separated the women from the men, promising that they would be provided transportation. But when the men left, the guards ordered the women to start walking. An eighty-two-year-old nun, Mother Beatrix, could no longer walk. She was left behind in the cold to die. One nun, Mother Eugenie, tried to stay with Mother Beatrix, but Mother Beatrix told her, “Go, my sister, go.” As the march resumed, a few gunshots were heard. Mother Beatrix was not seen again.
Dozens began dying per day. Some were killed on the road. One priest, Fr. Paul Villemot, died of starvation. Toothless and unable to eat the corn given to him, he died after five days. An Anglican nun, Sr. Mary Clare, died of starvation. A Carmelite nun wrote of what happened:
“This morning we found our dear Sister Mary Clare, an Anglican Religious, sixty-years old, dead on her bed of straw. A person of deep Christian charity, she helped us in times of distress. We loved her very much. She shared with us the unbearable life in camp, and now she had finished her bitter Calvary. May she rest in the peace of the Lord!
“With her companions who helped her so much on the forced march, we prepared her body for burial. Preceded by our guard; her friends; Sister Bernadette (a Carmelite) and myself, we carried her, the five us, on an improvised bier to the top of a neighbouring hill, quite close to the camp. We ourselves dug her grave, only so deep as our failing strength allowed, and we laid her down there, showing a sisterly reverence. Then, after the last prayer, we covered this poor body with a little earth and stones. With bits of wood we made a cross, and placed this sign of Redemption on her tomb.”
Within a few days, more and more missionaries died. Bishop Patrick Byrne, who was terribly sick, was moved into a hut with other infected prisoners to isolate them from the others. Bishop Burne died peacefully. The regular toll of death also took toll on the survivors as well.
The survivors of the march were brought into a camp, where the indoctrinations continued. Their health gradually improved and they became accustomed to camp life. The Carmelite sisters resumed their ministry to the suffering and encouraged each other. Finally, after three years, they were expatriated. The missionaries prayed for the salvation of their captors.