Friday, July 13, 2018

The Vocation of Herman Felhoelter

Lt. Herman G. Felhoelter, 1913-1950.

July 16, 1950. Just north of Taejon, South Korea.  It was the day before Lieutenant Herman G. Felhoelter’s 37th birthday. But now, 11 days since he set foot in Korea with the U.S. Army, this Catholic chaplain knew he was in a tight spot. He was attached to the 19th Infantry Regiment, dug in along the Kum River to resist the onslaught of numerically superior North Korean forces approaching Taejon and its crucial railyard.  

The 19th had taken a lot of casualties.  The lucky ones were shuttled by ambulances down to the train station in Taejon.  But there were too many stretcher cases - men immobilized by wounds – and not enough ambulances. The North Koreans outflanked and gradually encircled the forward aid station where Lt. Felhoelter assisted medics with the living. When necessary, the Louisville, Kentucky native administered last rites for the dead.

Herman Felthoelter’s military vocation was rare in 1950. Just five years earlier, at the end of World War II, the U.S. Army boasted over 8,000 chaplains among its ranks. Demobilization during the late 1940s rapidly diminished those numbers.  At the end of 1947, just over 1,100 chaplains remained, and almost half of those would be transferred to the newly-established U.S. Air Force.  By June 1950, the Army had no more than 706 chaplains on active duty.

The unfavorable tactical situation was obvious to Felhoelter and Captain Linton Buttrey, the regimental medical officer staffing the aid station.  Korea was unbearably hot in July, the kind of conditions that precipitated heat stroke.  Supplies, and especially water, were nearly exhausted. They regiment had already functioned for days with little or no sleep. By noon, the men of the aid station knew their position was surrounded. The only road-bound path for escape was cut off by a North Korean roadblock. The only chance for the 100 or so able-bodied Americans was to escape on foot, through the hills.  Their biggest problem was the disposition of 30 litter cases.  They would have to be carried out by hand.

The group set out by about 1:00 in the afternoon. Following orders, the able-bodied carried stretcher cases with them. They moved in scattered teams in the direction of a pre-determined rallying point on a distant hill.  But soon, the hot sun challenged the endurance of these men.  As a result of cruel calculus, the litter cases were gathered for abandonment on an intermediate rise.  There were pleas, shouts, and tears. And there were choices that would haunt the survivors for the rest of their lives.

Lt. Felhoelter and Capt. Buttrey remained with the immobilized wounded.  But in short order, their position was approached by a North Korean patrol.  While Felhoelter was dressed in army fatigues, he wore an armband with a large, white Latin cross that identified him as a chaplain.  Buttrey, a 43-year-old Tennessean, wore a simillar brassard with the red cross of a medical professional.  Under international law, both men were non-combatants, and they carried no weapons.

The North Korean patrol that approached them consisted of boys in their early teens.  It’s very likely that they had little training.  They were probably unaware of international conventions regarding the conduct of warfare. However, several of them were armed with Russian-made PPSh-41 burp guns. Spoting the oncoming patrol, the American chaplain and doctor made a quick agreement: Buttrey would dash forward to retrieve help, if possible.  Felhoelter would stay with the wounded. The enemy nicked Buttrey, but he otherwise made a good escape.

From the rallying point atop the hill, the Americans overlooking Felhoelter’s position could see everything unfold. Felhoelter knelt to pray over the wounded.  In the final analysis, this was all – or rather everything – he could do. The distant Americans then watched in horror as the young North Koreans shot the wounded at point-blank range, as well as the priest who cared for them. The enemy, who probably anticipated the retaliation of artillery, then withdrew from the position as quickly as they had taken it. 

The remains of Herman Felhoelter, and those of many of the wounded men, would be collected the following September after the Americans finally regained these positions. Most would eventually be shipped back home for final interment on U.S. soil.

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