Perhaps being born in 1916 to a farming family on the prairies in eastern Kansas where a child needed to be a amateur yet resourceful mechanic, carpenter and veterinarian through brutal winters and hellish summers is what set the stage for the heroics Emil Kapaun performed later in life. Acts of heroism that he performed over and over again most times under grave personal danger, yet with an aplomb that astonished not only his own countrymen, but the enemy soldiers as well.
The distinguished acts and life of Army Chaplain Emil Kapaun was honored in April at the White House when President Barack Obama posthumously awarded him the Medal of Honor. According to the medal’s citation, “Chaplain Kapaun calmly walked through withering enemy fire in order to provide comfort and medical aid to his comrades and rescue friendly wounded from no-man’s land.”
The following day at the Pentagon Father Kapaun was inducted into the Hall of Heroes amid speeches by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno and the Secretary of the Army, John McHugh. However, it was Ray Kapaun, Emil Kapaun’s nephew and family spokesman for both ceremonies who earned the lone standing ovation and caused hardened men to cry with his stories of his uncle and when he asked those present to deliver a round of applause for the nine elderly former prisoners of war, seated on the front row, who had suffered abuse and starvation in the same North Korean camp as Kapaun himself.
Fueled by a strong desire to become a priest, Emil Kaupaun attended Benedictine Conception Abbey to complete high school and college, then continued his studies at Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis and was ordained in 1940.
Upon the United States' entry into World War II, Fr Kapaun asked permission from his bishop to become a military chaplain. The bishop initially refused and later relented and Kapaun enlisted in 1944, serving for two years in Burma and later India. The Chaplain returned home where he earned his masters in education form Catholic University and then served as parish priest in Pilsen, Kansas. In 1948 Kapaun reenlisted into the Army where he was assigned to the 1st Calvary Division in Japan.
“Serving in those parishes…it didn’t work out,” Kapaun told a fellow prisoner in the bleakness of the North Korean camp. “I mean…my God, Bob! Have you ever had to deal with one of those women’s committees of a church Altar Society?”Chaplain Kapaun was in constant motion it seemed, tending to the needs of the soldiers, saying mass on the hood of his jeep, offering comfort and encouragement everywhere he went. When enemy fire destroyed his jeep, Kapaun took up his duties along the front line on a bicycle. One of his fellow POWs, Ray M. Dowe, Jr., wrote in the Saturday Evening Post in 1954 about the chaplain’s rides:
Helmet jammed down over his ears, pockets stuffed with apples and peaches he had scrounged from Korean orchards, he’d ride this bone-shaker over the rocky roads and the paths through the paddy fields until he came to the forward outposts. There he’d drop in a shallow hole beside a nervous rifleman, crack a joke or two, hand him a peach, say a little prayer with him and move on to the next hole.
By November 1st the Chinese had secretly moved a huge army into North Korea while Father Kapaun's battalion, who had 400 casualties among its 700 troop roster, was in a reserve position completely unaware that the Chinese troops were close by. Around midnight they were attacked from all sides by an army numbering 20,000.
GIs saw the fearless chaplain running from foxhole to foxhole, saving the wounded, praying over the dying, hearing confessions, tending wounds all despite many screaming at him to escape. He assembled the wounded into an abandoned log dugout and 15 times after dawn broke he was seen crawling out and dragging the wounded back there.
At one point Kapaun huddled up several soldiers:
"I'm going to give you guys the last rites," he said. "Because a lot of you guys are not going to make it home."By this point the log hut containing the wounded was now outside the defensive perimeter and when it was finally overrun, Fr. Kapaun approached a captured and wounded Chinese officer asking him to appeal to the humanity of the army outside the dugout to stop shooting and he and his wounded would surrender. Through his negotiations 40 American lives were saved, however they were all now prisoners of war.
"Let me help you up," he said. His voice was calm. He got Miller up on one foot, then picked him up piggyback.The rifleman was stunned and stood there along with the other Chinese soldiers watching him calmly walk away.
"He didn't know what to do," Miller said. "Father Kapaun had that effect on those guys."President Obama referenced that story in his Medal of Honor speech:
This is the valor we honor today -- an American soldier who didn’t fire a gun, but who wielded the mightiest weapon of all, a love for his brothers so pure that he was willing to die so that they might live. And yet, the incredible story of Father Kapaun does not end there.The Tiger Death March to a North Korean prison camp, Pyoktong began immediately and all throughout the march Kapaun would walk up and down the line encouraging the men to not give up, to keep the faith. Although he was suffering from frostbite himself, the chaplain carried stretchers and aided the exhausted during the torturous hike.
Once ensconced in the POW camp, Fr. Kapaun knew he had to resort to desperate measures to find food for his men, so saying a quick prayer to St. Dismas, the "Good Thief", he would sneak out under cover of darkness returning with grain, potatoes and corn. He visited the sick, washing their dysentery soiled clothing, held and comforted them, picked lice from their bodies, prayed with them and for them and offered mass.
In 1954 one of the prisoners, Ray M. Dowe, Jr. told The Saturday Evening Post:
“But the main thing he did for them was to put into their hearts the will to live. For when you are wounded and sick and starving, it’s easy to give up and quietly die.”Not surprisingly, Father Kapaun fell ill in the spring of 1951 and one week after he performed Easter sunrise mass for his fellow prisoners he worsened and would not recover. The guards took him away to a filthy, dingy dark building to die and en route Father Kapaun asked that the guards be forgiven before calling out to his fellow soldiers to "Tell them back home that I died a happy death."
Father Emil Kapaun recived many posthumous honors, including the Distinguished Service Cross and Legion of Merit. He's had many buildings, chapels and schools named in his honor. In 1993 the Pope declared Fr. Kapaun a "Servant of God" which is a precursor to canonization.
I have listed below both my sources and a list for further reading.
President Obama Awards Medal of Honor to Father Emil Kapaun This is from the White House blog and contains the full transcript of President Obama's speech as well as a video of the presentation.
The Miracle of Father Kapaun (Web Page) This Witchita Eagle web page has numerous links and videos detailing the writing of the book, all parts of Father Kapaun's life, the cases for miracles, correspondence, transcripts of a few of his sermons, photos and more more more.
A Shepherd in Combat Boots:Chaplain Emil Kapaun of the 1st Calvary Division by William L. Maher
A Saint Among Us: Remembering Father Emil J. Kapaun Editor Pat Wick
The Miracle of Father Kapaun: Priest, Soldier and Korean War Hero by Roy Wenzl and Travis Heying
The Miracle of Father Kapaun: Priest, Soldier and Korean War Hero DVD of above book