Medal of Honor Narrative: Chaplain (Capt.) Emil J. Kapaun

By U.S. ArmyApril 11, 2013

Chaplain (Capt.) Emil J. Kapaun, while assigned to Headquarters Company, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism, patriotism, and selfless service between Nov. 1, 1950 and May 23, 1951. During the battle of Unsan, Kapaun was attached to the 3rd Battalion of the 8th Cavalry Regiment, which was assigned to provide a rear guard for the regiment's withdrawal.

As Chinese Communist forces encircled the battalion, Kapaun moved fearlessly from foxhole to foxhole under enemy direct fire in order to provide comfort and reassurance to the outnumbered Soldiers. When Chinese commandoes attacked the battalion command post, Kapaun and other members of the headquarters withdrew 500 meters across a nearby river, but Kapaun returned to help the wounded, gathering approximately 30 injured men into the relative protection of a Korean dugout.

The battalion repelled the Chinese attack shortly before dawn Nov. 2, but found itself defending a small perimeter, entirely surrounded by enemy troops. Kapaun spent the day rescuing wounded Americans from the no-man's land outside the battalion perimeter. Despite continuing enemy fire, he repeatedly crawled to wounded men and either dragged them back to safety of the American lines or dug shallow trenches to shield them from enemy fire. As the day passed, it became clear that the battalion's position was hopeless. Kapaun rejected several chances to escape, instead volunteering to stay behind and care for the wounded. At dusk, he made his way back to the dugout, now 150 meters outside the American perimeter, where more than 50 wounded men had been gathered. Among the injured Americans was a wounded Chinese officer. As Chinese infantry closed on their position, Kapaun convinced him to negotiate for the safety of the injured Americans.

Shortly after Kapaun's capture, he intervened to save the life of Staff Sergeant Herbert Miller, who was lying in a nearby ditch with a broken ankle and other injuries. As a Chinese soldier prepared to execute Miller, Kapaun risked his own life by pushing the Chinese soldier aside and hoisting Miller to his feet. Kapaun carried and supported Miller for several days as the prisoners marched north, until their column reached Pyoktong.

After a few days at Pyoktong, Kapaun and other prisoners were marched to a new camp. In addition to their wounds, many of the Americans were weakened by the meager rations of boiled corn and millet, while others suffered from dysentery caused by the contaminated water they drank. Kapaun worked tirelessly to bolster the morale of the prisoners. Moving from group to group during rest stops to encourage the men to take care of each other and keep going. During the marches themselves, he led by example in caring for injured Soldiers, refusing to take a break from carrying the stretchers of the wounded while encouraging others to do their part. At the next prison camp, Sambukol, malnutrition began to cause pellagra and beriberi among the Americans, and Kapaun again risked his life, dodging guards after dark to steal additional rations from the Chinese captors, which he distributed evenly among the prisoners.

When the American prisoners were transferred back to Pyoktong in January of 1951, their situation went from bad to worse. As malnutrition and dysentery combined with extreme cold weather and overcrowding, prisoners began to die by the hundreds. Kapaun continued to risk his life by sneaking around the camp after dark, foraging for food, caring for the sick, and encouraging his fellow Soldiers to sustain their faith and their humanity. On at least one occasion, he was caught and brutally punished for his disobedience, being forced to sit outside in subzero weather without any garments.

In March, the Chinese instituted a mandatory re-education program in which they tried to persuade their captives to renounce the war, reject their religious beliefs and embrace communism. Again risking punishment and torture, Kapaun patiently and politely rejected every theory put forth by the Chinese instructors. Later that month, Kapaun openly flouted the Chinese prohibition against religious services by conducting a sunrise service on Easter morning, 1951.

A short while later, Kapaun began to suffer from the physical toll of his captivity. A blood clot in his leg nearly killed him. The Chinese, wary of Kapaun's influence over the other prisoners, refused to provide medical assistance. His fellow prisoners helped Kapaun recover, but within a couple of weeks he began to suffer from pneumonia. Over the protests of his fellow captives, the Chinese transferred him to their filthy, unheated hospital, where he died alone. As he was being carried to the hospital, he asked God's forgiveness for his captors, and made his fellow prisoners promise to keep their faith.

Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun repeatedly risked his own life to save the lives of hundreds of fellow Americans. His extraordinary courage, faith and leadership inspired thousands of prisoners to survive hellish conditions, resist Chinese indoctrination, and retain their faith in God and their country. His actions reflect the utmost credit upon him, the 1st Cavalry Division, and the United States Army.