FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- Fort Rucker hosted its POW/MIA ceremony Sept. 18 at the U.S. Army Aviation Museum to a limited audience and broadcast over Facebook Live.
Brig. Gen. Stanley E. Budraitis, U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Rucker deputy commanding general, spoke at the event, focusing his speech on a former POW who earned a Medal of Honor for his service during the Korean War, Capt. Emil Kapaun.
“We are so grateful for the legacy of honorable service and sacrifice shared by all of our servicemembers, past and present,” the general said, before moving on to Kapaun’s story.
“You may recall a few years ago that he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for extraordinary heroism, patriotism and selfless service at the Battle of Unsan during the Korean War,” Budraitis said. “His story is about a calling to reach out to others in their time of need.”
Kapaun was raised as a farm boy in Kansas, where he distinguished himself as an intelligent student who could tell when his fellow classmates were struggling – even before their teachers knew it – and he would readily help others, he said.
Becoming an ordained Catholic priest in 1940 and entering the Army as a chaplain in 1944, he served in the China-Burma-India campaign during WWII, and volunteered again in the Korean War, according to the Kapaun’s biography.
“Because of the nature of what they do, our support service personnel largely serve out of the limelight,” Budraitis said. “Chaplains were not required to serve on the front lines, but Captain Kapaun did, of his own choosing.”
The chaplain earned a reputation for fearlessness and moral conviction in the India and Burma theaters, the general said.
“It was said Kapaun survived multiple Jeeps being blown out from underneath him by landmines,” Budraitis continued. “As the story goes, at some point he was told he wasn’t getting another Jeep. So, he found an old bicycle and he would ride it in whatever direction he heard gunfire.
“The unusual sight of a chaplain on a bike, choosing to ride into the fray to support Soldiers, was a huge bolster of morale,” he said. “Captain Kapaun believed his place was with the wounded.”
Nov. 1, 1950, the 1st Cavalry Division came under attack by Chinese forces at the Battle of Unsan. Kapaun moved fearlessly from foxhole to foxhole while under fire to help provide medical care and support to wounded Soldiers, Budraitis said.
“For two days, he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to drag Soldiers to safety,” he added. “If he couldn’t drag them, he would dig shallow trenches to shield them from enemy fire. He provided medical aid, assisted Soldiers in their traditions and, for many, he provided last rites.”
Eventually, it became clear the Soldiers’ situation was hopeless, and Kapaun, refusing to escape to safety, helped negotiate the terms of surrender, Budraitis said.
“When Kapaun was taken as a prisoner of war, he saw a wounded Soldier lying in a ditch,” he added. “When an enemy soldier discovered that the American was still alive, he raised his firearm to shoot him. Kapaun intervened and saved the Soldier’s life.”
During brutal death marches over the next several days, Kapaun carried the stretchers of the wounded and encouraged other Soldiers to keep going to help them survive their ordeal, Budraitis said.
“In the camp, he violated prison rules and risked his own life to sneak around at night and forage for food for his wounded comrades,” he added. “He was brutally punished, but he continued on, undaunted.”
Kapaun also fought against the captors’ re-education program and even led fellow POWs in an Easter-morning rendition of “God Bless America” that got so loud “that other Soldiers in the valley could hear it and joined in,” Budraitis said.
“His fellow Soldiers said Kapaun created a strong image of resistance to the enemy by personifying the spirit of confidence of a free man who was dedicated to his country and his faith,” the general said.
The chaplain became ill and died in the camp during the spring of 1951, but many Soldiers credited his actions and his memory for their own survival, according to Budraitis.
“Captain Kapaun’s selfless service and sacrifice gave others hope,” he said. “He understood something about the strength of the human will and the depth of the American spirit. A powerful thing can happen, even in the direst circumstances, when people believe they have a reason to hope.
“We’re so grateful today for all our servicemembers, including those who respond in moments of crisis to bring hope and help to others,” Budraitis said. “It’s important that we not only train well, fight well and win, but also that we take care of our brothers and sisters to the right or to the left – our people truly are our greatest strength. Everyone is a valued member of the Army team.
“Let’s take that mantle passed on to us from brave Soldiers like Kapaun, and make sure we’re listening, leading well and making our people our priority,” he added.
The nation’s POWs and MIAs are true heroes and they will never be forgotten, the general said.
“The annual POW/MIA recognition day reminds us that our nation will never forget and will continue to search the Earth for those yet accounted for,” he said, adding that the country continues to dedicate significant resources to honor its solemn promise to those who serve.
The general then thanked all servicemembers for their service to the nation, along with their families and local communities for their support.
“I ask that we all continue to be mindful of the many Soldiers who are currently deployed supporting combatant commanders around the world today,” Budraitis said. “Keep them and their families close in your thoughts and prayers.”