PILSEN, Kan. – The bells of St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church reverberated through the streets here, as a motorcade carrying the remains of Chaplain (Capt.) Emil J. Kapaun drew close to his former hometown.
A standing crowd of extended family, friends, veterans, and church members watched in silence as the hearse carrying their local hero, "Father Kapaun," slowly drove up the main road lined with American flags.
Among the long line of vehicles included a refurbished Willys M38, a green Jeep similar to the one Kapaun used to offer Holy Communion and celebrate Mass while deployed in the Korean War.
Many onlookers wore the same blue t-shirt with the words "Home at Last" printed on the back.
"Father Kapaun is home," said Father Brian Bebak, the church’s pastor who graduated from Kapaun Mt. Carmel Catholic High School in nearby Wichita, Kansas. "I stand here humbly … as a servant of God. We are so blessed to have his remains back with us."
In May, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency fully identified Kapaun's remains, who previously served with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division during the war.
Kapaun and other members of the battalion were taken as prisoners by Chinese forces after being overrun near Unsan, North Korea, on Nov. 2, 1950. While in captivity, he ministered to Soldiers, cared for the wounded or injured, and gave what little food he had to help others until he died May 23, 1951.
As a prisoner, Kapaun leveraged his “Kansas farm boy ingenuity,” which helped him repurpose loose materials throughout the camp for use, said Rose Davidson, the church's bookkeeper.
"What Father Kapaun did is something we can all aspire to," Davidson said. "He was there for every person and always asked, 'How can I help you?' Other Soldiers have said he is a 'man's man and very tough,’ yet he still led with his faith and heart."
For his actions, Kapaun was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2013. His nephew, Ray, accepted the honor on his behalf.
Kapaun was also named a Servant of God in 1993, followed by his Cause for the Canonization in 2008. His formal life story, known as a Positio, was sent to the Congregation for Saints in Rome in 2015 for review and approval but was halted due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
"We just completed the mission of [returning] Father Kapaun's remains back to Wichita, Kansas," said Chaplain (Col.) Rajmund Kopec, assigned to U.S. Army Forces Command.
As a senior priest under the Army Chief of Chaplains, Kopec accompanied the remains from Honolulu, Hawaii, as a special escort to honor Kapaun's dedication to service.
"I can say that it was such an emotional roller coaster for me," Kopec said. "From laughing with the family to tears as they reminisce about Father Kapaun [and other] close friends they lost in other wars."
Soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division provided military funeral honors at both Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport and in Pilsen. Upon his arrival to Kansas, Kopec prayed over Kapaun's casket on the tarmac before Soldiers lifted his remains into the vehicle for transport.
"I would say the past few days helped me to think about what it means to be a true leader," Kopec said. "You have to be a humble servant who meets people where they are and who does simple tasks to help others."
Kapaun's remains are slated to be moved to Hartman Arena in Park City, Kansas, for a vigil service and funeral mass on Tuesday. The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception will conduct a burial ceremony Wednesday morning, followed by a military procession from Veteran's Memorial Park to the cathedral on a horse-drawn caisson. Large crowds are expected to be at all events.
"To have his return in my lifetime is mind blowing," Davidson said. "I'm over the moon happy. The preparations [for his return to Pilsen] are incredibly moving and a lasting tribute to this very special veteran as he comes home."
(Editor’s note: Information collected and published by Staff Sgt. Apryl Hall Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Public Affairs contributed to this story.)