WICHITA, Kan. — Among the many heirlooms and relics on display at Kapaun Mt. Carmel Catholic High School here rests one small piece of worn olive-green colored material with a white cross painted on the front.
Previously attached to Chaplain (Capt.) Emil. J. Kapaun's helmet liner during the Korean War, the cross served as a beacon of hope to incarcerated Americans at Camp #5 in Pyoktong, North Korea, said Robert Knapp, the school's president.
"When a Soldier died in the prison camp, many times their possessions were thrown away or burned by the camp guards," Knapp explained. "Kapaun’s uniform and possessions were no different.”
Months prior to Kapaun’s internment, close to 200 Soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division escaped death or captivity, while more than 400 others were either killed or captured during the Battle of Unsan in 1950, said Lt. Col. Nicholas Sinclair, the battalion's current commander.
Instead of fleeing to save his own life, Kapaun willingly stayed behind to care for the wounded or injured. He would go on to help others resist Chinese propaganda until his death on May 23, 1951.
News about Kapaun's death spread through the camp after his helmet and other personal items were discovered on a pile to be burned, Knapp said. Stricken by their loss, service members would stop and pray at the dumpsite where Kapaun's helmet rested until they were beaten and removed.
Later on, Felix J. McCool, a former Marine Corps warrant officer, and several other prisoners put their lives at risk by sneaking out of their hut to rip the cross off the chaplain’s former helmet. Prisoners kept the ripped liner hidden until their release and returned it to his family years after.
"This was the only memory of Father Kapaun that they had [at that time]," Knapp said. "This was the memory that they were going to hold on to for the rest of the war."
For the past seven decades, friends and followers in Father Kapaun's hometown of Pilsen, Kansas, along with supporters living in and around the Wichita area, never gave up hope that his body would be found. This also includes former and current students and staff of Kapaun Mt. Carmel Catholic High School, Knapp said.
Kapaun was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the war in 2013. Eight years later, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting announced that Kapaun's remains had been positively identified after being previously interred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii, in a grave marked as unknown.
"When we talk about the spirit of Father Kapaun, I think about it in terms of history -- it is 'his' story," Knapp said.
Kapaun is finally home and laid to rest, as thousands of followers celebrated his life and contributions to the Army and church through a series of public and private events this week.
"The good people of Pilsen live his story,” Knapp said. “And [while] I revere the POWs for bringing his story home from the battlefields and prison camps of Korea, I also revere the people of Pilsen who have carried those stories on to make sure that the rest of the world knows about this great and holy man."
Kapaun grew up in a humble farm town community, where he was reputed to follow a life of priesthood starting at a young age, Knapp said.
"It is my understanding that he used to practice being an altar server for the Holy Mass with milk crates and bedsheets in front of his house," he said. “He served for Mass as often as he could.”
The lead priest of St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church in Pilsen quickly recognized the young boy's calling and motivated him to attend the seminary. Once ordained, Kapaun returned to Kansas as an associate pastor at his home parish.
Betty Stroba, formerly known as Betty Holub, was 10 years old when Father Kapaun started working at the church, she said.
"When he served Mass, I guess he would pedal his bike in from the country," Stroba said. "It amazed me that a priest could play baseball. He was just a wonderful person. He was so gentle, genuine and down to earth."
Kapaun also dedicated his efforts to preach to Soldiers at Herington Army Air Field, Kansas. The connection he established with the Army led him to ask his bishop's permission to join the Army Chaplain Corps in 1944 during World War II. He went on to serve in parts of Burma and India.
"When he was a chaplain at some point, we all got a little memento -- a little plastic case with the prayer book [inside]," Stroba said. "I still have it, and it is still legible. It means so much to me. I guarded it for more than 70 years."
After the war, Kapaun returned to his home parish as the lead priest, but Knapp said the call to serve in the Army remained. He received permission once again to re-enter the chaplain corps in 1949, just months before the launch of the Korean War.
As a valued member of 3rd Bn., 8th Cav. Rgt., Kapaun spent most of his time ministering to Soldiers on the frontlines as the division fought its way through North Korea, Sinclair said.
"Every time there was downtime with the Soldiers, he would meet with them and leave them better off than he found them," Sinclair said. "He was the unit chaplain and he really had no positional power over the Soldiers, and yet they all respected him."
By November, Soldiers felt the war was almost over as they progressed toward the Yalu River and the Chinese border. Unknown to them, close to 125,000 Chinese fighters were already in the country and encircling their location.
The enemy attacked multiple battalions over many fronts. An enemy infiltration overran 3-8 Cavalry’s command post. As command and control broke down across the battlefield, Kapaun helped rescue more than 30 wounded Soldiers and ministered to countless others.
In a final effort to leave the area and avoid capture, the battalion attempted to break through the enemy's perimeter, resulting in many Soldiers being left behind, Sinclair said.
"Chaplain Kapaun volunteered to stay behind even though he was able bodied," Sinclair added. "When the Chinese stormed the command post, Chaplain Kapaun inserted himself between the Chinese and wounded Soldiers."
During one instance, Kapaun pushed an enemy combatant over to save a wounded Soldier hiding among the dead, Sinclair said. The Chinese were stunned by this act, but Kapaun recovered the Soldier and kept him alive.
For the next seven months in captivity, Kapaun dedicated himself to the betterment of his fellow Soldiers, regardless of their race, color, or religious beliefs, Knapp said. He would steal food and medicine from the guards and give up most of his meager ration for the sake of others.
Through it all, Kapaun provided spiritual comfort to the force and quickly became a target, Sinclair said. To neutralize his positive spiritual impact, the enemy held him in solitary confinement or outside in the bitter cold with minimal clothing. He continued to fight on until the day he died.
"Kapaun realized what was at stake … as he had a larger view than the common Soldier," Sinclair said. "He was aware of the propaganda efforts that the Chinese would use against Americans, and the nation and the Army at large.
"There were over 800 Soldiers that he visited every single day," he added. "He made his best effort to visit each one. I think he understood that to have an impact on a greater organization, you have to have an impact on the individual level.”
A chaplain's role
During the Korean War, Kapaun could be found jumping from foxhole to foxhole to comfort Soldiers with prayer, Knapp said. He carried a tiny gold ciborium, or a small round gold flask used to distribute communion to Soldiers on the frontlines.
The ciborium, which is on display at the Catholic school, was seized by the prison commandant, but returned in excellent condition as American forces were set free years later.
During combat, a chaplain's role is to nurture the living, care for the wounded, and honor the fallen, said Chaplain (Col.) Rajmund Kopec, U.S. Army Forces Command chaplain.
"I think Father Kapaun, in my opinion, is a great example of a chaplain who had a great identity [and] who was really connected to his Catholic tradition and extremely spiritually fit," Kopec said.
Kapaun cared for the soul of the Army through his faith and his willingness to conduct and complete small or seemingly unimportant tasks, Kopec said.
"He did it with great care and with great love," Kopec said. "I would say that Father Kapaun exemplifies what Mother Teresa said, '[We] cannot always do great things, but we can do small things with great love.' And that is where I see Father Kapaun's huge impact on the chaplaincy."
Of all the Medals of Honor presented throughout U.S. history, seven have been awarded to Army chaplains.
"If you read the stories of all those chaplains who received a Medal of Honor, notice their actions have nothing to do with killing an enemy. Their actions are from compassion and caring for people [by] risking their own life," Kopec said.
As a senior priest under the Army chief of chaplains, Kopec accompanied Kapaun's remains from Hawaii to Kansas to honor his dedication to service.
"Going through this experience … God is saying, 'Ray, you need to make some improvements,'" Kopec said. "But that also led to another very important question: 'why now?'
"I understand that God does things in his own way, own time, and for his own purpose," he added. "I strongly believe that there is a reason why Father Kapaun’s earthly remains are brought home now at this point of history. I'm still searching for answers, but I would encourage each of us to ask the same question.”
Christ in Barbed Wire
The centerpiece of the collection at Kapaun high school is a lasting memorial to Father Kapaun entitled "Christ in Barbed Wire," Knapp said. The 47x28 inch wooden crucifix made from material found in the POW camp was carved months after his death.
The slats of the cross originated from a desk found in one of the POW camp offices. The body of Christ was crafted by Marine Corps Maj. Gerald Fink, a Jewish man without any recollection of who Jesus was, Knapp said. Fink’s tools remain on display at the school.
"They carved this to keep Kapaun's spirit alive, to keep him in their memory, and to give them the boldness to pray, have hope, and to continue to defy the indoctrination going on in the prison camps," Knapp said.
Knapp added that the crucifix's design allows it to be dismantled into three separate pieces to avoid enemy detection. Prisoners would often roll the pieces into their bedroll to conceal the crucifix’s location or to pass it throughout the camp.
"Over this past summer, I had an elderly man who came to visit the school," Knapp said. "And while he was here, he just stopped at the crucifix and sobbed for several minutes."
Once the man collected his emotions, Knapp learned that his older brother was a former POW interned at the same camp with Father Kapaun.
"His older brother was an enlisted man," Knapp said. "After Father Kapaun died, this crucifix started making its rounds. His brother hid the crucifix in his own bedroll for two weeks."
When his older brother returned home after years of enemy confinement, he shared with his family how he wanted to give up and die, but the crucifix kept him alive and gave him hope.
"The younger brother recognized at that point that if it were not for this crucifix, he might have never known his brother, whom he loved and got to spend years with after the war," Knapp said.
A final salute
On Wednesday, a large crowd of family and followers of Kapaun gathered to say goodbye to a hometown hero during a Rite of Christian Burial ceremony just outside of Wichita.
While the community finally has some closure, many people are waiting for the Congregation for Saints in Rome to decide on Kapaun's canonization toward sainthood.
"Whenever the official beatification will happen, there'll be yet another opportunity for us to refresh our familiarity [with Father Kapaun] as we look again at his example," Kopec said.
After the rite for burial ceremony, Kapaun's remains were escorted by horse-drawn caisson from Veterans Memorial Park to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in the city for a final Army salute.
"To have his remains here [in Wichita] is such a great reward. It allows us to connect his earthly remains with the spirit that has been with us since his death," Knapp said.