WASHINGTON (Army News Service, March 11, 2013) -- President Barack Obama announced today that an Army chaplain, Capt. Emil J. Kapaun, will be awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously, April 11, for his actions leading up to his capture as a prisoner of war in North Korea.
Kapaun's nephew, Ray Kapaun and other family members will join the president at the White House to commemorate the chaplain's example of selfless service and sacrifice.
Besides the Medal of Honor, Kapaun was named a "Servant of God" by the Vatican in 1993, and is currently a candidate for sainthood.
Kapaun was ordained a priest in 1940, and served under the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wichita in Pilsen, Kan. In 1944, he began serving as an Army chaplain.
Kapaun's Medal of Honor nomination is "for conspicuous acts of gallantry and intrepidity, at the risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty on Nov. 1-2, 1950, during the Korean War." Among the documents and interviews within the nomination package, one of the narratives reads:
"As Chinese Communist forces encircled (3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry during the battle of Unsan), Kapaun moved fearlessly from foxhole to foxhole under enemy direct fire in order to provide comfort and reassurance to the outnumbered Soldiers. When the Chinese commandos 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 narrative goes on to describe how the battalion became entirely surrounded by enemy forces, recounting how Kapaun spent the next day, Nov. 2, repeatedly rescuing the wounded from "no-man's land outside the perimeter."
As the battalion's position became "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.
"Among the injured Americans was a wounded Chinese officer," it continues. "As Chinese infantry closed in on their position, Kapaun convinced him to negotiate for the safety of the injured Americans."
The narrative then describes how, after Kapaun's capture, he intervened to save the life of a fellow Soldier who was "lying in a nearby ditch with a broken ankle and other injuries. As Chinese soldiers prepared to execute" the Soldier, "Kapaun risked his own life by pushing the Chinese soldier aside" thereby saving the Soldier's life.
The narrative continues with other acts of bravery and charity during the march north and throughout their ordeal at the POW camp, where Kapaun died, May 23, 1951.
INSPIRATION TO OTHERS
"(The Medal of Honor) is such a well-deserved honor," said Rev. John Hotze, judicial vicar for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita. Hotze and his diocese are assisting the Vatican in the canonization process which could lead to sainthood for Kapaun.
Hotze said he fervently hopes that with the awarding of the Medal of Honor, more people will come to learn about Kapaun's life and how he has been and continues to serve as an inspiration to others.
Kapaun's fellow surviving POWs have been working on his behalf since the end of the Korean War to recognize his valor with the Medal of Honor, Hotze said.
Despite being too young to have ever known Kapaun, Hotze said he has spoken to Kapaun's fellow POWs, as well as family and friends from his hometown of Pilsen, Kan., where Kapaun grew up. He added that in Pilsen, there are still some in the church who were members when Kapaun was their priest.
One of those POWs who knew the chaplain was Mike Dowe, who now lives in Spring, Texas. He was with the 19th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division at the time. He and others from his unit as well as Soldiers from 8th Cavalry were captured on the night of Nov. 4, 1950, at the same time Kapaun was taken prisoner.
Dowe said from that day on, the prisoners were marched northward in a series of "death marches." By that he means those who couldn't keep up on the march were shot by the guards.
He and Kapaun carried those who were too weak to move.
"At first I didn't know it was Father Kapaun, but then I asked his name and was surprised to find out it was him," he said. Even before being captured, Kapaun's deeds and fame had spread throughout the Army in Korea, and being there with him was a pretty big deal, Dowe said.
"(Kapaun's) presence really made things almost seem tolerable," he said. "He inspired a lot of people with the will to live that wouldn't have otherwise."
Another POW, Robert Wood, 86, who now lives in O'Fallon, Mo., was with Kapaun most of the time in Korea and was also in 8th Cavarly. He related how Kapaun inspired others before and during their captivity.
While fighting to retake South Korea from Communist forces, elements of the 8th Cavalry came under intense attack, Wood said. A unit fighting next to his ran out of ammunition and they sent a radio request for replenishment.
"Being young and stupid, I said 'yes,'" Wood said about volunteering to take the ammo. The way to the other unit was along an exposed area and the mission was considered near suicidal.
CALMNESS UNDER FIRE
After slinging bandoliers of ammunition over his shoulders, Wood picked up a box of machine gun ammo and started up the exposed hill to the other unit. On the way up, Wood noticed that someone was alongside him.
"There he was, Father Kapaun, loaded down with bandoliers and hauling his own box of ammo," Wood said.
"'Father, you really shouldn't be doing this,' I told him," said Wood.
"'I'm going with you,' Kapaun replied with firmness," Wood said, noting that Kapaun was calmly smoking a pipe.
So up the hill they trudged, exposing themselves to the deadly enemy fire. At one point the incoming rounds were so thick that Wood recalled diving into a ditch.
"When I turned back around, there was Father Kapaun. The stem of his pipe was dangling from his mouth. The rest of it had been shot away," he said, finding the situation humorous, despite the grave danger they were in. They both had a brief laugh and continued.
After having survived the ammo mission and other engagements, a while later Kapaun's jeep was destroyed by a mine, Wood said. This did not deter the chaplain. He found an old beat-up bicycle and he pedaled it all over the front lines, making his way along narrow trails between rice paddies, heading into the most dangerous areas.
"We all saw him out in front and we all said to one another, 'there goes Father Kapaun again, heading toward the sound of the guns,'" Wood said.
"We were so inspired by that," Wood continued. "Kapuan was going to where men were being killed" so he could minister to them and tend to their wounds.
Wood recalled the time leading up to their capture. He said hundreds of his fellow Soldiers were dead or wounded and that "it was a real mess. We were scattered all over hell's half acre in very poor positions and suddenly 30,000 (Chinese) attacked us.
"During the fighting, Father Kapaun reminded us that it was All Soul's Day. And to tell you the truth, we didn't give a damn what day it was," Wood said, illustrating how even in the most dire of circumstances, Kapaun would always somehow manage to try and buoy the Soldiers' spirits.
After they were captured, Wood confirmed Dowe's recollection of Kapaun carrying the wounded.
"Men who declined to carry the wounded saw Father Kapaun go and pick them up. He really made them feel shamed," Wood said.
Kapaun also tended to the wounded, washing them in hot water, using a makeshift pot. This was during their march northward as prisoners.
"Father Kapaun was a farm boy and was pretty handy," Wood recalled. "He took a piece of tin from the roof of a destroyed hut and fashioned the pot, hammering out the shape with rocks."
Also, the chaplain would sneak off into nearby villages at night and steal bags of rice for the Soldiers, Wood said. That's about the only food they had on the long trip north to the Yalu River which forms the border between China and North Korea.
There were a few North Korean prison guards at the prison camp along the Yalu River, Wood said. These were eventually all replaced by Chinese guards, who lectured the men on the virtues of Communism and the evils of America and capitalism.
"The guards especially disliked Father Kapaun, who kept the prisoner's spirits up," Wood said. "They'd taunt him and ask him why his God could not save him and his men. Father Kapaun would turn them aside with very wise and softly spoken words."
ACTS OF KINDNESS
Conditions at the prison camp were grim. Everyone was sick and some had multiple illnesses, Wood said. Everyone was covered with lice and had dysentery and many had hepatitis, pneumonia and malaria.
Kapaun also had a very swollen leg. One of the Soldiers fashioned a primitive crutch for the chaplain to use. Wood recalled that the chaplain was always hobbling from one house to another in the POW camp, leading the Soldiers in prayer and kneeling to say the Rosary.
"We could see how painful it was when he kneeled, but he ignored the pain and did it anyway," Wood said. "I'm not Catholic and neither were many of the others, but he just inspired everyone. He was the finest man I ever knew."
Ironically, Wood has bad memories of another chaplain who was with them in the prison camp.
"This chaplain was the exact opposite of Father Kapaun," Wood said. "He refused to say any prayers and went so far as to steal food from the sick and wounded. The contrast between the two was just tremendous."
As fate would have it, both chaplains became gravely ill some seven months after being captured.
"I helped carry both of them to the 'hospital,' which was really a death house, several hundred yards away from the main prison camp," Wood said. Guards ordered those who were gravely ill there to die, not to be treated. He recalled that it consisted of a hut with a pit in back where the bodies were thrown once the men succumbed to their wounds or illnesses.
"As I carried Father Kapaun to his certain death, I had tears in my eyes," Wood said. "He, more than anyone, deserved to survive."
The other chaplain was writhing in pain as well, but Wood said he felt no sympathy toward him.
"Despite Father Kapaun's suffering, he was praying as he looked at the guards, saying 'bless them oh Lord, for they know not what they do.' And I'm saying to myself 'my God Father, they're taking you up to the death house and you're blessing them.'"
When they got to the so-called hospital, Wood recalled there being four or five other men there. He told them Father Kapaun was there to lift their spirits and asked that they care for him. "But then I noticed they were in no condition themselves to help anyone. It was a terrible, terrible moment."
After Kapaun died, Wood said the remaining years in captivity were endured with the help of the memory of Kapaun. He said they still had the pot that the chaplain had made and used it to boil grass for sustenance. Whenever they used the pot, it brought back memories of their beloved chaplain, he said.
"He was a brave man, living out his commitment to God and to his men," Wood concluded.
Kapaun's memory and charitable acts are kept alive not only by those who knew him, but also by the former Soldier's memorabilia, which is on display in the rectory of Pilsen's St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church and also at Kapaun Mount Carmel Catholic High School in Wichita, Kan.