Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun: a hero among Soldiers

By Spc. Michael OrtonMarch 22, 2013

Courage in the line of fire
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

RENO, Nev. - On April 11, President Barack Obama will award Chaplain (Captain) Emil J. Kapaun, U.S. Army, the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry.

Chaplain Kapaun will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his extraordinary heroism while serving with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy at Unsan, Korea and as a prisoner of war from Nov. 1-2, 1950.

During the battle of Unsan, Kapaun moved through the U.S. ranks under heavy enemy fire to aid and comfort his fellow soldiers. Eventually, Kapaun and his men were surrounded by enemy forces. All able-bodied U.S. troops were ordered to retreat, but Kapaun volunteered to remain with the wounded and fallen, knowing full well it would mean his capture.

As the Chinese continued to close in, Kapaun noticed an injured Chinese officer and convinced him to negotiate the U.S. soldiers' surrender. Just after their surrender, Kapaun saw an enemy combatant standing over and preparing to kill one of the U.S. soldiers. Kapaun bravely shoved the man away, saving the American's life. Kapaun's actions stood as a beacon of hope and strength to the men with him that day and spurred many on to survival.

"He was a great man of faith, compassion and courage. He set a great example for every chaplain, and for any soldier," said Col. Robert H. Whitlock, the Eighth Army Chaplain. "When someone like Father Kapaun sets the bar, he sets it really high. To know that you are in the same profession or have the same calling as someone like him, you strive every day not to let that man down."

Following in the footsteps of a man like Kapaun can be daunting, but can also inspire soldiers to aim high, Whitlock said.

"When you have heroes who set high standards, it gives all of us something to aspire to," Whitlock said. "All of us aren't going to be Medal of Honor recipients, but we can all chose to be courageous, to act in a selfless way. We can all choose to put the needs of others before our own, and that was what Father Kapaun did."

Kapaun was born in rural Kansas in 1916. In 1940, he was ordained a Catholic priest and joined the Army Chaplain Corps in 1944, going on to serve in WWII. In 1946, Kapaun separated from the Army to earn an advanced degree in education, but reenlisted with the Army Chaplain Corps two years later in 1948.

In 1950, Kapaun mobilized for the Korean War, where he would ultimately spend seven months in Sambukol and Pyoktong prison camps, in what is now The People's Democratic Republic of Korea.

Eventually succumbing to his injuries and maltreatment by his captors, Kapaun died on May 23, 1951 in Pyoktong prison camp. While imprisoned, Kapaun would bring food for the other men, build water purification systems and laundry cleaning structures with the skills he learned on his family farm as a youth, all while still tending to the sick and wounded in camp.

Kapaun kept the men's spirits high by leading them in spiritual services and prayer, even at the risk of punishment for doing so. He was feared by the guards for his outspoken resistance, but respected by his fellow captives. Upon the prisoners' return from Pyoktong prison, they told stories of Kapaun's courage, compassion and spirit, crediting him with saving hundreds of lives.

Over the course of his distinguished career, Kapaun was awarded: the Distinguished Service Cross Bronze Star with "V" device, Legion of Merit, Prisoner of War Medal, Asiatic Pacific Command Medal with one Bronze Service Star for the Central Burma Campaign, WWII Victory Medal, Army Occupation Medal with Japan Clasp, Korean Service Medal with two Bronze Service Stars, National Defense Service Medal and the United Nations Service Medal.

In 1993 Kapaun received the title, "Servant of God", from the Roman Catholic Church, which is the second of four steps before being named a saint. The Vatican continues investigations into his possible canonization.

"Throughout history we have these amazing examples, who set the standard very high and that continues even today," Whitlock said. "When a soldier makes the decision to get up, put his uniform on and go to work every day, no matter what that job is, outside or inside the wire, they become heroes and set a pretty high bar as well."

Chaplain Kapaun's nephew, Ray Kapaun, and family will join the President at the White House to commemorate his example of selfless service and sacrifice.

The Medal of Honor is awarded to a member of the Armed Forces who distinguishes themselves conspicuously by gallantry above and beyond the call of duty while: engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States, engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force, or serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.

The meritorious conduct must involve great personal bravery or self-sacrifice so conspicuous as to clearly distinguish the individual above his or her comrades and must have involved risk of life. There must be incontestable proof of the performance of the meritorious conduct, and each recommendation for the award must be considered on the standard of extraordinary merit.

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