WASHINGTON — Servant of God Father Emil Kapaun, who died in a POW camp during the Korean War, will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously during a ceremony April 11 at the White House.
In the rarest of double honors, the heroic Army chaplain’s cause for canonization continues in this nation and in Rome.
The Medal of Honor recognition comes just days short of what would have been Father Kapaun’s 97th birthday and more than 60 years after he died on May 23, 1951, in a prisoner-of-war camp in Pyoktong, North Korea.
“This guy did one thing after another for a good six months before they finally killed him,” said Mike Dowe, who was a young Army lieutenant imprisoned with Father Kapaun. “He saved close to a thousand lives.”
Former POW Dowe, who will attend the White House ceremony, has worked for decades on getting this recognition for Father Kapaun. He well remembers every detail of the priest’s unrelenting heroism in the face of the most brutal treatment and conditions that began right after their 8th Cavalry regiment was captured in November 1950 during the Battle of Unsan.
There, the record states that Father Kapaun not only disregarded heavy gunfire to tend to the injured and save the wounded on the battlefield, but he volunteered to stay with the men when their capture by the Chinese Communists was imminent. For those actions, he posthumously received the Distinguished Service Cross in 1951.
The heroic Catholic chaplain “did nothing but look out for other people,” Dowe said. “He would go around with total disregard for himself.”
In response to the Medal of Honor recognition, Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services said, "The recognition of the selfless sacrifice by this good priest, who was truly a good shepherd to his men, regardless of their religious convictions, gives witness to the finest traditions of the military chaplaincy and the Catholic priesthood. The armed forces of our nation firmly attest to the Judeo-Christian roots of the national ethos. Each person has unalienable rights and inestimable value because he or she is created in the image and likeness of God. Father Kapaun lived and died in service to that fundamental truth. I rejoice that it is recognized, even 62 years after his death."
Death March Encounter
Dowe met Father Kapaun on the death march from Unsan to Pyoktong. When the wounded dropped, Dowe said, the Chinese shot them. But Father Kapaun, in his unassuming way, kept motivating the soldiers to help and to carry their wounded comrades by starting the rescues personally.
Fearlessly, he even pushed aside a Chinese Communist soldier about to shoot a fallen GI and picked up the soldier without being shot himself. No one understood how he could get away with such actions, unless it was the intervention of God.
Dowe’s initial encounter with Father Kapaun occurred while both were carrying a wounded soldier on a stretcher. When Dowe told the chaplain he had heard about him, Father Kapaun quipped, “Don’t tell my bishop!”
“He would joke under any circumstances,” Dowe recalled.
The chaplain made the harshest conditions survivable for many. They were captured in summer clothes and had to endure a bitter winter.
“Even though he was ordered not to, and they threatened to shoot him if he did, he went around to other huts, scrounged (up) food, cared for the wounded — all with complete disregard to himself,” said Dowe.
He well remembers the chaplain talking to the other GIs like one of the guys, saying a prayer with them, helping them with their attitude, really stimulating their will to live when a lot of them thought it would be “easier to give up than to force the cracked corn down for another day,” said Dowe.
Father Kapaun used to pray for the intercession of St. Dismas, the “Good Thief,” who died with Christ, for success; then he would sneak out and raid the Korean corn cribs to get extra corn and other food for the men. At night, he’d share with them the favorite meals his mother used to make on their farm in Kansas.
“He would get wood, tend a fire, make pans for the GIs out of roofing tin, boil water for us and say, ‘Hot coffee!’” said Dowe with a chuckle. “As far as ‘coffee,’ it was fantastic.”
Saved Hundreds of Lives
Dowe reels off story after story that could fill a book — and actually did. More than one, in fact. The latest is The Miracle of Father Kapaun (Ignatius, 2013). Co-author Roy Wenzl is a senior journalist at The Wichita Eagle in Kansas who has written about Father Kapaun for several years.
At first, he was skeptical upon hearing about how this one man saved hundreds of lives. “How is that possible, except in Hollywood?” Wenzl recalled asking himself.
But then he started talking to former POWs all over the country. “These guys insisted” regarding the priest’s heroics, Wenzl said. And they had the stories to prove it.
Wenzl sees two main reasons for Father Kapaun’s effectiveness during a crisis: his incredible courage and leadership, as well as his resourcefulness. The future priest learned as a Kansas farmer’s son how to be remarkably good with tools. Wenzl could relate to this firsthand, since he himself grew up on a farm.
To make that “coffee” for the GIs, Father Kapaun used rocks to pound and shape bombed roofing tins into pots to boil water from the snow.
“The practicality saved a lot of people: The cooking pots held off dysentery,” said Wenzl.
Ray Kapaun, the nephew of Father Kapaun, attests to this resourcefulness. He was born after his uncle died, but he grew up hearing countless stories of young Father Emil from his relatives, especially from his grandmother, who was Father Kapaun’s mother. He heard about how his uncle as a boy “could easily solve big problems with ease” and “in the simplest manner.”
Young Emil’s exploits were a prelude to future leadership, too. Wenzl also noted how, even before Father Kapaun was at the prison camp, he was volunteering for the worst details, like digging latrines alongside the men. This self-sacrifice contributed to his unusual capacity to lead; by his example, he was able to call upon people to do what was needed without ordering them.
Wenzl relates, “In the prison, where the Chinese were feeding them a handful of birdseed a day, when stealing started, he would show up, put his rations on the floor, and say: ‘This is for you guys’ and bless it [saying]: ‘Father, thank you for this food; we cannot only eat, but share.’”
There were two other POW camps in the same valley, Dowe added, yet the rate of those dying from the conditions in the camp with Father Kapaun was only one-10th of the rate of those other two. “The difference was the way Father Kapaun stimulated cooperation of GIs and their will to live.”
He taught his fellow captives to pray by example, too. Father John Hotze of the Diocese of Wichita related that one of the chaplain’s fellow POWs described how it “didn’t matter if the GI was Protestant or even believed in God. Father Kapaun would have everybody together praying the Rosary. When he prayed, they all prayed. He would go from hut to hut and always wind up leading them in prayer.”
A Heroic Death
When the Chinese took him, as they did others, to torture and “educate,” he resisted their brainwashing.
“They were plain afraid of him,” Dowe recalled. “They didn’t know how to treat someone so fearless of them, who paid no attention to them and carried an aura with him. That’s why they killed him.”
Dowe described how he was with Father Kapaun, who was suffering from pneumonia, when the Chinese guards carted him off to the so-called hospital, a bug-and-maggot infested little room the GIs named the "death house.” No one came out of that area alive.
Not having received proper medical assistance, he died on May 23, 1951.
“He was recovering at the time; his fever had broken,” said Dowe. “They were afraid he was going to get well. He told us not to fight about it or put up a resistance on his behalf. He said: ‘Don’t cry, Mike. I’m going to where I always wanted to go. When I get there, I’ll say a prayer for all of you.’”
He surely has been doing that for not only the men he served with, but for countless others over the years.
In fact, while the latest round in the quest for his Medal of Honor was in progress, the Diocese of Wichita already had formally opened the cause for Father Kapaun’s beatification in 2008. In 1993, the Church declared him a Servant of God.
With documentation of reported miracles in hand, the diocese celebrated this part’s closing at a Mass celebrated by Bishop Michael Jackels at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
Two of the miracles involve a 12-year-old girl who was near death and a severely injured college track athlete doctors expected to die. Both recovered rapidly after prayers for Father Kapaun’s intercession for them. Doctors said both were medically unexplainable.
Father Hotze, the episcopal delegate for the office of Father Kapaun’s beatification and canonization, said there are actually four accounts of reported miracles that could be sent to the Vatican for investigation, but these two were chosen. Additionally, there are dozens of people who attest to other favors granted through Father Kapaun’s intercession, including both physical and spiritual healings, conversions to the faith and other assistance.
Source of Inspiration
Considerably more people know about Father Kapaun now than they did even five years ago, reported Father Hotze. People gather strength from Father Kapaun’s intercession.
“He is an example of a person being in a situation far worse than these people, and he was a man of hope. He exemplified Christian love, even of love of enemies, blessing the captors as they were taking him up to the ‘death house,’ asking forgiveness [for them].”
Father Hotze, who is attending the Medal of Honor ceremony in Washington, called it a well-deserved and long-overdue honor.
“I think it will help out the canonization process,” he added, explaining that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints also looks to see if there’s a widespread following and if people look to the saintly candidate as an example.
“There are people all over the country who see him as a saintly person already,” said Father Hotze.
Some are among the hundreds who attend one of the two big celebrations every year at St. John Nepomucene Church in Pilsen, Kan., the small hamlet where Father Kapaun grew up. The huge church, named after the martyred patron saint of Bohemia, is the focal point of the farming town of less than 100 residents. It was settled by Czechs from Bohemia.
The annual Father Kapaun Day is held on the first Sunday of June (the closest weekend to the date of his death, excluding Memorial Day), falling this year on June 2.
Hundreds arrive annually on this day to pray and honor the chaplain. For the last three years, some of the participants have marched the 60 miles from Wichita on pilgrimage, 20 miles a day, to get to Pilsen on Sunday. The walk’s participants last year were triple the number of the first year.
The second big celebration is the annual Veterans Day military pilgrimage to Pilsen, which the Archdiocese for the Military Services sponsors every Nov. 11. Father Hotze pointed out that people come from military bases in Kansas and neighboring states, and even from as far away as Pennsylvania.
Pilgrims can visit the parish’s relic room, which houses a number of Father Kapaun’s relics, including vestments. He served as the parish pastor for a short period before becoming a military chaplain in 1944, having served in India and Burma. He left the chaplaincy in 1946, but rejoined in 1948.
People also stop to meditate and pray by the large bronze statue of the chaplain that was dedicated in 2001. It stands outside the church and portrays Capt. Kapaun helping a wounded soldier off the battlefield in Korea.
Andrea Ambrosi, who has investigated hundreds of saintly causes for the Vatican, has already visited Pilsen and is the postulator studying Father Kapaun’s cause. He told The Wichita Eagle that this case is unique, compared to the others he has investigated, because the story is “much bigger and involves far more deeds of heroism, sacrifice and action.”
And he found a large number of Catholic parishes and parishioners who devoutly pray for Father Kapaun’s intercession at Masses weekly. Asked about the chaplain’s chances of gaining eventual canonization, Ambrosi commented, “I’m not worried.”
Ray Kapaun, who is attending the ceremony at the White House to see President Barack Obama make the Medal of Honor presentation, noted how many people “are astounded” by what his uncle did.
He credited this widespread admiration primarily to “the POWs still alive who told the stories of Father Emil and never stopped, and this would not have happened if not for the love and admiration they had for him.”
Added the heroic chaplain’s nephew, “I’m ever humbled to say I’m related to him.”
Dowe — who kept the cause alive for decades and believes it’s essential that present and future generations know Father Kapaun’s story — with great emotion, sums up the effect the saintly priest still has on his life.
“He’s the greatest man I knew,” said Dowe. “There are about 1,000 people who came back because of him. We’re sure hoping the Church canonizes him.”
Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.
Visit FrKapaun.org and Kansas.com/Kapaun, which include links to some of Father Kapaun’s sermons and one recording of a sermon.