PILSEN, Kan. — On July 27, a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane carrying more than 55 cases of remains of U.S. servicemen who died and were buried in North Korea during the Korean War landed at Osan Air Base in South Korea. At the same time in Kansas, hopes ran high that among the remains might be those of Servant of God Father Emil Kapaun.
The White House made the announcement July 26 (South Korea is 13 hours ahead of Washington time). The return of the remains came on the 65th anniversary of the armistice ending hostilities in the Korean War. A formal repatriation ceremony took place Aug. 1.
“We hope that we do find his remains,” said Father John Hotze, episcopal delegate for the office of Father Kapaun’s beatification and canonization in the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas. From past experience, he said that instead of 55 individual people, the cases probably contain the partial remains of several more.
Father Kapaun died May 23, 1951, in a prison camp in Pyoktong, North Korea. That August he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions at Unsan, where he was captured the previous November.
In 1993, Father Kapaun was named “Servant of God” by the Holy See, advancing him a step toward possible canonization. Twenty years later, on April 11, 2013, he was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously during a White House ceremony.
One Possibility Among Others
While hopes are in place that the remains of Father Kapaun might be among those just returned by North Korea, Father Hotze has been down this road before.
“There is still a chance that his remains are in Honolulu at the tomb of the unknown soldiers who were returned after the Korean War,” he said, referring to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific located in Hawaii.
“They believe there are the remains of about 75 soldiers that came from the area [where Father Kapaun died] and are still listed as unknown soldiers,” he said. These were among the remains of about 675 soldiers North Korea returned after the war.
Father Hotze explained that one of the remains was actually labeled “Father Kapaun.” But as the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency worked on identifying the remains and bringing closure to families, the forensic process came up with a different identification.
“When they tried to identify the remains, they determined the one labeled ‘Father Kapaun’ was a man who would have been in his late teens or early 20s. Father Kapaun would have been 35,” explained Father Hotze. Determining the age of a person is one of the easier identifications. Identifications in the 1950s after the Korean War relied on blood samples, dental records, existing X-rays and the like. DNA identification was unknown.
“They knew it wasn’t him,” Father Hotze added, “and that person was identified as a Sgt. Lusk.”
But it turned out the young sergeant was in the same POW camp as Father Kapaun.
“Lusk had been assigned by the guards to clean in the death house,” explained Father Hotze of 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. Because of his work assignment, the sergeant was one of those who buried Father Kapaun. Additionally, it’s known that Father Kapaun was buried in a lean-to along the rows of huts that lined each side of the death house.
“He [Lusk] died three months after Father Kapaun, and we know he was buried in the vicinity where Father Kapaun was buried. He was one of those 675 partial remains — of what were 707, actually,” Father Hotze made clear.
“Since his remains were returned and buried in the same vicinity that Father Kapaun was buried,” concluded the postulator, “there’s a good chance that Father Kapaun’s remains are in Hawaii now.”
The mission of identifying all the Americans missing is daunting for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency's mission, despite today’s sophisticated technologies. The agency lists more than 82,000 Americans who remain missing from conflicts beginning with World War II through the Korean and Vietnam, Gulf Wars and other conflicts. There are 7,699 from the Korean War alone.
“We do have the DNA from Eugene, Father Kapaun’s brother, to match the DNA,” noted Father Hotze. At the same time, he pointed out a serious stumbling block.
The priest was told that, back in the 1950s, before the Korean remains were interred, they were dipped into a solution that was supposed to aid in the preservation of the remains, but the solution compromised the DNA. “They can do a partial match of the DNA, but not a complete match of the DNA. They will do the best match they can with the DNA and then look for other things.”
Father Hotze explained another obstacle. He said an Army colonel once in charge of the National Memorial Cemetery in Honolulu told him that the amount of remains also presents difficulties. It might be only the smallest fragment, such as a bone from a finger. The identification process is arduous and lengthy.
A recent case involves Navy chaplain Father Aloysius Schmitt, who died aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma in Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941. He was the first chaplain to die in World War II. His remains, along with the remains of hundreds of shipmates, were interred in 61 caskets in Honolulu. His DNA was identified over a nearly 10-year process, and he was finally laid to rest in his native Iowa in 2016.
Even though the conventional wisdom holds that Father Kapaun’s remains are in Honolulu, there is an outside chance Father Kapaun’s remains would be among those returned by North Korea, Father Hotze said.
Although the heroic priest’s nephew Ray Kapaun, who has previously spoken with the Register, was not available for comment, he did tell local Kansas TV station KWCH if his uncle’s remains were among those just returned, “For me, it would be a lot of closure, finally being able to come home.”
Father Hotze will be meeting soon with Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, who has offered his assistance with handling the returning remains.
Father Hotze concluded that it’s a matter of time before they receive definitive proof of Father Kapaun’s earthly remains: “We’re really hoping we hear something this fall.”
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.