The Witness of a Hostage: The Holiness of Father Emil Kapaun

Captured on the feast of All Souls, the military chaplain’s witness continues to inspire.

Father Emil Kapaun celebrating Mass using the hood of a jeep as his altar, Oct. 7, 1950.
Father Emil Kapaun celebrating Mass using the hood of a jeep as his altar, Oct. 7, 1950. (photo: null / Public Domain )

On Nov. 1, 1950, All Saints’ Day, Father Emil Kapaun celebrated Holy Mass for the soldiers of his battalion. 

At that time, many, and certainly many of those gathered for Holy Mass, assumed that the Korean War was all but over, with the North Korean Communist forces effectively routed by America and her allies. 

Yet, in the early hours of the following morning, All Souls’ Day, something changed. 

Outlying military radio operators had picked up first that a new threat had emerged. It was summed up in one word that was repeated frantically over and over again through the crackling static: “Chinese.”

But the warning proved too late. 

In what became known as the Battle of Unsan, around 3,000 American military faced an onslaught of 20,000 Chinese soldiers; by dawn, the former had been overrun. Many had been killed, and many more were taken prisoner. The speed and numbers of those who attacked that night had surprised everyone. 

As the other battalions tried to flee south, Father Kapaun’s men were left to fight a rear-guard action against the advancing Chinese. In those hours, the priest was as active as any of his soldier-comrades. Running from foxhole to foxhole, he dragged the wounded to safety, gave last rites to the dying, and was even observed hearing confessions amid the gunfire. He was urged to escape by his fellow officers; he refused to do so. In the end, he was captured well beyond the American lines, trying to drag an injured man back to safety. 

Father Kapaun and the other prisoners of war were marched away. They were more fortunate than those wounded who remained behind and were tortured and killed by the Chinese.  

The forced trek of these POWs would become known as the “Death March.” The prisoners were made to walk mainly at night and without food. Any prisoner failing to keep up, through illness or fatigue, was shot. 

After several days, and 70 miles, the survivors arrived at a prison camp. They were starving, but in the camp, they found themselves being starved still. Father Kapuan tried to rally the troops not to despair. Immediately, in so doing, he earned the suspicion of the armed guards who closely monitored these captured Americans. What would incense the guards most about the priest, however, was how the chaplain assembled the men for nightly prayers: atheist and believer, Black and white, enlisted soldier and officer — all came together to join in the Rosary.

That Christmas 1950, a number of POWs escaped. In consequence, the prisoners left behind were marched through the freezing snow to another camp some miles away, one deemed to be “escape proof.” That winter, as the snows fell, temperatures dropped to 40 degrees below zero. The prisoners continued to be starved; pneumonia swept through the camp and so too did despair. By February, as unburied frozen bodies of prisoners were stacked all around the camp, some inmates started to give up in the death camp.

Nevertheless, amongst the prisoners, there was one who, though his voice was as weak as that of the others, repeatedly told them to stay true to the faith and to those back home who cared for them. When Father Kapaun — bearded, dirty and wearing ragged, lice-infested clothing, just like all the rest — had finished speaking to the assembled men, he did something many remembered ever afterwards. He raised his now-skeletal hand high over all the prisoners gathered there and made the Sign of the Cross. One prisoner, a Protestant, many years later, recalled that it was that blessing that gave him the strength to go on.

Day by day, when the men refused to carry out tasks set them by their guards, Father Kapaun would do them. When POWs argued with each other, he mediated; when gloominess was in the air, he cracked jokes; above all, he prayed for these men.

Asked by one fellow inmate how he had come to be in this living hell, the chaplain replied: “I volunteered.” 

Born in 1916, he grew up on a farm in Kansas before becoming a military chaplain, serving in Asia during the Second World War. Returning to civilian parish life, he found that “it didn’t work out” for him. When another war was declared, with the permission of his bishop, he left his homeland to serve once more, feeling there should be a priest with those who faced death on a foreign battlefield.

In the communist death camp, the guards grew to hate the priest-prisoner. Father Kapaun knew that; he preached openly to the men about the need to forgive one’s enemies. Thereafter, public prayers in the camp were banned by the guards. Nevertheless, the priest continued to pray privately with his fellow prisoners. When caught doing so, as punishment, he was stripped naked and made to stand for hours on an ice block.

As the priest stood upon the ice, his captors would taunt the priest: “Where is your God now?”

“Right here,” was the reply.

Through it all, the POWs grew to love their chaplain.

On Easter Sunday 1951, as the sun rose over the melting snows of the death camp, a curious spectacle was observed: There, in the center, stood a man, wearing the purple stole of a priest, holding a Roman missal.

Somehow, Father Kapaun had asked for — and received — permission for an Easter service. That morning, the incredulous prisoners started to gather around the priest. He told them he did not have the means to say Mass — as he had neither bread nor wine; instead, he opened the missal and began to recite the words of the Good Friday service. Next, he read the meditations for the Stations of the Cross. Some of those listening started to weep. When he had finished reading, he held a rosary aloft. He invited the men to join him in praying that ancient prayer, prompting the guards n to look on suspiciously.  As the Rosary concluded, one of the POWs defiantly started to sing the Lord’s Prayer. As he did so, the whole body of men joined in. Many years later, a Jewish POW could still recall how much that morning meant to all those caged behind the death camp’s barbed wire: starved, shivering and sick, with the ever-present guns trained on them, there was hope.

Eventually, Father Kapaun’s health broke. As the priest was taken away on a stretcher to what the guards called a “hospital” and what the inmates called a “death house,” it was noticed that his hand held more tightly than ever to his purple stole. 

The final words of Father Kapaun before he entered the death house, heard by the POWs who had carried him there, were: ‘Father forgive them, for they know not …’ 

Just before he had been carried off on the stretcher, the priest had given his missal to another POW and urged him to continue to hold prayer services. 

Without food and water, he lasted two days.

On May 23,1951, the news of the chaplain’s death spread through the camp. In defiance of their gaolers, that night the soldiers remembered their chaplain: In one hut the captives read the 23rd Psalm; in another, the Rosary was recited. 

For years, Father Kapaun’s earthly remains lay in a shallow grave, dug by fellow prisoners, in Korea. But, providentially, his mortal remains now rest in his native state

What communists had tried to extinguish by killing one man, paradoxically, seemed to have had the opposite effect, as, with each passing year, the priest’s reputation for sanctity grows.

Still, the snows fall each winter through the dark valleys and across the frozen mountain ranges of a land that even yet does not know freedom. 

Upon those remaining communal graves, its flakes fall softly, for it is there the “final reveille” is awaited, when, in the bright light of a new morning, a train of once-emaciated men shall come forth into the freedom of the Children of God, and at their head, Father Emil J. Kapaun.

This story was updated after posting.