Living Water: Father Emil Kapaun, ‘Shepherd in Combat Boots’

More than six decades later, Bill Funchess recalls how in a Chinese POW camp the priestly Medal of Honor winner modeled Christ's love to all, regardless of faith.

Servant of God Father Emil Kapaun, who died in a POW camp during the Korean War, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2013 by President Barack Obama.
Servant of God Father Emil Kapaun, who died in a POW camp during the Korean War, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2013 by President Barack Obama. (photo: Twitter/U.S. Army)

CLEMSON, S.C. — “Would you care for a drink of water?” Father Emil Kapaun, clad in his worn prison uniform and sitting beside a small fire, extended his arm to offer a roughly crafted tin pan full of melted snow. His fellow POW, Lt. William Funchess, accepted the gift with gratitude.

Sixty-four years later, Bill Funchess still remembers the priest’s kind offer. “It was the first water I’d drunk since I’d been captured three months earlier,” Funchess explained from his home in Clemson, S.C. “Until Father Kapaun climbed the fence into our camp with his handmade pan, we’d survived by eating the frozen snow.”

Father Kapaun, a U.S. military chaplain, and Funchess — of the 24th Infantry Division, a Methodist — were captured by Chinese Communist forces in November 1950, during the Korean War.

Forced by their captors to march north toward Pyoktong, North Korea, near the Chinese border, the two were imprisoned in different compounds. Conditions in the prison camp were harsh: Housed in a crowded 9-by-9-foot thatched roof mud hut, with no heat in sub-zero temperatures, the prisoners huddled against one another for warmth.

About a week after being taken captive, Father Kapaun scaled the fence into the camp where Funchess lived to care for the sick and wounded prisoners there. Funchess was inspired by the priest's resolute sense of mission. Shortly after, Chinese officers realized that Funchess was an officer living among enlisted men, and he was relocated to an officers’ camp, again separated from Father Kapaun.

But in April 1951, the door to Funchess’ shack was thrown open by Chinese guards, and a man was thrown to the floor. It was Father Kapaun, who was suffering from a blood clot in his right leg and was having difficulty walking. Perhaps, said Funchess, the guards hoped to isolate him from the Catholics, in the mistaken belief that prisoners of other faiths wouldn’t bond with him. Perhaps, too, they hoped that the prisoners in that hut would care for Father Kapaun.


Service to All

The priest, the only Catholic whom Funchess had ever gotten to know, was an inspiration to his fellow prisoners. When he was able to walk, he cared for the other POWs with no regard for their faith background; Catholic, Protestant or atheist all benefited from Father Kapaun’s kindness.

Lice were a significant problem for the prisoners; and a soldier who didn’t regularly pick the lice from his body could lose a significant amount of blood, risking his health. Father Kapaun would doggedly pick lice from prisoners who were unable to care for themselves.

The courageous chaplain scrounged around, recalled Funchess, visiting the various warehouses and stealing soybeans or other food for the other prisoners to eat. At great risk to himself, he would cross the barbed-wire fence to visit other compounds and help the men imprisoned there.

He would lead prayers for both the Catholics and the non-Catholics. Funchess reiterated, as though reminding himself: “He did many good Christian-type things for the POWs, with no regard for their religious background.”

However, Father Kapaun’s health continued to deteriorate. When the priest was no longer able to walk, Funchess cared for his wounded friend. Seeing his serious condition, Funchess offered him the choicest spot on the cold dirt floor, sleeping against the wall, so that no soldier stumbling through the total darkness of the hut would mistakenly step on the priest’s injured leg at night. Funchess got all the prisoners to move over in order to offer Father Kapaun the safe spot near the wall. Then, with no warm clothing or blanket and no heat, Funchess rested against the priest on the coldest nights, helping to stave off frostbite and further illness. All the while, the duo did a lot of talking.

Funchess also took it upon himself to perform an extraordinary act of kindness for Father Kapaun: He scrubbed the soiled hut and wiped clean the gaunt body of his friend. And he and his fellow prisoners even fashioned a makeshift toilet for their padre out of a pot-belly stove.


The Chaplain’s Final Days

Their time together was short. In the second or third week of May 1951, Chinese officers and guards burst into the hut and dragged Father Kapaun out. They were, they said in broken English, taking him to the “hospital” — or to what prisoners more realistically called the “death camp,” since most of the prisoners who were taken there never left to rejoin their fellow prisoners: Funchess recalled only two prisoners who had survived and came out of the hospital.

Funchess pleaded with the guards to leave Father Kapaun where he was, as he was in no condition to be moved. Other POWs, especially the Catholics, tried to intervene. They were almost physical — pushing, shoving the Chinese guards and the Chinese English-speaking officer. The guards, though, were determined to take him — probably, Funchess thought, because they intended to allow him to die.

Funchess recalled that the guards permitted five or six Catholic POWs to take the ailing Father Kapaun out of his room and up the path to the so-called “hospital.” Once at the hospital, the guards closed the doors and sent the POWs back to their camp.

There was no word for several days; finally, the POWs learned that their beloved priest had died on May 23, 1951.


A Special Crucifix 

Some time later, after he was transferred to North Korea’s Camp No. 2, Funchess saw the 5- or 6-year-old daughter of the Chinese commander playing with a set of gold “cups” that had once belonged to Father Kapaun. Nothing in his Methodist faith had prepared Funchess to understand the purpose of the “gold cups”; but most likely, the little girl had acquired the priest’s military Mass kit — and the cups were the chalice, ciborium and paten used in the liturgy.

Funchess also spoke with the Register about another prisoner of war, a Jewish prisoner by the name of Jerry Fink. Fink, a Chicago native who had been trained as a military pilot, had been shot down on his first mission; and Fink and Funchess had spent a week together in “the hole,” an underground cell in the prison camp.

Fink also formed a bond of respect with Father Kapaun; once, when Fink obtained rough wood from the woodpile, he used it to carve a crucifix for the priest.

Funchess also contributed to Father Kapaun’s crucifix: He climbed to the rafters in an abandoned camp building and found a pair of tin snips, which he used to cut the barbed wire. From the snipped wire, Funchess fashioned a crown of thorns for the crucified Christ.

The crucifix — which is 24 to 26 inches high and perhaps 12  to 15 inches across — was brought out of the camp by Catholic POWs when they were released at the end of the war. It is now enshrined at St. John Nepomucene Church in Pilsen, Kan., the hometown church of Father Kapaun.


Sainthood Cause and the Medal of Honor

The Diocese of Wichita and the Vatican have begun the formal process that could lead to Father Kapaun’s canonization. In 1993, Father Kapaun received the title of “Servant of God.” The next two steps would be beatification and canonization, if the cause proceeds.

On April 11, 2013, nearly 62 years after his death, Father Emil Kapaun was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama. Receiving the award was Father Kapaun’s nephew.

The president, in presenting the award, said, “This is an amazing story. Father Kapaun has been called a shepherd in combat boots. His fellow soldiers, who felt his grace and his mercy, called him a saint, a blessing from God. Today, we bestow another title on him — recipient of our nation’s highest military decoration. I know one of Father Kapaun’s comrades spoke for a lot of folks here when he said, ‘It’s about time.’”

Kathy Schiffer writes from Southfield, Michigan.