Captain Emil Kapaun will receive the Congressional Medal of Honor Thursday. Over sixty years after he died he will be awarded our nation’s highest honor.
Captain Kapaun served as an Army Chaplain in World War II and the Korean Conflict. He was a Catholic priest.
Kapaun was born and raised in Pilsen, Kansas. After high school he attended Conception Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Missouri. After the abbey, he studied for the priesthood at Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis. Kapaun was ordained in 1940 and that same year became a U.S. Army chaplain.
Father Kapaun served soldiers in WWII on the battlefield. He left the army in 1946 to obtain his Master’s degree, returning in 1948. In 1950 he was ordered to Korea at the beginning of the military conflict.
He was stationed in one the most highly contested areas in Pusan. As firefights erupted around him, he would bicycle to any area where he was needed to minister to the wounded and dying. He heard battlefield confessions and performed the last rites for anyone who needed him. Photos of Father Kapaun saying mass on the hood of a jeep exemplify his dedication to the soldiers in his care.
When his unit moved on, he stayed behind to minister to the wounded, knowing that he could be captured by the Korean army from the north. As Korean and Chinese troops arrived, they attempted to kill those wounded too severely to be marched to a detainment camp. Father Kapaun stepped between a pointed rifle and a wounded soldier, slapping the weapon away. He convinced a Chinese officer to allow the soldiers to surrender. He and the other soldiers carried their fallen brethren on their backs. Marched in sub-zero temperatures, with little food and water, they eventually arrived at the Pyoktong POW camp, in what is now North Korea.
The camp offered only hunger, disease, and frigid conditions. The only water they had was from melted snow. Father Kapaun made pots out of roofing tin to melt the snow, and boil water for the infirmed. Under cover of darkness he left the compound and stole food, returning to give it to those who needed it most.
“He led by example. He picked lice off of soldiers when no one else would,” said Roy Wenzl, who is writing Father Kapaun’s biography.
When he became too ill to care for others, he was led away to a make shift “hospital” American soldiers called the “death camp”, because no one ever returned.
“Hey, Mike, don’t worry about me,” he told Lt. Mike Dowe, as Dowe recalled to The Associated Press. “I’m going to where I always wanted to go and I’ll say a prayer for all of you.” Two days later, on May 23, 1951, he passed away, seven months after arriving at the camp.
Father Kapaun will be honored posthumously in a White House ceremony today for risking his own life and wellbeing over and over again to care for his fallen comrades, and administering to their spiritual needs.
More than 60 people, among them nine former POWs, Kansas bishops and high-ranking officials in the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, are in Washington for ceremonies Thursday at the White House and Friday at the Pentagon. Kapaun will be inducted into the Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon, which honors all Medal of Honor recipients.
In addition to his civil honors, the Catholic Church has declared Father Kapaun a “servant of God”, often a precursor to sainthood in the Catholic Church.
Columnist-The Guardian Express