In the midst of a World War, Emil Kapaun was born in peaceful Pilsen, Kansas on August 20, 1916. His parents were Czech immigrants and virtually everyone in the area spoke Czech. From an early age Emil knew that he wanted to be a priest and would play mass with his younger brother. Graduating from Conception Abbey seminary college in Conception Missouri in 1936, Emil attended Kendrick Theological Seminary in Saint Louis, and was ordained a priest of the diocese of Wichita in June 1940. Father Kapaun returned to his home parish Saint John Nepomucene in Pilsen as an assistant to Father Sklenar who, together with his Bishop, had paid the cost of his attendance at the seminary. During these years Father Kapaun was also an auxiliary chaplain at Herington Air Base. After the retirement of Father Sklenar in December 1943, Father Kapaun became pastor of his boyhood parish. Receiving permission from his Bishop, Father Kapaun joined the army as a chaplain in July 1944.
Chaplain Kapaun’s intial assignment was as chaplain at Camp Wheeler in Georgia. In April 1945 he was sent to the C-B-I (China-Burma-India) theater of operations. While in the C-B-I he traveled over 2000 miles by jeep to say mass for the troops in the forward areas. Arriving in India he served as a chaplain for the troops on the Ledo road from Ledo, India to Lashio, Burma. Chaplain Kapaun became friends with the Catholic missionaries, priests and nuns from Italy, at Lashio. Taking up a collection for the missions from American troops, who responded generously, Father Kapaun also prevailed upon American combat engineers to construct a building in Lashio to be used as a school and a church. Here is a picture of Father Kapaun, viewer’s right, along with his trusty jeep, while he was in the C-B-I.
Promoted to Captain, he remained in the C-B-I until May of 1946 and was mustered out of the Army in July 1946. With the approval of his Bishop, Father Kapaun enrolled at Catholic University in Washington on the G.I. Bill, and obtained a Master’s degree in education in February 1948. In April his Bishop appointed him pastor in Timken, Kansas in April 1948. Believing that he was called to be a chaplain for the troops, and with the consent of his Bishop, Father Kapaun rejoined the army as a chaplain in September 1948.
Serving as a chaplain at Fort Bliss, Father Kapaun was ordered to Japan in 1950. Upon the outbreak of the Korean War, he was assigned to a front line combat unit, the 3rd battalion, 8th cavalry regiment, 1rst Cavalry Division.
With his unit Father Kapaun participated during June-September 1950 in the desperate defense of the Pusan Perimeter and then in the breakout from the Pusan Perimeter, which, combined with the Inchon landings in Operation Chromite, the brilliant stroke by General Douglas MacArthur, led to the eviction of the invading North Korean armies from South Korea and the capture of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on October 19, 1950. During all of this Father Kapuan was a whirlwind of activity: tending the wounded, administering the Last Sacrament to the dying, keeping up the morale of the troops. He said mass as close as he could get to the battle lines from an improvised platform on a jeep.
On November 1, 1950 Chaplain Kapaun’s unit ran headlong into advancing Chinese Communist forces at Unsan, North Korea, about 50 miles southof the Chinese border with North Korea. The official citation of the award of the Distinguish Service Cross to Chaplain Kapaun tells of his role in the battle:
The Distinguished Service Cross is presented to Emil Joseph Kapaun(O-0558217), Captain (Chaplain), U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection withmilitary operations against an armed enemy of the United Nations while serving as Chaplain with Headquarters Company, 8th Cavalry Regiment (Infantry), 1st Cavalry Division. Captain (Chaplain) Kapaun distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action against enemy aggressor forces in the vicinity of Unsan, Korea, on 1 and 2 November 1950.
On the afternoon of 1 November 1950, and continuing through the following 36 hours, the regiment was subjected to a relentless, fanatical attack by hostile troops attempting to break through the perimeter defense. In the early morning hours, the enemy succeeded in breaking through the defenses, and hand-to-hand combat ensued in the immediate vicinity of the command post where the aid station had been set up. Chaplain Kapaun, with complete disregard for his personal safety, calmly moved among the wounded men, giving them medical aid and easing their fears. His courageous manner inspired all those present and many men who might otherwise have fled in panic were encouraged by his presence and remained to fight the enemy.
As the battle progressed, the number of wounded increased greatly and it became apparent that many of the men would not be able to escape the enemy encirclement. Finally, at dusk on November 2, 1950, the remaining able- bodied men were ordered to attempt to break through the surrounding enemy. At this time, although fully aware of the great danger, Chaplain Kapaun voluntarily remained behind, and when last seen was administering medical treatment and rendering religious rites wherever needed.
Along with the other Americans captured Father Kapaun was marched north in bitterly cold winter weather approximately 100 miles. One of his fellow prisoners, Herbert Miller, was wounded and had a broken ankle. Mr. Miller survived the war and here is a recent statement by him on what happened next. “I was wounded with a broken ankle and the North Koreans were going to shoot me. He brushed them aside, reached down and picked me up and carried me. How he found the strength, I’ll never know. He was the bravest man I ever saw.”
Father Kapaun and his fellow POWs were taken, after their two week march, to a temporary camp which they called The Valley located 10 miles south of Pyoktong, NorthKorea, the first in a series of camps in the area where Father Kaupan and the men from his unit were held. Of the approximately 1000 Americans who were taken here 500-700 died. I was astonished in researching this article to learn that during their first year of operation the Chinese POW camps had a death rate of 40%, which makes them worse than the Japanese POW camps during World War II in which approximately one-third of the Allied prisoners perished.
Then the events began which made Father Kapaun unforgettable to the men who survived this Gehenna on Earth. First, the men needed food. On the miserable rations they had from the Chinese they were starving to death. Father Kapaun staged daring daylight raids into surrounding fields to scavenge for hidden potatoes and sacks of corn. If he had been discovered it is quite likely that he would have been shot on the spot. He always shared his food with the other men, and his example shamed his fellow prisoners who also scavenged for food outside of the camp to do the same and share their food.
Second the men needed hope. Throughout the camp Father Emil was always there. Praying with the men, joking with them, tending the sick, and burying the dead. The Chinese instituted mandatory re-education sessions, a surreal experience where starving Americans listened in sullen rage while a Comrade Sun in broken English gave them lessons on the glories of Communism. Father Kapaun at the end of each of these classes would speak up and refute the lesson calmly. The Chinese were in rage about this, but Father Kapuan would not be cowed by their threats and would not be silenced. Word spread around the camp that the “Reds” were afraid of the Father. The Chinese tortured two of Father Kapuan’s fellow officers until they accused him of having a “disobedient attitude” towards the Chinese. Father Kapaun simply told the shame-faced poor men that they should have taken no risks in attempting to shield him. No matter what his captors did, the esteem in which Father Kapaun was held by his fellow captives was unshakable.
Dysentery raged through the camp due to the poor sanitary conditions. Father Kapaun cleaned and tended the sick men. One day he scrounged coffee, literally God knows how, and surprised the men with hot coffee the next day after they woke up. He would often lead the men in prayers for food. On Saint Patrick’s day in 1951 they prayed and the next day they received liver from their captives, the first meat they had since the Chinese had captured them. On another occasion they prayed for tobacco, and a guard tossed them some through an open window the following day.
Leadership is something that men naturally look for in dire times and they looked to Father Kapaun. One of his fellow prisoners recalled: “In his soiled and ragged fatigues, with his scraggly beard and his queer woolen cap, made of the sleeve of an old GI sweater, pulled down over his ears, he looked like any other half-starved prisoner. But there was something in his voice and bearing that was different—with dignity, a composure, a serenity that radiated from him like a light. Wherever he stood was holy ground, and the spirit within him – a spirit of reverence and abiding faith – went out to the silent listening men and gave them hope and courage and a sense of peace.”
The Chinese strictly forbade religious services and Father Kapaun of course ignored them. On Easter Sunday 1951 he held a service for the men. He could not say mass lacking bread and wine, but he had a crude wooden cross and a rosary he made from the barbed wire fence around the camp. He gave an unforgettable sermon on the Passion and then recited the Glorious Mysteries on his barbed wire rosary. By this time Father Kapaun was in bad health, suffering from dysentery, pneumonia and an infection in one of his legs and his eyes. The next Sunday he collapsed while leading another service.
His Communist captors refused him all medical care. His death was slow and painful. On his last day with his men, with tears rolling down his eyes, he told them the story of the seven brothers and their mother who perished during the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes , prior to the Maccabean revolt. He said that after Antiochus had her sons put to death their mother began to cry. When Antiochus asked her why she was crying she said it was tears of joys because she knew her sons were in Heaven. Father Kapaun told his men that his tears were also tears of joy. Christ had suffered, he explained, and his suffering made him feel closer to Him. By this time all of the soldiers in the barracks were weeping. Soon the Chinese guards came to take Father Kapuan outside of the camp to the “hospital”. This was a shack where the Chinese took dying Americans, not to receive treatment, but simply to die. Father Kapaun lay on a dirt floor for three days, completely unattended, and died alone, except for God, on May 23, 1951. His captors dumped his corpse in a mass grave on the bank of the Yalu river and no doubt thought that was that in regard to this troublesome prisoner.
Not quite. His fellow prisoners never forgot him. Through their years of captivity his memory remained an inspiration to them. One of the prisoners, Major Gerald Fink, a Jew, spent two and a half months, every second of which he risked dreadful punishment, carving, in secret, a 40 inch crucifix in tribute to Father Kapaun. When the surviving prisoners were released at the end of the war, they came out with story after story of the deeds of the man they had all loved and called “Father” no matter what their religion.
In death Father Kapaun is remembered. Five schools in his native Kansas are named after him. A painting of him will be unveiled this May in the chapel at Newman University in Wichita Kansas. The artist Wendy Lewis is pictured below at work on the paining.
The Diocese of Wichita has begun the process to have him canonized. In 1993 the Vatican declared him a Servant of God.
His fellow veterans have also not forgotten him, as this resolution of Korean War veterans asking that he be awarded the Medal of Honor indicates.
RESOLUTION of the United States Federation of Korea Veterans Organizations (USFKVO)
WHEREAS Father Emil J. Kapaun, Chaplain, US Army, a native of Pilsen, Kansas, and accredited by the Diocese of Wichita, United States of America, was Chaplain of the 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, Korea, in 1950, and
WHEREAS Chaplain Kapaun distinguished himself, as bothaSoldier and a Chaplain, on the field of battle in Korea during the early days of the Korean War in an uncommon manner, ministering both spiritually and physically to his fellow Soldiers, particularly the sick, wounded and dying, becoming a legend among the troops he served, and
WHEREAS Chaplain Kapaun further distinguished himself by ministering to the wounded and dying of his Regiment, during the height of the fierce battle at Unsan, North Korea on November 2, 1950, in which his Regiment faced overwhelming odds because of the Chinese Communist invasion of Korea, a battle from which Chaplain Kapaun might have escaped but remained behind ministering to the wounded and dying, as provided in the Geneva Conventions, a decision resulting in his capture by the Chinese Communist Command, and
WHEREAS Chaplain Kapaun, illegally designated a Prisoner of War rather than a detained person, as provided for in the Geneva Conventions, while a prisoner of war in several camps in the vicinity of PYOKTONG, NORTH KOREA, unselfishly gave himself in total service to his fellow Prisoners of War, his military duty and his commitment as an instrument of God, without regard to race, color, or creed, performing EXCEEDINGLY ABOVE AND BEYOND THE CALL OF DUTY to provide aid and comfort to his fellow Prisoners of War urging their will to live and will to continue to be American and Free World fighting men even in captivity, all at the cost of his own health and well-being as evidenced by numerous documented acts of the most conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity, in the presence of an armed enemy, and
WHEREAS Chaplain Kapaun died on May 23, 1951, of abuse by his captors, respiratory disease and a blood clot in his leg, confined to a filthy Communist prison “death house” tending to his flock up until he could do so no longer, his sacrifice an example to inspire and encourage his companions and others held as Prisoners of War throughout the camps as they received word of his indomitable courage and spirit for God and Country, and
WHEREAS Chaplain Kapaun through the example of his life and military duty has become one of the most popular heroes of the Korean War, Soldier and Saint, an inspiration to his fellow prisoners, and all who serve in the military, who gave of himself until he was spent, often referred to as the man who best sums up the glory of the Chaplain Corps, and
WHEREAS Chaplain Kapaun was universally known as a “soldier’s soldier” and a saint by those who served withhim during his military service, and especially by those who suffered with him in the brutal Communist prison camps, and
WHEREAS the life and heroic exploits of Chaplain Kapaun are widely know throughout the Chaplain Corps and the Korean War Veteran Community and to numbers of the public in the US and other nations of the world, and
WHEREAS the Vatican, in 1993, in testimony of the love and affection of those who knew him and of his extraordinary love of and devotion to his fellow man, announced that Emil J. Kapaunwasto be named a “Servant of God,” the first step to an eventual elevation to sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church, and
WHEREAS the United States Federation of Korea Veterans Organizations (USFKVO), Inc., notes and supports the efforts among the five million American Korea War and Korea service veterans community, and the resolutions of the Korean War Veterans Association, USA (KWVA) and many other American institutions seeking the appropriate posthumous award of the Medal of Honor to Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun, US Army; so,
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the United States Federation of Korea Veterans Organizations (USFKVO), Inc., supports the recommendation for posthumous award of THE MEDAL OF HONOR to Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun, one of the US Army’s and United Nations Command’s finest, and we encourage the Senior US Army Decorations Board to favorably act on this resolution and all other petitions to this end; and,
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the United States Federation of Korea Veterans Organizations (USFKVO), Inc., calls upon the International Federation of Korean War Veterans Associations, Seoul, Korea, and all veterans groups in the free world to support this resolution.
In the space of a blog post it is impossible for me to relate all the information available about this truly remarkable man. Several biographies have been written about him including Shepherd in Combat Boots, and I highly recommend all of them to anyone interested in learning more about Father Kapaun.
As he lay dying Father Kapaun grew a beard. The men began to say that he looked like Christ. Father Kapaun, through his self-sacrificial love, had indeed become an Alter Christus for these men in their time of trial, and there is no higher accolade for any priest.