Pow Servant of God Receives Medal of Honor

The POW Servant of God Father Emil Kapaun received the Medal of Honor on April 11, 2012.  Here is what he did to earn it.

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 Kapaun 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 south of 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 Kapuan 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 Kapaun 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 Kapaun’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.

A dramatization of Father Kapuan’s exploits in Korea was broadcast in the episode The Good Thief of the series Crossroads on November 25, 1955.  James Whitmore portrayed Father Kapaun.

I hope that I live long enough to pray for the intercession of Saint Emil Kapaun.

Published in: on April 14, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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  1. I already posted three pieces of music to comment on this hero-saint’s story. This time I thought I’d reproduce something I’d written on my blog a few weeks back. The relevance to Saint Emil Kapaun will, I hope, become clear in the last few sentences.

    20 March

    Today was one of those days where most of my time was spent on buses, travelling from place to place and from errand to errand. At one stop, a couple came on. The man was a burly, shaven-headed archetypical working class Londoner, ageing, but clearly still vigorous, the kind you imagine working in some house that was being renewed, or drinking beers with his mates afterwards. The woman was not so easy to categorize; there was a slightly dusty and bewildered look about her. Then I realized that, though she was perfectly decent in dress and hairdo, I could smell urine, and it became clear that she was in the last stages of senility. And at the same time I realized that the man was completely concerned with her, gently telling her exactly where to go and where to sit down, with a patient affection that did not suggest the least possibility of exasperation or tiredness, and which she followed without question. When the time came for them to get off, he asked the driver whether they could get out by the front where they had come in, and I guessed that it would have bewildered her not to go through exactly the same way she had done coming in. And he was taking care that she should not be bewildered even to that extent.

    This man had seen his woman vanish in front of his eyes, till she was barely able to understand and incapable of changing a routine or of staying clean. And all the while, I thought, he had treated her with that affectionate, undemanding patience that I was seeing in that London bus. And what was there for him at the end? No earthly reward, that is for sure; nothing but continuous care for someone who could barely respond, and who demanded attention every second of the day; work without end and without the possibility of any positive result – work at preserving a dignity already lost, a personality already gone, a mind already dead. And from all I could see, he was doing it without the shadow of a complaint, let alone any suggestion that there was anything better for him to do.

    When I see something wonderful, and it would take too long or be out of place to say out loud how and why it is wonderful, I make a military salute. I saluted this couple (making sure nobody noticed) when they got off. Such things are the light of God in this world. It’s not only that the human mind cannot accept that such heroism should have no reward, should be futile and ignored; that it practically demands to see a supernatural reward for people who live and die like that. It is that he act itself is a thundering denial of any materialist or cynical view of man. A man who lives like that, without the prospect of reward and with the constant reminder of what he will never in this world have again, is a man who testifies to the whole universe that his nature is something else and something more than to eat and drink and sleep.

    • “Then I realized that, though she was perfectly decent in dress and hairdo, I could smell urine, and it became clear that she was in the last stages of senility. And at the same time I realized that the man was completely concerned with her, gently telling her exactly where to go and where to sit down, with a patient affection that did not suggest the least possibility of exasperation or tiredness, and which she followed without question.”

      That brought tears to my eyes Fabio as I recalled my tough father tenderly caring for my mother as she died of cancer at age 48.

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