Valor Friday

| October 16, 2020

Captain (Chaplain) Emil Kapaun

Emil Kapaun is today’s subject as I continue to explore chaplains who earned high valor awards.

Kapaun, the son of Czech immigrants, was born and raised in rural Kansas. A bright kid, he graduated high school at age 14. Then attended Conception Abbey Seminary college and finally Kenrick Theological Seminary before being ordained a Catholic priest in June 1940 back near home in Kansas.

As many men of his generation, he was called to a different form of service during WWII. He entered the US Army Chaplain School in August 1944, graduating the course a couple months later. Assigned to Camp Wheeler, Georgia he and one other chaplain ministered to the roughly 19,000 troops stationed there.

From April 1945 and for the next 13 months, Kapaun was sent to the Burma Theater. He was assigned to minister along the road from Ledo, India to Lashio, Burma, a 550 mile stretch. His ministry extended not just to the Allied troops but also the local missions. Serving such a large area, he’d travel upwards of 2,000 miles a month by Jeep and air.

In furtherance of aiding the local missions once the Allies had liberated them from Japanese occupation, Kapaun took up collections from the soldiers to donate. He also scored help from Army Engineers to go in and build (or rebuild) adequate facilities for the missionaries to live and work in.

He was sent back to the US in May 1946, long after the end of the war and after most of the other American servicemen had returned home. He was mustered out of the Army as a captain in July of that year. He then used the GI Bill to attend Catholic University in Washington, D.C. where he earned his master’s degree in education.

A few months after earning his master’s, in September 1948, he returned to active duty with the Army, feeling that he was again called to serve the spiritual needs of soldiers. Assigned initially to Fort Bliss, he was sent to Japan in December 1949, to serve with the 8th Cavalry Regiment (part of the 1st Cavalry Division) in their occupation duties in and around Tokyo.

When North Korea invaded the South in June 1950, the 1st Cavalry Division was mobilized for the war. Kapaun went with them to Korea just a few weeks after the start of the war.

Landing in an amphibious assault, the 8th Cavalry, with Kapaun, were part of the defense against the North Koreans until more reinforcements could arrive. The division skirmished with the enemy, but kept having to retreat. During one of these retreats Kapaun and his assistant learned of an injured man left behind, who was pinned down by enemy machine gun and small arms fire.

Kapaun and his assistant, knowing there were no litter bearers available, moved to the front and met with the battalion commander. Getting the approximate location of the wounded man, they braved the enemy fire to reach the man. Carrying him back, again through heavy enemy fire, they returned him safely to friendly lines, saving his life. Kapaun received the Bronze Star Medal for Valor for his heroics.

The division had been pushed back to the city of Pusan, near where they’d landed, until the large Marine landing at Inchon allowed the UN forces to break out and push back against the North.

From mid-September and into early October the counteroffensive was exceedingly effective. On October 9th the division crossed the 38th Parallel and moved into North Korea. They captured the North Korean capital of Pyongyang and were within 50 miles of the Chinese border. That’s when the tide turned again.

November, 1950, as the American forces pushed the enemy deep back into their own territory, the Chinese came to the aid of their communist allies in the North.

During these months of fighting, Kapaun earned an excellent reputation with the troops of his regiment. He ministered to the men from an altar he built on the front of his Jeep, performing baptisms, heard confessions, and conducted mass and communion. When his Jeep/altar would be destroyed or damaged by the enemy, he’d ride his bicycle to conduct his ministry. If he got lost, he just followed the sounds of gunfire until he found his boys.

When the battles were underway, Kapaun was known for providing aid and medical care to the wounded and inspiration under fire to the beleaguered men. He even once had his customary pipe shot from his mouth by a sniper’s bullet.

Kapaun showing off his sniper-shot pipe

The regiment’s nominal strength of 2,400 were attacked by 20,000 Chinese troops on the evening of 1 November. Throughout the night and into the 2nd, Kapaun refused offers to be evacuated. As the regiment ordered all able-bodied men to retreat, the 3rd battalion (nominally 800 men strong) remained behind to cover the larger retreat. Kapaun volunteered to remain behind, knowing that to do so would either result in his capture or death.

During the battle Kapaun was credited with repeatedly braving the enemy fire and saving the lives of 40 men. He moved among the men, encouraging them, as the enemy broke through the defensive lines and hand-to-hand combat was ensuing.

During the battle, a young corporal, Joe Ramirez said Kapaun seemed to dodge bullets on the battlefield while aiding Soldiers. Bullets were “flying everywhere,” he said. Despite the danger, Kapaun was in the line of fire carrying the wounded back, administering last rites and providing first aid until medics arrived, he said. With artillery and bullets coming in from all directions, Ramirez, then a corporal, remembered thinking “God, the Lord, is watching over him.”

As they were being overrun, Kapaun noticed a wounded Chinese officer among the American wounded. The chaplain persuaded the officer to negotiate the surrender of the American forces, saving countless lives.

After being taken prisoner, Kapaun again disregarded his own safety and shoved a Chinese soldier who was about to execute Sergeant First Class Herbert Miller. Not only did he directly save the sergeant’s life (Miller would survive more than two years captivity, escaping and being recaptured twice) but he inspired all of the Americans who witnessed his selflessness and bravery.

Kapaun would be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery that day.

Now prisoners, they were marched 87 miles to a temporary prison camp and then to a permanent one. Along the way anyone who fell behind was executed. Kapaun continued to look after the men, encouraging the more able-bodied to carry the wounded. He led by example, carrying wounded men for miles at a time on his own back.

At the prison camp, the winter of 1950 and into 1951 was brutal. Some days up to 24 men would die in a single day from malnutrition, disease, lice, and exposure to the bitter cold.

Kapaun didn’t give in to the despair and horrors of the camp. He fully devoted himself to his flock. In what could have served as the model for Colonel Hogan of Hogan’s Heroes, Kapaun snuck around after dark to check on his men. He frequently left the officers’ barracks to sneak into the enlisted men’s barracks. He dug latrines, mediated disputes, and gave away his rations to those most in need. Leading the men in prayer, he was known for stealing food for the men, stood up to the communist propagandists, and smuggled dysentery drugs to the camp’s doctor. He’d even launder the clothing from the deceased and hand it out to the men most in need.

On at least one occasion he was punished for his disobedience. The communist guards forced him to sit outside in sub-zero weather with no clothing.

Speaking about the chaplain’s time in the camps, survivor then-1st Lieutenant Mike Dowe said, “There were people dying every night there. He would minister to them. One person I knew in particular virtually came back to life to receive the last rites and he baptized him.

“In the valley that [Kapaun’s POW camp was] in, the death rate was about one-third what it was in the other two [nearby camps], just because of the way he instilled a spirit of cooperation, will to live, and resistance to the enemy,” he said.

“He was just an ordinary guy. He would shun any recognition of himself,” Dowe said.

“Father would get up in the morning, ahead of everybody else, in 20-below zero, start a fire and heat water and then come around saying ‘hot coffee,'” said Dowe.

Dowe wrote he “came upon him once sitting in the sunshine by the road. There was a smile on his face and a look of happiness in his eyes. I hated to break in on his meditations, but I needed cheering, so I asked him, “What are you thinking of, Father?” “Of that happy day,” he said, “when the first American tank rolls down the road, then I’m going to catch that little so and so, Comrade Sun, and kick his butt right over the compound fence.”

Developing dysentery and pneumonia, Kapaun also developed blood clots in his legs. The winter months took their toll on him bodily, but not spiritually. He continued to lead and inspire the men, performing a sunrise Easter mass in March.

Kapaun became so weak it provided the guards an excuse to separate him from the men. They moved him to the camp’s “hospital”, called “the death house” by the prisoners, where he died on May 23rd, 1951 just two days later.. He was only 35 years old. He was buried in a mass grave near the Yalu River. He was one of twelve American chaplains to die during the war and one of four to be captured (all four died while interred).

As Kapaun was carried away by the enemy guards, the Padre prayed for forgiveness for his captors and made his fellow soldiers promise to keep the faith. Lieutenant Dowe said that Kapaun’s last words to him were, “don’t worry about me, Mike. You guys take it easy. I’m going to where I always wanted to go. When I get there, I’ll say a prayer for you.”

For his exemplary performance, fidelity, and bravery in the prison camps, Kapaun was posthumously awarded the Legion of Merit, the second highest award for meritorious service.

At a 1954 memorial in Kapaun’s honor, the Army Chief of Chaplains said, “Men said of him that for a few minutes he could invest a seething hut with the grandeur of a cathedral. He was filled with the spirit of Christ. In that spirit he was able to inspire others so that they could go on living — when it would have been easier for them to die.”

Despite receiving the Distinguished Service Cross (posthumously) for his bravery on 1-2 November 1950, the men who were there and his fellow prisoners over the coming months believed he deserved the Medal of Honor. In 2001, this campaign gained a Congressman’s support. By 2009 the Secretary of the Army and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff confirmed that upgrading Kapaun’s DSC to the MoH was appropriate.

Finally the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act contained the statutory authorization and request that the President award Kapaun the Medal of Honor. President Obama did so and presented the medal to Kapaun’s nephew in a ceremony on 13 April, 2013.

Within the Catholic Church, the inspirational story of Father Kapaun spread. In the next few decades devotees would give devotional prayers to the departed Captain. In 1993, Pope John Paul II named Kapaun “Servant of God”, the first step in the canonization process by which someone is declared a saint.

In November 2015 a 1,066 page report was compiled by Kapaun’s Diocese in Wichita, Kansas. A team of six historians at The Vatican reviewed the case and voiced their approval. Kapaun’s cause is awaiting Papal confirmation of Kapaun’s death as a martyr or attributes a miracle to the chaplain, he can be declared a saint. Three possible miracles are under review by The Vatican.

The first was in 2006 when a young woman with an auto-immune disorder entered an 87-day coma. Her parents prayed to Father Kapaun for his intercession. Not only did the woman come out of her coma, subsequent scans of her lungs revealed no scarring. She’s since gone on to lead a full, active life.

In 2009 a doctor and investigator from The Vatican arrived in Wichita to investigate several claims of miraculous healing associated with Father Kapaun. Among those cases was a 20 year old male pole-vaulter who fell on his head while practicing. He and his family believe that their prayers to Kapaun to intercede allowed for his full recovery from the severe injury.

A man collapsed at a May, 2011 5K race. The man’s friend, an EMT, said he had died, noting “I know what a face looks like when the soul leaves the body. And that’s what Nick looked like”. The man recovered though, which many bystanders attribute to the man’s cousin dropping to his knees and praying for Father Kapaun’s intercession.

The Case for Canonization of Father Kapaun is progressing. The investigation into the Case and the possible miracles has been completed. It was to be presented to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which was slated to vote on moving to the next phase in Kapaun’s path to sainthood on 10 March of this year. Due to COVID it looks like this was postponed and there’s been no new information on when his Case will be taken up.

In 1952 an American Marine, a Jew, was captured and sent to the same prison camp as Kapaun had been. Inspired by the stories of Captain Kapaun, Captain (later Colonel) Gerald Fink, a Marine aviator, carved a crucifix and statue of Jesus that was later smuggled out of the camp.

It’s on display at the entry to Kapaun Mt. Carmel Catholic High School, Wichita, KS. The school’s website describes it thus;

The Corpus of this beautiful crucifix is carved from scrub oak. The cross is made from furniture pieces found in the camp. Christ’s crown of thorns is made from radio wire and is made to resemble the barbed wire encircling the prisoner of war camp that became the home of Fr. Kapaun and his fellow soldiers in November 1951.

Category: Army, Historical, Korea, Medal of Honor, POW, Valor, We Remember

Comments (8)

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  1. USAFRetired says:

    Kapaun Air Station near Ramstein Germany is named in honor of the Captain

    • Quartermaster says:

      It was known as Kapaun Barracks when my father was stationed at Ramstein. IIRC, it’s much nearer K-town.

  2. 5th/77th FA says:

    BZ to Captain (Chaplain) Padre Emil Kapaun, amy you have unlimited supplies of Sacramental Wine to serve the Warriors in Valhalla. Reading this reminded me that one of our Chaplains from back in the days at Camp Pieri in the FRG (a Padre himself) had related the story of Padre Kapaun. It also reminded me that, despite being raised not to HATE anyone, I purely DESPISE the Godless Chinese Communist…AND their Godless Communist form of government. It is one thing for a Warrior to be killed in the heat of Battle. It is another thing entirely to be murdered, deliberately, by your captors.

    I am still of the opinion that both Patton AND MacArthur had the right idea. I feel that we will, again, rue the day that the Chinese Communists have been allowed to become as powerful as they are.

    Thanks Mason!

  3. CDR D says:

    Awesome story of an awesome man. We mere mortals are truly fortunate to have people like this living among us.

  4. AW1Ed says:

    Hand Salute. Ready, Two!

    Thanks again, Mason.

  5. Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH B Woodman says:

    I’m a Mormon, but I would take Last Rites from such a man.

  6. Prior Service says:

    One of my proudest days in Bn command was representing this unit at the White House and in the Pentagon Hall of Heroes for the MoH ceremonial activities. Despite the 2013 occupant of the House, being there, seeing surviving vets (including the one he carried) was incredible. They presented the medal to his nephew. During the reception afterward, I gave him a Bn coin and he was so proud and appreciative. Said it would be displayed next to the medal. (I sure would love to confirm that one day.) How amazing—The man had just received the MoH for his uncle but was excited by my coin? Wow.

    • Mason says:

      I probably shouldn’t be, but I’m still amazed at the community here. Almost every week there’s someone with a personal connection to my subject. Thanks for sharing!