The Rev. Emil Kapaun, at right, and Capt. Jerome A. Dolan, left, a medical officer, are shown carrying an exhausted soldier off a battlefield in Korea, early in the war.

Catholic Diocese of Wichita via Wichita Eagle via McClatchy Tribune ,

Staff Sgt. Herbert Miller looks to members of the military as he leaves the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, April 11, 2013, following a ceremony where President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously to Chaplain (Captain) Emil J. Kapaun, U.S. Army.

Carolyn Kaster , Associated Press

Emil Kapaun


President Barack Obama stands with Ray Kapaun, nephew of Chaplain (Captain) Emil J. Kapaun, U.S. Army, as he awards the Medal of Honor posthumously to Chaplain Kapaun in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, April 11, 2013. Chaplain Kapaun will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his extraordinary heroism while serving with the 3d Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy at Unsan, Korea and as a prisoner of war from November 1-2, 1950.(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)


American priest awarded Medal of Honor for valor during Korean War

  • Article by: Krissah Thompson
  • Washington Post
  • April 11, 2013 - 9:37 PM

They are all in their 80s now — these former POWs during the Korean War. One recalls in rapid-fire bursts how Capt. Emil Kapaun sneaked out of the barracks at night, risking his life to bring back morsels of food for his fellow prisoners.

Another remembers seeing the young American priest use a rock and a piece of metal to form a pan and then collect water to wash the hands and faces of the wounded.

A third chokes up when he tells of being injured and having an enemy soldier standing over him, rifle pointed; Kapaun walked up, pushed aside the muzzle and carried off the wounded man. The military chaplain did not carry a gun or grenades. He did not storm hills or take beaches. He picked lice off men too weak to do it themselves and stole grain from the Korean and Chinese guards who took the American soldiers as prisoners of war in late 1950.

Kapaun did not survive the prisoner camps, dying in Pyoktong in 1951, at age 35, after six months in captivity. The man originally from tiny Pilsen, Kan., has been declared a “servant of God” — often a precursor to sainthood in the Catholic Church.

“This is the valor we honor today — an American soldier who didn’t fire a gun but who wielded the mightiest weapon of all, a love for his brothers so pure that he was willing to die so that they might live,” President Obama said in presenting a Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award for valor, to a nephew of Kapaun’s during a ceremony in the White House East Room. “I can’t imagine a better example for all of us … to follow.”

On hand for the ceremony were former POWs Mike Dowe, 85; Robert Wood, 86, and Herbert Miller, 86.

“People had lost a great deal of their civility,” Wood says of life in the POW compound. “We were stacking the bodies outside where they were frozen like cordwood, and here is this one man — in all of this chaos — who has kept ... principles.”

Kapaun was so beloved that U.S. prisoners of war who knew him began calling for him to receive the military’s highest honor on the day they were released from their North Korean POW camp 60 years ago.

But his story soon faded from all but the memories of the men whom he served and the small church in rural Kansas that he had pastored.

“POWs come and tell stories of him,” said the Rev. John Hotze, who serves in Wichita, an hour south of Kapaun’s hometown. “They talked about how they would never have been able to survive had it not been for Father Kapaun, who gave them hope and the courage to live.”

In the memories of his comrades, the chaplain is stuck in time, young and slight. At the sound of gunfire, GIs saw Kapaun heading in the direction of front-line troops in the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, on an old bicycle, his only form of transportation after his Jeep was lost.

Kapaun, who was ordained when he was 24, was among the 300,000 U.S. servicemen called to war soon after the news broke in the summer of 1950 that North Korea had invaded the Republic of Korea. Two months after the war began, Kapaun was awarded a Bronze Star for running through enemy fire to drag wounded soldiers to safety. It was a brutal conflict with little information getting through to troops on the ground, some of whom did not know that the Chinese military had entered the war alongside North Korea.

On the front lines, the priest would “drop in a shallow hole beside a nervous rifleman, crack a joke or two, hand him a peach, say a little prayer with him and move on to the next hole,” Dowe recalled.

On Nov. 2, 1950, the 8th Cavalry was encircled by Chinese and North Korean troops at Unsan. The men had thought they would be home by Christmas. They did not have winter clothes, Wood said. Now they were prisoners.

On that day, Kapaun performed an act of heroism commemorated in a bronze sculpture that stands in front of the church in Pilsen. The other man in the statue, which depicts Kapaun helping a wounded soldier, is Herbert Miller.

Miller, a platoon leader, found himself standing under a small bridge in a dry creek encircled by enemy troops on a dark night. “You could reach right out and touch them. The bullets was flying,” Miller recalled. “I moved 30 feet and I got hit with a hand grenade.”

The blast broke Miller’s ankle; he lay in the ditch until daylight, unable to escape. When he saw enemy troops coming up the nearby mountain, he tried to hide by pulling the body of a Korean soldier on top of him. But he was spotted and soon found himself being held at gunpoint.

“About that time, I saw this soldier coming across the road. He pushed that man’s rifle aside and he picked me up,” Miller said.

For a time, Kapaun carried Miller on his back.

That was the first time he met Kapaun. Both men began what would become known as the Tiger Death March, a trek of more than 80 miles to the North Korean POW camp.

Entering the camp in winter, when temperatures dipped below freezing, was brutal, Dowe, Miller and Wood recalled. Each day, the men were fed a few grams of cracked grain that looked like birdseed. Kapaun pressed on, trading his watch for a blanket, which he cut up to make socks for men whose feet were freezing. He told jokes and said prayers and gave his food away.

He earned the wartime nickname “the good thief” because of his ability to steal food for atrophic soldiers. “It was obvious, Father said, that we must either steal food or slowly starve. ... So, standing before us all, he said a prayer to St. Dismas, the Good Thief, who was crucified at the right hand of Jesus, asking for his aid,” Dowe wrote in the Saturday Evening Post 59 years ago. “I’ll never doubt the power of prayer again. Father, it seemed, could not fail.”

Kapaun’s nephew Ray Kapaun, 56, accepted the Medal of Honor on his uncle’s behalf. He has watched aged men’s eyes fill with tears as they spoke of his uncle’s role in their lives. Ray’s middle name is Emil, and he sometimes wonders whether he’s worthy of it. “The reality of it is so hard to put your hands around, just hard to describe.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


© 2018 Star Tribune