The story of Fr. Emil Kapaun, the priest who paid the ultimate price in the Korean War
A priest, a war hero, and a candidate for sainthood: the incredible story of Fr. Kapaun continues to make history as he is awarded the Medal of Honor, the US’s highest military award.
It’s the 1950s at the height of the Korean War. Amidst the whistling of grenades, flying of bullets and the raging advance of the enemy, one chaplain and soldier – Fr. Emil Kapaun – heroically risks his life for his fellow soldiers. He disregards his own safety, jumping from one ditch to another, every time risking death, never leaving a wounded man behind.
It is this uncompromising bravery and love of his brothers that put him into a POW camp after coming to the aid of his wounded brother in arms, Sgt. Herbert Miller, who was about to be shot by the enemy. He carried and supported the soldier throughout the whole treacherous journey to the camp, days away, in Pyoktong. There he continued to shine, a beacon of hope for all around him; he would encourage them, guide them, and most of all love them, even until the last of his days. He died in what the prisoners nicknamed the “death house” (the POW camp’s hospital) on 23rd May 1951.
62 years later, last Thursday, the 11th of April marked an unforgettable day for the family and fellow soldiers of Fr. Kapaun. The moment they had long been waiting for had arrived; Kapaun was finally awarded the Medal of Honor by US president Barack Obama. The award was received by Fr. Kapaun’s nephew.
This is the highest military medal bestowed by the US government, and one that his fellow soldiers tirelessly ceased to campaign for this last half-century. Moreover, besides this great honor, the Vatican is also in the process of investigating his possible sainthood. So who was this extraordinary man behind the medal, the saint behind the soldier?
Fr. Kapaun was a hero and a man of God, but he was also just “one of the guys,” as he got “stuck-in” digging holes and smoking cigars with the rest of the soldiers. Tom Shine, editor of the book The Miracle of Father Kapaun, tells us a little about this extraordinary man.
“What was interesting about Father Kapaun was that he was a pretty quiet farm kid growing up. There was no one who saw him as a youth who thought, ‘Wow, this kid is going to win the Medal of Honor and maybe become a saint.’ Even when he became a parish priest, he was low-key, preferring to listen rather than talk.”
Shine continues, “but when his 8th Cavalry unit got to Korea at the outbreak of the Korean War, he stunned all the men he served with his bravery. He had little regard for his own safety as he pulled soldiers to safety or ran from fox hole to fox hole to encourage the men.”
Fr. Kapaun was the quiet farm boy from Kansas who lived humbly for the Lord. Yet his light shone for all to see, and his bravery, servitude and uncompromising compassion became still more evident as he faced the harrowing conditions of the POW camps amidst the vast hills of Korea.
“In the POW camps, he became the ultimate servant of God” remarks Shine. “He tended to the sick and wounded, gave food (often stealing it from the guards) to those who did not have enough to eat, gave his clothes to those who needed it, said a prayer for those who asked him to and stood up to the Communist guards who were trying to brainwash the prisoners.”
A warrior for God; but why has it taken so long for him to be recognized as deserving of the medal of honor? Shine tells us that “like any large organization, the military has its fair share of bureaucracy and red tape.”
He explains that “Kapaun did win the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions at Unsan, which is the Army’s second-highest award for bravery. So he wasn’t totally ignored by the Army. But the men who served with him thought he deserved the Medal of Honor, which is why they kept lobbying for it. When Kapaun was recommended for the Medal by the Secretary of Defense in 2009, Congress still had to pass special legislation because more than two years had passed since the action Kapaun was honoured for. That also delayed the process.”
As an example of complete servitude to God, Kapaun stands as a brilliant role model for Catholics of how you can give yourself completely to the other, no matter what your conditions. Indeed, Shine says, “I think the Church understands what a powerful message Father Kapaun has to offer. He was, seemingly, an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances who used his faith to guide and lead his actions. I think to have that recognized with the Medal of Honour reinforces the kind of behaviour that Christ, and the Church, would like all of us to exhibit.”
However, he was not just an example for Catholics, but one that the whole world can relate to, which his Medal of Honor is testament to. Shine describes the hero Kapaun as “normal as the guy next door,” which he says makes him “much more approachable to people and makes them think that they also could live their life that way in service to others.”
Shine recalls the words of Wichita Bishop Michael Jackels: “I was just very moved that our country would recognize and honor the kind of values that I think are held in esteem by Americans in general.”
Following the Medal of Honor ceremony, Kapaun was inducted into the Hall of Heroes in a ceremony at the Pentagon, where president Obama addressed his family.
Chuck Hagel, Secretary of Defence made the public statement: “it’s particularly important that we grab a hold of people like Fr. Kapaun, and not just acknowledge those acts of heroism and those great, astounding acts of gallantry, and what he did as clergy man and a man of the cloth, but composite who he was, what he was about, it was not just mortal courage, it was really more about moral conviction; it was about integrity.”
Fr Kapaun: a man to follow; a man to pray with.
To learn more about the incredible story of Fr Kapaun, we recommend reading The Miracle of Fr Kapaun: Priest, Soldier and Korean War Hero.