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The remains of a Korean War hero priest have been returned to his family after 70 years. Fr. Emil Kapaun, who died in a Korean POW camp in 1951, is returning to Wichita, Kansas, today. There, he will be interred at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception while his cause for sainthood is investigated.
Fr. Kapaun’s remains were only recently identified by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in its ongoing Korean War Disinterment Project. DNA analysis identified Fr. Kapaun among a group of 867 remains buried as “unknowns” at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. His remains had rested there in anonymity since 1953.
According to the Wichita Eagle, Fr. Kapaun’s remains were returned to his family in a ceremony at Pearl Harbor. An honor guard with representatives from all branches of the military escorted his flag- covered remains as at least 50 soldiers stood in salute. The remains were presented to his nephew Ray, with his wife Lee, who brought his uncle back to Kansas.
Fr. Emil Kapaun became a U.S. Army Chaplain in 1944 and served in WWII and the Korean War. It was in Korea that he became well known for risking his life to minister to soldiers on the front lines. Angelus reports that his efforts were not reserved for U.S. soldiers. At the battle of Unsan, he also retrieved a wounded Chinese soldier from the battlefield. This would turn out to be serendipitous, as the Chinese soldier helped him to negotiate a surrender at Unsan.
His negotiation saved many of his fellow soldiers, but they were all taken as prisoners of war. Over the following months Fr. Kapaun tended to the souls and wounds of his men. He attempted to keep their spirits high as they contended with freezing temperatures, starvation, and illness. It is estimated that nearly half of the 3,000 POWs in that camp died in the first winter.
Fr. Kapaun was ceaseless in his efforts, but his health began to decline while in captivity. He eventually developed pneumonia and a blood clot formed in his leg. Denied treatment, his health continued to deteriorate until his death in May of 1951. In 1953 his remains were returned to the U.S. among thousands of unidentified U.S. soldiers.
Fr. Kapaun’s selfless work in his darkest days has been recognized in the years since his death. In 1993 Pope St. John Paul II named him “Servant of God,” which opened his cause for sainthood. A thorough investigation of his life and any possible miracles attributed to Fr. Kapaun’s intercession is forthcoming.
His heroic actions on the front lines were also honored by the U.S. Government. In 2013 President Obama awarded Fr. Kapaun the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration.
Now, he will rest in another place of honor in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. According to Facebook posts from Bishop Carl A. Kemme, of the Diocese of Wichita, a special altar of repose was commissioned and installed in the Cathedral on September 13. A video released by the diocese shows workers positioning the altar before a crucifix.
His remains will be available for vernation at the cathedral, but if he is elevated to sainthood they will be moved to a permanent shrine.