Army Chaplain Emil Kapaun inspired his men during the Korean War with calm, courageous leadership, instilling in his fellow prisoners of war a desire to stay strong — even after he no longer could. His actions eventually earned him the nation’s highest military honor, as well as a potential path to sainthood.
Kapaun was born April 20, 1916, in rural Pilsen, Kansas. He and his brother, Eugene, learned how to do chores and repair things around the family farm — a skill that would later serve Kapaun well.
After high school, Kapaun studied at Conception College in Conception, Missouri, before starting at Kenrick Seminary (now Kenrick-Glennon Seminary) in St. Louis. Four years later, in June 1940, he was ordained as a priest.
Kapaun was serving as an auxiliary chaplain at Herington Air Base, Kansas, in 1944 when he noticed the need for faith-based leaders in the military. He felt compelled to join, so, on July 12, 1944, he became an Army chaplain, serving for the rest of World War II in the China-Burma-India theater.
When he returned to the U.S. in 1946, Kapaun separated from the Army to earn his master’s degree in education from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. However, he rejoined the Chaplain Corps in 1948 as a captain. Two years later, the war in Korea broke out, so he was deployed in July 1950 with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division.
Calm Among Chaos
By the fall of 1950, Kapaun’s battalion had pushed depleted North Korean soldiers back to Unsan, an area in northwestern North Korea near the Chinese border. It was assumed the war would soon be over since things were looking good for the U.S. and its South Korean allies. But on Nov. 1, 1950, the tide turned when Chinese Communist forces launched a vicious attack.
During the fight, Kapaun calmly walked through the battle zone, offering comfort and medical aid to the injured and helping to pull men out of an area considered no-man’s land. The Americans were able to repel the assault initially, but by nighttime, they were surrounded and forced to find safety in foxholes and behind bunkers. By midnight, the battalion was ordered to evacuate before the Chinese blocked all escape routes.
Those who were injured were trapped, and Kapaun chose to stay behind with them, despite knowing he would likely face capture or death. He continued to make his rounds as the hand-to-hand combat grew closer. When he noticed an injured Chinese officer near his men, he pleaded with the officer to negotiate their safe surrender. It worked, and most of the men were spared.
As Kapaun was led away, he saw another Chinese soldier preparing to shoot a wounded soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Herbert A. Miller. Without concern for himself, Kapaun pushed that enemy soldier aside, picked up Miller and started to carry him away.
Stunned, the enemy soldier allowed it. Kapaun ended up carrying Miller for miles as they incessantly marched toward the unknown. The chaplain helped others who struggled, too, begging them to not give up so they wouldn’t be shot.
After being marched from village to village with little food or water, Kapaun and his men ended up at a POW camp in Pyoktong on the bank of the Yalu River.
“I don’t know the name of that valley, but we called it the Kapaun Valley because that is where Father Kapaun instilled in us a will to live,” Korean War POW Mike Dowe said in 2013.
Never Losing Hope
While in captivity, Kapaun remained a trusted leader. His courage inspired prisoners of all faiths to survive the camp’s hellish conditions and the frigid temperatures, resist enemy indoctrination, and keep hope alive. He helped the wounded and often sneaked out at night to steal food for the prisoners.
“He was the best food thief we had,” Army Capt. Joseph O’Connor, a fellow POW, told The Corpus Christi Caller-Times after his repatriation in 1953. “He always used to say a prayer to St. Dismas [the penitent thief] before he went out scrounging. Once, he came back with a sack of potatoes. How he got it I’ll never know — it must have weighed 100 pounds.”
By spring, however, the camp’s squalid conditions and inhumane punishments had taken their toll. Kapaun grew seriously ill and malnourished, but he managed to hold one last Easter Mass for the prisoners in late March. Shortly after that, he was transferred to an old pagoda that the Chinese called a hospital. It was unheated and filthy, and it was reported that its prisoners weren’t given food or medical attention. Kapaun died there on May 23, 1951. He was 35.
Revered By All
In August 1951, Kapaun was honored with the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest medal for valor, while he was still listed as missing in action. Officials learned of his death when his fellow POWs were released after the armistice was signed in 1953.
For decades, Kapaun’s comrades lobbied Congress to get his Distinguished Service Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On April 11, 2013, that request was granted. President Barack Obama lauded the chaplain’s service during a While House ceremony.
“[Kapaun was] an American soldier who didn’t fire a gun but who wielded the mightiest weapon of all — the love for his brothers — so pure that he was willing to die so they might live,” Obama said.
The chaplain’s nephew, Ray Kapaun, received the medal on his behalf. Several family members and Korean War vets who served with Kapaun joined for the celebration.
What’s Lost Is Now Found
With no remains to bury, Kapaun’s family set up a memorial to him at St. John Nepomucene Catholic Cemetery in his hometown. Earlier this month, however, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced it had finally identified Kapaun’s remains.
“After 70 years, Chaplain (Capt.) Kapaun has been accounted for,” acting Army Secretary John E. Whitley said in a March 5 news release.
Officials told Ray Kapaun that his uncle’s remains, along with those of several other soldiers, were returned to the U.S. shortly after the end of the war and buried at the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. They were only recently identified using dental records and DNA. Arrangements for a burial in his hometown are still being made.
There are still more than 7,500 unaccounted-for Korean War service members. Kapaun’s repatriation is evidence that the DPAA mission continues its commitment to never leaving a fallen comrade behind.
In 1993, Pope John Paul II declared Kapaun a servant of God — the first step toward sainthood. Every year in Kansas, the Catholic Diocese of Wichita holds a 60-mile pilgrimage from a Wichita church to the chaplain’s hometown in his honor.