On February 22, former Kansas Representative Todd Tiahrt called the offices of the Wichita Eagle with momentous news: Kansas native and Korean War chaplain, Father Emil Kapaun, will be awarded the Medal of Honor. The Kapaun family has known for weeks — in December President Obama called Father Kapaun’s sister-in-law, 83-year-old Helen Kapaun, to invite her and her children to the presentation ceremony at the White House.
There has been talk for years about awarding Father Kapaun the Medal, but the case took great leap forward after two Kansas congressmen, Senator Pat Roberts and Representative Mike Pompeo, told Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, stories of the priest’s heroism on the battlefield, and especially in a North Korean prison camp. Panetta took his recommendation to the president, who agreed that Father Kapaun had earned the nation’s highest military honor. The award ceremony has been scheduled for April 11, 2013.
Emil Kapaun’s mother and father emigrated to the United States from what is now the Czech Republic and settled on a farm outside Pilsen, Kansas. That is where he was born, in 1916. As a young man, Emil felt a call to the priesthood. He entered a local seminary and was ordained in 1940. He offered his first Mass in his home parish, Pilsen’s Church of St. John Nepomucene. In 1944, with the Second World War still raging, Father Kapaun joined the Army as a chaplain. After the war, he served in the Army Chaplain Corps in Japan. In 1950, just days after the Korean War began, he was sent as a chaplain to Korea. According to the Wichita Eagle, men who served with Father Kapaun tell of the priest running through machine gun fire to drag wounded and dying soldiers to safety.
On November 1, 1950, All Saints Day on the Catholic liturgical calendar, Father Kapaun was among 1,000 U.S. troops captured by North Korean forces. The POWs were marched 90 miles to a prison camp. Living conditions were horrible: the POWs’ cabins had no heat; the “hospital” had no medicine for the sick and wounded; the water was contaminated, and food was so scarce the Americans were on the verge of starvation. After dark, Father Kapaun would slip out of his cabin to steal food and medical supplies from the guards’ storehouse. Before he went out on these raids, he prayed to St. Dismas, the thief who was crucified with Jesus and repented as he hung dying on his cross — Catholics venerate St. Dismas as the patron saint of thieves. (Reformed thieves, that is).
Father Kapaun turned scrap tin into pots so he and his fellow POWs could boil their drinking water, thus reducing the risk of dysentery. He picked lice off sick and dying men who were too weak to care for themselves. He encouraged his fellow POWs not to despair. He prayed the rosary with them daily. And he boosted their morale when he resisted the guards’ thought-control techniques at the camp’s compulsory brainwashing sessions.
But the harsh living conditions in the camp eventually caught up with the heroic priest. By Easter 1951 Father Kapaun was suffering from chronic dysentery and pneumonia. He also had a blood clot in one leg, which it made almost impossible for him to walk. As he condition grew worse, guards carried the priest from his cabin to the so-called hospital, where they left him to die.
In recent years, some of the men who served with Father Kapaun, as well as his family, friends, and Catholics in the Wichita area have begun the process that could lead to Father Kapaun being declared a saint. If he is canonized, he will be the first saint of the Roman Catholic Church to have been awarded the Medal of Honor.