Father Emil Kapun's Life Before His Medal of Honor Heroics
Pilsen is a small farm community in Marion County, Kansas. Populated with families of primarily Czech and German descent, the heart of the community is a 98-year-old Catholic church.
The church, which sits just around the corner from an old, abandoned gas station, is well preserved, its stained glass windows still glowing bright. The people in Pilsen are dedicated to their church, not simply because of their faith, but also because of a soldier-priest who called the church and the town his home.
Capt. Emil Kapaun served as an Army chaplain during World War II and the Korean War. He earned the Bronze Star and the Distinguished Service Cross, which was officially upgraded to a Medal of Honor on April 11, 2013, for his heroic actions in Korea.
Known as a “soldier's chaplain” by the men he served, throughout his life Kapaun was devoted to the service of others.
“Father Kapaun's legacy lives here in Kansas in several ways,” the Rev. John Hotze, judicial vicar for the Wichita Diocese, said. “To begin with, (in) the dedication of the people here in Pilsen. You can see his life still not only in their interest in Father Kapaun's life, but also their interest in making sure other people know of the life that he led, his willingness to serve others.”
Kapaun was born and raised in Pilsen. He lived on a small farm about three miles outside of town with his younger brother Eugene and his parents, Enos and Elizabeth.
Rose Mary Neuwirth, a member of the St. John Nepomucene Church parish, said it was on the family farm where Kapaun exhibited the strong work ethic and determination that would serve him and others throughout his life.
She described one day, when his mother was ill, and Kapaun attempted to milk a cow in her stead. The cow wouldn't stand still for him. He went back inside, put on one of his mother's dresses and went back out to the cow, which “recognized” him and finally stood still long enough to be milked.
Kapaun was always the first to help his neighbors with their harvests, forming a threshing crew.
“He realized that the family was a poor family, so he would do whatever he needed to help out,” Hotze said.
Kapaun's dedication extended to the church. Even after a long day of working on the farm in the summer, or a day of school in the winter, he would find time to show his appreciation for his faith.
Neuwirth said Kapaun would bicycle or walk to the church, picking flowers along the way, to put them on the altar.
Kapaun attended college at Conception College in Missouri, and then Kenrick Theological Seminary in St. Louis, where he was ordained in 1940.
“When he was at the seminary, his friends would talk about how he was always there to help them out,” Hotze said. “He was a very good student. He would offer his notes if it was going to help one of his classmates out so that they might pass their classes.”
Kapaun was assigned to the church in Pilsen as an assistant pastor immediately after his ordination, according to Neuwirth.
“The kids just loved him because they had somebody that was willing to put up with them,” she said. “He would go out at noon and play ball with them so the sisters that were teachers here could go eat their lunches. In fact, he bought (them soccer balls) and taught them to play soccer. The kids just adored him.”
In addition to his regular duties as a pastor, Kapaun would tend to the church grounds and facilities, and perform auxiliary duties, celebrating mass with the troops at nearby Herington Army Airfield. Kapaun became head pastor of the Pilsen church in 1943.
“When World War II broke out, he volunteered to go into the service because of his connection with the men at Herington airbase. He just felt that he was called to serve the military and serve the Soldiers in that capacity,” Hotze said.
Kapaun joined the Army Chaplain Corps in 1944.
As a chaplain, he would advise the command on religion, ethics and troop morale, Army Chief of Chaplains Maj. Gen. Donald Rutherford explained, adding that chaplains are required to take care of and provide counsel to the soldier, whether or not they practice a faith, and are responsible for religious support for that individual, unit or command, regardless of denomination.
“The chaplain is different than any other officer, although they have the same qualifications as other officers in the field,” Rutherford said. “The chaplain has the ear of the commander, and at any time.”
During World War II, Kapaun served in India and the Burma theater, from 1945-1946, Hotze said.
The men who served with him during World War II told stories about Kapaun always being where the fight was, according to Hotze.
“At that time, most of the fighting was over ... but they said there would be pockets of resistance where they would hear gunfire," Hotze said. "It was kind of a bet among the men as to how quickly Kapaun would be able to get to where the ... shooting was, because he felt that was where the men needed him.”
Kapaun earned his reputation as a soldier's chaplain in Burma, going out to the front lines to provide care and comfort to the men.
“Chaplains weren't required to go there and put themselves in danger, but (veterans) said Father Kapaun did not care about his own safety, he was concerned with the men,” Hotze said.
Kapaun was promoted to captain in 1946 while in Burma, and upon returning the U.S., was discharged. He went on to earn a master's degree in education from Catholic University and returned to his home parish in Pilsen before he answered the call to serve again.
“Father Kapaun had always felt that he was there to serve the military and the soldiers,” Hotze said. “So he asked to go back ... and eventually he was given permission to go back and serve once again, which is how he wound up in Korea.”
Kapaun was stationed in Japan in 1950. When war broke out on the Korean Peninsula, he was put on alert and sent with his unit, the 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, to Pohang, South Korea, as part of the first wave of American reinforcements.
Retired Lt. Col. William C. Latham Jr. wrote in an article for Army Magazine titled “Father Emil Kapaun” that Kapaun always seemed to be in the line of fire, moving from foxhole to foxhole to provide comfort and aid.
Once, Latham wrote, when enemy fire damaged Kapaun's jeep, the chaplain found an abandoned bicycle and rode it from area to area as he continued his front-line visits.
On Aug. 2, 1950, Kapaun earned his Bronze Star, running through enemy fire to drag wounded soldiers to safety.
“He would do whatever he could ... in service to the men,” Hotze said. “There were several men who talked about how he gave them instructions in the faith and they were baptized there in Korea.” Kapaun would also counsel men with marital problems, going so far as to tell one soldier, 'He would come back and kick him in the butt' if he didn't get his marriage straightened out."
“He would do whatever the men needed done for them,” he said. And despite the fighting and the miserable conditions in Korea, Kapaun maintained his sense of humor and managed to keep morale high.
“My pipe got wrecked again as a Red machine gunner sprayed us with lead and we had to hit the ditch,” Kapaun wrote in a letter to his brother Eugene and his sister-in-law Helen in October 1950. “It is funny how a fellow can jump so fast into a ditch. This time it did not have water in it. The last time, the ditch had water in it and you can imagine how we looked. We do have a few laughs in spite of the evils of war.”
This letter is believed to be the last letter he sent home before his capture at Unsan, North Korea.
Father Emil Kapun's Medal of Honor HeroismCommunist forces encircled the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, assigned to provide a rear guard for the regiment's withdrawal, Nov. 1, 1950, near Unsan, North Korea.
Capt. Emil Kapaun, chaplain, spent the night moving among the foxholes, under direct enemy fire, providing comfort and medical aid to his fellow soldiers.
“His courageous manner inspired all those present and many men who otherwise might have fled in panic were encouraged by his presence, and remained to fight the advancing enemy,” Kapaun's Distinguished Service Cross citation read.
The battalion withdrew across a nearby river when Chinese commandos attacked the command post. Kapaun returned to help the wounded and gathered about 30 men into a dugout for protection.
His dedication to his fellow soldiers persisted throughout the day Nov. 2, where he repeatedly rescued wounded men under heavy enemy fire. As the day wore on, it became clear the battalion's position was hopeless, but Kapaun rejected several opportunities to escape.
He eventually made his was back to the dugout where more men had gathered, to include a wounded Chinese officer.
As the enemy closed in, Kapaun was able to convince the Chinese officer to negotiate for the safety of the wounded Americans and the group was taken captive.
“Although fully aware that capture would result from his act, Chaplain Kapaun volunteered to remain behind and, when last seen, was administering medical treatment and rendering religious rites wherever needed,” the DSC citation continued.
Kapaun's selfless actions on those first two days in November 1950 earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, which will be upgraded to the Medal of Honor in an April 11, 2013, White House ceremony.
But his heroism and resilient spirit continued throughout his time as a prisoner of war, when he repeatedly disregarded his own safety for the well-being of other soldiers.
Then-Sgt. 1st Class Herbert Miller was badly injured leading his platoon across the river. His ankle was broken when grenade shrapnel slammed into it, sending him tumbling into a ditch, where he hid beneath the body of an enemy soldier as the Chinese and Koreans advanced.
The enemy came into the ditch to conduct a search and found Miller. After he was captured, a Chinese soldier noticed Miller was wounded, and prepared to shoot him.
“He had the gun pointed at my head, and about that time ... I looked and this American come across the road and it was Father Kapaun,” Miller said. “He pushed the man aside - why that soldier never shot him, I'll never know.”
“And they were still shooting and firing at us, they wasn't just setting there looking at one another, war was going on!” he said. “And he walked across that road, standing up, never got hit or anything.”
Kapaun knew it was common enemy practice to execute men too injured to walk, the Rev. John Hotze, judicial vicar for the Wichita Diocese, explained, so Kapaun picked Miller up and carried him.
“I kept telling him to put me down, you can't carry me like this. He said, ‘If I put you down, they'll shoot ya,'” Miller said.
As the prisoners marched, Miller would alternate between leaning on Kapaun and being carried by Kapaun – this went on for 30 miles. They were separated upon arrival at the Pyoktong prison camp, Kapaun was sent to the officer's compound and Miller to the enlisted.
“In the prison camp, from the very beginning, (Kapaun) saw the men needed his help,” Hotze said.
The chaplain would work to make sure the prisoners' physical needs were taken care of, providing food and fresh water when he could, as well as caring for their medical and spiritual needs.
Kapaun would gather the officers every night at dusk and sing with them, Hotze explained. They would sing the “Lord's Prayer,” “God Save the Queen” and “God Bless America.”
“He wanted to make sure the enlisted men knew the officers were still there so that they would not lose hope, and would not feel abandoned,” Hotze said.
Once all the officers were settled in their huts, Kapaun would sneak out and head to the enlisted compound, where he would go from hut to hut speaking with the men and providing spiritual guidance.
“We were housed in mud shacks,” then-1st Lt. William Funchess said. “The shacks had straw roofs, and the sliding doors and one small window were covered in paper. It was very primitive conditions, and I was extremely hungry.”
The enemy had lost Funchess' paperwork and didn't realize he was an officer, so he was placed in the enlisted compound. One night, as he was out walking around, Funchess came across a man crouching near a fire who “looked real old” and dirty, with a big beard.
“I walked over to him, toward the fire and this old gentleman, and anyway, as soon as I got near, he spoke up and welcomed me and he said, ‘I am Chaplain Emil Kapaun, and I am melting snow,'” Funchess recalled. “He asked, ‘Would you like a cup of hot water?' And I said, 'Yes sir.'”
They struck up a conversation and Kapaun described how he would slip through the barbed wire between the compounds, dodging armed guards, to come and care for the enlisted men.
Kapaun would scrounge around the camp and raid enemy warehouses for millet seed, corn and sometimes soybeans, Funchess said, filling his pockets and distributing the food among the prisoners.
A few weeks into his imprisonment, the Chinese realized Funchess was an officer and transferred him to the proper compound. There, he was able to observe Kapaun regularly.
“He was helping other POWs and especially the POWs who were sick and wounded,” Funchess said. “He would try to wash their clothing for them, he would clean the prisoners up, he would help pick lice off of their bodies, and he would go around and he would conduct religious services. And it did not matter whether you were Catholic or whether you were Protestant, everybody was welcome to these services.”
“Everybody was the same,” Miller agreed. “It didn't matter who the fellow was. He cared for them all, just alike.”
The Chinese began a re-education program in March 1951, designed to get the prisoners to renounce their countries and faiths.
Kapaun actively resisted, quoting scripture and pointing out holes in the enemy's doctrine, Miller said.
“He defied them right to the end,” Miller said.
Eventually, their captors became upset and tried to quell Kapaun's efforts.
They transferred him from a hut with fellow Catholics into Funchess' hut, unannounced. It was then Funchess realized Kapaun was ill - the chaplain told him he thought he had a blood clot in his leg and had difficulty walking.
Funchess, who had been sleeping against the wall of the hut to protect his own leg wound, offered Kapaun his place and slept alongside him. Kapaun's condition continued to worsen, but he still did all he could for the other prisoners, only stopping when he could no longer walk.
Funchess and another soldier took care of Kapaun when he became immobile.
“Even though he was deathly sick, his morale was high and he would say prayers for us and encouraged all of us so much,” Funchess said.
In the early spring, the enemy came to Funchess' hut, again unannounced, for Chaplain Kapaun. His fellow prisoners' protested, but their efforts to prevent Kapaun's removal were unsuccessful. Instead, volunteers carried him to a “hospital” at the top of a small mountain.
“We called it the ‘Death House,' because every time a POW got seriously ill, he was sent to the top of the hill,” Funchess explained. “The Chinese and North Koreans called it a hospital, but it was not really a hospital, because everybody who went into the hospital practically never came out alive.”
Other prisoners in the camp reported that Kapaun blessed his captors as he was carried up the mountain, asking that they be forgiven.
The prisoners received word of Kapaun's death a few weeks later. The chaplain's fellow POWs insist he died of malnutrition and starvation May 6, 1951, while the official reports cites pneumonia as the official cause of death on May 23. His remains were never recovered.
Medal of Honor
Army Chief of Chaplains Maj. Gen. Donald Rutherford said he believes the Medal of Honor is a celebration for the Army and the Kapaun family.
“Kapaun (earned) the Medal of Honor for the many things that he did that were above and beyond the call of duty,” as a soldier and a chaplain, Rutherford explained.
“(It) really inspired people that, as a noncombatant, (he) would go out and expose himself to fire,” Rutherford continued.
His concern for the soldiers' welfare always outweighed his concern for himself, Rutherford added, not just in battle, but throughout his time in the prison of war camp, and even up to his death.
Kapaun's fellow soldiers said he would be humbled to receive such an honor.
“He'd tell you point blank, ‘I don't deserve it,' but that's the kind of person he was,” Miller said. “He didn't look for things like that, he just didn't. He cared about people. If he could do something for his boys, (as) he called them, he would do that gladly, but as far as medals, he didn't care.”
“He certainly deserves it,” Funchess said. “I am so proud. I have been waiting for more than 60 years to hear this news, and it's wonderful news to hear that Father Kapaun is being recognized for his heroic efforts on the battlefield and (that people will know what he did) in the POW camp.”
The Army isn't the only organization to recognize Kapaun's selfless sacrifices. The Catholic Church declared him a servant of God in 1993, and he is currently under consideration for sainthood.
Kapaun's extended family was in attendance at the April 11, 2013 White House ceremony and the Pentagon Hall of Heroes ceremony on April 12, 2013 as were several of the prisoners of war he inspired.
“How could you forget someone that saved your life?” Miller asked. “I owe him everything.”
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By U.S. Army Jacqueline Hames
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Medal of Honor Ceremony with Remarks by President Obama | Father Emil J. Kapaun Medal of Honor Citation
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