Father Emil Kapun's Life Before His Medal of
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.
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
“He realized that the family was a
poor family, so he would do whatever he needed to help out,”
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.
Kapaun would bicycle or walk to the church, picking flowers
along the way, to put them on the altar.
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
“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.”
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.
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
“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.
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.
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
“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.
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
“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.”
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
“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
“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.
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.”
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.
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
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
“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.
defied them right to the end,” Miller said.
Eventually, their captors became upset and tried to quell
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
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
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
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.
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
Other prisoners in the camp reported that
Kapaun blessed his captors as he was carried up the
mountain, asking that they be forgiven.
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,
“(It) really inspired people
that, as a noncombatant, (he) would go out and expose
himself to fire,” Rutherford continued.
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
several of the prisoners of war he inspired.
could you forget someone that saved your life?” Miller
asked. “I owe him everything.”
More photos available in frame below
By U.S. Army Jacqueline Hames
Medal of Honor Ceremony with Remarks by President Obama |
Father Emil J. Kapaun
Medal of Honor
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