My dear people of St. Mary’s:
Last week, President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously, to Captain Emil Kapaun (pronounced Ka-PAWN), a Roman Catholic priest and U.S. Army chaplain who died as a prisoner of war during the Korean War.
Born to Czech immigrant parents in Kansas in 1916, Fr. Kapaun was ordained in 1940 for the Diocese of Wichita, before joining the Army in 1944 as a chaplain. During the Second World War he served in the Burma Theater and was promoted to captain before his discharge in 1946. After studies at Catholic University in Washington, Fr. Kapaun re-joined the Army in 1948. When the Korean War began in June of 1950, his unit, the 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Bliss, soon found themselves in combat.
For an intense five months, they saw almost constant fighting, with Fr. Kapaun celebrating Mass on the hood of a jeep, ministering to the dying, hearing confessions, and tending to the wounded. He was awarded the Bronze Star in September, and was captured near Unsan in November 1950. Interned in a prison camp near Pyoktong, North Korea, he continued his ministry for another seven months until he died of disease and exhaustion on May 23, 1951. He was thirty-five years old. Fr. Kapaun, like so many others, was buried in a mass grave near the Yalu River.
The Medal of Honor was awarded to Fr. Kapaun posthumously for acts of valor during the Battle of Unsan and while a prisoner of war until his death. President Obama presented the medal to Fr. Kapaun’s nephew at the White House on April 11, 2013. The Medal of Honor citation reads in part:
Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun … distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism, patriotism, and selfless service … [during the Battle of Unsan … As Chinese Communist forces encircled the battalion, Kapaun moved fearlessly from foxhole to foxhole under direct enemy fire in order to provide comfort and reassurance to the outnumbered soldiers. He repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to recover wounded men, dragging them to safety. When he couldn’t drag them, he dug shallow trenches to shield them from enemy fire. As Chinese forces closed in, Kapaun rejected several chances to escape, instead volunteering to stay behind and care for the wounded. He was taken as a prisoner of war by Chinese forces on Nov. 2, 1950. After he was captured, Kapaun and other prisoners were marched for several days northward toward prisoner-of-war camps. During the march Kapaun led by example in caring for injured soldiers, refusing to take a break from carrying the stretchers of the wounded while encouraging others to do their part. Once inside the dismal prison camps, Kapaun risked his life by sneaking around the camp after dark, foraging for food, caring for the sick, and encouraging his fellow soldiers to sustain their faith and their humanity. On at least one occasion, he was brutally punished for his disobedience, being forced to sit outside in subzero weather without any garments. When the Chinese instituted a mandatory re-education program, Kapaun patiently and politely rejected every theory put forth by the instructors. Later, Kapaun openly flouted his captors by conducting a sunrise service on Easter morning, 1951. When Kapaun began to suffer from the physical toll of his captivity, the Chinese transferred him to a filthy, unheated hospital where he died alone. As he was being carried to the hospital, he asked God’s forgiveness for his captors, and made his fellow prisoners