“This is the valor we honor today — an American soldier who didn’t fire a gun, but who wielded the mightiest weapon of all, a love for his brothers so pure that he was willing to die so that they might live,” President Obama remarked at Fr. Emil Kapaun’s Medal of Honor ceremony.
Most Medal of Honor recipients earn the award through heroic actions while fighting an enemy. Kapaun was awarded the medal without ever firing a shot.
Kapaun, who served in the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously on April 11, 2013 for his courageous actions on Nov. 2, 1950, in Korea. He is the fifth Catholic priest to receive the award, and he is also being considered for canonization to sainthood by the Vatican.
Early Life and Military Service
Kapaun was born in the kitchen of his family’s farm on April 20, 1916, in Pilsen, Kan. Growing up, he helped around the stead like any other farm boy: milking cows, tending livestock and pulling weeds.
After attending the public school in Pilsen, he entered Conception Abbey seminary in Missouri and graduated in 1936. He then attended Kenrick Theological Seminary in St. Louis and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1940.
After years of asking his bishop to be able to enter the Army, Kapaun finally entered the chaplaincy corps in 1944. He was excited about his new soldier life.
“Army life does a person a lot of good,” Kapaun exclaimed in a letter to his parents. “In the evening (after a long march) I feel as fresh as a young calf.”
Kapaun served in Burma and India during World War II and mustered out of the Army in 1946. But, he he found that life as a normal parish priest lacked the challenge he was craving. He wrote to the Army saying that given the opportunity, he’d return to the military.
In 1948, he was given that chance and donned once again Army green. In January 1950, he and the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division, crossed the Pacific for Japan and they were among the first U.S. forces to get into the fight in Korea, landing at Pohangdong, South Korea, in July 1950.
Medal of Honor Action
On Nov. 1, 1950, rumor circulated that with the North Koreans on the run, the war was as good as won. Officers even told some of their men to pack up their things to get ready for a return trip to Japan, and generals were insisting that the Chinese were not going to enter the fight.
Sgt. 1st Class Herb Miller went on a patrol and got word from a local farmer that there were tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers hiding among the surrounding mountains. But Army intelligence did not take the farmer’s information seriously.
Shortly after midnight on November 2, Chinese Communist Forces viciously attacked the 3rd Battalion — the 1st and 2nd Battalions had already been overrun. During the battle Kapaun calmly walked through withering enemy fire to provide comfort and medical aid to his comrades and rescue friendly wounded from the no-man’s land.
The Americans repelled the assault, but found that they were surrounded by the Chinese army. Facing annihilation, the able-bodied men were ordered to evacuate. But, Kapaun chose to stay behind and aid the wounded.
The Chinese soldiers broke through the defenses in the early morning hours of Nov. 2, but Kapaun continued to make his rounds as hand-to-hand combat took place around him. He noticed an injured Chinese officer among the wounded and convinced him to negotiate the safe surrender of the American Forces.
Shortly after his capture, Kapaun pushed aside an enemy soldier preparing to execute Sgt. 1st Class Miller who was lying in a ditch with a broken ankle. Miller remembers that moment vividly.
“Pretty quick Fr. Kapaun came from across the road,” a very emotional Miller told ABC News. “(He) pushed that guy aside, bent down, picked me up and carried me.”
Shepherding the POWs
“Fr. Kapaun has been called a shepherd in combat boots,” President Obama remarked. Kapaun earned that title by the way he took care of his comrades on the way to and in the North Korean prisoner of war (POW) camp.
Shortly after they were captured, the Americans were forced to march four miles to the POW camp. Kapaun carried Miller on his back the entire time, because if he put him down the Chinese would have shot Miller, since he couldn’t walk.
In the camps, Kapaun sacrificed all he had for his fellow soldiers. In the freezing winter, he offered others his own clothes. Also, he gave soldiers his food rations — POWs were given only small portions of millet, corn and birdseed, which amounted to about 300 daily calories. He also managed to sneak out of the camp to forage for food bringing back rice and potatoes.
At night, Kapaun snuck into others’ huts to lead POWs in prayer, administer the sacraments and offer three simple words — “God Bless you.” One of the POWs later recalled that Kapaun’s very presence was able to turn the little mud hut into a cathedral.
In Spring 1951, Kapaun celebrated Easter Mass inside the the prison camp. That morning they gathered at the ruins of an old church inside the camp. Kapaun used a prayer missal which he kept hidden and a small crucifix that he had made from sticks. He and the prisoners together sang the Our Father and America the Beautiful. They sang so loudly that prisoners across the camp heard and joined in.
But, Kapaun’s self-sacrificial actions took a toll on his body. He became thin and frail. A blood clot formed in his leg, so that he limped when he walked. Then came dysentery and then pneumonia. He was too weak to move and the guards sent Kapaun to a death house where there was no food or water. He was left to die.
Even on death’s door Kapaun remained strong.
“I’m going to where I’ve always wanted to go,” he told his fellow soldiers. “And when I get up there, I’ll say a prayer for all of you.”
Then, as was taken away, he blessed the guards — “Forgive them,” he said, “for they know not what they do.”
Two days later he died. The guards took his body away to an unmarked grave and its location remains unknown to this day.