U.S. Army Chaplain Father Emil Kapaun stole, suffered and sacrificed his life for his fellow soldiers in a Korean prison camp. Six decades after his death, he is being considered for the Medal of Honor – and sainthood
On the night of his capture at Unsan, Kapaun, about 15 to 25 wounded who could still walk left the dug-out at gunpoint and joined hundreds of American prisoners on a long, desperate forced march northward, deeper into North Korea. Many of the men were too hurt to walk, and the Chinese soldiers abandoned anyone who fell behind to freeze to death.
Survivors said that Kapaun, even as he was suffering frostbite on his feet, helped carry wounded men in litters hundreds of miles, shaming recalcitrant comrades into helping. Eventually, Kapaun and his fellow captives were imprisoned in a camp near Pyoktong, just south of the Yalu River. Dozens had fallen behind and died along the way.
There, the Chinese and Korean captors held them in freezing and near-starving conditions. Kapaun sneaked around the camp stealing food – grain, potatoes, salt, peppers and garlic – from the Chinese stores, and fed his comrades from his own meagre rations. He tended the sick and wounded, bathing them and washing their clothes, day after day as conditions only worsened and more and more men perished.
He served as a moral exemplar, survivors said, persuading the sickest and most miserable not to give up. “By February and March, the majority of us had turned into animals, were fighting for food, irritable, selfish, miserly,” recalled Captain Robert Burke in a 1954 letter to Father Arthur Tonne, a Kansas priest who compiled anecdotes about Kapaun.
“The good priest continued to keep a cool head, conduct himself as a human being, and maintain all his virtues and ideal characteristics. When the chips were down, Father proved himself to be the greatest example of manhood I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Through it all, the chaplain stubbornly refused to renounce his faith. He defied and confronted the guards during forced indoctrination sessions. At risk to his own safety and life, he would sneak about the camp to comfort and encourage the young enlisted men and hold secret prayer services.
One survivor told Maher how Kapaun would carry a bucket on his furtive jaunts about the camp, to make it look as though he were on a chore if confronted. “By his very presence, he could turn a stinking mud hut into a cathedral,” the survivor, Lt Raymond Dowe, recounted to Maher.
With little food, poor sanitation and almost no medical care, Kapaun’s health deteriorated. By early spring he was limping from a blood clot in his leg and wore a patch over an infected eye. He contracted dysentery and pneumonia. After months in near-freezing and starving conditions, Kapaun died in late May 1951.
“In his last hour he heard my confession,” a comrade named Felix McCool recalled in a letter to Father Tonne. “Father Kapaun said: ‘As you see, I am crying too, not tears of pain but tears of joy, because I’ll be with my God in a short time.’”