Fr. Emil Kapaun: Priest, Soldier, Hero

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By: Katie Hugo, Franciscan University

Emil Kapaun was born on Holy Thursday in 1916.  Growing up in Pilsen, Kansas, an extremely religious farming community, he wanted to be a priest like his childhood parish priest. He was ordained for the diocese of Wichita at the age of 26 and enrolled as an Army chaplain in World War II. He served in Burma and India before coming home in 1946, later re-entering the Chaplain Corps in 1949. 

Father Emil Kapaun was stationed in Japan when the North Koreans invaded South Korea in June 1950. Immediately, the priest went with the 1st Cavalry Division to repel the Communist invasion. His division fought along the bloody Pusan Perimeter, and he tended to the physical and spiritual needs of the men, regardless of race and creed. Father Kapaun received the Bronze Star in 1950 for heroically saving one of his wounded soldiers during the thick of the battle. In another instance, the chaplain actually said Mass using his Jeep as an altar before his vehicle broke down. On November 2, 1950, over 20,000 Chinese Communists, allies of the North Koreans, captured Father Kapaun and the other men of his unit during the Battle of Unsan. He had several chances to escape during the battle, but instead, he stayed behind so he could find more wounded men to evacuate. After the Chinese captured him, the chaplain convinced a Chinese officer to stop the attacks from the Chinese so that a surrender negotiation could be worked out. His actions saved countless lives on both sides, and as a result, he received the Distinguished Service Cross in August 1951. The Communist military forced the Americans to march over 80 miles to a prisoner-of-war camp. Father Kapaun ministered to his fellow prisoners by encouraging them and sometimes even carrying them on his back. While he was being led away to the POW camp, he noticed that an enemy soldier was about to shoot a wounded, defenseless American soldier. The priest came over and subdued the Communist before carrying his fellow prisoner away to relative safety. 

Father Emil Kapaun continued to minister to his fellow soldiers while in the POW camp. He helped provide for their physical needs by stealing food, washing their clothes, and tending to their medical needs, even picking the lice off soldiers’ heads. While stealing is against the basic tenets of the Catholic faith, he did it because his fellow prisoners of war were starving to death. The chaplain also ministered to those who were dying in camp. He also focused on the spiritual needs of the men, as he gave them hope and kept their thoughts on a better life to come. In defiance of the Communists, Father Kapaun conducted a sunrise Easter service in March 1951. Soon after, the priest fell ill, and the Communists took him away to a makeshift, unheated hospital in the camp. There, he died on May 23, 1951, alone. His causes of death were disease and exhaustion: results of putting his men before himself. He was one of about 40,000 servicemen to go missing or perish in the three-year-long Korean engagement. 

Father Kapaun’s fellow prisoners were released in the summer of 1953. Many of the men credited Father Kapaun with their survival. Upon their release, the servicemen who knew him started calling for Father Kapaun to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, which is the nation’s highest military honor. The priest’s family joined them in their efforts. The journey to get him the medal took about sixty-two years. Finally, on April 11, 2013, President Barack Obama awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor. Since more than half a century had passed since the chaplain’s passing, Father Kapaun’s nephew, Ray, received the medal on his uncle’s behalf. Also in attendance were several of Father Kapaun’s fellow Korean War veterans. One of only five chaplains to receive this prestigious honor, he is the most highly-decorated military chaplain in United States history. We must strive to follow the example of this courageous American hero. 

Father Emil Kapaun’s home diocese of Wichita has compiled information on his heroic life and sent it to the Pope for canonization. It is currently waiting the approval of His Holiness, Pope Francis. There have been two miracles attributed to the intercession of Father Kapaun. As of mid-June 2019, the Vatican is investigating both of these claims to see if they are truly authentic and do not have scientific explanations. The first alleged miracle involves Avery Gereman. She started coughing up blood while playing soccer, sending her to the hospital where it was discovered that she had an extremely severe auto-immune disease with a high mortality rate. Both of her kidneys were malfunctioning, and her lungs were starting to fill with blood. After her family prayed for Father Kapaun’s intercession, she miraculously recovered three months after getting sick. Her doctors claim that her recovery is nothing short of a miracle. She is currently working as a nurse at the same exact hospital where she was a patient. The second alleged miracle comes from Nick Dellasega, a native of North Carolina. He was running in a five-kilometer race in May 2011 in North Carolina when he went into lethal cardiac arrest at only twenty-six years old. His uncle, who is a doctor and was watching him at the race, performed CPR on him to no avail. The ambulance arrived, and his heart started pumping again soon afterwards. While all this was happening, Nick’s younger cousin prayed to Father Emil Kapaun for his intercession. Nick Dellasega survived the incident and only needed an implanted pacemaker.

Edited by Luke Parker

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