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, who were fighting with 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 him 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 it 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.