A Moment in Air Force History: Captain K

Senior Master Sgt. Frederick Smith
435th Air Base Wing History Office


***image1***Born in the little town of Pilsen, Kan., in 1916, Captain K entered the U.S. Army not long after graduating from Missouri’s Conception College. During World War II, he served in the China-India-Burma theater. And after earning a master’s degree, he returned to active duty again in 1948.

On June 25, 1950, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Army (North Korea) attacked the Republic of Korea Army (South Korea) across the established border at the 38th parallel. A quick counteroffensive was needed or the entire country would be lost. The 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division was called to battle. Captain K was with them. Performing occupation force duties in Japan, they crossed the Japan Sea to make an amphibious landing at Pohangdong, South Korea, July 18, 1950.
“(He) exhibited an exasperating nonchalance when bullets were flying,” retired Maj. Gen. Williard Latham later said. “I guess he thought he was bulletproof.”

In August a battalion member was injured at the front lines, and no one was available to bring him out. Captain K went without regard to the intense machine gun and small arms fire and successfully rescued the Soldier. For his heroic actions, Captain K was awarded a Bronze Star with Valor – he’d only been in the country two weeks!

Initially the war was going well for the United Nations forces. However, they ignored warnings that Red China would enter the war if North Korea was attacked above the 38th parallel. United Nations forces pushed north in October.

By November Captain K’s unit was near Unsan, Korea, – by the Chinese border – when Chinese forces struck back. After a 36-hour attack, the 8th Cavalry’s perimeter was broken.


Despite nearby hand-to-hand combat, Captain K continued tending to the wounded. Then even after the evacuation order was given, he voluntarily stayed behind to tend to those who could not be moved.

The camp was quickly overrun, and he was taken prisoner. For his “extraordinary heroism,” he was awarded the Distinguished-
Service Cross.

Following his capture, he was interned at Pyoktong, Korea. Though seriously ill, he continued to care for his fellow prisoners and aid the physicians interned with him. His efforts were credited with greatly reducing that camp’s death rate. Ultimately, he succumbed to camp conditions and died May 6, 1951. For his actions in captivity, he was posthumously awarded the Legion of Merit.


Many heroic people lost their lives in the Korean War, what makes this story a little different is that Captain K was not a combat Soldier nor a medical officer – he was a Catholic chaplain.

In 1955 the Headquarters U.S. Army Europe honored him by naming a section of Vogelweh in his honor. Today a half-century later, this military hero is still being honored by the U.S. Air Force. Though until now, few probably knew the story behind Kapaun Air Station named for U.S. Army Chaplain (Capt.) Emil J. Kapaun.