Chaplain Emil Kapaun: April 20, 1916 – May 23, 1951

Senior Master Sgt. Frederick Smith
435th ABW History Office

You may know the name of U.S. Army Captain Emil J. Kapaun. But, but do you know his story?

Born in the little town of Pilsen, Kansas, in 1916, he entered the U.S. Army not long after graduating from Missouri’s Conception College. During WWII, he served in the China-India-Burma Theater. After the war, he went back to school receiving an Master of Arts from Catholic University, in Washington, D.C., before returning to active duty again in 1948.

***image1***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 counter offensive was needed or the entire country would be lost. Among the units called to battle was the 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. Performing occupation force duties in Japan, they crossed the Japan Sea to make an amphibious landing at Pohangdong, South Korea, on July 18, 1950. Captain Kapaun was with them.

Capt Kapaun, “exhibited an exasperating nonchalance when bullets were flying,” recalled Maj. Gen. (ret) Willard Latham. “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 Kapaun went without regard to the intense machine gun and small arms fire and successfully rescued the soldier. For his heroic actions, Captain Kapaun was awarded a Bronze Star with Valor − he’d only been in country two weeks.

Initially, the war was going well for the UN forces. However, they ignored warnings that Red China would enter the war if North Korea was attacked above the 38th Parallel. In October 1950, UN forces pushed north.

By November, Captain Kapaun’s unit was near Unsan, Korea − by the Chinese border − when Chinese forces struck back. After a 36-hour attack, the 8th Cavalry’s parameter was broken. Despite nearby hand-to-hand combat, Captain Kapaun 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 on 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 Kapaun was not a combat soldier nor a medical officer − he was a Catholic Chaplain.

In 1955 the Headquarters U.S. Army Europe named a section of Vogelweh in his honor. Today, a half-century later, this military hero is still being honored by Army and Air Force troops. Kapaun Air Station is the only military installation named for a chaplain.

Now, you know the story.