Father Kapaun to be awarded Medal of Honor

by the 21st Theater Sustainment Command Public Affairs


Courtesy Photo
Courtesy Photo

There is a bust of his likeness, a statue in the middle of an Air Force administrative annex in the KMC in faraway Germany, an ocean away from his hometown roots and a continent away from where he is buried in an unmarked grave. The face and shoulder representation is meant as a reminder of the namesake, often overlooked and rarely thought upon from a long ago war referred to as the “forgotten war.”

The statue briefly describes his actions as a member of the Headquarters Company, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division to memorialize his selfless accolades in life and captivity in a North Korean prisoner of war camp.

This man, U.S. Army Chaplain (Capt.) Father Emil J. Kapaun (pronounced K-pawn), will be awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously April 11. According to the U.S. Army, Kapaun’s extraordinary courage, faith and leadership inspired thousands of prisoners to survive hellish conditions, resist enemy indoctrination and retain their faith in God and country.

In 1955, four years after his death, the Army named Kapaun Barracks — now Kapaun Administration Annex in Kaiserslautern — after him. Over the years, the names of the installations have changed, but Kapaun’s memorial has remained constant. This may be the only U.S. military installation and memorial named after Kapaun.

In 1993, Kapaun was named a “servant of God” by the Vatican and is currently a candidate for sainthood after two alleged miracles were attributed to prayers for Kapaun to intercede.

Kapaun was born in Pilsen, Kan., April 20, 1916, and ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1940. He first entered the Army Chaplain Corps in 1944, but was separated in 1946. He re-entered military service in 1948 and deployed to Korea two years later.

“The first contributions to Kapaun’s Medal of Honor citation come from the night the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment was attacked by the Chinese in the fall of 1950,” said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Father Matthew P. Pawlikowski, deputy command chaplain for the 21st Theater Sustainment Command.

“The unit instructed (that) all Soldiers who were capable of escaping the hostile area should retreat, but Kapaun and the regimental surgeon both re-entered enemy lines to take care of the wounded. That night, Kapaun is credited with aiding 30 wounded Soldiers and bringing them to the relative safety of a log cabin nearby,” Pawlikowski said.

As the fighting continued, Kapaun realized a Chinese officer was among the wounded. He instructed the officer to negotiate with the Chinese leaders for the safe surrender of all the Soldiers in the cabin.

“Immediately after capture, Father Kapaun witnessed a Chinese officer who was about to execute an American prisoner,” Pawlikowski said. “He jumped up and shoved the officer out of the way, which could have gotten him killed right there. These kinds of actions were typical of his character. It built what could almost be considered a legend surrounding this chaplain.”

Kapaun and other prisoners were moved on foot to a Chinese prison camp to the north on Nov. 2, 1950. During the journey, both Kapaun and the regimental surgeon refused to leave the sides of the wounded. Kapaun also helped carry wounded for the entire trip.

During captivity, all Soldiers were given a starvation ration of 500 grams of millet, cracked corn, per day. That amount was then cut to 450 grams. To keep his men from starvation, Kapaun would steal food from their Chinese captors.

Day and night he would scour the camp for food, including more millet, husks of corn and potatoes. Some men in the camp were also stealing food, but hoarding it for themselves. Without having to say a word to these men, Kapaun somehow convinced them to share with the group, said 1st Lt. Ray M. Dowe Jr. in the pamphlet “The Ordeal of Father Kapaun,” published by Ave Maria Publications.

Kapaun often risked his life to help the wounded, sick and dying in a building the prisoners called “The Sick House,” named so because the wounded were brought to this building to die of their wounds.

Kapaun would regularly sneak out to this building and take care of these Soldiers. He brought them food and clean bandages if he could. He would also remove their soiled clothing, wash them and return to continue rendering aid, Pawlikowski said.

“In addition to risking his life to steal food and bring aid to the sick and dying, Father Kapaun was known for keeping the spirits of all around him up,” Pawlikowski said. “He roamed the camp performing services, praying with his men, fixing what limited shelter they had and doing anything he could to keep the other prisoners in high spirits. It didn’t matter what religion or denomination these men came from, they were all touched by him.”

As the months wore on, Kapaun himself took ill, first from a blood clot in his leg from which he later recovered. Next, a bout of dysentery accompanied by pneumonia sent the father into delirium. The Chinese saw the opportunity to be rid of him and sent him to “The Sick House” for his final days.

As he was carried away he told those around him, “Tell them back home I died a happy death.” Although he died on May 23, 1951, he kept his men’s spirits up, Dowe said.

Consideration for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church occurs after two miracles are attributed to a person, Pawlikowski said.

“An example of a miracle is someone who is terminally ill making a full recovery after prayers said in the name of Father Kapaun are made,” Pawlikowski said. “After the miracle is reported, a team from the church will analyze all information to make a determination. There are two miracles attributed to Father Kapaun that are currently being investigated.”

A final account from Dowe told of the spirit and message he brought to those around him every day.

“I came upon him once sitting in the sunshine on the side of the road. There was a smile on his face and a look of happiness in his eyes. I hated to break in on his meditations, but I needed cheering, so I asked him, ‘What are you thinking of Father?’”

“Of that happy day,” he said, “when that first American tank rolls down that road. Then I’m going to catch that little so-and-so, Comrade Sun, and kick his butt over that compound fence.”

Kapaun will become one of six chaplains to have been awarded the Medal of Honor. If canonized as a saint, he would be only the third American-born saint.

Kapaun Annex …

  • First established in 1952 as Vogelweh Cantonment and belongs to U.S. Army Europe

  • Designated Kapaun Barracks in honor of Chaplain (Capt.) Emil J. Kapaun on March of 1955.

  • Falls under U.S. Air Forces Europe accountability in 1976 and designated as Ramstein Administration Annex (Kapaun)

  • Designated Kapaun Administration Annex in 1981

  • Major units assigned