Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series on World War II and Korean War chaplain Capt. Emil Kapaun, who will posthumously receive the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony, April 11, 2013.
Pilsen is a small farm community in Marion County, Kansas. Populated with families of primarily Czech and German decent, the heart of the community is a 98-year-old Catholic church. The church, which sits just around the corner from an old, abandoned gas station, is well preserved, it’s stained glass windows still glowing bright. The people in Pilsen are dedicated to their church, not simply because of their faith, but also because of a Soldier-priest who called the church and the town his home.
Capt. Emil Kapaun served as an Army chaplain during World War II and the Korean War. He earned the Bronze Star and the Distinguished Service Cross, which will be officially upgraded to a Medal of Honor April 11, 2013, for his heroic actions in Korea. Known as a “Soldier’s chaplain,” by the men he served, throughout his life Kapaun was devoted to the service of others.
“Father Kapaun’s legacy lives here in Kansas in several ways,” Reverend John Hotze, judicial vicar for the Wichita Diocese, said. “To begin with, (in) the dedication of the people here in Pilsen. You can see his life still not only in their interest in Father Kapaun’s life, but also their interest in making sure other people know of the life that he led, his willingness to serve others.”
Kapaun was born and raised in Pilsen. He lived on a small farm about three miles outside of town with his younger brother Eugene and his parents, Enos and Elizabeth.
Rose Mary Neuwirth, a member of the St. John Nepomucene Church parish, said it was on the family farm where Kapaun exhibited the strong work ethic and determination that would serve him and others throughout his life. She described one day, when his mother was ill, and Kapaun attempted to milk a cow in her stead. The cow wouldn’t stand still for him. He went back inside, put on one of his mother’s dresses and went back out to the cow, which “recognized” him and finally stood still long enough to be milked. Kapaun was always the first to help his neighbors with their harvests, forming a threshing crew.
“He realized that the family was a poor family, so he would do whatever he needed to help out,” Hotze said. Kapaun’s dedication extended to the church. Even after a long day of working on the farm in the summer, or a day of school in the winter, he would find time to show his appreciation for his faith.
Neuwirth said Kapaun would bicycle or walk to the church, picking flowers along the way, to put them on the altar.
Kapaun attended college at Conception College in Missouri, and then Kenrick Theological Seminary in St. Louis, where he was ordained in 1940.
“When he was at the seminary, his friends would talk about how he was always there to help them out,” Hotze said. “He was a very good student. He would offer his notes if it was going to help one of his classmates out so that they might pass their classes.”
Kapaun was assigned to the church in Pilsen as an assistant pastor immediately after his ordination, according to Neuwirth.
“The kids just loved him because they had somebody that was willing to put up with them,” she said. “He would go out at noon and play ball with them so the sisters that were teachers here could go eat their lunches. In fact, he bought (them soccer balls) and taught them to play soccer. The kids just adored him.”
In addition to his regular duties as a pastor, Kapaun would tend to the church grounds and facilities, and perform auxiliary duties, celebrating Mass with the troops at nearby Herington Army Airfield. Kapaun became head pastor of the Pilsen church in 1943.
“When World War II broke out, he volunteered to go into the service because of his connection with the men at Herington airbase. He just felt that he was called to serve the military and serve the Soldiers in that capacity,” Hotze said.
Kapaun joined the Army Chaplain Corps in 1944. As a chaplain, he would advise the command on religion, ethics and troop morale, Army Chief of Chaplains Maj. Gen. Donald Rutherford explained, adding that chaplains are required to take care of and provide counsel to the Soldier, whether or not they practice a faith, and are responsible for religious support for that individual, unit or command, regardless of denomination.
“The chaplain is different than any other officer, although they have the same qualifications as other officers in the field,” Rutherford said. “The chaplain has the ear of the commander, and at any time.”
During World War II, Kapaun served in India and the Burma theater, from 1945-1946, Hotze said.
The men who served with him during World War II told stories about Kapaun always being where the fight was, according to Hotze. “At that time, most of the fighting was over … but they said there would be pockets of resistance where they would hear gunfire. It was kind of a bet among the men as to how quickly Kapaun would be able to get to where the … shooting was, because he felt that was where the men needed him.”
Kapaun earned his reputation as a Soldier’s chaplain in Burma, going out to the front lines to provide care and comfort to the men. “Chaplains weren’t required to go there and put themselves in danger, but (veterans) said Father Kapaun did not care about his own safety, he was concerned with the men,” Hotze said.
Kapaun was promoted to captain in 1946 while in Burma, and upon returning the U.S., was discharged. He went on to earn a master’s degree in education from Catholic University and returned to his home parish in Pilsen before he answered the call to serve again.
“Father Kapaun had always felt that he was there to serve the military and the Soldiers,” Hotze said. “So he asked to go back … and eventually he was given permission to go back and serve once again, which is how he wound up in Korea.”
Kapaun was stationed in Japan in 1950. When war broke out on the Korean Peninsula, he was put on alert and sent with his unit, the 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, to Pohang, South Korea as part of the first wave of American reinforcements. Retired Lt. Col. William C. Latham, Jr. wrote in an article for “Army Magazine” titled “Father Emil Kapaun,” that Kapaun always seemed to be in the line of fire, moving from foxhole to foxhole to provide comfort and aid. Once, Latham wrote, when enemy fire damaged Kapaun’s jeep, the chaplain found an abandoned bicycle and rode it from area to area as he continued his frontline visits.
On Aug. 2, 1950, Kapaun earned his Bronze Star, running through enemy fire to drag wounded Soldiers to safety.
“He would do whatever he could … in service to the men,” Hotze said. “There were several men who talked about how he gave them instructions in the faith and they were baptized there in Korea.” Kapaun would also counsel men with marital problems, going so far as to tell one Soldier “he would come back and kick him in the butt” if he didn’t get his marriage straightened out.
“He would do whatever the men needed done for them,” he said. And despite the fighting and the miserable conditions in Korea, Kapaun maintained his sense of humor and managed to keep morale high.
“My pipe got wrecked again as a Red machine gunner sprayed us with lead and we had to hit the ditch,” Kapaun wrote in a letter to his brother Eugene and his sister-in-law Helen in October of 1950. “It is funny how a fellow can jump so fast into a ditch. This time it did not have water in it. The last time, the ditch had water in it and you can imagine how we looked. We do have a few laughs in spite of the evils of war.”
This letter is believed to be the last letter he sent home before his capture at Unsan, Korea.
To read part two of this series, which highlights the actions that would earn chaplain Capt. Emil Kapaun the Medal of Honor, and, through the words of his fellow Soldiers, details his life and death in a prisoner of war camp, visit the features section of Soldiers Live, April 5, 2013.