Editor’s note: This is part two of World War II and Korean War Chaplain Capt. Emil Kapaun’s story. Kapaun will be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony, April 11, 2013.
Communist forces encircled the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, assigned to provide a rear guard for the regiment’s withdrawal, Nov. 1, 1950, near Unsan, Korea. Chaplain Capt. Emil Kapaun spent the night moving among the foxholes, under direct enemy fire, providing comfort and medical aid to his fellow Soldiers.
“His courageous manner inspired all those present and many men who otherwise might have fled in panic were encouraged by his presence, and remained to fight the advancing enemy,” Kapaun’s Distinguished Service Cross citation read.
The battalion withdrew across a nearby river when Chinese commandos attacked the command post. Kapaun returned to help the wounded and gathered about 30 men into a dugout for protection. His dedication to his fellow Soldiers persisted throughout the day Nov. 2, where he repeatedly rescued wounded men under heavy enemy fire. As the day wore on, it became clear the battalion’s position was hopeless, but Kapaun rejected several opportunities to escape. He eventually made his was back to the dugout where more men had gathered, to include a wounded Chinese officer.
As the enemy closed in, Kapaun was able to convince the Chinese officer to negotiate for the safety of the wounded Americans and the group was taken captive.
“Although fully aware that capture would result from his act, Chaplain Kapaun volunteered to remain behind and, when last seen, was administering medical treatment and rendering religious rites wherever needed,” the DSC citation continued.
Kapaun’s selfless actions on those first two days in November 1950 earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, which will be upgraded to the Medal of Honor in an April 11, 2013 White House ceremony. But his heroism and resilient spirit continued throughout his time as a prisoner of war, when he repeatedly disregarded his own safety for the well-being of other Soldiers.
Then-Sgt. 1st Class Herbert Miller was badly injured leading his platoon across the river. His ankle was broken when grenade shrapnel slammed into it, sending him tumbling into a ditch, where he hid beneath the body of an enemy soldier as the Chinese and Koreans advanced. The enemy came into the ditch to conduct a search and found Miller. After he was captured, a Chinese soldier noticed Miller was wounded, and prepared to shoot him.
“He had the gun pointed at my head, and about that time … I looked and this American come across the road and it was Father Kapaun,” Miller said. “He pushed the man aside — why that soldier never shot him, I’ll never know.”
“And they were still shooting and firing at us, they wasn’t just setting there looking at one another, war was going on!” he said. “And he walked across that road, standing up, never got hit or anything.”
Kapaun knew it was common enemy practice to execute men too injured to walk, Reverend John Hotze, judicial vicar for the Wichita Diocese, explained, so Kapaun picked Miller up and carried him.
“I kept telling him to put me down, you can’t carry me like this. He said ‘If I put you down, they’ll shoot ya,” Miller said. As the prisoners marched, Miller would alternate between leaning on Kapaun and being carried by Kapaun – this went on for 30 miles. They were separated upon arrival at the Pyoktong prison camp, Kapaun was sent to the officer’s compound and Miller to the enlisted.
“In the prison camp, from the very beginning, (Kapaun) saw the men needed his help,” Hotze said. The chaplain would work to make sure the prisoner’s physical needs were taken care of, providing food and fresh water when he could, as well as caring for their medical and spiritual needs.
Kapaun would gather the officers every night at dusk and sing with them, Hotze explained. They would sing the “Lord’s Prayer,” “God Save the Queen” and “God Bless America.” “He wanted to make sure the enlisted men knew the officers were still there so that they would not lose hope, and would not feel abandoned.”
Once all the officers were settled in their huts, Kapaun would sneak out and head to the enlisted compound, where he would go from hut to hut speaking with the men and providing spiritual guidance.
“We were housed in mud shacks,” then-1st Lt. William Funchess said. “The shacks had straw roofs, and the sliding doors and one small window were covered in paper. “It was very primitive conditions, and I was extremely hungry.”
The enemy had lost Funchess’ paperwork and didn’t realize he was an officer, so he was placed in the enlisted compound. One night, as he was out walking around, Funchess came across a man crouching near a fire who “looked real old” and dirty, with a big beard.
“I walked over to him, toward the fire and this old gentleman, and anyway, as soon as I got near, he spoke up and welcomed me and he said ‘I am Chaplain Emil Kapaun, and I am melting snow,’” Funchess recalled. “He asked ‘Would you like a cup of hot water?’ And I said, yes sir.” They struck up a conversation and Kapaun described how he would slip through the barbed wire between the compounds, dodging armed guards, to come and care for the enlisted men.
Kapaun would scrounge around the camp and raid enemy warehouses for millet seed, corn and sometimes soybeans, Funchess said, filling his pockets and distributing the food among the prisoners.
A few weeks into his imprisonment, the Chinese realized Funchess was an officer and transferred him to the proper compound. There, he was able to observe Kapaun regularly.
“He was helping other POWs and especially the POWs who were sick and wounded,” Funchess said. “He would try to wash their clothing for them, he would clean the prisoners up, he would help pick lice off of their bodies, and he would go around and he would conduct religious services. And it did not matter whether you were Catholic or whether you were Protestant, everybody was welcome to these services.”
“Everybody was the same,” Miller agreed. “It didn’t matter who the fellow was. He cared for them all, just alike.”
The Chinese began a reeducation program in March of 1951, designed to get the prisoners to renounce their countries and faiths. Kapaun actively resisted, quoting scripture and pointing out holes in the enemy’s doctrine, Miller said. “He defied them right to the end.”
Eventually, their captors became upset and tried to quell Kapaun’s efforts. They transferred him from a hut with fellow Catholics into Funchess’ hut, unannounced. It was then Funchess realized Kapaun was ill — the chaplain told him he thought he had a blood clot in his leg and had difficulty walking.
Funchess, who had been sleeping against the wall of the hut to protect his own leg wound, offered Kapaun his place and slept alongside him. Kapaun’s condition continued to worsen, but he still did all he could for the other prisoners, only stopping when he could no longer walk. Funchess and another Soldier took care of Kapaun when he became immobile.
“Even though he was deathly sick, his morale was high and he would say prayers for us and encouraged all of us so much,” Funchess said.
In the early spring, the enemy came to Funchess’ hut, again unannounced, for Chaplain Kapaun. His fellow prisoners’ protested, but their efforts to prevent Kapaun’s removal were unsuccessful. Instead, volunteers carried him to a “hospital” at the top of a small mountain.
“We called it the ‘Death House,’ because every time a POW got seriously ill, he was sent to the top of the hill,” Funchess explained. “The Chinese and North Koreans called it a hospital, but it was not really a hospital, because everybody who went into the hospital practically never came out alive.”
Other prisoners in the camp reported that Kapaun blessed his captors as he was carried up the mountain, asking that they be forgiven.
The prisoners received word of Kapaun’s death a few weeks later. The chaplian’s fellow POWs insist he died of malnutrition and starvation May 6, 1951, while the official reports cites pneumonia as the official cause of death on May 23. His remains were never recovered.
Medal of Honor
Army Chief of Chaplains Maj. Gen. Donald Rutherford said he believes the Medal of Honor is a celebration for the Army and the Kapaun family.
“Kapaun (earned) the Medal of Honor for the many things that he did that were above and beyond the call of duty,” as a Soldier and a chaplain, Rutherford explained.
“(It) really inspired people that, as a noncombatant, (he) would go out and expose himself to fire,” Rutherford continued. His concern for the Soldiers’ welfare always outweighed his concern for himself, Rutherford added, not just in battle, but throughout his time in the prison of war camp, and even up to his death.
Kapaun’s fellow Soldiers said he would be humbled to receive such an honor.
“He’d tell you point blank ‘I don’t deserve it,’ but that’s the kind of person he was,” Miller said. “He didn’t look for things like that, he just didn’t. He cared about people. If he could do something for his boys, (as) he called them, he would do that gladly, but as far as medals, he didn’t care.”
“He certainly deserves it,” Funchess said. “I am so proud. I have been waiting for more than 60 years to hear this news, and it’s wonderful news to hear that Father Kapaun is being recognized for his heroic efforts on the battlefield and (that people will know what he did) in the POW camp.”
The Army isn’t the only organization to recognize Kapaun’s selfless sacrifices. The Catholic Church declared him a Servant of God in 1993, and he is currently under consideration for sainthood.
Kapaun’s extended family will be in attendance at the April 11 White House ceremony and the Pentagon Hall of Heroes ceremony, April 12, as will several of the prisoners of war he inspired.
“How could you forget someone that saved your life?” Miller asked. “I owe him everything.”
To read part one of Chaplain Capt. Emil Kapaun’s story, which describes his early life and details how he came to be a U.S. Army chaplain, visit http://soldiers.dodlive.mil/2013/04/faithful-priest-dedicated-soldier-korean-war-chaplain-to-receive-moh/.