This Day in History: Emil Kapaun, chaplain and Medal of Honor recipient

On this day in 1916, a hero is born. Emil Kapaun would go on to serve as an Army chaplain in both World War II and the Korean War. Today, Kapaun is not only a Medal recipient, but he is also being considered for sainthood in the Catholic Church.

Kapaun’s Medal action occurred in November 1950, during the Battle of Unsan. The fighting was intense, but Kapaun seemed undeterred. He evacuated soldiers. He administered last rites. He helped the wounded. Master Sergeant Joe Ramirez caught glimpses of Kapaun and remembers thinking: “God, the Lord, is watching over him.”

Another soldier surely thought the same: Sergeant First Class Herbert Miller had his ankle shattered by a grenade. As he tried to escape, he turned to find an enemy aiming a rifle at him. He believed his end had come, but suddenly Kapaun was there. The chaplain pushed the rifle aside and helped Miller to his feet.

The enemy soldier simply watched in stunned silence.

Americans were soon ordered to evacuate, but Kapaun refused to leave the wounded. Instead, he managed to negotiate a peaceful surrender for those who’d remained behind.

What followed was basically a death march. “It was imperative to keep the people, as many as you could, going,” Lt. Mike Dowe later said. “[Kapaun] was material in that.” Ramirez saw Kapaun carrying Miller. “I think he carried him for about two or three miles and then I relieved him,” Ramirez reported. “I looked at him and he looked very tired.”

Americans reached their prison camp in the midst of a brutally cold winter. Our soldiers didn’t always have enough food or clothing—but they did have Kapaun.

The chaplain figured out how to sneak around the camp, stealing potatoes and rice. “He would sneak out,” laughed Corporal Bob McGreevy. “They called him the Prince of Thieves or some damn thing over there. He was! He was a hell of a thief. . . . It’s not proper for a priest to steal, but this is a different situation.”

Kapaun cared for the sick and wounded; he prayed with soldiers. “He’d go from room to room in the evening,” Lt. Bob Wood later said, “and lead us in prayer.” Kapaun gave the soldiers hope in the midst of a hopeless situation. “He gave me faith and inspired me to live,” Lt. Paul Roach said. “I’ll never doubt the power of prayer again.” Dowe agreed.

Kapaun even conducted a sunrise service on Easter morning. One POW remembers singing “God Bless America” at the top of his lungs that day.

The guards didn’t like Kapaun too much, as you can imagine. When he fell ill, they retaliated by sending him to a sick room of sorts—really a “death house”—at the camp.

Those that went in never came out.

Our boys resisted when the guards came for Kapaun. They didn’t want him to go, but Kapaun knew he had no choice. “I’m going where I always wanted to go,” he told Dowe. “And when I get there, I’ll be saying a prayer for you guys.” Kapaun turned and blessed the guards: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Kapaun passed away soon afterwards, but his men would not forget him. They secretly made a huge crucifix as a tribute to Kapaun. Men of all faiths helped in its creation.

They persevered, just as he taught them, until they were released.

Many years later, Kapaun was awarded the Medal of Honor. Several of his fellow prisoners attended that and other ceremonies. They believe the chaplain saved their lives.

“I know he’d walk over to you guys today,” Kapaun’s nephew told them, “and he’d wrap his arms around each of you and he’d say, ‘I’m so happy you guys made it home. And please, please don’t be sad for me—because I made it home too.’”