A fellow prisoner of war has fondly recalled the heroism of Father Emil Kapaun, a U.S. Army chaplain who died in a North Korean camp and is posthumously receiving the Medal of Honor April 11.
Eighty-five year-old veteran Mike Dowe still remembers the day in 1950 when he marched nearly 90 miles to the prison camp in Pyoktong after being captured at the battle of Unsan.
“There was this one character who kept going around encouraging people to carry the wounded, and helped in every way he could,” Dowe told CNA.
“Finally they marched us into a valley, and as we started out I was on the front end of a stretcher...and I said 'I'm Mike Dowe, who's that on the back?'”
“He says 'Fr. Kapaun,' and I said 'Fr. Kapaun, I've heard about you,' and he said 'Well don't tell my bishop.' That's how I met him.”
Fr. Kapaun was born in Pilsen, Kansas, to a farming family, and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Wichita in June, 1940. He became an Army chaplain in 1944, and served through 1946, and then re-joined in 1948. He was sent to Korea in July 1950, where was noted for his service to his compatriots.
The priest was captured by the Chinese in November at Unsan because he was in the habit of going back for the wounded.
“He would run across the fields rescuing the wounded...including sometimes 50-100 yards outside the American lines to drag some kid back,” Roy Wenzl, co-author of “The Miracle of Father Kapaun,” told CNA on April 8.
“At Unsan, he stayed back with the wounded and allowed himself to be captured so he could protect them.”
“He didn't go around witnessing verbally about Catholicism and Christianity much...instead, he'd be on a march with the unit and he'd see guys digging a latrine, and he'd go out and dig with them.”
“It's not like he avoided Christianity; I think he was the finest witness to Christianity I've ever heard of,” Wenzl said, “but what he did, is he first established a relationship with these guys, who were busy doing really dirty work, of helping them, finding ways to help them.”
Wenzl noted that Fr. Kapaun would stay up at nights writing letters to the families of deceased soldiers and writing home on behalf of wounded soldiers.
“He put on a virtual clinic about how to be a leader, and how to be an effective witness for Christianity...there's a shortage of Catholics who behaved like him,” Wenzl observed.
For Wenzl, Fr. Kapaun's witness is a “phenomenal” demonstrating that there are “real Christians” in the world. “If there were more of him, there'd probably be a lot more people in church on Sundays, because that's the way to do it.”
The author said that Fr. Kapaun “treated everybody just the same way he treated the Catholics, and he treated Catholics like loved ones.”
Fr. Kapaun's upbringing on a farm contributed to his ability to help his fellow prisoners at the prison camp at Pyoktong, on the Chinese border. In addition to his spirituality, Fr. Kapaun was the “most practical and resourceful problem-solver,” Wenzl said. These were skills he had learned growing up on a Kansas farm, where he was forced to find creative solutions to challenges presented to him.
Dowe said that the death rate of prisoners in nearby valleys was some ten times that in the valley where he and Fr. Kapaun were held, and so one “can see the kind of effect he had on people.”
“He taught them to maintain their will to live, by teaching them to hold to their beliefs, honor, integrity, and keeping with their conscience, their loyalty to their country and their God.”
A “good majority” of the men who survived Pyoktong “owe their life to Fr. Kapaun,” said Dowe.
The priest was known for celebrating the sacraments for his fellow prisoners – baptizing, hearing confessions, giving extreme unction, and saying Mass.
Fr. Kapaun was also always volunteering to do the most menial and laborious tasks at the camp, said Dowe. Each day he would help to take the frozen corpses of those who had died the preceding night to an island in the Yalu River for burial.
That winter was one of the most brutal in Korean history.
“He would always volunteer for this most heinous detail,” Dowe related. Fr. Kapaun would then bring back some of the dead's clothes, wash them, and distribute them to the people who needed them.
Fr. Kapaun already has been awarded several military honors, but Thursday's presentation of the Medal of Honor to his relatives is the highest military honor in the U.S., and is awarded for bravery.
His cause for canonization is open, and already several cures may have been due to his intercession. When asked if he believes if Fr. Kapaun is in heaven, Dowe responded, “I sure do.”
Fr. Kapaun died May 23, 1951, and was buried in a mass grave on the Yalu river.
“When he was being carried away, they took him to a place, a death house...and left him where they left people to die,” Dowe remembered.
“As he was leaving, I was in tears, and he said to me, 'Mike, don't be sad, I'm going where I always wanted to go, and when I get there I'll be saying a prayer for all of you guys.'”