‘Pirate,’ Priest, and Korean Prisoner of War Emil Kapaun Embodied America the Beautiful
‘With complete disregard for his personal safety and unwavering resolve,’ he single-handedly inspired and saved the lives of hundreds of his fellow captives in North Korea.
As we come to Memorial Day with at least the hope of a resolution with North Korea, we should remember U.S. Army Chaplain Emil Kapaun, who as a POW looked more like an eye-patched pirate than a priest, yet is credited with saving literally hundreds of lives with the pure power of spirit.
On a wartime Easter Sunday more than six decades ago, Kapaun caused an entire valley to fill with the voices of his fellow prisoners singing “America the Beautiful.” He posthumously received the Medal of Honor and is presently being considered for sainthood. The nephew who accepted the belated medal on his behalf in 2013 is certain Kapaun would be particularly pleased that there is now at least a chance of peace at long last.
“Wouldn’t that be something?” the nephew, Ray Emil Kapaun, told The Daily Beast on Friday. “That would be incredible. Without a doubt that would be good.”
At 61, the nephew is too young to have ever met his fallen uncle, but came to know him through the stories he heard while growing up. Soldiers who credited Father Kapaun with saving their lives told him that the Medal of Honor citation offers only a partial account of his heroism:
“Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty while serving with the 3d Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy at Unsan, Korea, from November 1-2, 1950. On November 1, as Chinese Communist Forces viciously attacked friendly elements, Chaplain Kapaun calmly walked through withering enemy fire in order to provide comfort and medical aid to his comrades and rescue friendly wounded from no-man’s land.”
The priest had been smoking a pipe earlier in the battle and a bullet had suddenly left him with just the stem in his mouth. He kept on, carrying one wounded soldier to safety and then immediately returned to direct danger to save another. He would pause amidst bullets and shrapnel to bless the dead.
“Though the Americans successfully repelled the assault, they found themselves surrounded by the enemy,” the citation continues. “Facing annihilation, the able-bodied men were ordered to evacuate. However, Chaplain Kapaun, fully aware of his certain capture, elected to stay behind with the wounded.”
Kapaun remained with those who were too badly injured to withdraw.
“After the enemy succeeded in breaking through the defense in the early morning hours of November 2, Chaplain Kapaun continually made rounds, as hand-to-hand combat ensued. As Chinese Communist Forces approached the American position, Chaplain Kapaun noticed an injured Chinese officer amongst the wounded and convinced him to negotiate the safe surrender of the American Forces.”
Kapaun had just become a prisoner when he saw a North Korean soldier step up to an American who lay seriously wounded in a ditch. The enemy soldier aimed his weapon at the American’s head.
“Shortly after his capture, Chaplain Kapaun, with complete disregard for his personal safety and unwavering resolve, bravely pushed aside an enemy soldier preparing to execute Sergeant First Class Herbert A. Miller.”
The citation notes that Kapaun thereby “saved the life of Sgt. Miller,” but does not go on to report what immediately followed. The priest then picked up Miller and carried him for miles as the enemy force marched the captured Americans away from the front lines.
When Kapaun grew weary, he helped Miller hop on his one good leg for a time. Kapaun then resumed carrying him. They eventually reached a schoolhouse and were joined by another group of prisoners. The others included Lt. Mike Dowe, who would remember first encountering Kapaun during the ensuing death march, in which guards shot any stragglers.
“Who are you?” Dowe asked.
“Kapaun,” the chaplain said.
“Father Kapaun, I have heard about you.”
“Well, don’t tell my bishop.”
Kapaun urged on people who otherwise might have just given up.
“Maintaining a will to live is everything,” Dowe told The Daily Beast on Sunday. “You can just decide you don’t want to fight it any more and be dead the next morning. It was actually that will that Father Kapaun instilled in so many people.”
After four or five days, they came to a valley. Kapaun and Dowe were lodged in a separate officer’s compound on a hilltop surrounded by a wood fence. Kapaun led those of all faiths in prayer. He also set to fashioning a pot by hammering a piece of meat with a rock. He was partially blinded when a sliver of tin flew into one of his eyes.
“It didn’t bother him, he just put a patch over it and that was it,” Dowe would recall.
Kapaun would rise before dawn in subzero cold and make a fire and heat water in the pot. He would pour the hot water through a sock in which he had stuffed some beans that were nothing close to coffee.
“Hot coffee!” Kapaun would announce. “Good morning everyone! Hot coffee!”
Dowe would recall, “You just can’t imagine how good that tasted. Kapaun’s coffee.”
With his eye patch and a stocking cap, Kapaun looked nothing like a priest as he moved about the camp.
“He looked more like a pirate,” Dowe would remember. “But, when he would walk into some place, a whole new aura would just descend on it.”
Kapaun would slip out at night to minister to the enlisted men, going from to hut, aiding the sick, giving blessings and encouragement. He was a Catholic priest who embraced all faiths and encouraged Jews and Protestants to join in saying the rosary. He also would bring any food he was able to forage or steal from their captors. He would encourage hoarders to share with others.
When the guards punished Kapaun by forcing him to stand naked in the cold, he had less to strip off because he had given away some of his clothing. He remained unbowed.
On Easter morning, Kapaun took some of the officers up to the ruins of a church that happened to be within their compound. He produced a purple stole he had managed to keep hidden, along with a missal. He had fashioned a crucifix from some bits of wood.
As Kapaun led the officers in a song, the other prisoners heard them and joined in. Their combined voices echoed through what they came to name Kapaun Valley.
“‘America the Beautiful’ swept down through the enlisted men, all through places on down the hill, all the way down practically to the river,” Dowe recalled.
The guards had by then come to recognize this pirate-looking priest as a threat.
“They were scared of him,” Dowe told The Daily Beast. “They wanted to get rid of him. They saw him as a symbol for everybody in the camp, a symbol of resistance. They didn’t understand that spirit of someone who’s loyal to his God and his country, and who instilled that spirit in all the men around him wherever he went.”
The guards saw an opportunity when Kapaun’s health faltered. He fell ill with pneumonia along with maladies that accompany malnutrition.
Just when he seemed likely to cease being a problem, Kapaun began to recover. The guards decided to go ahead and consign him to what was known as “the death house,” a small room caked with feces and infested with maggots where prisoners were left to die, without food and unattended. His fellow prisoners were met with force when they sought to prevent his removal.
“Hey, Mike, don’t cry,” Kapaun called to Dowe. “I’m going where I always wanted to go, and when I get there, I’ll be saying a prayer for all of you.”
He blessed the guards as they carried him off.
“Forgive them, for they know not what they do…”
Kapaun died on May 23, seven months after he was captured, two months after the Easter service. He was 35 years old. His body was consigned to an unmarked grave.
Two years later, a truce was called, and the surviving POWs were freed. The prisoners emerged with a 4-foot crucifix they had fashioned with scavenged wood, with radio wire serving as the crown of thorns.
Dowe noted that the survival rate in their POW camp was double that in the two other valleys where American prisoners were kept, the only significant difference being this remarkable priest.
“Because of him an awful lot of people survived,” Dowe told The Daily Beast. “He keep people alive in a spirit of cooperation in what we called Kapaun Valley.”
Dowe added, “I owe him my life, like so any others did. Hundreds, literally hundreds.”
Dowe went on to become a noted physicist. He was one of the prime movers in a decades-long push for Kapaun to receive the Medal of Honor.
The day then came in 2013 when the White House called Kapaun’s elderly sister-in-law, his sole brother having died. She hung up.
“She thought it was a prank call,” her son, Ray, would recall.
The White House called back. Ray represented family at the Medal of Honor ceremony. President Obama noted that the Catholic Church had deemed Father Kapaun a “Servant of God,” a step toward sainthood. Obama spoke of when Kapaun slipped from hut to hut, offering prisoners a blessing.
“One of them later said that with his very presence he could just for a moment turn a mud hut into a cathedral,” Obama told the gathering.
Obama also spoke of the crucifix the surviving prisoners carried out in their first moments of freedom.
“It was a tribute to their friend, their chaplain, their fellow prisoner who had touched their souls and saved their lives,” Obama said.
Dowe was at the ceremony, as was Miller, who had seemed just an instant from death as he lay in a ditch gazing up into the barrel of a weapon held by an enemy soldier. He had closed his eyes, but there had been no shot and he had opened them to see a figure he would later learn was Father Kapaun standing between him and the enemy soldier.
After all the years that might not have been, Miller had Parkinson’s Disease, and his hands were shaking when Ray went up to him and held out the Medal of Honor for him to hold.
“His hands just want rock steady,” Ray later reported. “He’s crying. I’m certain everybody else around us was crying.”
Obama had quoted from Kapaun’s letters back to Kansas after he first arrived in Korea.
“In his understated Midwestern way, he wrote home, saying, ‘this outdoor life is quite the thing’ and ‘I prefer to live in a house once in a while,” Obama noted. “But he had hope, saying, ‘It looks like the war will end soon.’”
More than six decades later, the war has yet to be officially declared at an end. We can at least dare to hope for peace as we come to his Memorial Day.
“No sincere prayer is ever wasted,” Kapaun once said.