Thursday, November 10, 2016

(180) Army Capt. Fr. Emil Kapaun, the Most Decorated Chaplain in Military History

A painting depicting scenes from the life of U.S. Army Chaplain Capt. Fr. Emil Kapaun, a parish priest from 
Kansas who volunteered to serve in both World War II and in the Korean War.  Besides being
awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, his cause toward sainthood is advancing.  The example
of his sanctity and selflessness led 15 of his fellow prisoners to be converts to the Catholic Church.

          While his cause for canonization was advancing, the 
Venerable Servant of God Army Chaplain Captain Fr. Emil Kapaun
received posthumously from President Obama in 2013 the highest
United States Armed Forces award for heroism beyond the
call of duty…….the Congressional Medal of Honor.  True to the
highest ideals of the priesthood, giving himself completely to God
and His flock, Fr. Kapaun shepherded his men inside of a Chinese
prisoner of war camp in 1950 Pyoktong, North Korea.
A witness to his heroism is Mike Dowe, then a young lieutenant who was with him during the entire ordeal.  Chaplain Kapaun never returned home, but Dowe did and for decades worked for recognition of his shepherd: “He saved close to a thousand lives.  He did nothing, but look out for other people and would go around with total disregard for himself.” This year he would have been 100 years old. 
     First a little historical background for a grasp of the situation.  According to the allied agreements at the end of World War II and the
defeat of Japan in 1945, the Soviet Union occupied the northern half of
the Korean peninsula previously held by the Japanese since 1910 and the United States occupied the area south of the 38th Parallel.  The Soviets under the notorious Joseph Stalin immediately set up a Communist 
puppet government in the north and the United States helped the people
in the south to freely form a democracy, the Republic of Korea.  

          In June 1950 Communist North Korea with the support of the 
Soviet Union and Communist China invaded South Korea in order to 
unite the country under Communism.  The United States and 20 other countries sent troops under the banner of the United Nations to help 
the South Korean army in what President Harry Truman called a 
police action.  The Communists advanced quickly until the UN forces
 (88% American troops) were left with not much more than a beachhead, the Pusan Perimeter on the southeaster tip (see and/or

          In September General Douglas MacArthur in a brilliant and bold move brought South Korea from the jaws of defeat to the brink of 
victory.  He engineered the amphibious UN counter-offensive at Inchon 
on the western coast a little below the 38th Parallel.  The North Korean army was cut off and many were taken prisoner.  The rest retreated to 
the Yalu River on China’s Manchurian border.  Apparently almost all 
of Korea was free.  There was talk about having our troops home by Christmas.  In October China entered the war with a horde of troops 
and crossed the Yalu River.  Wave after wave would attack UN troops 
with little regard for the number of their own casualties.  The UN 
troops were in retreat.

          The Capture of Fr. Kapaun, a Catholic Chaplain with the 8th Cavalry.  When his regiment was surrounded at the Battle of Unsan, he ignored heavy gunfire to minister to the wounded and dying after pulling them into holes.   When capture was imminent, Chaplain Kapaun elected to stay with his men, hundreds of them.  Their captors forced the men on a long death march through the snow from Unsan to Pyoktong.  When one of the wounded would fall by along the way, he would be shot.  Fr. Kapaun rallied his men to help carry their wounded brothers by carrying one himself.  He pushed aside one Chinese soldier, who was about to shoot a fallen GI, and picked him up.  Miraculously, this future saint got away with it.

          At the POW camp, the chaplain somehow made the extremely harsh conditions survivable for many.  The American troops were captured in summer clothes and had to endure a bitter winter.  They wore the same clothes for four months and thus had lice and maggots.  Despite being threatened with death, Fr. Emil went from hut to hut, praying with the men, caring for the wounded, and giving the latter any food he could scrounge, including his own ration, usually cracked corn.  The saintly chaplain stimulated their will to live when it was easier to give up.  As a result, the mortality rate of the men due to the conditions of the camp was a tenth of the other POW camps in the area.  Overall, half of the men died. 
          Fr. Emil often prayed to St. Dismas, “the Good Thief” for his intercession so he could be a more skilled thief in sneaking out at night and stealing food from the corn crib for his hungry men.  Then he would share with them his favorite meals that his Mom used to make in Kansas.

          Communist indoctrination, i.e. brainwashing was an integral part of the Pyoktong camp.  Several days a week, the men were lined up for “classes” on the evils of the West, capitalism, and Christianity. At the risk of being beaten or killed, Fr. Kapaun would sometimes mock and challenge the inculcation and encouraged the men to do the same. After one class, he led the men in a lively rendition of “God Bless America” and “The Star Spangled Banner.”  After the Korean War there was a major scandal when it was discovered that many American POWs were successfully brainwashed and even collaborated with the enemy.  Thus training methods were changed and the Department of the Defense trained all new and current soldiers with the Code of Conduct.

                    Mike Dowe, a fellow POW, who has worked hard 
                     to obtain the recognition that Fr. Kapaun deserves. 

          Dowe recalled: “They were plain afraid of him.  They didn’t know how to treat someone so fearless of them, who paid no attention to them, and carried an aura with him.  That’s why they killed him”.  Finally Chaplain Kapaun became sick with pneumonia and the Chinese soldiers took him to the so-called hospital, a bug and maggot infested little room the GIs called the “death house” because nobody came out of there alive.  According to Dowe, “he was recovering at the time; his fever had broken.  They were afraid he was going to get well.  He told us not to fight about it or put up a resistance on his behalf.  He said: ‘Don’t cry, Mike.  I’m going to where I always wanted to go.  When I get there, I’ll say a prayer for all of you.’”  Without proper medical assistance, the saintly chaplain died on May 23, 1951.

              After the Armistice in 1953, the survivors leave the camp with this cross
and till the story about their chaplain, Capt. Emil Kapaun.

Much of the information here is taken from the April 21, 2013 issue of the National Catholic Register.For more detail go to and  They have links to some of his sermons, including one recording.  For more information click on  interviews two of the men with Fr. Kapaun in the POW camp. tells his life story both written and with a video.

          His Sanctity. Every canonized saint his noted for heroic virtue and unusual holiness.  His resourcefulness helped him care for his men.  Even before his internment at the camp, Fr. Emil volunteered for the worst details as help his men to dig latrines.  His courage and self-sacrifice helped him to lead; by his example he was able to get people to do what needed to be done without pulling his rank of Captain to order them.  Fr. Kapaun was a man of hope, Christian love, even love of enemies.  He stimulated cooperation among the men and their will to live.  Another ex-POW related that it “didn’t matter if the GI was Protestant or even believed in God.  He would have everybody together praying the Rosary.  When he prayed, they all prayed.  He would go from hut to hut and always wind up leading them in prayer”.  He was like a father to all of them.

          Fr. Kapaun was most remembered for his great humility, bravery, his constancy, his love and kindness, and solicitude for his fellow prisoners. "He was their hero -- their admired and beloved ‘padre’. He kept up the G.I.’s morale, and most of all a lot of men to become good Catholics."

           So far there are two documented miracles claimed by people who prayed to Venerable Emil Kapaun for his intercession.  Two doctors said both miracles are medically unexplainable.  These accounts were sent to the Vatican and two other reported miracles as well.  However, all of them need further investigation.  For a video on the testimony of one of the miracles, click on

              For a fascinating history with bibliography of Catholic chaplains in the U.S. military go to  For the official Dept. of Defense Medal of Honor Citations of Fr. O’Callahan and the other Catholic chaplains, go to my Blog #127 “Heroic Catholic Chaplains Who Have Been Awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor”.          

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