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As Pyongyang blusters, Korean War POW earns posthumous Medal of Honor

Father Emil Kapaun, a pipe-smoking Army chaplain who later saved men in battle and in captivity.
Father Emil Kapaun, a pipe-smoking Army chaplain who later saved men in battle and in captivity.Courtesy Catholic Diocese of Wichita

In a moment laced with modern irony and timeless glory, President Barack Obama awarded Thursday the Medal of Honor — the nation’s highest military decoration — to an Army chaplain and sainthood candidate who died 62 years ago in a North Korean prison camp.

Father Emil Kapaun, once a Kansas farm boy, has been hailed for decades by fellow POWs as a rousing, one-man resistance front, rallying starving inmates with clean water and stolen food while enraging his captors by openly mocking their pro-communist speeches. But days before the Catholic priest succumbed at age 35, ill with dysentery, pneumonia and a blood clot in his leg, he also raised his hand to bless and forgive the guards.

At the White House, Obama posthumously offered the medal, encased in glass, to Kapaun's tearful nephew, Ray, in front of several former American prisoners who suffered with the chaplain. Meanwhile, in the Asian country where the honoree once flashed his quiet bravado, North Korean forces are reportedly readying a missile for launch.

“Interesting timing, isn’t it?” said Amy Pavlacka, spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita where the chaplain served before the Korean War. “Father Kapaun took care of every person he could. He even sat with his enemy. If, globally, we all could just take a piece of that, if all of us had learned anything from him, I don’t know that we’d be in this current situation.”

His brazen battlefield reputation — a swift departure from his gentle Kansas demeanor — was cemented in the months before Chinese forces overran U.S. soldiers and snatched survivors during the November 1950 Battle of Unsan. The chaplain had repeatedly dashed through machine gun fire to pull wounded soldiers to safety, according to witness accounts compiled by Roy Wenzl, co-author of a new book on Kapaun.

An Army captain in life, Kapaun is being touted for Catholic sainthood, an arduous process that typically takes years or even decades and ultimately requires the pope's approval. 

“This is an amazing story,” Obama said. “Father Kapaun has been called a shepherd in combat boots. His fellow prisoners, who felt his grace and his mercy, called him a saint, a blessing from God.” 

'The Good Thief'

After he and other Americans were imprisoned at a camp near the Chinese border with sub-zero temperatures looming, U.S. troops died at a rate of 20 to 40 per night due to lack of food and clean water, Wenzl said. The chaplain remolded strips of roofing tin into pots so that dirty snow could be scraped from the soil then boiled for drinking. He was dubbed “The Good Thief” after successfully pilfering provisions from the Chinese soldiers.

Food remained so scarce, however, some American prisoners began to swipe scraps from their fellow inmates. The priest offered a community solution through a subtle suggestion.

“Father Kapaun put his own rations on the floor and said a prayer: ‘Lord, thank you for this food that we not only can eat but that we can share.’ In his own quiet way,” Wenzl said, “that was calculated for effect.”

As were the chaplain’s antics when captors tried to use hunger, the frigid weather and torrents of spoken propaganda in an effort coerce U.S. prisoners to abandon their country and adopt communism.

Assuming de facto leadership, Kapaun urged the men to “keep eating, don’t give up,” according to Wenzl. “He told them, ‘We’re going to get out of here. The Army won’t leave us.’” Publicy, he frequently embarrassed the Chinese speakers during their orchestrated talks on communism to the POWs, which the troops had dubbed “brainwashing.”

“It wasn’t just that he was patriotic. It wasn’t that simple. He thought if the men gave up on their flag, their loyalty, their country, and to their oath as soldiers,” Wenzl said, “they would give up on life.”

More then two years after Kapaun died in an isolated shed that the guards called a “hospital,” the Korean War ended. Both sides exchanged prisoners of war. When some of the troops emerged from that camp near China, the first story they told other Americans was an account of their POW chaplain — and how he had kindled their spirits in the dead cold of a hopeless winter.

“A group of our POWs emerged carrying a large, wooden crucifix, nearly four feet tall," Obama said. "They had spent months on it, secretly collecting firewood, carving it — the cross and the body — using radio wire for a crown of thorns. It was a tribute to their friend, their chaplain, their fellow prisoner, who had touched their souls and saved their lives.”


Related: Obama awards Medal of Honor to Afghan battle hero Clinton Romesha