Chaplain (Captain) Emil J. Kapaun, Catholic priest and war hero, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor yesterday at the White House by President Barack Obama. The President’s speech began by noting that this year marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War,
a time when thousands of our prisoners of war finally came home after years of starvation and hardship and, in some cases, torture. And among the homecomings, one stood out.
A group of our POWs emerged carrying a large wooden crucifix, nearly four feet tall. 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 — Father Emil Kapaun.
This is an amazing story. Father Kapaun has been called a shepherd in combat boots. His fellow soldiers who felt his grace and his mercy called him a saint, a blessing from God. Today, we bestow another title on him — recipient of our nation’s highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor. After more than six decades of working to make this Medal a reality, I know one of Father Kapaun’s comrades spoke for a lot of folks here when he said, “it’s about time.”
Father, as they called him, was just 35 years old when he died in that hellish prison camp. His parents and his only sibling, his brother, are no longer with us. But we are extremely proud to welcome members of the Kapaun family — his nephews, his niece, their children — two of whom currently serve in this country’s National Guard. And we are very proud of them.
We’re also joined by members of the Kansas congressional delegation, leaders from across our armed forces, and representatives from the Catholic Church, which recognizes Father Kapaun as a “Servant of God.” And we are truly humbled to be joined by men who served alongside him — veterans and former POWs from the Korean War. (Applause.)
And, a bit later:
This is the valor we honor today — an American soldier who didn’t fire a gun, but who wielded the mightiest weapon of all, a love for his brothers so pure that he was willing to die so that they might live. And yet, the incredible story of Father Kapaun does not end there.
He carried that injured American, for miles, as their captors forced them on a death march. When Father Kapaun grew tired, he’d help the wounded soldier hop on one leg. When other prisoners stumbled, he picked them up. When they wanted to quit — knowing that stragglers would be shot — he begged them to keep walking.
In the camps that winter, deep in a valley, men could freeze to death in their sleep. Father Kapaun offered them his own clothes. They starved on tiny rations of millet and corn and birdseed. He somehow snuck past the guards, foraged in nearby fields, and returned with rice and potatoes. In desperation, some men hoarded food. He convinced them to share. Their bodies were ravaged by dysentery. He grabbed some rocks, pounded metal into pots and boiled clean water. They lived in filth. He washed their clothes and he cleansed their wounds.
The guards ridiculed his devotion to his Savior and the Almighty. They took his clothes and made him stand in the freezing cold for hours. Yet, he never lost his faith. If anything, it only grew stronger. At night, he slipped into huts to lead prisoners in prayer, saying the Rosary, administering the sacraments, offering three simple words: “God bless you.” One of them later said that with his very presence he could just for a moment turn a mud hut into a cathedral.
Read the entire address, or watch video of the presentation of the Medal of Honor:
Roy Wenzl, the co-author, with Travis Heying, of The Miracle of Father Kapaun Priest, Soldier and Korean War Hero (Ignatius Press, 2013), was at the ceremony and will be sharing his thoughts about it on the Catholic World Report site next week. For more about the book, and the companion DVD, visit www.MiracleFatherKapaun.com.