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  • Writer's pictureJ. P. Ronald


The Saint in Combat Boots

Christian Faith in an Unlikely Place:

The Amazing Story of Captain (Fr.) Emil J. Kapaun U.S. Army

By J.P. Ronald


I came across the fascinating story of Father Kapaun in 2013. It was while listening to one of my multitude of conservative radio programs, that I heard his name for the first time. At the moment, the show host was talking about how Father Kapaun was to finally receive one of many long-over-due awards, for meritorious conduct during the Korean War. What caught my attention about Captain Kapaun, was the award being granted, which I will go into detail about below, was earned by a chaplain; not usually the type of person to receive the honor being given. As coincidence would have it (or God, for I do not believe in coincidences), at about the same time I was conducting I research into the early stages of the Korean War (the Inchon Landings, and the “Pusan Pocket” ) for my book SSN SEADRAGON. Being meticulous about technical and historical accuracy in my fiction, I spent copious amounts of time researching through the historical material of this time period, which also coincided with Father Kapaun’s, unit’s (3rd Battalion/8th Calvary/1st Calvary Division [3B/8 CR/1CD]) involvement in the War, and remembering his name, my curiosity about knowing more him was peaked. So, I began to dig more into his story, and what I discovered so moved me I had to write a segment about him for an epilogue in my book.

I have come across some phenomenal stories, that at first glance just cannot be factual, but carry the supporting documentation to declare truth. Yet, amazingly they unfold as if they leap off the pages of a great fictional novel, or out of a film director’s script. Mark Twain, supposedly stated, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.” The situations in these amazing events, when described, are often explained as coincidental, luck, or people being in the right place at the right time. However, for the Christian there are no mere coincidences, but that, “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).” I am not about to write a theological apologetics thesis, but am asking nonbelievers and quasi-believers to opens their minds and absorb an amazing story of how faith and perhaps a miracle resulted in an unlikely out-come, in the most unlikely of places, and in doing so leave it to the reader to decide if this narrative is mere coincidence, or written into the tapestry of history by God’s own finger.

Virtue and Valor:

Fleet Admiral (FADM) Chester W. Nimitz, the Commander-And-Chief Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT) during the most dynamic moments of World War II, wrote a tribute to the US Marines involved in the bloody and savage battle for Iwo Jima island, that today is inscribed on the pedestal of the Marine Corps War Memorial, which states, “Among the men who fought on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue.” The comment was a summarization of the price of victory achieved by the Marines in this battle, given its savageness, level of casualties suffered, and the number of awards and medals that the Marines tallied up. These Marines demonstrated a hero’s ethos even if in their humble way they would never claim to be heroes.

Admiral Nimitz’s was commenting on a spirit that best personified common individuals, drawn from the most diverse of backgrounds, then placing them into extraordinary circumstances where they demonstrated characteristics our society and culture have traditionally upheld as noble and virtuous. Even more astounding is in so many instances these individuals appear so average and unassuming, as be considered the least likely to make the greatest of sacrifices or contributions. For them, service is a quiet duty, performed to one’s best abilities without seeking, fame, glory, or honor. But perhaps it is because of their humble spirit, that they naturally possess “the right stuff,” that breads from them actions that are neither for vain glory, nor narcissistic praise. They are drawn to these situations to right injustices or fight aggressors for the sake of the down-trodden. Whatever each individual’s reasons, taken in the aggregate, we now have a two-hundred plus years national-history plainly demonstrating how cohorts of citizens willing stepped forward and bore great burdens, while in the process building the principles of duty, honor, and integrity, which in turn inspires the next generations to conduct themselves in a similar manner. It has created an ethos that plainly demonstrates our willingness to refresh and renew what since become part of our national heritage; preserving the “tree of liberty” for all. But as Thomas Jefferson wrote, “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with blood of patriots and tyrants.” Or to put it more directly, as is boldly stated along a relief of the National Korean War Memorial, "Freedom is not free!"

An Unlikely Hero:

Having just described the characteristics of a hero, I would like to bring to your attention the story of a humble US Army Chaplain by the name of Emil J. Kapaun (pronounced "Kuh-pawn"). Emil was of Czech ancestry and a very humble up-bringing, having been raised on the rural plains near Wichita Kansas, during the Great Depression, he learned the ture meaning of rugged self-reliance, and helping others suffering through difficult moments. These lessons would become so vital in his later life that they would save lives. His family were devout Roman Catholics, and Emil felt the voice of God calling him to profess The Faith, so in 1940 Emil was ordained a priest and entered the US Army Chaplain's Corps in 1944. He served with the Chaplain's Corps from 1944 to 1946 then again from 1948 through the Korean War. In addition to his humility, Father Kapaun, was an unassuming man of lanky build infused with a quiet nature. To look at him and watch him, one would notice a cheerful, patience, yet soft-spoken, unassuming priest pastoring a country parish, and in fact most of his life was unassuming, until he landed with his unit, the 3rd Battalion/8th Calvary/1st Calvary Division (3rd/8th/1st CD), in the Pusan Perimeter in the autumn of 1950. From that point on this unassuming, mild-manner priest would be thrust into very demanding and dangerous situations.

Father Kapaun, was not the typical behind-the-lines Chaplain, he was in the thick of the fight! He would say Mass from a make-shift alter on the hood of an Army Jeep. He was constantly risking his life to retrieve wounded in No-Man's-land, give last rites and prayers, while bullets and shells would whiz by his head. Some would say his selflessness and bravery bordered on recklessness, and yet he had a presence about him that brought hope to the hopeless, and peace to the desperate. On 1 November, All Saints Day ironically, Father Kapaun was present with elements of his unit in Unsan North Korea, near the Yalu River, separating the Korean Peninsula from Manchuria. Even at this time of year, the mountainous region of North Korea was already being battered by one of the worst winters in History. In the early hours of 1 and 2 November tens of thousands of Chinese Communist peasant soldiers bore down in waves on the desperately outnumbered American positions. Third Battalion/8th Calvary was ordered to hold the lines while the 1st and 2nd Battalions evacuated. While most of the 8th Calvary Regiment would make it out safely, Father Kapaun would not be among them. Against orders to evacuate, he chose to stay and help care for the wounded.

As the perimeter continued to shrink, the situation devolved into desperate hand-to-hand combat, all the while Father Kapaun continued to rush beyond that perimeter to pull in wounded and carry them to the aide station. But the situation grew ever more desperate, and it quickly became apparent that the Chinese commanders, facing off against 3rd/8th/1st CD were determined to completely wipeout the Americans, to the last. Realizing the futility of further fighting, Father Kapaun pleaded with a wounded Chinese Officer in the aide station to call out to his comrades to cease and desist, and miraculously the fighting stopped, and the Americans found themselves POWs.

The shooting stopped, and the situation for the Americans grew very bleak, as the Chinese quickly proved themselves to be brutal purveyors in the conduct of administering to POWs. Father Kapaun discovered this almost as soon as the surrender occurred, for he witnessed a Chinese soldier approaching a wounded American soldier, Sergeant First Class Herbert A. Miller lying in a foxhole. Standing over Miller, the soldier placed the muzzle of his riffle against Miller's head, clearly intent on executing him. Risking his personal safety, Kapaun defiantly pushed aside the Chinese soldier to retrieve Miller and carry him to safety. Stunned, the Chinese soldier did not respond in any threatening way, and Father Kapaun conducted his first act of selfless-heroism while in captivity, something that would become all too common for this humble priest. Because of Father Kapaun’s actions Sergeant Miller survived the war, though he would endure almost three years of hellish captivity.

To maintain their rapid advance and momentum, the Chinese needed to get the surrendered Americans out of the area as quickly as possible, which meant, if necessary, use of brutal efficiency over compassion. So, if there were still any lingering doubts among the captives, towards the intensions of their captors use of brutality to achieve results, they were dispelled quickly in what happened next. Chinese hurriedly force marched them into captivity over miles of frozen ground with very little food, clothing or water. Lack of food and water, combined with the freezing exposure, the soldiers’ endurance began to give way, and soon many began to falter and stumble in the bitter ice and snow. Morale sank quickly, and a self-preservation mentality developed as the wounded dropped out and were left for dead. Discipline began to breakdown, to the point that when ordered by the officers, men refused to carry or support the wounded. Broken by compassion for the weak, though he too was enduring the same hardships, Father Kapaun, went up and down the lines pleading for helpers to tend to the wounded, all the while carrying Miller on his back or helping the Sergeant limp along. Seeing their diminutive chaplain’s sacrifice, they heeded his pleas, and so many began to help a buddy who was struggling. Farther Kapaun achieved what the other officers failed to accomplish by simple example; and it must be remembered, Father Kapaun was a man of small stature, yet he willingly carried Miller, just as Christ willingly carried his cross. Unfortunately, for these Americans this march would be every bit as savage and murderous, as that for their counterparts almost ten years earlier on the infamous "Bataan Death March,” and it would only continue to worsen.

It was a frozen hell in the POW camp, as the biting cold of the Korean winter of 1950 -1951 reached temperatures as low as -40o Fahrenheit. The POWs had to survive on a meager 300 Calorie-a-day diet of millet and birdseed. Water came only by melting snow. Men lived in filth and squalor, their uniforms insufficient for the climate became rags, their shelter nothing but rickety mud huts. Diseases like beriberi, dysentery, and pneumonia were rampant among the men, the result of malnutrition and substandard medical care. Warmth at night was achieved by bedding down head-to-feet, placing hands between legs and feet in armpits to avoid frostbite. If a man lost the will to live, and many did, he simply needed to roll away from his compatriots and allow the cold to consume him. The death toll rose rapidly particularly during January and February of 1951. The frozen ground made burial impossible, so bodies were simply stacked like cordwood until a warm spell would allow for burial. Clothing was taken from the dead to give to the living. Picking lice from armpits and groins became the major pastime. Men, smelling of urine and deification, having not bathed in months, just wondered around in haze of death, despair, and defeat. After the Korean war, much was made about Americans who had succumb to the propaganda of Communism, refusing to return home, and blaspheming everything American. Talk bantered about brainwashing and other diabolical methods used by the Chinese to cause Americans to turn against their country. But in an environment where hope, food, and medical care lacked, but despair, brutality, and physiological warfare reigned, Communist propaganda was pushed on the POWs and many fell prey to its sways. Yet hope did spring within this desperate world in the nature Father Kapaun emanated.

It was here that Captain Kapaun’s midwestern rural upbringing and self-reliant nature, became cherished gifts of survival. Using stones, Kapaun beat roof tin into pots to boil water for drinking. He would leave the camp to forge for food even stealing it from the Chinese guards. Visiting with men in the enlisted compound he would pass around his pipe allowing them a few desperately desired puffs of tobacco, while leading them in prayer groups, compassionately listening to their concerns, or just giving words of encouragement. But problems still abated, as nutrition depravity grew worse, men would sleep among the dead in the hopes of getting a few extra rations instead of reporting the deaths. Hoarding became a major problem and was creating an environment of discontent. Father Kapaun stepped in and willing offered his food to others, even though he too was suffering the effects of malnutrition; miraculously the hoarding stopped. When someone complained of cold Kapaun offered some of his own meager clothing. When the few American medical officers in the camp needed medicines, Kapaun found ways to steal it off the Chinese. Father Kapaun was soon being referred to by the men as "Dismas," or the "Good Thief," referencing the repentant thief on the cross next to Jesus ("We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong. Then he said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom'. Jesus answered him, 'Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.'" Luke 23:41-43 NIV).

Slowly, a sense of unity and hope sprung up among the men in the camp under Father Kapaun's influence. This disgusted their Chinese captors, and the guards took to mocking him at every opportunity. As an example, they would strip him naked and leave him in a frozen hole for hours as punishment for his "transgressions." The reality was they feared him, for their acts did not seem to have an influence; in Christ-like fashion he truly would "turn the other cheek." He had a tendency of playing reverse mind games with his captors; subtly shoving their methods to influence his thinking right back in their faces. For example, a Chinese Officer once mocked him by saying, "don't ask God for your daily bread. Moa Zedong gives you your daily bread now," and Father Kapaun apparently responded by saying, "If this is God's example of our daily bread, then God must be a terrible baker." The Midwestern wry humor Father Kapaun displayed was totally lost on the Chinese officer. His examples of defiance towards his captors, particularly their attempt at brainwashing with Communist propaganda, were usually quiet and subtle as demonstrated with the bread comment.

But one act of defiance was openly brazen, and it had the effect of lifting the camp's morale to heights not seen since before capture. The date was 25 March 1951, Easter Sunday. At sunrise Father Emil Kapaun dawned a purple vestment. With a friend's prayer missal, and a simple crucifix fashion from sticks, he climbed up to an old burned out church, with eighty officers and led them in an Easter Mass. They formed a circle as he held up the crude cross, proclaiming he did not have the items to perform a traditional Mass, so improvising he used his gold ciborium (small container used to hold Communion host) he had kept hidden from the guards, to touch each man’s tongue in gesture of giving Holy Communion. He opened the missal and recited the Passion Narrative through reading the Stations of the Cross. Then asking his Protestant comrades within the group for a little indulgence, he held up a rosary and recited its mysteries. Then he led them in song as they sang The Lord's Prayer loudly especially so the enlisted compound could hear them. Everywhere in that camp, Catholic, Protestant, Jew, agnostic and atheist alike joined in singing The Lord's Prayer; it electrified the place. Father Kapaun was becoming a true in

spiration and a sense of hope in an otherwise wretched place.

But all was not well with Father Kapaun, the malnutrition and cold he suffered from was taking its toll. He suffered a clot in his leg which festered. He still made his rounds when he could, but they were getting to be fewer and shorter. His doctor-friend attempted to help him nurse the festered clot infection, and he recovered some, but before long he developed dysentery and soon pneumonia. As the days passed, he grew weaker and weaker. The Chinese had a “hospital” that they took the extremely sick to supposedly recover, but everyone knew it for the death house is was. Fearing the Chinese might discover Father Kapaun's sicknesses, his friends hatched a plan to make it look like a terrible bout of dysentery hit the camp. Thus, was the love and adoration the POWs had for their chaplain, who had done so much for them, that they all risked severe punishment to fake illness. Unfortunately, his health continued to deteriorate to the point that fellow officers found themselves almost constantly caring for him.

In May 1951 the efforts to hide and nurse Father Kapaun back to health finally failed. The Chinese camp commander and guards, whom were bent of riding themselves of the pesky pastor, finally got their chance. They stormed through the door of the mud hut where Father Kapaun was resting, and demanding he be taken away for proper care. The American officers were no fools, they knew perfectly well this meant sending Kapaun to the death house. Shouting quickly ensued as Kapaun's friends pleaded with the Chinese to leave him. The shouting drew the attention of other Americans, and it looked like a riot would break out, as American POW's began to shove Chinese guards.

Not so ironically it was Father Kapaun who pacified the situation. In severe pain and with barely auditable words, he said, "I'll go. Don't get into any trouble over me."

He had given them everything and now he was willing to give up his life, to keep the calm among his fellow POWs. The American's began to sob like little babies at this act, and to his last moments he continued to comfort them spiritually. When pointing out to him it would mean his death, he responded, "Don’t take it hard ...I’m going where I’ve always wanted to go. And when I get up there, I’ll say a prayer for all of you."

The Americans informed the Chinese guards they would carry him to the aide station, aka the death house. Putting him on a makeshift stretcher, the Americans carried Father Kapaun up the hill to what would be the place of his final moments on Earth. POW's congregated along the path as he passed by on the stretcher, not an eye was dry. When they set him down, as if in Christ like fashion Kapaun gave his friends one last commandment, with respect to the Chinese guards and said, "Forgive them, for they know no what they do...Forgive them."

Father Kapaun passed from this world to be received at Christ's banquet table and was buried in a grave near the Yalu River, still unknown to this day. The Chinese thinking, they were rid of a troublesome problem in Father Kapaun were to discover they were sorely mistaken, for the remaining POW's refused to let his spirit die. One POW severely sick prayed like he had never prayed before to Father Kapaun to intercede for him before Christ and amazingly he recovered. Other POW's continued the prayer groups; a favorite was Psalm 23:

"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell[a] in the house of the Lord Forever." (Psalm 23: 1-6 NKJ)

Awards, Accolades, and Sainthood

Risking their very lives some of the POW's produced a four-foot-tall crucifix, in remembrance of Father Kapaun, and in direct defiance of the atheist Communist Chinese. Selecting just the right wood from firewood a cross and Jesus's body were carved. The crown of thrones was fashioned from old radio wires. When the Armistice of 1953 was finally signed, and the POW's returned to Allied lines, they walked to the American lines proudly holding up that crucifix for all to see. They had a story to tell and they were determined to tell it! The story of the quiet and mild manner priest who defied his communist captors and died with his faith intact, spread like wild fire around the world. In 1955 a made-for-TV program called "The Good Thief" starring James Whitmore as Father Kapaun, aired on ABC's Crossroads. He would have a High School named in his honor in his hometown in Kansas. Father Kapaun would be posthumously awarded The Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award available to Army personnel for his actions in combat before his capture. Prayer cards to Kapaun were issued by Kapaun's local Catholic parish in his honor.

But as time passed the memory of Father Kapaun began to fade from the national consciousness. But those who knew him personally were determined to see that he received the Congressional Medal of Honor and Sainthood recognition by the Catholic Church. At first, the Army refused to investigate the possibility of a CMH, after all Father Kapaun had received the Distinguished Service Cross, but that was for his actions before his capture, much more of his story was written in the POW camp and had yet to be recognized officially. Prodded on by the surviving POW's, the Kanas Congressman Todd Tiahrt continued to push the US Army for an official review. It finally paid off. On 11 April 2013, in a ceremony presided over at the Whitehouse by President Barrack Obama, and with many of the POW's in attendance including 1SGT Herbert Miller, Emil J. Kapaun's nephew graciously received a posthumous CMH on his Uncle's behalf. Of interesting note, the Kapaun family brought with them to that ceremony the very purple vestment Emil had worn to conduct his Easter Mass in 1951.

While many citations presented for the CMH make mention of things like, "single handedly held off overwhelming enemy forces and withering assault with…," Captain Kapaun's is much more humbling for he earned his CMH not with bullets but with a bible, and a deep abiding faith in Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Captain Emil J. Kapaun's Congressional Medal of Honor full citation reads:

"Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty while serving with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Calvary Division during combat operations against an armed enemy at Unsan, Korea, from November 1st to 2nd, 1950.

"On November 1st, 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.

"Though the Americans successfully repelled the assault, they found themselves surrounded by the enemy. 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.

"After the enemy succeeded in breaking through the defense in the early morning hours of November 2nd, 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.

"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. Not only did Chaplain Kapaun’s gallantry save the life of Sergeant Miller, but also his unparalleled courage and leadership inspired all those present, including those who might have otherwise fled in panic to remain and fight the enemy until captured.

"Chaplain Kapaun’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, the 1st Calvary Division and the United States Army." (Source:

Korea has earned the unjust moniker of the "Forgotten War", sandwiched in the history books between the massive 20th century must-win-conflict of World War II, and the frustratingly despised Vietnam War. Much of our pop-cultural knowledge of the Korean War comes through television and movies, particularly M*A*S*H, and our understanding of chaplains (for those who never served) through one of the M*A*S*H characters, LT (later CAPT) Father Francis John Patrick "Dago Red" Mulcahy (portrayed by Rene Auberjonois in the Movie, and William Christopher in TV Series). The 4077th's chaplain developed for us a stereotype of chaplains as good intentioned, yet innocently naïve men, who could not and did not fully comprehend the barbarity of war. In fact, Father Mulcahy's befuddlement was at times something to be mocked, particularly in the Movie (he earned his nickname "Dago Red" from the sacramental wine the doctors sometimes "requisitioned" for their own enjoyment). Yet, Father Emil J. Kapaun was anything but a stereotypical “Father Mulcahy.” For the POW's from the 8th Calvary and the 19th Infantry, along with British and some Turkish prisoners, imprisoned at Sombakol and later at Pyoktong, Father Kapaun was their spiritual leader. When they had nothing else, Father Kapaun gave them probably most important gifts available, faith, hope, and a will to live.

Through his mutual suffering with them, his soft mannered resistance to his Chinese captors, and most of all his love for his fellow man and selfless actions, endeared Father Kapaun to these men for the remainder of their lives. So, endearing was he that sixty some odd years past his death the former POWs and loved ones continued push for not just for a Congressional Medal of Honor, but for the Vatican to officially betroth on him Sainthood. Men who are not even Catholic but, Protestant, Jew, and Agnostic alike have petitioned the Papacy to recognize Father Kapaun as a Saint. Thus far for their efforts the Catholic Church has recognized two miracles attributable to Father Kapaun and bestowed upon him the title "Servant of God" two much needed steps in the processes to canonization, and a committee under the Archdiocese of Military Service and Wichita Diocese along with a representative from the Vatican are thoroughly investigating all requirements for official sainthood. But for the men whose hearts he touched in combat and the prison camps Father Kapaun is truly "The Saint in Combat Boots."

Source Material: provided by series of articles from the Witchita Eagle, , , and,

Copyright 2019 JP Ronald

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