Capt Emil Kapaun, Chaplain, MOH Recipient: “Saint in the Foxhole”, POW in Korean War

Medal of Honor recipient Captain Emil Kapaun was a hero of the Korean War, who spent his last days in the clutches of the Chinese as a prisoner of war. His remains were repatriated to the mainland after being identified as one of the service members interred in Hawaii at the National Cemetery of the Pacific. His story is one of perseverence, faith, and inner strength to help others in the face of dire circumstances.

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Chaplain, Hope Giver

Fr Emil Kapaun was a Catholic Priest, a Chaplain assigned to Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. His Battalion was assigned to cover the rear of regimental forces that were withdrawing from the Battle of Unsan.

Chinese forces surrounded his battalion, but Captain Kapaun moved “fearlessly” from foxhole to foxhole, reassuring the men. When the rest of his battalion moved across the river, he went back to retrieve approximately 30 men and place them in the relative protection of a Korean dugout.

public domain

Saint in the foxhole

The battalion repelled the Chinese attack, but some of them ended up defending a small perimeter and were totally surrounded. The situation was hopeless.

Kapaun spent the day rescuing wounded Americans from the no-man’s land outside the battalion perimeter. Despite continuing enemy fire, he repeatedly crawled to wounded men and either dragged them back to safety of the American lines or dug shallow trenches to shield them from enemy fire. As the day passed, it became clear that the battalion’s position was hopeless. Kapaun rejected several chances to escape, instead volunteering to stay behind and care for the wounded. At dusk, he made his way back to the dugout, now 150 meters outside the American perimeter, where more than 50 wounded men had been gathered. Among the injured Americans was a wounded Chinese officer. As Chinese infantry closed on their position, Kapaun convinced him to negotiate for the safety of the injured Americans.

Shortly after Kapaun’s capture, he intervened to save the life of Staff Sergeant Herbert Miller, who was lying in a nearby ditch with a broken ankle and other injuries. As a Chinese soldier prepared to execute Miller, Kapaun risked his own life by pushing the Chinese soldier aside and hoisting Miller to his feet. Kapaun carried and supported Miller for several days as the prisoners marched north, until their column reached Pyoktong.

Army narrative

The prisoners were forced to march for some 87 miles. They finally reached the prison camp, but dystentery and other problems came with it. When outbreaks of beriberi and pellagra broke out among the prisoners, Kapaun risked his life to steal food from their Chinese captors and distribute it evenly among the prisoners. By January of 1951, the situation grew worse. At night, Kapaun would dodge the guards and sneak around the camp to forage for food. Once when he was caught, he was forced to sit outside in subzero temperatures with no clothes.

By March of 1951, the Chinese instituted a mandatory “re-education” program. Once again, Fr. Kapaun politely and patiently refused everything they said. On Easter morning, he openly flouted their demands and held a sunrise service in the camp. Though he could not give an actual sermon, the Psalms and othe readings left some so touched they openly wept.

A short while later, Kapaun began to suffer from the physical toll of his captivity. A blood clot in his leg nearly killed him. The Chinese, wary of Kapaun’s influence over the other prisoners, refused to provide medical assistance. His fellow prisoners helped Kapaun recover, but within a couple of weeks he began to suffer from pneumonia. Over the protests of his fellow captives, the Chinese transferred him to their filthy, unheated hospital, where he died alone. As he was being carried to the hospital, he asked God’s forgiveness for his captors, and made his fellow prisoners promise to keep their faith.

Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun repeatedly risked his own life to save the lives of hundreds of fellow Americans. His extraordinary courage, faith and leadership inspired thousands of prisoners to survive hellish conditions, resist Chinese indoctrination, and retain their faith in God and their country. His actions reflect the utmost credit upon him, the 1st Cavalry Division, and the United States Army.

Army narrative

Captain Emil Kapaun, Catholic Chaplain, was born in Kansas. He enlisted in the Army in WWII, and reenlisted for the Korean War. He passed away in filthy conditions, all alone on May 23, 1951. His presence, his inner strength still inspires others today, some 70 years later. His actions were not lost on the Catholic church, who is working to have him cannonized. Captain Kapaun never gave up and never stopped helping his fellow man in spite of the dire circumstances. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2013.

Rest In Peace, Fr Kapaun.


Featured photo: public domain/US Army photo via Aleteia

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