Catholic priest Emil Kapaun receives posthumous medal

They are all in their 80s now — these former POWs during the Korean War.

One recalls in rapid-fire bursts how Father Emil Kapaun sneaked out of the barracks at night, risking his life to bring back morsels of food for his fellow prisoners.

Another remembers seeing the young American priest use a rock and a piece of metal to form a pan and then collect water to wash the hands and faces of the wounded.

A third chokes up when he tells of being injured and having an enemy soldier standing over him, rifle pointed; Kapaun walked up, pushed aside the muzzle and carried off the wounded man.

The military chaplain did not carry a gun or grenades. He did not storm hills or take beaches. He picked lice off of men too weak to do it themselves and stole grain from the Korean and Chinese guards who took the American soldiers as prisoners of war in late 1950.

Kapaun did not survive the prisoner camps, dying in Pyoktong in 1951. The man originally from tiny Pilsen, Kan., has been declared a “servant of God” — often a precursor to sainthood in the Catholic Church. And on Thursday, President Obama will posthumously award Kapaun a Medal of Honor. On hand will be Mike Dowe, 85; Robert Wood, 86; and Herbert Miller, 86.

“People had lost a great deal of their civility,” Wood says of life in the POW compound. “We were stacking the bodies outside where they were frozen like cordwood and here is this one man — in all of this chaos — who has kept . . . principles.”

Kapaun (pronounced Ka-PAWN) was so beloved that U.S. prisoners of war who knew him began calling for him to receive the military’s highest honor on the day they were released from their North Korean POW camp 60 years ago.

“The first prisoners out of that camp are carrying a wooden crucifix, and they tell the story at length,” says Roy Wenzel, a reporter at the Wichita Eagle who wrote an eight-part series and a book about Kapaun. “He was internationally famous and made the front page of newspapers.” Continue reading


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