April 10th, 2013
10:38 PM ET

Soldier priest receives ultimate medal

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producer

Washington (CNN)–Capt. Emil Kapaun served in the U.S. Army in World War II and Korea, but he didn't carry a rifle and never fired a shot. His weapons were a Bible and his faith.

He was also Father Kapaun, a Roman Catholic chaplain who received the Medal of Honor on Thursday, 60 years after his death while a North Korean prisoner. The medal is the highest award for valor in the U.S. military.

President Barack Obama, in a White House ceremony, recounted Kapaun's efforts, at risk of his own life, to help wounded and captured troops.

"This is an amazing story," said Obama. "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."

In June 1950, Kapaun was ordered to Korea as the war was in its earliest stages.

Supporting the soldiers of the 8th Infantry Regiment, Kapaun found himself in the heavily contested Pusan perimeter. Army documents supporting his nomination for the medal say he would bike from position to position so he could minister to soldiers, hearing confessions, performing last rites or administering Holy Communion.

Army photos from the war show he often celebrated Mass using the hood of a Jeep as an altar.

The Medal of Honor: What is it?

Three months after arriving in Korea, Kapaun was awarded the Bronze Star for valor for running through enemy fire to carry wounded soldiers to safety.

In November 1950, his unit went on the move. But Kapaun stayed behind to minister to the wounded soldiers, knowing he was putting himself in danger of capture by the enemy, said his nephew, Ray Kapaun, who represented the family at Thursday's ceremony.

President Barack Obama holds Chaplain (Captain) Emil Kapaun's Easter stole in the Oval Office during a greet with Kapaun's family in the Oval Office, April 11, 2013.

Father Kapaun came to the aid of a wounded American soldier after U.S. troops surrendered in a battle.

"An enemy soldier was standing over (the soldier), rifle aimed at his head ready to shoot," said Obama. "And Father Kapaun marched over and pushed the enemy soldier aside. And then as the soldier watched stunned, Father Kapaun carried that wounded American away. "

The chaplain carried the GI four miles on a death march.

North Korean and Chinese troops marched Kapaun and the other captured troops nearly 100 miles north in the bitter winter weather. When Chinese soldiers tried to kill wounded POWs who were slowing the march, Kapaun risked his own life to stop them, and then persuaded unwounded POWs to help the wounded, according to his nephew.

Kapaun was imprisoned with 200 other soldiers at a camp near Pyoktong, North Korea. While there, he would sneak through the camp ministering to other prisoners.

"He would come around, saying, 'Hot coffee,' and give hot water to all of us," said Mike Dowe, a fellow prisoner at Pyoktong. "That may not sound like much today but it sure meant a lot under those circumstances."

To keep his fellow POWs from starving, Kapaun would break out of the camp at night, steal food and sneak back in to give it to those who needed it the most, his nephew said.

That earned him the nickname "The Good Thief" from the other POWs.

CNN Belief: Preparing clergy for combat

Eventually, the people who ran the camp took action to move him to a nearby hospital. Whether it was for treatment for an injured leg or to remove his influence over the prisoners will never be known, but Dowe and others tried to stop the North Koreans from taking him away.

"The Koreans came and they said that they have to take him to the hospital and the hospital, you can ask all the guys, I mean the hospital was a death house, it was where you go and you never come back, and everybody knew that," Dowe said. "All the guys tried to stop (them) from taking him there, even at one point a fight broke out."

Kapaun was taken away in the end. He died May 23, 1951, and his body was buried in a mass grave, where it remains.

After the war ended, a group of POWs emerged with a wooden crucifix nearly 4 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," said Obama. "It was a tribute to their friend, their chaplain, their fellow prisoner who had touched their souls and saved their lives, Father Emil Kapaun."

Kapaun was born and raised in Pilsen, Kansas. After high school, he attended Conception Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Missouri.

After the abbey, he studied for the priesthood at Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis. Kapaun was ordained in 1940 and that same year became a U.S. Army chaplain.

After serving at several posts in the United States and India, he left the Army and went to the Catholic University of America in Washington to earn a master's degree in education. After getting the degree in 1948, he returned to the Army.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

The Vatican named Kapaun a servant of God in 1993, an early step that could lead to canonization.

For now, his nephew said, the family just wants his remains returned from North Korea.

Obama told the White House audience that Kapaun provided an example for people in uniform and not.

"Father Kapaun's life, I think, is a testimony to his human spirit, the power of faith, and reminds us of the good that we can do each and every day regardless of the most difficult of circumstances," said the president.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church

soundoff (566 Responses)
  1. Jeff

    I saw a post that while he went above the call of duty, it didn't warrant the Medal of Honor. Remember he would sneak out of the Prison Camp to get food for other troops to help them survive. If he had been caught breaking out of the camp, it would have been certain death for him. This is the same as running through enemy fire to resuce a fallen comrade, which would merit a Medal of Honor. Same thing.

    April 11, 2013 at 10:04 am |
  2. Face-Palm

    Thou shalt not bear false witness…

    Does this ring a bell?

    April 11, 2013 at 10:04 am |
    • William Demuth

      Christianity is the definition of false witness.

      Recall that in WW2, the Vatican was in Italy, and Italy was in the Axis. Recall that Germany was Christian, and engaged in genocide against another religion killing at least 12 million non combatants directly because they were of a different religion.

      Religion is not the solution. With some simple observation one might conclude it is actually the problem.

      April 11, 2013 at 10:08 am |
    • neoritter

      @William, that was the most ignorant, bigoted, and uneducated comment I've seen here. Go read a history book for once.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:16 am |
    • William Demuth


      The truth always hurts zealots. Is their anything inaccurate about what I said, or is it just that you fear reality?

      April 11, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • Marky Merlot

      @William: I have nothing but admiration for this man. I say this, as an atheist, who would never deny a man of faith, no matter how mistaken, I believe that faith to be (my wife is catholic). I have done extensive research into the mentality of people, during times of war, and consider myself an expert on WWII. The sense of patriotism, whether, American, British, or even German, often transcends faith and people like Father Kapaun simply wished to help his fellow man, the only way he knew how. He is as much a hero, as any combatant could be. Always think, "what would I do, if my family/nation was threatened?" Until you have been in that situation, you have no right to criticize!

      April 11, 2013 at 11:56 am |
    • William Demuth

      I do not criticize his actions, only his rhetoric

      It is others who want to canonize his actions and pay him homage.

      I merely say he is unworthy

      He wanted it both ways. He aided and abetted murder. He refused the blood on his own hands, yet encouraged other men to go to their deaths with their minds filled with lies.

      If he was Muslim, he might have been promising Virgins, and we would all mock him, yet he promises eternal life to murderers, and we award him our highest honor??

      He is no more holy than I.

      April 11, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
    • William Demuth


      Zealotry, be it theistic or nationalistic is always the same.

      Christianity is Communism, is Fascism, and is patriotism. All lies one tells oneself to salve a guilty conscience

      Whatever rational one uses to justify murder, your acts are still your acts.

      If I actually believed in a God who made his distaste with killing quite clear, I doubt some talking head might persuade me to murder.

      What we REALLY need is honors for those who refused the fight

      April 11, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • lukeypoo

      Slick Willy the more you talk the stupider you sound. "What we REALLY need is honors for those who refused the fight." Well Billy he didn't fight he carried a bible for pete's sake. He was supporting his fellow American Soldiers morally and spiritually. You talk down on this man like you are better than him. What you ought to to do is take a page from Marky's book and see this story for what it really is. You see preist or preacher or Christian or faith and right away bark bark grrr ruff ruff blah blah. I would think any compassionate human being be them christian or athiest or buddhist or muslim, would see this man not only for what he didn't do (William this is fight in the war with a gun or bombs or knives) but for what he did do (William this is caring for his comrades, comforting them in their last moments, tending to the injured).

      April 12, 2013 at 12:49 am |
  3. Face-Palm

    Ask the Koreans on the wrong side of Mr. “Center of the Universe" what they felt at that time. Because all of history is easily known by arrogant and myopic Americans. Yes, I’m from the USA and I’m deeply ashamed.

    April 11, 2013 at 9:55 am |
    • Alex

      I got news for you–foreign policy isn't black and white. In many cases you have to choose between whether you support this dictator or the other one. Every other country on earth does the same thing - if it has any global influence at all - and they are often far more oppressive. You think that other historical superpowers were any better–like the Soviet Union or China? There is nothing to be ashamed about.

      April 11, 2013 at 10:02 am |
    • lukeypoo

      :.< sad day. Well LEAVE

      April 12, 2013 at 1:02 am |
  4. Alex

    This is a great story. Regardless of whether you believe in God or not this guy provided a lot of comfort to the soldiers. My only question is that if it was so easy to "sneak" out of camp, steal food, and then sneak back in - why the heck didn't everyone else do it???

    April 11, 2013 at 9:48 am |
    • Face-Palm

      Mr. Cheney stop blowing out oil rigs in the gulf of Mexico, I suggest that you rest upon your stellar record of non-stop self-righteousness that has ALWAYS been WRONG!

      April 11, 2013 at 10:09 am |
    • Face-Palm

      I’m curious, does being stupid and ignorant make you somehow feel good? You have to know that smart people are watching. Oh? Sorry! You didn’t know! Being ignorant and stupid is not something to feel proud of. You shouldn’t, well, you can’t, well go on….

      April 11, 2013 at 10:31 am |
    • Face-Palm

      I have no purpose other than reminding you of your stelar stupidity. It’s not easy to be this stupid! Being this willfully ignorant takes time and effort.

      Am I not laughing at you? Are you not an embarrassment to your own Mother?

      Take me to a place with you and your Mother, treat me with truth!

      April 11, 2013 at 10:42 am |
    • lukeypoo

      Palm face slow your role. You misspelled stellar.

      April 12, 2013 at 1:15 am |
  5. M. Seelinger

    Kapaun was serving with the 8th Cavalry Regiment, not 8th Infantry Regiment.

    April 11, 2013 at 9:47 am |
  6. jesus

    He did wonderful work as a POW, but the Medal of Honor does not seem to fit his deeds. Helping POWs cope, stealing food for them, and organizing the care of the wounded is meritorious, but NOT above and beyond the call of duty.

    April 11, 2013 at 9:39 am |
    • Squeezebox

      It was above and beyond the Geneva Convention. God's call, on the other hand, is to be everything we can be for our fellow man.

      April 11, 2013 at 9:51 am |
    • Alex

      Well, he was risking his life by doing that–repeatedly. He didn't have to, wasn't ordered to, but ended up helping a lot of his fellow soldiers so I respectfully disagree. He was in just as much danger as a soldier in combat in this particular situation.

      April 11, 2013 at 9:51 am |
  7. ora pike

    God bless this hero. My uncle tommy was prisoner of war in Korea-maybe he was one of those blessed by his efforts.

    April 11, 2013 at 9:18 am |
  8. Doc Vestibule

    This man indeed deserves to be honoured.
    He stayed true to his vows by remaining pacifistic in war, spreading comfort and hope as he could under circu.mstances that break the hardest of men.
    I am surprised, however, that the Vatican is heaping praise upon him. Military chaplains minister to all soldiers who seek spiritual comfort, regardless of their particular religious affiliation. Since the vatican has labelled moral relativism as the greatest evil of our time, that the Chaplain would bestow God's grace with Catholic rites, reserved only for Catholics, is tantamount to heresy.

    April 11, 2013 at 9:14 am |
    • hecep

      C'est la guerre.

      April 11, 2013 at 9:21 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Apropos du catechisme, meme en guerre c'est necessaire d'avoir recu baptisme pour etre sauvee.

      April 11, 2013 at 9:25 am |
    • hecep

      @dv: Being an atheist... and a humanist... I stand firmly by my response. The priest did good.

      April 11, 2013 at 9:32 am |
    • James M

      You're sorely misinformed about the role of Catholics generally, and Priests particularly. We serve those in need because of our faith, not theirs.

      April 11, 2013 at 10:07 am |
    • James M

      What "rites" are you referring to? And from what section in this article did you gather that he "bestow[ed] God's grace with Catholic rites" on non-Catholics?

      April 11, 2013 at 10:15 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      @James M
      "Army docu.ments supporting his nomination for the medal say he would bike from position to position so he could minister to soldiers, hearing confessions, performing last rites or administering Holy Communion."

      April 11, 2013 at 10:17 am |
    • neoritter

      Hey genius, where in that quote did it say the troops he did that for were not Catholic? Ministering to people isn't performing a rite, hearing confessions doesn't mean you're actually performing the rite of Confession too.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:21 am |
  9. KMW

    This is a wonderful positive story for a change about the Roman Catholic Church. It makes me proud to be a Catholic and this honor is rightfully deserved.

    April 11, 2013 at 9:09 am |
    • lukeypoo

      Yeah KMW me too! I'm also pleased to see that there are many athiests who can look past this man's religious affiliation and recognize the good he did.

      April 12, 2013 at 1:25 am |
  10. DaveNYUSA

    Very nice story. However, it seems this is to appease certain groups.
    I support the MOH for this man.
    I still, however, question why soldiers like Kenneth Roraback never got one!

    April 11, 2013 at 8:45 am |
    • SnafuBob

      Never... look how long it has taken this gentleman to receive the MoH; never can not be measured, time itself can. Perhaps in time Kenneth Roraback will receive one as well.

      April 11, 2013 at 9:28 am |
    • Kay

      This took nearly 60 years to happen.

      April 11, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
  11. Kay

    This article barely scratches the surface of what this brave man did. Honey Badger Don't Care, you are one sad person.

    April 11, 2013 at 8:45 am |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care!

      OK, enlighten me. What did this guy do that was so heroic?

      April 11, 2013 at 9:37 am |
  12. Hey, Honey Badger

    How about you, I don't know, keeping away from any form of communication for a while and actually thinking before continuing to post anything more asinine than you already have.

    April 11, 2013 at 8:31 am |
    • SnafuBob

      Please cite your service history Honey Badger, any half way decent person would clearly think before making such ignorant posts. Are you the type that seemingly gets off on offending others, especially service members when calling into question their merits for such an honor? Take the time to actually serve, find yourself in a situation were death is on your door step; if your not screaming for your mother or begging for some solace then there is clearly no hope for someone such as you. Heroism and deserving of the MoH doesn't and shouldn't just be reserved for those who can clearly demonstrate battle prowess; besides in the end your opinion or mine for that matter doesn't count toward the credit this man and others both before and after him deserve. There is more to combat than what is seen on the movie screen, I've seen and know first hand. Anyone else who has served and faced combat situations knows were I'm coming from; otherwise your pitiful comments wouldn't have been made in the first place. Never call into question the actions of others before you yourself have served and experienced the same situation, which is the ear mark of a coward and completely uneducated individual.

      April 11, 2013 at 9:17 am |
  13. Vad

    Medal of Honor seems well deserved.

    April 11, 2013 at 8:18 am |
  14. Got me at this....

    "-– Capt. Emil Kapaun served in the U.S. Army in World War II and Korea but he didn’t carry a rifle and never fired a shot. His weapons were a Bible and his faith."

    Bravo! we salute you, Captain Kapaun. Standing O!!!

    Reminds us Ephesians 6:17

    April 11, 2013 at 8:05 am |
    • Hero indeed!

      "In November 1950, his unit went on the move. But Kapaun stayed behind to minister to the wounded soldiers, knowing he was putting himself in danger of capture by the enemy, his nephew Ray Kapaun said.

      North Korean and Chinese troops marched Kapaun and the other captured troops nearly 100 miles north in the bitter winter weather. When Chinese soldiers tried to kill wounded POWs who were slowing the march, Kapaun risked his own life to stop them, and then persuaded unwounded POWs to help the wounded"

      April 11, 2013 at 8:23 am |
    • hecep

      Hey, HBDC. Continue to communicate to as many people as possible that you have absolutely no idea what you're talking about.

      April 11, 2013 at 9:27 am |
  15. WASP

    service rendered; ultimate sacrifice made; honor deserved.

    April 11, 2013 at 8:01 am |
  16. Marc

    If we do end up having to go into North Korea, I'd hope we'd use the chance to repatriate the remains of all our soldiers that died and were buried there. It's probably what this brave soldier would have wanted...

    April 11, 2013 at 8:00 am |
  17. JBertram

    The bible IS a weapon of mass distruction.

    April 11, 2013 at 7:53 am |
    • Squeezebox

      Communism is a weapon of masses destruction.

      April 11, 2013 at 9:55 am |
  18. Akira

    Literal Grace under fire.
    Thank you, Captain, for your selfless service.

    April 11, 2013 at 1:04 am |
  19. Ghostriver Studios

    Reblogged this on Ghost River Studios Blog.

    April 11, 2013 at 12:41 am |
  20. Bostontola

    I salute you Capt., a true hero.

    April 11, 2013 at 12:02 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.