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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. Al Pacino

    Hoo-ah!!!

    April 11, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
  2. Phaerisee

    That is really inspiring. I would also recommend the autobiography of Father Walter J. Ciszek, a Jesuit, which is called "With God in Russia." Pax.

    April 11, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
    • Bill

      Read snippets of autobiography of Father Walter J. Ciszek and it sounds like Capt. Kapaun was a very inspiring, courageous and brave soldier.

      April 11, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
  3. Ed

    1. Don't feed the trolls.

    2. Kapaun put the needs of his fellow soldiers/prisoners over his own. He had multiple opportunities to escape capture/imprisonment yet chose to continue serving others. He resisted the enemy by providing spiritual support and maintaining morale. He did all these things at great personal risk and eventually paid with his life. If that isn't worthy of the Medal, I don't know what is.

    April 11, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
    • riley

      Expressing ones opinion is not "Trolling" instigating and argument and name calling is. Which is what the opposite side of the spectrum has done. Plenty of name calling

      April 11, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
    • HeroesAre Rare

      God bless you for an excellent post.

      April 11, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
    • SnafuBob

      Well said, I couldn't agree more Ed.

      April 11, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
  4. hippypoet

    ultimate hypocrite!
    I do not care for what country, who he killed...reminds me of the Templar!

    April 11, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • Rimesby

      He killed no one, made no one bleed
      it seems thou art too stoned to read

      April 11, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
    • HeroesAre Rare

      It takes an honest person to give credit to someone who did things the rest of us would have been too paralyzed with fear to do.
      There is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends.
      I wonder how YOU would have coped – you – who fight against the decency of others behind the wall of anonymity? –

      April 11, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
    • hippypoet

      both great responses...not a common sight here.

      now, as far as my judgment – I do not agree with killing unless for food – did he eat the man? I do not agree with any religion nor religious belief – they are all forms of accepted social delusions they serve nothing but themselves but do hold back everyone else! Also they state any one will not kill or face the wrath of god – no matter the reason...your reason may get you off the charges after being judged but judgment is, as they believe, gods alone! If one is to believe, they believe – no cherry picking parts to suit or fit your desires or predispositions on life affairs...that's how we end with sects of beliefs instead of unified religions under the same or equal gods. And so one: any who claim a sect of faith as their own are ignorant to start, and since most sects actually only follow a part and or section they miss entire sections with details on how to go about doing what was brought up before hand or afterwards....making them hypocrites, whether knowing or not.
      Second, most all sects believe in some form of the commandments, this priest has the "thou shall not kill" making himself an outright hypocite.

      I read it, I am not...rather was not stoned with reading it. I like the part where he helped the POWS...lovely humanism. makes me sad when I am reminded that it was born out of war and that he may have only been doing what he thought would get him into heaven...who is to say he wasn't just a great guy...I would like to think he was, but I do not go on belief. He accepts a world where we are either the product of ince.st ...Adam and Eve...or we are not and so jesus actually died not for anyones sins as they do not exist...either way, he accepts in belief in god that created everything, that this too includes evil – blah blah satan and what not...no, god created satan too.....joy, presents, cookies, and evil – all gods work...supposedly – but there he is, fighting it...fighting against gods perfect plan...which seems to include wars, division, hatred, and burning of many objects – at times, people!

      making him yet again, another hypocrite!

      April 11, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
    • Rimesby

      It seems the hipocracy and hate that you despise
      Squats in the mirror within your eyes
      To libel a man with such portent
      Without seeing true his hearts content
      shows you a fool amongst fellow filth and flies

      April 11, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
    • hippypoet

      no hate I in these eyes. I saw just fine thank you.

      April 11, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
  5. Hwyman80

    I didn't know of Capt Kapaun and his actions unitl I read this article. But after reading it and the comments, I would say that his actions not only qualify the meaning but are exactly what you would expect of a hero. And he had shown his mettle before with his actions that led to his award of a Bronze Star.

    I can't atest to the chaplins level of zealotry as some have put it, but I would dare say that he had a belief which sustained him. Because of that he felt it necessary to stay behind and see to the welfare of all of the wounded, and later after being captured to everyone elses needs. I seriously doubt that anyone would have turned away from his ministrations in that time of need.

    I think this long overdue award couldn't have been given to a better man.

    April 11, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
    • HeroesAre Rare

      Amen to that.

      April 11, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
  6. Pike

    Well deserved. Guy had more guts than I got.

    April 11, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • Mike

      daa

      April 11, 2013 at 10:54 pm |
  7. Neil

    Good Lord
    the atheist posters on here are creepy
    We weren't in Korea t kill little brown people
    The Koreans I know of in the United States are 6 feet or more in height , hardly "little" people
    The reason they are that tall is because of good nutrition

    Men punish themselves when they do evil
    North Korea today is an atheist hellhole
    People are starving in North Korea because an elitist class wants to retain power
    they are smaller than south koreans

    April 11, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
    • riley

      Athiest hell hole? They describe to the religion of emperor worship. That in itself is a religion.

      April 11, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
    • riley

      Emporer worship is in which you are taught to have faith in everything the emperor does and do not question the motives, actions, or honor of that emperor. Pledge your allegiance despite disagreeing with the notions the emperor sets forth because you are a part of something bigger and only the Emperor knows whats best for you. Be a sheep for him to herd. Hmmm, sounds kind of like god worship doesn't it?

      April 11, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • HeroesAre Rare

      No riley – worshipping a man who needs YOUR body, and the bodies of your fathers,sons and uncles bodies to die to protect his wealth [and doesn't give a hoot about you as a person anyway] is FAR different from the God who created us and loves us no matter what. AND who offers us everlasting peace and happiness for loving him back.

      April 11, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
    • ME II

      North Korea is a hell hole because of its home grown "Juche Ideology". That and the despotic leaders running the country.

      April 11, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • riley

      If god is all that is powerful and all that is good then why does evil exist? In it's very existence it disproves either god is all that is powerful, or that god is all that is good. By allowing Evil to exist, god is therefore either evil or does not have absolute power. Why did god create man? To play games and see who he will send to eternal damnation and who will prove their worth to an ego maniacal god? Religion was created to keep lesser civilized times, civilized. Question your god, question everything.

      April 11, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
  8. Dave Salazar

    My Uncle Louis died in one of those horrific POW camps as many others did in the first three or four months after being captured. My family and I are forever thankful that someone as brave and caring as Father Kapaun was there to comfort and aid our soldiers. I'm sure that Father Kapaun would be humbled by this award but his service is a fine example of selfless giving that many Chaplains of various faiths performed on a daily basis. RIP Fr. Kapaun

    April 11, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • it doesn't get worse

      Fr. Kapaun may or may not have been a good guy. I did not know him. He is dust now.

      April 11, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
    • HeroesAre Rare

      Dave – thanks for sharing that and God rest your uncle Louis. Your praise for Father Kapaun does you much credit.

      April 11, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
    • HeroesAre Rare

      It doesn't get any worse – as my mum used to say "If you haven't got anything good to say – keep quiet!

      April 11, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
  9. SidVLives

    I trust we can all agree on one thing, we learned about a special man today. That is the fact, the rest are opinions...good and bad.

    April 11, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • riley

      No matter what he is absolutely a great man.

      April 11, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  10. Dave

    made for tv story – yawn

    April 11, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
    • Chuck

      Just take the fistfull of pills already.

      April 11, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • ellid

      What a nasty thing to say.

      April 11, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • riley

      It's not very christian of you to imply someone should kill themselves

      April 11, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • Chuck

      Duh, I'm not Christian. But I can respect bravery. Dave is taking up space.

      April 11, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
    • HeroesAre Rare

      Dave – the Vets [God bless them] who served with Father Kapaun and knew first hand what he did have FOUGHT for decades for him to receive this honor. I'm sure we all agree that they have 150% more credibility than your feeble attempt at humor.
      Shame on you.

      April 11, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
  11. John

    Don't let the "riley's" of the world concern you. This man was like another St. Maximillina Kolbe...like Kolbe, he did so much for his fellow prisoners (beleivers and non) that his captors took him away and killed him, probably with starvation. Silly Rileys of the world cannot dim the honor this man brought upon himself and his fellow priests and pastors and rabbis who quietly serve each day.

    April 11, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
    • riley

      Had he not been a priest and done all these things...breaking out and stealing food etc. do you think he deserves the medal of honor? I ask because you seem centered on the fact that he was a religious zealot

      April 11, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • ellid

      He was a priest, not a soldier, yet he willingly and knowingly put on the uniform and risked his life to steal supplies and tend to the injuries and the despairing. If that isn't courage I don't know what is.

      April 11, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • riley

      If he was not a priest doing that though, would he still deserve the medal in your opinion? Say he was some water boy or something. Whatever you want to believe. Or maybe even a Korean soldier who was turning his back on his nation in private to help them, would he still DESERVE the medal of honor in your opinion?

      April 11, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • Paul

      Yes, he would. There is an emphasis on him being a "priest" because that is what he did in the war, Give hope to the hopeless. Like the article says "he didn’t carry a rifle and never fired a shot. His weapons were a Bible and his faith." . But that does not mean a water boy, or some Korean soldier turning his back on his country would not be able to do something extraordinary to receive a medal.

      April 11, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
    • HeroesAre Rare

      John Thanks for you great post – you're right about Fr Maximilian Kolbe apart from how he died. The list of the days prisoners for the gas chamber was called and Fr Kolbe swapped places with a younger man who was the father of young children. He willingly died to give that man a slim chance of surviving.

      riley – Anyone in the military who died to save his "mates" has been awarded medals of honor. It took years of campaigning for Fr Kapaun's Vet friends to make this happen possibly because it happened in a POW camp and couldn't be verified. God bless his friends for not giving up the fight for Fr Kapaun's recognition.

      April 11, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
  12. Faithful Catholic

    It is refreshing to see histories like this in the media not just bad histories about pedophile priests. There is tremendous good done by the Catholic church in all countries but the histories that make it to the newspapers are always the bad ones, our mistakes but never our good contributions.

    April 11, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
    • Annie's Daughter

      I agree with you 100%. Few remember the good that is done and then paint all priests as abusers. I come from a family of seven children. One of my siblings committed a crime of abuse that made news in my home town. Unfortunately, several in the community disassociated with, and shunned, the rest of the family. It is very painful to be treated as though you somehow were complicit with the crime. I am also Catholic and love my faith. I worked full time in the rectory of a large congregation for almost a year. The priests living quarters were upstairs. I was able to see all the comings and goings and witness up close how hard working, dedicated, and holy these men of God were. And, yes, I do feel anger and shame for the priests that betrayed God, their vows and everyone who trusted and believed in them. God will be their judge.

      April 11, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
    • HeroesAre Rare

      Faithful Catholic and Annie's daughter thank you both for your comments. I'm sure you speak for all of us loyal Catholics who KNOW the goodness of most priests while despising the few who do dreadful things. Peace be with you both.

      April 11, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
  13. Fred

    Amazing that CNN is actually reporting on this.

    April 11, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
    • HeroesAre Rare

      Why Fred – because you don't think it's a wonderfully newsworthy report or because CNN are usually anti Catholic? I'm not being unkind here, I just want to know.

      April 11, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
  14. The Enforcer

    hey riley, you're a d-bag. get a life.

    April 11, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
    • riley

      Bless you child

      April 11, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
    • The Enforcer

      Thanks. Same to you.

      April 11, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
  15. Chris with Watoto Choir

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=jtj97Spgc_s

    April 11, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
  16. Ryc Lyden

    My father's body is also in North Korea. Likely, it will remain their indefinitely. He was to leave the service just before Truman froze the military. It was his aim to become a flying missionary. Instead he became a pilot of a B-26. He was killed when his plane went into a mountain following a supply train on 7 September 1951. I was 3 months old when he left.

    April 11, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • HeroesAre Rare

      I am so sorry you never got to know your dad; he sounds like a very good man. But you can be proud of a dad who died on active service for his country. RIP and God Bless you and your family.

      April 11, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
  17. coyoteliberty

    Wow. Only took five years in office, but Obama finally does something I can agree with.

    April 11, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
    • John

      Well then you are a sub moron.

      April 11, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • ellid

      I guess giving the MoH to Salvatore Giunta and several others wasn't good for you, not to mention actually visiting Dover to welcome home the remains of those who gave their lives for this country.

      April 11, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
  18. Dangerous1

    It takes pure GUTS to march into the battlefield without any firearm. All soldiers are braves especially whom experienced combat. But I will have to say, the bravest are the ones who take the marching order to the battlefield without a weapon except his "bible". They have the biggest balls of them all. I solute you all for all your sacrifices! Thank you!

    April 11, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
    • adam

      Id say this guy is reigning "no gun" champ

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desmond_Doss

      April 11, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
  19. Keyser Soze

    What an inspiring story. A fitting honor for such an honorable individual

    April 11, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
    • HeroesAre Rare

      Lovely comment. Bless you.

      April 11, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
  20. Andy Wright

    I had an uncle in the 8th Cav Reg in Korea, William Strong, who was captured during the second day of the battle of Unsan in Nov 1950, and died in the POW camp there. His "official date of loss" was Feb 29 1951. He was 27.

    April 11, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • *

      Andy,
      " His "official date of loss" was Feb 29 1951."

      There was no Feb 29 in 1951. It was not a leap year. You might want to check your records.

      April 11, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
    • HeroesAre Rare

      Oh for heavens' sake – so he got the date wrong. He's still the nephew of a hero!

      Nitpicking and undermining others is a shameful trait.

      April 11, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
    • *

      Well, excuuuuuuuse me for attention to detail. It is in no way an attempt to undermine him or his uncle, you paranoid nut.

      April 11, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
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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.