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. coolusernametwo

    The poor guy probably liked his methamphetamine way too much, in addition to being under god delusion.

    April 11, 2013 at 11:02 pm |
    • bigfoot

      Methamphetamines didn't exist in 1952.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
    • fyi


      Yes it did. It has been around since the late 1890s

      "One of the earliest uses of methamphetamine was during World War II, when it was used by Axis and Allied forces."

      April 11, 2013 at 11:19 pm |
    • Kinenai

      YES! I agree with you on every level. Only drug addled morons who believe in religion are stupid enough to sacrifice life and limb for the sake of others. As an Atheist, I have watched people cook inside burning cars and didn't even bother dialing 911. It's a good thing hell isn't real otherwise I would be condemned to eternal hell fire. WOW! You're a smart person! Why are you not running the country?

      April 11, 2013 at 11:20 pm |
    • bigfoot

      It didn't exist in the way that HE is thinking. There were pills that were about as potent as a double espresso.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:23 pm |
    • Redspotz

      Kinenai: here's to hoping the rest of us have the opportunity to show the same level of caring and compassion for you that you show your fellow man. You seem to be an empty, hollow individual; I feel sorry for you.

      April 12, 2013 at 7:13 am |
  2. Red

    Wow. Job well done soldier. That article was actually fun to read. It's always extra sweet when the good guys come out on top. God is Great!!! RIP Captain Kapaun.

    April 11, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
  3. Bryan

    I attended a Catholic high school in Kansas named after this man. This was a nice thing to see on CNN.

    April 11, 2013 at 10:57 pm |
  4. coolusernametwo

    The man was god delusional. That's not courage, that's stupidity.

    April 11, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
    • bigfoot

      You have no proof God doesn't exist.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:03 pm |
    • Paul

      You are a bigot that can't see past your bias for what the article is really about. Someone who sacrificed himself in combat conditions to save other soldiers. Even if you don't believe in God, that type of valor deserves respect.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
    • johnh1625


      April 11, 2013 at 11:06 pm |
    • Bocepheous

      You sir are an idiot.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
    • coolusernametwo

      No reapect if you act under the influence of delusions, regardless what causes them.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
    • Paul

      You are right "coolusernametwo", you deserve no respect. You are an idiot.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:10 pm |
    • Redspotz

      Cool: you're a coward, yellow, through and through.

      April 12, 2013 at 7:14 am |
    • Pole dancing for Jesus

      bigfoot. Do you have any proof that unicorns do not exist? Or the gods of others that you do not believe in?

      April 12, 2013 at 7:18 am |
  5. toohip4u

    This chaplain deserves high recognition for his service and courage. But the MoH is reserved for "valor" under fire, not good deeds, not preaching the gospel, and giving inspiration. This is kind of a insult to the many soldiers who fought valiantly, were active heroes and died in battle. Seems like a feel-good effort, but an abuse of the nation's highest military medal for valor under fire.

    April 11, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
    • coolusernametwo

      I agree. See my comment above. If a drug addict did that while under influence of his drugs, his good deeds would not count at all.

      April 11, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
    • bigfoot

      He basically sacrificed his own life for the sake of the well being of his fellow soldiers. What more do you want?

      April 11, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
    • Steph

      Did you miss that part where he got wounded men out of combat while under fire?

      April 11, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
    • bee

      Purely political, especially at this time. Guess way too much attention has been on North Korea and their midget maniac, time for the admin to try and keep up 😉

      April 11, 2013 at 11:02 pm |
    • Paul

      Read the article and others written about him. He went into combat and was on the front lines. He was known for leaving foxholes to retrieve wounded soldiers while under fire. If that isn't valor under fire, I don't know what is.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:02 pm |
    • Redspotz

      No, you're incorrect regarding the standards to qualify for the MoH; Adm. James Stockdale was awarded the MoH for he conduct as a POW. Recommend you read up on the Medal.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:02 pm |
    • nllewell

      I get your point, but I'd like to suggest that valor in a military chaplain is, or at least can be, expressed a bit differently than valor in a regular soldier. You sound like a veteran yourself, and if you are, thank you for your service and may God bless you.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:03 pm |
    • malacoda

      You should probably read articles before commenting on them.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:04 pm |
    • Redspotz

      Bee, your comment is vapid at best. The president doesn't keep a supply of the MoH in a desk drawer for when he needs a photo op.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:04 pm |
    • Juliejet

      Valor: Strength of mind or spirit that enables a person to encounter danger with firmness : personal bravery " ~ As defined by Webster dictionary. Sure sounds like the Priest/Chaplain/Soldier meets the criteria.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:12 pm |
  6. bigfoot

    Thismwas too long in coming. I am happy members of his family were there to accept this award.

    April 11, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
  7. Donald Fool

    It's quite amusing to see republicans whine and whine over Obama. Ha!

    April 11, 2013 at 10:48 pm |
  8. Chuck

    A well deserved honor, and the timing is perfect.

    April 11, 2013 at 10:45 pm |
  9. Chris

    I am pretty sure this had already expired for time frame. What this did was help push the Obama agenda against guns and Korea. There was a reason why limitations were put in place on these awards, to prevent things like this.

    April 11, 2013 at 10:41 pm |
    • davessworks

      Overlooked – but you, sir, are a fool.

      April 11, 2013 at 10:44 pm |
  10. Selmers

    I want to be sure Obama apologized to North Korea for Kapaun first.

    April 11, 2013 at 10:41 pm |
  11. Tutuvabene

    Seems a bit too coincidental that this is happening now, in the midst of NK's ranting. Why wasn't this recognized with a MoH 60 years ago? What's the point Obama is trying to make?

    April 11, 2013 at 10:33 pm |
    • John D

      It isn't uncommon for medals to be awarded a long time after death.

      April 11, 2013 at 10:44 pm |
    • Mike

      Why do folks have to politicize this long-overdue honor for a chaplain who saved a lot of our men in Korea? Obama had nothing to do with this, other than presenting the MofH, which a president typically does for the nation's highest award. There is a lengthy Associated Press story that appeared in papers last week (IOrange County Register in California for one) and it explains that it was the POWs who were imprisoned with this priest who have been trying off and on to get him the MofH for 60 years. A retired Army colonel a few years ago doing research gathered lots of eyewitness accounts of Kapaun's heroism, and being a former colonel, he also knew the nomination process for a medal. It was a combined effort of this colonel, the former POWs who were there in prison with the priest, and a Kansas congressman who sent a thick application package to the Army. Please don't belittle a long-overdue honor for Army Chaplain Kapaun. Read the AP story and you will understand; his concern for others brought tears to my eyes.

      April 11, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
    • Robert Reed

      This has been in the works for years here in Kansas. I live here in Kansas, and I've watched the news about this story for a very long time. It finally started to come together a few months ago, long before the recent rhetoric started in North Korea, so please don't make this a political thing. It's not! This man was a good man, and his family is finally getting something to show that the government is recognizing him for what he did for our country.

      April 11, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
  12. Carol Marden

    May he rest in the arms of angels for he too is one!

    April 11, 2013 at 10:28 pm |
  13. mom

    Is this photo evidence that Me-First Michelle might actually be showing a little pride in her country for the second time "in her adult life?" She and her "husband" seem to have finally picked up some behaviors that show they may actually have learned that our country DOESN'T need their kind of "hope" and "change." This nation has been helping people around the world find a little hope, and a change for the better, LONG BEFORE the BO and MO brigade ever drew a breath. Lord willing, we will be around to do so long after they are gone from their hypocritical perches in OUR House.

    April 11, 2013 at 10:12 pm |
    • Donnie the Lion

      What a disgusting, condescending, holier than thou comment.

      April 11, 2013 at 10:23 pm |
    • Imminent

      It is a bit sad that you would spout your cancerous thoughts here degrading the article. Your intent doesn't matter. It isn't positive and insults this great article about a real selfless American.

      April 11, 2013 at 10:38 pm |

      WOW...Hate much Mom? Glad your nowhere near my kids.

      April 11, 2013 at 10:39 pm |
    • Non

      Must have graduated from I criticize everything university.

      April 11, 2013 at 10:49 pm |
    • Skip Lockwood

      Perhaps your vitriol is because you actually hate yourself. Look within.

      April 11, 2013 at 10:54 pm |
    • David


      April 11, 2013 at 11:06 pm |
  14. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    April 11, 2013 at 9:17 pm |
  15. jcanch

    A remarkable story about a self-less human being who cared more about others than himself despite almost sure death at every turn.

    April 11, 2013 at 9:01 pm |
    • Carol Marden

      I so agree with you. Thank you for your great post.

      April 11, 2013 at 10:27 pm |
  16. Mark Schroeder

    They can't see beyond conspiracy. Good to call these shallow-minded, but they will never be able to grasp it. They will see it as a conspiracy.

    April 11, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
  17. Mike

    There is a Los Angeles Times story published a few days ago that goes into detail about how the former POWs who were imprisoned with the priest tried for many years off and on to get the process started for a Medal of Honor, because he did some very remarkable things in Korea and was very much a selfless man who put others before himself. These former POWs finally got the attention of a lawmaker in Kansas as I recall from the story, and he pushed hard to get the Medal of Honor for him and was successful. I don't think it had anything to do with the Obama administration pushing for this. It came about because of the POWs who were with Father Kapaun and the lawmaker in Kansas who paid attention and did something about their push to have the priest rightfully honored for saving the lives of others.

    April 11, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
  18. Eric

    @Kanageloa: Why aren't you criticizing the Bush43 Adminstration for not stepping up and awarding him the CMOH? Wow, Obama is dammed if he does and dammed if he doesn't. He cannot get a break with you idiots.

    What points are there to gain? Tell me.

    April 11, 2013 at 8:06 pm |
  19. Jennifer

    Beautiful story. An example of a true Christian.

    April 11, 2013 at 7:58 pm |
    • JJ

      No. An example of a good person.

      April 11, 2013 at 9:19 pm |
    • Imminent

      Yes, a good Christian. While he would probably have been just about as great if he weren't, it just so happens that faith more often just enhances the actions of a person. No arguing that.

      April 11, 2013 at 10:41 pm |
  20. Kanageloa

    Why now and not years ago? Politics? Maybe. I wouldn't put it past the current Administration to do it now to gain some points.

    April 11, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
    • midwest rail


      April 11, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
    • MaryAnn in VA

      Can you right wingers please not politicize everything? It's sickening and I think you all should crawl back in your holes and wait for the world to end. Man, ya'll suck the life outta everyone.

      April 11, 2013 at 8:11 pm |
    • Spanman66

      Seriously? Can there not be one story that references this administration where some simpleton doesn't have to spout venom and conspiracy rhetoric ? Maybe you should open your mind and heart and appreciate the truly amazing acts of this priest as well as the fact that someone in our government stepped up and gave him some long overdue recognition.

      April 11, 2013 at 8:13 pm |
    • Mark Schroeder

      Midwest, mary ann, and spanman.......They can't see beyond conspiracy. Good to call out these shallow-minded, but they will never be able to grasp it. They will see it as a conspiracy. Right on though.

      April 11, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
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About this blog

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.