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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. Natalie

    My father fought in WWII. Had his feet frost bitten while defending the country against the Germans and no one ever gave him a medal for it.

    April 11, 2013 at 11:43 pm |
    • kristinakaye

      I salute your father for his service to our country. But ... getting frostbite is not comparable to what this man did for his fellow comrades.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:02 am |
    • Howard

      I too salute him for his service. I am a 20 year veteran who is disabled with six screws and three rods in his back. I am not looking for medals. It was sufficient for me to be of service to my country. I am proud to say that I am retired Navy and the proud father of a US Marine!

      April 12, 2013 at 12:09 am |
    • kristinakaye

      This is for Howard ...

      You just made me smile ... and cry! I salute you sir!!!

      April 12, 2013 at 12:13 am |
  2. Paul

    One of ten commandments says "Thou shalt not kill." How does a priest who call him self a man of God bless soldiers that have had kill other people? He probably was a hero, but he is not a man of God. If you believe in God and understand His words, I am sure that you understand that all those that have killed others won't find a place in heaven, this include all the military people that support wars and go and kill other people. If my grammar is not good, English is my second language.

    April 11, 2013 at 11:43 pm |
    • FreshPrintz89

      Im not too sure about that one. There is the story of Arjuna, and completing his Dharma, or it would have been a sin on his part. I know Im coming from a spiritual point of view, but I feel religion isn't the same as spirituality, I do read the bible, Im just not religious.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:48 pm |
    • kristinakaye

      What are you saying here? He isn't being presented the Medal of Honor because he was a priest! Is that all you got out of the story? Or is that just want you wanted to get out of the story? In any event, he saved an unknown amount of US soldiers and that should make you stand up and salute him ... and have your spirit swell up in national pride. Medal of Honor means something extremely significant to me ... I wish I could see that in many writing here.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:59 pm |
    • Howard

      So by your thinking, Paul should never have been blessed by Jesus after he had some Christians persecuted prior to becoming a disciple. Additionally, what about priests who provide last rights to condemned prisoners about to be executed for their crimes. Do they not deserve to be blessed before they die? I think you need to read the Bible again and understand it better. This man was indeed a man of God.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:03 am |
    • leedogg

      Why dont you leave the judgement up to the God you believe in, and not attempt to deny any of his people, the services of a priest.

      April 12, 2013 at 1:26 am |
  3. FreshPrintz89

    Hey CNN can your reporters define what accusations are being propagated about the US by NK? Calling a countries campaign propaganda without defining what's being said, is PROPAGANDA. Im looking for a CNN response, why do you guys push propaganda?

    April 11, 2013 at 11:38 pm |
    • FreshPrintz89

      Hey CNN im still waiting for you to school me? whats up?

      April 11, 2013 at 11:44 pm |
  4. Jon Peckham

    Sure why not? Religion is all about killing and death like the military and the Industrial Military complex is? Who Cares anymore. We are all doomed to kill each other any more. . .

    April 11, 2013 at 11:37 pm |
  5. Redlion281

    As with anything with our government anymore its always a day late and a dollar short but over 60 years for this to come is an absolute sin but thats how broken the whole thing is.

    April 11, 2013 at 11:29 pm |
    • jer kas

      Not late just on time trying to fuel the fire on NK instead of letting it go away.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:38 pm |
  6. Chuck

    God Bless him, a true hero.

    April 11, 2013 at 11:27 pm |
    • Thor

      Okay, just for you, I'll bless him.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:28 pm |
    • Mack

      Obama blessed him, too. See everyone, BHO respect some God!!

      April 11, 2013 at 11:29 pm |
  7. kristinakaye

    I seldom post messages to Boards like this because of the totally ignorant comments made by people who think they see a Conspiracy in everything ... or hate in everything. How can you be so hurtful to a Medal of Honor winner. Just saying that ... "Medal of Honor" brings tears to my eyes. It matters not what religion the person was ... it matters that he saved the lives of many US soldiers. You have very little national pride to feel so hateful. What can I say ... I just cry for you.

    April 11, 2013 at 11:25 pm |
  8. JM

    With all due respect to the deceased Captain, his patriotism, and his supporters: I have absolute disrespect for the Pentagon's timing to bestow this award, as well as for their underlying motivations which cheapen the accolade by a significant degree. If I can see through it, then the pentagon should either hire me to replace the incompetent personnel who contrived it, or they should just reassess their methodology and bring it up to date with the 21st century. They couldn't sell an ice cube for free in a desert.

    April 11, 2013 at 11:21 pm |
    • Old soldier

      Dufus, you are out if line! Stories of this Chaplain crop every once in a while. I suppose it has to do with attempts to retrieve his body and move him up to canonization. It has nothing to do with current conditions with North Korea political hype. The Pentagon personnel have more on their plates than to worry about subterfuge you see. Go back into your dark, lonely, hopeless closet. He isn't the only man moving slowly through the wickets: he's long dead, and more current vets are moving through the channels. Vietnam and Korean vets receive awards periodically, but Iraq and Afghanistan vets are more "in your face" for awards and decorations. His family and others will be the ones who are responsible fir keeping his name in the pot. You are a poor excuse for a Troll. Tchuss, yardbird!

      April 11, 2013 at 11:44 pm |
  9. Kingofthenet

    I am an Atheist, but am in AWE of the sacrifice of this OUTSTANDING American.

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

      I still can't help but see that religion turned this man into a robot.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:21 pm |
    • Kingofthenet

      He didn't do this for God, but instead to help his fellow Americans Soldiers and friends.

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

      King is right. Soldiers strongest sense of loyalty on the battlefield is not some distant abstraction like god or country, but their buddies and comrades.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:27 pm |
    • coolusernametwo

      A true hereo knows what he is doing, knows the dangers, and does it anyway. Not someone who is under a god delusion. That's sad!

      April 11, 2013 at 11:27 pm |
    • Kingofthenet

      Don't question people's motives, at the end of the day, getting the job done is what matters. Starving Soldiers got food from this man, I doubt ANY of them would look a gift horse in the mouth.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
    • John

      I think that this man was a great hero and that his beliefs were a source of strength for him. It cannot be doubted that he held fast to his belief in God and I think we owe it to his memory to respect his spiritual convictions even if they are not our own.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:39 pm |
    • leedogg

      Cool, you seem to care more about WHY he did things as opposed to WHAT he did. Why is that?

      April 11, 2013 at 11:52 pm |
  10. Cristiano Arruda

    Strange... Obama classified the Roman Catholics as extremist terrorists. I know his dubious way of lieing.

    April 11, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
    • ?

      Is that like your dubious way of spelling?

      April 11, 2013 at 11:19 pm |
    • Throb Johnson

      As opposed to the non-dubious way of lying?

      April 11, 2013 at 11:19 pm |
  11. NASH

    WHY?

    Is this honor given 60 years later?

    Is no one else noticing the timing of this and asking why?

    April 11, 2013 at 11:17 pm |
    • ?

      So you don't read newspapers? This happens all the time.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
    • NASH

      When was the last time a president gave a nationally televised address to honor a hero of a war dubbed "The Forgotten War" was my point.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:20 pm |
    • Old soldier

      Does your tinfoil hat make you write this drivel? If you knew anything about the military and awards/decorations process, you would know to shut up. The military doesn't need to market this man for anything. He and his contributions crop periodically. Nothing new about him. He just surfaced in the awards hopper. Tchuss, azzwipe!

      April 11, 2013 at 11:48 pm |
    • leedogg

      Clearly it was a campaign stunt for the next election :rollseyes:

      April 11, 2013 at 11:50 pm |
  12. David

    This man deserves every bit of respect. He was the true hero in society, and his legacy will live on.

    April 11, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
    • Cristiano Arruda

      The priest, you mean. Yes, David?

      April 11, 2013 at 11:19 pm |
  13. MattyP

    Hate to be cynical, but seems like the government is trotting out as much anti-North Korean propaganda as it can. The NK suck, but we don't need to destabilize that region by rattling sabers with Jun. Let the Chinese clean house.

    April 11, 2013 at 11:15 pm |
    • NASH

      Agreed, to an extent. China won't solve the problem. But we can't let our media become like their state media. Or do we, it's all crap now anyways.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
  14. coolusernametwo

    Delusional stupidity is sad, and I feel sorry for this man for lapping up the religious nonsense. While he did good, he did so because he believed nonsense.

    April 11, 2013 at 11:14 pm |
    • midwest rail

      Trolling should never be this boring.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
    • coolusernametwo

      I'm just surprised how people don't get it.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:17 pm |
    • Greg

      Slimeball, get out of your parents basement and get a life!

      April 11, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
    • Mack

      A very rational viewpoint, regardless of what the blindly faithful will say.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:31 pm |
    • 210

      Oh yeah you have the entire universe figured out, don't you? @sshole

      April 11, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
    • leedogg

      Why do you resent/ bear a grudge against somebody just because they are religious? I'm atheist, but I can still recognize heroic actions for their merits alone. This is your own personal bias and prejudice influencing your opinion.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:49 pm |
  15. Bocepheous

    Thank you Chaplain for your courage and selfless service. You are a hero.

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

      Not. Just a fool.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:15 pm |
  16. Edward Wittig

    Dad,
    Check this out. Let me know if you get it.

    Rick

    April 11, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
  17. coolusernametwo

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

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

      Why such cynicism, dude? Who are you to say he was deluded?

      April 11, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
    • Greg

      Here is hoping that coolusername gets beat by a gay beholders!

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

      Not cynical at all. Just pointing out some facts.

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

      Faith and reason are not in contradiction with each other. You should read "Fides et ratio" by John Paul II. Don't just listen to the "new atheist" so-called logic – examine the other side before presuming that faith equals delusion. Nothing could be further from the truth.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:24 pm |
    • Mack

      Colin: Most atheists have indeed researched the other side. Since most of them were raised by believers they generally had to think for themselves and make their own determination. They have largely looked at your side because they were immersed in it as children. My question is whether you've truly looked outside your own dogmatism. I would bet not, but you can feel free to walk us through your research.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:35 pm |
    • leedogg

      Even if he had saved your grandfathers life?

      April 11, 2013 at 11:42 pm |
    • Paperworks

      Beliefs are thoughts, what this man is being honored for is action. Anyone can express their opinions and beliefs and thoughts in a coffee shop, in the workplace, or on this board, but one has to separate oneself from their words and get into the maelstrom to have any right to speak to the man's actions. They were selfless, and ultimately self-sacrificing. To speak of that on an internet posting is like comparing apples to rocket ships. There are not very many people on this board who could hold the hem of the uniforms of a Medal Of Honor winner. Any of them.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:43 pm |
  18. albie

    religious brainwashing should never be condoned

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

      If a guy, high on meth, did something brave, is that bravery? Not!

      April 11, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
    • kristinakaye

      What a totally idiotic statement you just made. The man was a HERO and you can only think this of him and our country. How pathetic you are.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:15 pm |
    • colin

      Save your comments for another time, another place.

      April 11, 2013 at 11:17 pm |
  19. BigBears

    Served 18 months in 1970-71 at Kapaun barracks in Kaiserslautern Germany, and knew about father Emil Kapaun, and always wondered why a soldier that did what he did, and had barracks named after him, was not ever considered for some kind of an award.
    I guess, like the saying goes, better late then never.

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

      Amen BigBear

      April 12, 2013 at 12:23 am |
  20. socalpimp

    The story of this man brought me to tears. God bless his memory. Thank you for reporting on his medal.

    April 11, 2013 at 11:02 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.