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. M.O.

    Hey, CNN. Where are the Kermit Gosnell abortion clinic murder trial stories?

    April 12, 2013 at 1:10 am |
    • Schoolmarm

      Why in the hell would they be on the Belief Blog? Check the Justice section. Duh.

      April 12, 2013 at 1:15 am |
    • Jeezzzz

      You don't actually read the articles, do you marmy?

      April 12, 2013 at 1:36 am |
  2. Joe

    When you die and you lift your eyes in the fires of hell, then you can comment.
    Why should anyone believe anything YOU say?????

    April 12, 2013 at 12:54 am |
    • Eric

      You believe in one evil ass god if you think he's going to do that to me just for not believing.

      April 12, 2013 at 1:02 am |
  3. awedduct

    The atheist worships at the altar of *From nothing–EVERYTHING!* They then ridicule a concept that great minds–secular and religious alike–have accepted from time immemorial–an eternally existant Being is responsible for all we see, perceive, and are.

    The atheist's *reasoning* is not that one tenet is more reasonable than the other–either possibility is beyond reason. Rather, they put their faith (that's what it is!) in a belief system that requires no accountability. Atheism is the ultimate act of rebellion....

    April 12, 2013 at 12:50 am |
    • coolusernametwo

      The atheists believe in reson, logic, evidence, facts, and probability. Your god doesn't mean any of the tests.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:54 am |
    • coolusernametwo


      April 12, 2013 at 12:55 am |
    • tallulah13

      I don't believe in any god because there is no evidence of the existence of any god. It's not rebellion. It's common sense.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:58 am |
    • Eric

      How arrogant – you sit on one spec of one insignificant world and yet you say, without evidence of any kind, that you know where where came from and who created us and by the way – he needs money! All science says is that the evidence points in this direction – implies or proves this or that – Evidence and Facts. You folks have had control too long.

      April 12, 2013 at 1:06 am |
    • AllGodsAreTheSame

      Stop fooling yourself – your god serves the same purposes as the Sun God, in Egyptian days! I.e. the existence of any god is irrelevant.

      April 12, 2013 at 1:07 am |
  4. coolusernametwo

    We are not honoring the man, we are honoring his religion that made him do what he did, and that sucks!

    April 12, 2013 at 12:45 am |
    • awedduct

      Okay, what reason, logic, evidence, facts, or probability led you to the conclusion that Catholicism (I'm not a Catholic, btw) is being honored, rather than Captain Kapuan? You wield a pretty hefty cudgel in defending your cosmology, and then turn around and smash yourself in the foot with it by making such an absurd statement....

      April 12, 2013 at 1:06 am |
  5. thx1111

    Great timing!

    April 12, 2013 at 12:40 am |
  6. Adam

    Can we stop with the delusional fake GOD nonsense any time soon? We are never going to get anywhere while idiots still believe in fake invisble men in the sky. GET A CLUE. There is no magic helper. When you die, the lights go out. Stop pretending you are better than everyone because your fake nonsense will save you or whatever. Guess what? All your enemies think their fake god will save them too. You're a moron.

    April 12, 2013 at 12:37 am |
    • qazoo

      Keep your mouth closed ! You neither have the intelligence to even comprehend what this story is . Your no different then a neo-con chicken hawk.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:40 am |
    • coolusernametwo

      While obviously this man did good, he did so under a god delusion and that takes away from his actions, like it or not. If a meth addict happens to do good in his delirium, is he a hero?

      April 12, 2013 at 12:42 am |
    • qazoo

      Who cares ! What he did it under, and some of those atheists soldiers didn't care either. Until you have suffered you will never even begin to understand what it feels like to have hope. That's what he gave them.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:45 am |
    • coolusernametwo

      quazoo – to some, the distinction is important!

      April 12, 2013 at 12:47 am |
    • qazoo

      You think so, I got news for ya, it ain;t when your trying to survive.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:48 am |
    • Schoolmarm

      Keep your mouth closed! You don't have the intelligence to comprehend what this story is about. You're no different then a neo-con chicken hawk.

      ***Even after editing, this comment still makes no sense. Hey, I tried.***

      April 12, 2013 at 12:49 am |
    • coolusernametwo

      We are not trying to survive at the moment.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:51 am |
    • qazoo

      Yeah, no doubt what are we dealing with here 20 somethings, who think smoking dope and playing war games on their Xbox is hip and suave.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:54 am |
    • LaughingAtAthiest

      "When you die, the lights go out". And you know this How?

      April 12, 2013 at 12:58 am |
    • tallulah13

      There is no evidence of life after death, but there is no real way of knowing. However, humans have worshiped literally thousands of gods, therefore there is no way of being sure that you are worshiping the correct one. Perhaps the Egyptians, the Greeks or the Aztecs had it right all along. There is no way of knowing.

      April 12, 2013 at 1:01 am |
    • Eric

      ""When you die, the lights go out". And you know this How?" – A century of researching brain activity, mapping brain damage, and from watching what happens when a bullet flies through said brain.

      April 12, 2013 at 1:09 am |
  7. bribarian

    All this North Korea propaganda is getting weird....

    April 12, 2013 at 12:30 am |
    • Mark

      On the contrary, the timing is flawless and predictable. Look to any conflict and you will find similar examples, anything that can demonize an enemy has been used for centuries on end.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:45 am |
  8. BadDog91748

    It's pathetic that it has taken this long to honour this brave, selfless, soldier priest.

    April 12, 2013 at 12:27 am |
    • Dan

      He was clearly honored by those who knew him. I have no doubt he did what he did out of the goodness of his heart, and not for recognition.

      I'm afraid if we were to try and honor every person who went beyond 'the call of duty' in wartime, we'd be busy for a long long time.

      Maybe the bigger thing we can take from his story, is that he put the welfare of others first. It was not just about him and what he might gain. In a time where selfishness, pettiness and greed have become the definition of success, remembering a man like this in his actions, might just give us pause to consider what is really important in the world.

      I wonder what he'd think of some of the replies already here. I'm guessing he'd shake his head and wonder what we'd become.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:39 am |
  9. Jeffision

    My, my...what a koinkidinki that this award was given right now.

    April 12, 2013 at 12:27 am |
  10. evan

    dang this is just asking for war now were gonna have to fight them thanks alot way to pick such a great time to bring up a 60 year old subject related to a country were almost at war with

    April 12, 2013 at 12:25 am |
    • Adam

      They might fire their one missile. We will reposnd with several hundred. I'm so afraid...

      April 12, 2013 at 12:40 am |
    • Mark

      Adam, thankfully the generals that DO understand the ugliness of war are trying to make sure that does NOT happen, it would not be one missile then hundreds of ours – utter foolishness

      April 12, 2013 at 12:47 am |
  11. Michaela

    Wow. That's all that needs to be said. Atheist here saying, 'god' bless you Father.

    April 12, 2013 at 12:19 am |
    • qazoo

      Wow is right ! But even an atheist can find the humanity in this story. It can move one to tears.

      It took 60 years, and a young Black president who some like to call a Muslim to recognize a true hero, one who need not a gun to feel like a man.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:29 am |
  12. robin tha hood

    Wow what a coincidence that Obama decides to recognize the bravery and generosity of an American in North Korean capitivty sixty years ago. Why didnt he do this earlier? could it be because of the dick waving thats been going on in the north for the last few months?

    April 12, 2013 at 12:16 am |
    • Brian

      People ask why Obama is recognizing this brave man now and should be asking why he wasn't honored 60 years ago. I would like to know. Surely the military-political-industrial-media complex could be more efficient.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:29 am |
    • The Cranky Saint

      Obama just presented the medal. Congress decided to bring it up. Congress awarded it. It's called the CONGRESSIONAL Medal of Honor.

      April 12, 2013 at 4:37 am |
  13. ML

    Why now? Should we thank Kim Jong Un for this?

    April 12, 2013 at 12:09 am |
  14. d

    unlike liberals today who want to kill first ask questions later

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

      see U.S. citizen drone strikes, partial birth abortions, oaths to nuke NK (when we already nuked the CITY of Hiroshima, yet NK is the bad guys?) and Obama-sponsored sequestration

      April 12, 2013 at 12:13 am |
    • huskiemom

      You're stupid.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:14 am |
    • d

      how's 2nd grade treating? not good from the looks of it!

      April 12, 2013 at 12:18 am |
    • Klaark

      From 2000 to 2008 conservatives LOVED killing. They still love it.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:22 am |
    • d

      yeah but the liberals are beating them in the numbers, especially Obama fighting for freedom in Afghanistan

      April 12, 2013 at 12:26 am |
  15. genold

    Regardless of faith, this man ministered to anyone and helped all. He gave his life when he had a chance to retreat with the rest of his unit. Though many of us are not of any faith, we still see the humanity, courage and kindness this gentle man unselfishly gave without concern for his own life. Faith is either a gift or a curse, but that is not important here. What is important is recognizing a truly extraordinary human being.

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

      Yep. I'm an atheist, lifelong. I despise the Catholic 'church'. But you'd have to be an unfeeling psychopath not to feel incredible admiration for this man.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:21 am |
    • gallopagus

      I agree with Michaela. I'm a lifelong agnostic, but I recognize how much faith and those who bolster faith can mean to followers. It makes a very big difference. And for those soldiers who didn't believe, it still meant the world to have someone who was trying to look after you, who was there for you, who would find food, bring water, defend you against the guards – Kapun was incredibly courageous.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:35 am |
    • Jeepman

      Well said. My father was a prisoner with Chaplain Kapaun 60 years ago. One day my Dad woke up with pneumonia so severe he couldn't lift his head up. Chaplain Kapaun nursed him, gave my Dad his own food, and brought him through it. He literally saved my father's life. The only time in my life I ever saw my Dad cry was when he came back from Chaplain Kapaun's memorial service after the war. Some of my Dad's fellow prisoners have worked for years and years to make this happen. It's long overdue and more than well deserved.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:36 am |
  16. JeffD

    i am an Athiest and serve in the military. I personally do not care if this guy was a Chaplain or not, or of what religion. if he was administering aide, hot water, food and risking his life in doing so he deserves every bit of the award he was given. While i am not religious to each their own and i can guarantee if any of you denouncing him were PoWs in a similar situation you would be thankful for everything he did for you.

    We need more selflessness in the military like Capt. Kapaun.

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

      Roger that.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:03 am |
    • dave Green


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

      "We need more selflessness in the military like Capt. Kapaun."

      And you should learn from that, JeffD the atheist.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:15 am |
    • Michaela

      Ramen. Or, in honor of this incredible human being, AMEN.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:22 am |
    • gallopagus

      Where's the "like" button? 🙂

      April 12, 2013 at 12:35 am |
  17. JC

    210, the extra chromosome our brilliant friend Phill is talking about is the soul. He obviously lacks one.

    April 11, 2013 at 11:57 pm |
  18. Keith

    Sounds dumb.

    April 11, 2013 at 11:55 pm |
  19. Phill

    in N. Korea?
    How convenient.
    Making the case for another war. Send your kids, he sure won't send his.

    April 11, 2013 at 11:44 pm |
  20. 210

    It's funny how all the atheists have everything figured out and start trolling the moment someone mentions believing in a deity. Atheists never miss a chance to inform you how intellectually superior they are, and how you're an idiot for believing in a "fairy" or whatever pejorative they choose to use. It's also funny how you guys use Darwin as your iconic leader when in fact he was an agnostic theist.

    April 11, 2013 at 11:44 pm |
    • Phill

      If you still believe in religion you may have an extra chromosome

      April 11, 2013 at 11:45 pm |
    • genold

      Not all. Some are simply decent human beings who really don't care one way or the other what another person's faith may be so long as they are left alone.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:04 am |
    • Shane

      Yeah, they're so intellectually superior that they've figured out how nothing created everything....from nothing. They got it all figured out, smarter than Einstein they are! Gag.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:05 am |
    • I wonder


      So, *everything* that exists was *created*, eh?

      You claim "God" exists, right?

      Who created him/her/it?

      April 12, 2013 at 12:13 am |
    • Michaela

      I've seen nothing of the sort, nitwit. All I have seen is that atheists are posting how admirable this human being was and that his amazing works transcend beliefs and philosophy. You might be a j-rk if you can't see the love atheists have for all human beings who are decent and loving to their fellow man, no matter their beliefs. Unlike you, j-rk, who cannot see the good in us no matter how kind and loving we are.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:25 am |
    • Shane

      I don't know who/what created God, if I did, I'd be the richest, most interesting man in the world. Some questions cannot be answered by man but to say something doesn't exist because I don't understand it would be ignorant. I never bought what religion was selling, I don't know if there is a heaven or hell but lets take religion out of the equation for second and focus on the science of it all. It wasn't until I started dabbling in physics and cosmology that I really started to believe in intelligent design. Physics teaches us that there are multiple dimensions, some closer to your skin that your clothes, you can't see it and you can't feel it, but it's there nonetheless. We've also just very recently come to the startling realization that our universe is not infinite as we've been taught, but in fact finite with a boundary and edge which begs to question, what exists outside our universe? Outside of space and time? Scientists have learned that all the galaxies in the universe are being pulled to one side, as if being attracted by a "magnet" meaning that something just on the other side of the universe is pulling them in that direction. This is proof that something else is out there, something that existed/exists beyond space and time as we know it. I have deduced that God exists beyond our realm, in another dimension where the rules that we are bound to don't apply and have never applied so there can be no earthly explanation. God wrote the laws of physics and the processes we see playing out in the universe are a result of them. God does not intervene on our behalf nor is he pushing the buttons for hurricanes, death and anything of the sort nor is he watching over us from the sky. It's much deeper than that and we're not capable of understanding it, that's what makes us human and why it's better to do as the old saying goes "keep it simple, stupid".

      April 12, 2013 at 1:27 am |
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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.