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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. Golden Calf

    This is a truly inspiring story. Awesome! God bless the faithful!

    April 13, 2013 at 10:11 am |
  2. Gus

    Who is poor Jacob, he can't even get the Popes right. Not that that is all that bad. But to say there is nothing that the Vatican is culpable is preprosterous to any person who has STUDIED the situation. Just another offering of the dumbing down of USA.

    April 12, 2013 at 9:36 am |
    • Jacob

      That's not what I"m saying at all. They're culpable for many events throughout history but definitely not for in-action during World War II. Yes, I got the Pope wrong it was Pius XII (it was 2:30 AM when I posted, gimme a break) but the point still stands about the Pave the Way foundation and his conduct during the war. I was a Catholic before I was an Atheist and I have studied this subject,why don't you read "The Myth of Hitler's Pope" and get back to me? Also, another example of the dumbing down of Americans? I'm done with trolls, RIP to this fine example of a human being.

      April 12, 2013 at 10:09 am |
  3. jeff

    What a coincidence with what is going on in N.Korea now.

    April 12, 2013 at 6:08 am |
    • Deist

      The soldiers saved by the heroic actions of this man have been trying to get the CMH for this man for over 60 years. It obviously took a combination of a crazy North Korean dictator and an empathic and opportunistic American President to get the task accomplished. Regardless, a lot of Americans, including myself, now know of this man's unique sacrifice.

      April 12, 2013 at 7:43 am |
    • Mrs. Pepperpot

      Congress is responsible for the MoH, not the President.
      I guess it would be Congress who is "opportunistic", although I would never term them "empathetic".

      April 12, 2013 at 11:19 am |
    • EX catholic

      Yeah! What's with that! Well made point!

      April 12, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  4. jeff

    Why wasn't this done sooner?

    April 12, 2013 at 6:03 am |
  5. jeff

    WOW, what good timeing.

    April 12, 2013 at 6:00 am |
  6. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things,

    April 12, 2013 at 5:56 am |
    • jeff

      It will get the Spanish inquisition of your back.

      April 12, 2013 at 6:13 am |
    • Jesus

      Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!

      April 12, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • Really?

      "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things"

      That's why the data, has shown that atheists have happier and healthier lives than conservative Christians. Your post is built on a lie!

      April 12, 2013 at 11:32 am |
    • ..

      statistics and data cited are all bull sh it

      April 12, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • .

      ".."

      is the same poster as "atheism is."

      Which is why they are lying again.

      April 12, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
  7. Joey Selene

    Funny how CNN uses different chat platforms for certain "news stories"

    April 12, 2013 at 5:36 am |
    • jeff

      WOW, what good timeing!

      April 12, 2013 at 5:52 am |
    • Mrs. Pepperpot

      Do you think this story belongs on "Eatocracy"?

      April 12, 2013 at 11:36 am |
  8. americanguy

    I think it is just fine that people who refuse to acknowledge science find other ways to pass the time.

    April 12, 2013 at 5:10 am |
  9. Mulla

    All you are ignore

    April 12, 2013 at 2:28 am |
    • Prairiebladerunner

      That's okay. We continue to ignore your existence too.

      April 12, 2013 at 2:53 am |
  10. Prairiebladerunner

    Did he bless bombs & guns? If he dd, ...

    April 12, 2013 at 2:11 am |
    • Prairiebladerunner

      Bomb-blessing priests are as old as gunpowder itself. Hopefully, he's not one of those.

      April 12, 2013 at 2:27 am |
    • Big Man

      Currently in Israel, their clerics bless armaments and soldiers and lecture that they must kill in accordance with the Talmud.

      April 12, 2013 at 7:06 am |
  11. Michael Siever

    What?! Obama's giving the Medal of Honor to a Christian?! Worst. Muslim. Anti-Christ. Ever.

    April 12, 2013 at 2:05 am |
    • Schoolmarm

      Stupidest. Comment. Here.

      April 12, 2013 at 2:10 am |
    • Michael Siever

      Worst. Joke. Detection. Ever.

      April 12, 2013 at 2:21 am |
    • Schoolmarm

      I just facepalmed myself, Mike. Funny!

      April 12, 2013 at 2:32 am |
  12. hassle

    The medal loses meaning because it came from that idiotic Commander in Chief

    April 12, 2013 at 1:58 am |
    • Schoolmarm

      Congress awards it, moron.
      Look past who presented it and look who received it.

      April 12, 2013 at 2:12 am |
    • Michael Siever

      The recipient was a chaplain (religious leader) answered both his call to God and his call of duty. Tell me that the Mormon draft-dodger, who basically said he couldn't serve in the military because he was "too important" to serve and "had to answer God's call" wouldn't have tainted this ceremony any less...

      April 12, 2013 at 2:19 am |
    • Lee

      Don't you know that Bush isn't Commander in Chief anymore?

      April 12, 2013 at 2:42 am |
  13. Missy

    Well done, oh good and faithful servant.

    April 12, 2013 at 1:51 am |
  14. Getoverit

    How can this be? Liberals are against religion...

    April 12, 2013 at 1:46 am |
    • Eric

      I wish that were true.

      April 12, 2013 at 1:53 am |
  15. Eric

    Fascism in the 1920s and 30s had no greater friend than the Catholic Church. Besides their support for Hitler (and silence throughout the slaughtering of 6 million Jews (with the exception of a few individualism action on their own)) they supported Franco in Spain and Mussolini in Italy to such an extent that he gave then Italian land to form their own state – the Vatican. Time to read a book I think.

    April 12, 2013 at 1:39 am |
    • alemap

      Eric, YOU need to read a book..Yours is a Precious Witness

      April 12, 2013 at 1:57 am |
    • Schoolmarm

      Eric speaks the truth. Get over it.

      April 12, 2013 at 2:13 am |
    • Jacob

      Are you retarded? Pope Paul VI saved thousands of Jews, the Pave the Way foundation nominated him to be listed as "Righteous among Nations" at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. Also, most of the Jewish leaders after the war praised his efforts. The myth about his "silence" or "non-action" comes from a moronic French playwright who came up with the provocative story in the 60's. I'm an Athiest and the Catholic Church has done some horrible things (their focus on charitable works helps make up for it) but nothing the Vatican did during World War II was out of line. Those thousands who were saved by the Catholic Church sure appreciated it anyway.

      April 12, 2013 at 2:36 am |
    • Eric

      Jacob,

      Really retarded??? Pope Paul VI didn't become Pope until 1963 – I could be wrong but wasn't that nearly 20 years after the war? If you want to counter my point you would do so by pointing to everything Pius XII did for the Jews in Germany as 6 Million of them were killed. I'm waiting.

      April 12, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
  16. God

    Good jobs,keep it up!
    I am proud of you

    April 12, 2013 at 1:31 am |
  17. juan

    Eric is your real name adolf hitler, he also hated religion. You will agree that he was a very good man.

    April 12, 2013 at 1:22 am |
    • Schoolmarm

      Hitler hated religion? Hitler hated a lot more than that. Oh, and Hitler was Catholic, as the recipient of the MoH was, so I'm not real sure where you're going with that parallel.

      April 12, 2013 at 1:26 am |
    • juan

      Hilter was never a Catholic, learn your history, he did not believe in God

      April 12, 2013 at 1:30 am |
    • Eric

      Hitler, Roman Catholic as I recall, assumed dictatorship when the Catholic Centrist Party in Germany joined the Nazis and Conservatives in passing the 'Enabling Act' in 1933. From a speech he made in 1922...

      "My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God's truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. ...Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed his blood upon the Cross."

      April 12, 2013 at 1:33 am |
    • Schoolmarm

      Hitler was Catholic. Sorry to burst your little bubble of ignorance.

      April 12, 2013 at 1:36 am |
    • Schoolmarm

      Thank you, Eric!

      April 12, 2013 at 1:39 am |
    • Eric

      Fascism in the 1920s and 30s had no greater friend than the Catholic Church. Besides their support for Hitler (and silence throughout the slaughtering of 6 million Jews (with the exception of a few individualism action on their own)) they supported Franco in Spain and Mussolini in Italy to such an extent that he gave then Italian land to form their own state – the Vatican. Time to read a book I think.

      April 12, 2013 at 1:40 am |
    • EX catholic

      @ Juan,

      Don't discuss something everyone knows. Adolf Hitler attended a Roman Catholic School was Catholic in practice.

      April 12, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • EX catholic

      Was Hitler Catholic, Was he a Christian? Well he claimed to be Christian out of one side of his mouth. In other words he gave lip service to Christianity and the majority of Christian Protestants. However he was educated and raised Catholic according to the site found below.

      Read here: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1699/was-hitler-a-christian

      Hitler is Quoted there as having said: "I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so."

      Also during the Signing of the VATICAN CONCORDAT in 4/26/33 he is quoted as saying: "Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without religious foundation is built on air; consequently all character training and religion must be derived from faith..."

      Funny if not a Phony how so Many Dictators are ALWAYS Signing CONCORDATS with the RCC, huh Juan?

      Does that word "CONCORDAT" sounds familiar to you Juan?

      April 12, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
    • EX catholic

      @ Juan,

      Was Hitler Catholic, Was he a Christian? Well he claimed to be Christian out of one side of his mouth. In other words he gave lip service to Christianity and the majority of Christian Protestants. However he was educated and raised Catholic according to the site found below.

      Read here: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1699/was-hitler-a-christian

      Hitler is Quoted there as having said: "I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so."

      Also during the Signing of the VATICAN CONCORDAT in 4/26/33 he is quoted as saying: "Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without religious foundation is built on air; consequently all character training and religion must be derived from faith..."

      Funny if not a Phony how so Many Dictators are ALWAYS Signing CONCORDATS with the RCC, huh Juan?

      Does that word "CONCORDAT" sounds familiar to you Juan?

      April 12, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
    • EX catholic

      Double entry was UNINTENDED, don't know how that happened, my Apologies.

      April 12, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
    • St Biff

      @EXcatholic/Current traitor to humanity ..

      Umm being born into a Catholic family and being Catholic are 2 different things.

      1st off "genius" care to explain the 3,000 Catholic Priests that were murdered at Dachau. STUPIDY like that typed from your fingertips is incurable.
      secondly care to explain these quotes from Hitler himself:

      Christianity is an invention of sick brains: one could imagine nothing more senseless, nor any more indecent way of turning the idea of the Godhead into a mockery.... .... When all is said, we have no reason to wish that the Italians and Spaniards should free themselves from the drug of Christianity. Let's be the only people who are immunised against the disease.

      19th October, 1941, night:

      The reason why the ancient world was so pure, light and serene was that it knew nothing of the two great scourges: the pox and Christianity.

      hitler

      April 13, 2013 at 1:25 am |
  18. Phaerisee

    Great Solider, a great Priest, and a great President. As the President began the ceremony today (April 11, 2013) North Korea had raised it's missile in apparent readiness to launch. Moments after he finished humbly leading Psalm 23, the missile was lowered. We are blessed to have a humble and reverential leader. May God be praised forever.

    April 12, 2013 at 1:19 am |
  19. Keksi

    Medal of Honor is Satanic symbol,look at it right in your face they are displaying inverted Satanic Pentagram.

    This is an insult not an award.

    April 12, 2013 at 1:14 am |
    • Eric

      Satan, God, etc, do not have symbols. Symbols are ways for people to control people – like religion itself.

      April 12, 2013 at 1:18 am |
    • Schoolmarm

      Oh, stop, Keksi. That's a ridiculous assertion.

      April 12, 2013 at 1:23 am |
  20. Eric

    – Religion in all forms is a delusional waste of time which, all in all, does far more harm than good
    – The Catholic Church should be bombed out of existance for the sheer volume of harm it has done over the years
    – We should not subsidize religion by paying religious people to wear the uniform and say mass on jeep hoods
    – This man still, likely, deserves the MOH

    April 12, 2013 at 1:14 am |
    • Eric

      Wow, Eric, you're sooooooo right and likely very smart!

      April 12, 2013 at 1:14 am |
    • Schoolmarm

      He "paid" with his life. He wasn't out there playing dress-up, dude.
      Wonder if your lack of belief means your lack of empathy flew out the window with it.

      And yeah, he totally deserves the MoH.

      April 12, 2013 at 1:32 am |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care!

      By that same reasoning then every soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, and coastie that dies in battle deserved the MOH. Bottom line is that this guy did very little and recieved the highest honor possible. So wrong.

      April 12, 2013 at 9:40 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.