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How this story came together

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Dec. 6, 2009, at 12:08 a.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011, at 9:25 a.m.

This series and video documentary delve deep into the life of Father Emil Kapaun — and the nature of miracles.

In the 58 years since he died in a Korean War prison camp, The Eagle has done dozens of stories about the priest from Pilsen. There have been three books published about him.

But we wanted to dig deeper in describing Kapaun's heroism and in explaining how he steeled himself to be that way.

Videographer Travis Heying and I took four trips to interview five former POWs who were friends with Kapaun: Robert Wood in O'Fallon, Mo.; Mike Dowe in Houston; William Funchess in Clemson, S.C.; Bob McGreevy in Cumberland, Md.; and Herbert Miller in Pulaski, N.Y.

We also interviewed seven other POWs who knew Kapaun in the camps: Joe Ramirez of Houston; Gerald Cavagnaro of Harpers Ferry, W. Va.; Al Brooks of Albert Lea, Minn.; Donald Slagle of Belleville, Kan.; Phil Peterson of Riverside, Calif.; Edmund Reel of Moorefield, W. Va.; and Tibor Rubin of Garden Grove, Calif., who won the Medal of Honor in Korea.

Dowe was invaluable because he was close friends with Kapaun and with William "Moose" McClain, a POW who wrote an unpublished memoir. Dowe lent us his copy.

We talked with other soldiers, including Raymond Skeehan of Denver, who knew Kapaun on the battlefields but was not captured. Skeehan, a photographer and medical officer, lent us a scrapbook of photos he took of the 8th Cavalry, including his shot of Kapaun saying Mass in the field.

Travis, photographer Bo Rader and I — with the help of the Rev. John Hotze — also spent weeks studying, copying and scanning the scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, photographs, Kapaun sermons and thousands of documents in the Wichita diocese archives. We even found the one known recording of Kapaun's voice.

Sam Sackett from the staff of Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Goddard, gave us a copy of the file Tiahrt's staff assembled when Tiahrt asked the Army to review Kapaun for the Medal of Honor.

Reporting a story this vast, from memories nearly 60 years distant, was a little tricky.

William Latham, a historian and a retired Army lieutenant colonel and instructor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, consulted with us, making sure the series was accurate from a military history perspective. Latham spent the past eight years researching a book on Korean War POWs. During that work he gave copies of his research to the Kapaun family, who gave it to Army officials reviewing Kapaun for the Medal of Honor.

Travis and Bo photographed a number of images on several trips to Kapaun's boyhood church and first parish, St. John Nepomucene in Pilsen.

When we asked to photograph Kapaun's possessions on display at Kapaun Mount Carmel High School, the staff spent hours removing heavy glass and wood from display cases for us.

Travis did most of the interviews with Chase Kear and his family. Chase's recovery is being investigated by the Vatican as a possible miracle attributed to Kapaun.

The descendants of POWs also helped us.

One of Kapaun's closest POW friends was Ralph Nardella, who died in 1989. Nardella's daughter Pam, of New Jersey, climbed into an attic to find the trunk where her father stored his papers. She sent us hundreds of documents.

Laurie Uhlman of New Hampshire, granddaughter of POW Chester Osborne, scanned and sent photos and documents.**

Rose Mary Neuwirth of Pilsen, the chief caretaker of Kapaun's artifacts and legacy in Pilsen, gave us the church tour and supplied names of people who knew Kapaun.

William Maher, who wrote "Shepherd in Combat Boots," gave us permission to use several quotations.

Most of all, we got help from dozens of Kapaun's wartime friends who have died. In the records in the diocese archives, Walt Mayo, Sidney Esensten, Clarence Anderson and many others left vivid descriptions of their friend.

They said they owed him.

** CORRECTION: This corrects an error in the original version of the story. Return to story.

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