Before she learned that her son Emil Kapaun had died in a North Korean prisoner of war camp, Bessie Kapaun told family friend Millie Vinduska about the recurring dream she had about him.
In the dream, Bessie said, she saw Emil walking home on the country road that led to their farmstead near Pilsen.
“But she said every time he got to the gate, he never made it in,” said Vinduska, who still lives in Pilsen.
“She said he couldn’t seem to make it all the way home.”
Her son was captured by the Chinese in November 1950, along with the men Kapaun called “my boys,” his fellow prisoners of war in the Pyoktong prison camp.
Chaplain Emil Kapaun never did make it home. But Thursday, nine of the former POWs – “my boys” – will make it to the White House to watch President Obama hand the Medal of Honor to Kapaun’s family.
They are delighted by the award – but irritated that it took this long. Kapaun’s few surviving Army friends, who served and starved beside him in North Korea, said Obama’s praise of the priest should have been spoken by a U.S. president decades ago.
Former POW Mike Dowe, one of Kapaun’s closest friends in the camp, presented documentation and testimony to top Army officials starting as early as 1953 to get Kapaun the medal. That attempt was rejected.
In the days leading up to Thursday’s ceremony, Dowe said how disappointed he is that so many of Kapaun’s friends did not live the 60 years it took for the government to do what he called “the obvious.”
“I’m delighted this is happening,” Dowe said Wednesday as he boarded a train in New York for Washington. “I don’t know how many of my troops will be there, though.”
Dowe had helped gather the names of the few survivors, trying to make sure they got invited. But most of the men who loved Kapaun are gone.
Among those who didn’t make it was Walt Mayo, who – with Dowe and Kapaun – often risked his life to steal food from the guarded prison camp storage rooms to feed starving prisoners. Virginia Mayo, his widow, said her husband regarded Kapaun as a hero and saint right up until his death in 1996.
“He said that Father Kapaun was just unbelievably good,” she said.
The Kapaun POWs are the most dazzling fraternity of people she has ever seen, she said.
“I went with Walt to a reunion in the early 1970s, and it was more like a crazy frat party than anything,” she said. “It gave me goose pimples when I first went to those reunions. Their sense of brotherhood to each other was beautiful to behold … breathtaking.”
They all talked about Kapaun, she said; how they loved him, how fiercely he stood up to the guards, how he would take care of the sick. Hundreds died, but hundreds survived because of how he rallied them.
“You’d never know from looking at how happy they were with each other how much they suffered,” she said. “And they suffered; there was always a deep sadness in Walt.”
Her favorite story among those her husband told her was about how he and Kapaun would regularly defy the Communist guards abusing them. Kapaun would greet her husband with a phrase in Latin; Walt Mayo had studied German, Greek and Latin at Boston University.
“Ne illegitimi carborundum esse,” Kapaun would say.
Mayo would answer with the English: “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
After her husband died, Virginia Mayo said, Dowe traveled to visit her, as he did when other POW funerals occurred.
“They all looked out for each other,” she said.
Bravery at Unsan
Kapaun was born in 1916 on a farm near the tiny town of Pilsen, in Marion County, and was ordained a priest in Wichita in 1940. He served his church in Pilsen until 1944 when he joined the Army as chaplain; he served in India and Burma, then returned to Kansas and parish churches.
In 1948 he rejoined the Army as a chaplain and was stationed in 1950 in Japan with the 8th Cavalry regiment. That unit went to Korea only weeks after the North invaded the South on June 25. On the beach where they landed, Kapaun baptized an enlisted man named Joe Ramirez, who said he planned to show up at the White House on Thursday.
In battle after battle, soldiers like Ramirez saw Kapaun repeatedly rescue wounded soldiers under fire.
“That man was crazy,” Ramirez later said. He meant it as a tribute.
Kapaun is being honored for his actions Nov. 1 and 2, 1950, in the battle of Unsan, where the 8th Cavalry was overrun by Chinese forces.
Kapaun helped aid those wounded in battle with no regard for his own safety, often leaving the perimeter U.S. forces had established to rescue injured soldiers. Kapaun also stayed behind and let himself be captured by the Chinese in order to care for wounded American soldiers.
He also stopped the execution of Herb Miller, brushing aside a Chinese soldier who was preparing to shoot the wounded sergeant. Kapaun helped Miller to his feet and carried him on his back for much of their journey to a POW camp. Miller and his wife will be at the White House on Thursday.
Kapaun initially was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions at Unsan, the Army’s second-highest military honor. That will be upgraded to the Medal of Honor, the country’s highest military honor.
After Unsan, Kapaun kept rescuing soldiers on the march to prison, persuading able-bodied soldiers to help carry their wounded comrades. In prison, he defied brainwashing attempts by the camp guards, picked lice off the sick, washed the clothes of wounded soldiers and – with Mayo, Dowe and others – stole bags of food while other POWs deliberately started fights to distract guards.
Kapaun, suffering from malnutrition, dysentery and other ailments brought on by the cruel treatment of the guards, died at the camp in May 1951. He was 35.
His fellow prisoners insist he was murdered by Chinese guards who resented how he had openly defied their attempts to brainwash them into collaborating with the enemy. As a result, they sent him to the “Death House,” where he was cut off from food and medical attention.
‘A bright light’
Bob McGreevy was a teenage corporal when he saw Kapaun repeatedly sneak into the enlisted men’s compound to rally the imprisoned GIs and treat their sick.
“It tickles me to no end that this is finally happening,” said McGreevy, who made the trip from Cumberland, Md., to Washington, D.C. “Now if we get him to be a Catholic saint as well, we’ll be all right.”
The Vatican is studying whether Kapaun should be declared a saint.
“He was a bright light in a dark, dark tunnel,” said former POW Bob Wood, who traveled to the ceremony from O’Fallon, Mo. “He didn’t get the Medal of Honor for killing people or leading a brave charge, but for something even more terribly inspiring.
“He almost singlehandedly imposed a sense of human decency in a prison camp where hundreds of us died, and where it was getting to be every man for himself.”
Wood said he irritated the priest the day they met. Wood had volunteered to carry machine gun ammunition to a hill where desperate GIs were running out of bullets and about to be overrun.
Wood, under fire himself, turned around when he heard a sound behind him, and found Kapaun following him, with belts of bullets draped around his shoulders.
“Father, what are you doing?” Wood yelled.
“I’m going with you,” Kapaun retorted. “Move along, son. Move along.”
Afterward, Wood gleefully told the priest that they had been “baptized” together. Kapaun looked puzzled.
“Baptized under fire, Father,” Wood said.
“I don’t think he liked that comparison much.”