WASHINGTON, D.C. — With a hero’s aged comrades in arms looking on, President Obama handed the Medal of Honor to the family of Father Emil Kapaun in a ceremony at the White House on Thursday.
Kapaun’s nine fellow prisoners of war from the Korean War, most of whom have openly said they don’t particularly care for Obama or his politics, all thrilled to the speech in which the president described Kapaun’s heroics.
“This is an amazing story,” Obama told hundreds of onlookers in the East Room of the White House. “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.
“Today we bestow another title on him – recipient of our nation’s highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor.”
Obama, toward the end of the speech, asked Kapaun’s POW friends to stand. The men, all of whom were starved and tortured and battled the cold and disease along with Kapaun in a North Korean prison camp in 1950 and 1951, stood up as the president and hundreds of onlookers clapped in sustained applause.
Bob McGreevy, an enlisted man who was one of the few to survive the camp’s “Death House” and who has never shirked from speaking bluntly, mouthed the words “thank you” to Obama when the president nodded at him from the podium a few feet away. McGreevy then said “thank you” to the crowd as they gave the POWs a standing ovation.
“He’s a good man, he’s just got a different way of thinking than I do,” McGreevy later said of Obama. “He did a fantastic job; everything he said about Father Kapaun’s heroics was true.”
More than 60 people – among them the former POWs, Kansas bishops and high-ranking officials in the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, relatives of Kapaun and members of the state’s congressional delegation – attended the ceremony.
Several people in the audience wept as Obama spoke about Kapaun, among them outgoing Wichita bishop Michael Jackels and Paula Kear of Colwich. She is the mother of Chase Kear, whose unexpected recovery from a pole-vaulting accident is being reviewed by the Vatican as a possible miracle attributed to Kapaun. The Vatican continues to investigate Kapaun’s case for sainthood.
“I can’t imagine a better example for all of us, whether in uniform or not in uniform, a better example to follow,” Obama said.
Kapaun was honored for his actions Nov. 1 and 2, 1950, at the battle of Unsan, where his 8th Cavalry regiment was overrun by Chinese forces.
According to the medal’s citation, “Chaplain Kapaun calmly walked through withering enemy fire in order to provide comfort and medical aid to his comrades and rescue friendly wounded from no-man’s land.”
Kapaun also stayed behind and let himself be captured by Chinese forces in order to care for wounded American soldiers. He was initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions, the Army’s second-highest military honor. That was upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
“When his commanders ordered an evacuation, he chose to stay,” Obama said Thursday. “When the enemy broke through and the combat was hand to hand, he carried on – comforting the injured and the dying, offering some measure of peace as they left this Earth.
“This is the valor we honor today – an American soldier who didn’t fire a gun, but who wielded the mightiest weapon of all, a love for his brothers so pure that he was willing to die so that they might live.”
Obama handed the medal to Kapaun’s nephew, Ray Kapaun, who fought back tears on the small stage in the East Room. Obama reached an arm around his shoulders and gave him a sustained hug as Ray Kapaun came close to breaking down.
After the speech, the president and first lady Michelle Obama hugged members of the Kapaun family in attendance: a niece, nephews and their children.
Ray Kapaun and his wife, Lee, said the president greeted them in the Oval Office before the ceremony, talking animatedly with them for 15 minutes about how impressed he was with what he had learned about Ray’s uncle.
“He signed the forms for the medal right there at his desk,” Ray Kapaun said.
Ray Kapaun had brought along the priest’s stole that Kapaun had worn in the prison camp before he died in May 1951; he said Obama took the stole in his hands and seemed deeply moved to be holding what the Catholic Church may one day declare to be the artifact of a saint.
“I was just so deeply moved to see that happen, to hear him talk about what a great man Emil was, and then later to hear the president tell the story and tell about the POWs who did so much to help spread the story,” Ray Kapaun said. “What those men went through … if I ever have to face something terrible, I hope I have their strength.
“We should still be in there clapping for those guys.”
The POWs are in their mid- to upper 80s now, and have lost most of their friends to age and time. They lost hundreds of friends in the camp at Pyoktong in North Korea, including Kapaun.
In the days leading up to the ceremony, most of them had joked about going to the White House, where Obama lives.
But Bob Wood, a war hero himself who won the Silver Star in Korea for his own heroics, said Obama did “a marvelous job” in telling Kapaun’s story and putting Kapaun in the history books in the way Wood said he deserved.
“Didn’t you just love that speech?” Wood said. “He struck just the right note about Father’s courage under fire.”
Added McGreevy: “Beautiful … it couldn’t have been any better.”
Phil O’Brien, a Defense Department analyst who has done years of research on Korean War Americans still missing in action, attended the ceremony. He said there are still 7,923 Americans whose remains never made it home from the war, including Kapaun. About one fourth of that number, he said, are known POWs who never made it out of prison camps.
The former POWs and the others who attended Thursday’s event will gather again Friday at the Pentagon, where Kapaun will be inducted into the Hall of Heroes.
Kapaun was born in 1916 on a farm near the 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.
In Korea, soldiers like Joe Ramirez saw him repeatedly rescue other soldiers under fire during battles. But then in the prison camps, after a number of them were captured in November 1950, Kapaun performed what Ramirez, Wood, McGreevy and Mike Dowe said were incredible acts of reckless courage.
He defied brainwashing by the guards, stole food and held religious services in the mud huts, deliberately defying the Communist guards trying to stop all such activities.
“That faith – that they might be delivered from evil – was perhaps his greatest gift to those men,” Obama said. “That even amidst such despair, there could be hope; amid their misery in the temporal they could see truths that are eternal; that even in such hell, there could be a touch of the divine.”
The East Room was filled with Kansans.
Sen. Pat Roberts, who pushed the Kapaun medal candidacy for years, showed up asking to meet the POWs. He especially wanted to meet Dowe, a close Kapaun friend who has lobbied for 60 years to get the medal for his friend.
“You’re the main guy here,” Roberts told Dowe.
Roberts also met Ramirez, an enlisted man from Houston who was wounded five times in the battle of Unsan, where he and Kapaun were both captured. Kapaun also baptized Ramirez on a beach in Korea as the 8th Cavalry landed.
“This is a day we show men like you that the Korean War should no longer be the ‘forgotten war,’ ” Roberts told Ramirez.
Roberts said he had attended a dinner the night before with Obama.
“I told the president the same thing, and he agreed with me,” he told Ramirez.
‘Do the undoable’
One of the other heroes in the prison camp in Pyoktong was a close friend of Kapaun, a Jewish doctor named Sid Esensten. He also saved lives in the prison camp in horrid conditions, and fought desperately to save Kapaun as Kapaun wasted away from disease, starvation and abuse from the Communist guards.
Esensten’s sons came to the ceremony, and one of them, Tom, said his late father had come home from the war so overwhelmed with Kapaun’s heroics in the camp that he seriously considered converting from Judaism to Catholicism.
“His rabbi was not happy,” Tom Esensten said. “My mother threatened to leave him.
“But he was so deeply impressed with this man who could seemingly do the undoable.”
In the end, his father didn’t convert, but always said Kapaun was the greatest man he ever met.
“Where are those men in the world we live in these days?” Esensten said.