WASHINGTON, D.C. — A day after President Obama presented the Medal of Honor posthumously to Army Chaplain Emil Kapaun, the Pentagon inducted the Kansas priest into its Hall of Heroes.
The Army put its biggest names on stage Friday to honor the quiet man from Pilsen described as unique from the more than 3,400 other recipients of the nation’s highest military honor, all of them members of the hall.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke. So did Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno and the Secretary of the Army, John McHugh.
Yet a guy who grew up in the small Kansas town of Colwich upstaged them all. He did it despite scuttling his planned speech after hearing much of what he was going to say spoken by those who took the stage before him.
“I panicked,” said Ray Kapaun, Emil Kapaun’s nephew and the family’s spokesman at Thursday’s White House ceremony and again Friday.
So he decided to wing it, he said later, and speak what he was feeling.
“My goal was to make sure those guys who knew my uncle got a standing ovation,” he said.
He began by telling quaint stories, about how to pronounce his last name, and how his dad – Emil Kapaun’s younger brother Eugene – told him that Emil as a boy would play at being a priest, mimicking what he thought was Latin, making a church altar out of cardboard boxes draped with towels.
But then Ray Kapaun hit his stride. And a hush fell over the room.
His uncle was a hero, he said.
“But I want to talk about the men who told the stories about my uncle.”
There were nine of them present Friday, elderly former prisoners of war who had suffered horrific abuse and starvation with Kapaun in a North Korean camp. They sat in a row near the front. Tough men, such as Bill Richardson and Bob McGreevy, who had suffered grievously for their country and, for more than 60 years afterward, told the story of Kapaun’s heroics.
“If not for the men of that camp, I might not have known such a lifelong personal relationship with my Uncle Emil,” Ray Kapaun said.
He had never met most of those men before Wednesday, he said, when they all began arriving in Washington for the ceremonies. He himself had come from Atlanta, where he lives.
Ray Kapaun’s voice grew suddenly stronger, and he looked directly at the men.
“But I have now spent the last two days with those men. I got to laugh with them. Cry with them. And I got to see my uncle in them,” he said.
“These men, I can say, are the bravest men I know.”
He then asked the crowd to give the POWs a round of applause. Generals immediately stood up. So did a U.S. senator, Pat Roberts. Wives and Army majors, husbands and colonels, sergeants and teenagers and brothers and sisters stood up, applauded loud and long, and many of them dabbed at their eyes. The POWs did, too.
Mike Dowe, a stoic 85-year-old physicist and former prisoner of war, felt tears well up. Michael Wood wept uncontrollably. His father, war hero and former POW Bob Wood, sat beside Dowe. Mike Pompeo, a member of Congress from Wichita, felt tears welling, he said later.
Joe Ramirez, who was wounded five times in the battle of Unsan, put his hand to his eyes. He had carried wounded men after that battle, in spite of his own wounds, and had seen Kapaun carry many others.
Herb Miller, whom Kapaun saved from execution in that same battle, wept alongside his wife, Joyce.
Kapaun earned the Medal of Honor for his actions at Unsan in November 1950, 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.
“Though it was reported that Chaplain Kapaun never fired a single bullet, he saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives,” Odierno said before Ray Kapaun spoke during Friday’s ceremony.
“Even though he wore the cross of the Corps of Chaplains insignia on his collar and not the crossed rifles of the infantry, he was a hero of the battle of Unsan and the many days that followed.
“His legacy will live on forever in our hearts, but more importantly in our souls.”
Added Hagel, who served in the infantry in Vietnam: “In a day when heroes, real heroes, are hard to find … it’s particularly important that we grab hold of people like Father Kapaun.”
‘I made it home, too’
Kapaun, who was born near Pilsen in Marion County, died in a prisoner of war camp in North Korea in May 1951 at the age of 35.
Because of that, Ray Kapaun never met his uncle. But all of his life, he said, he listened to his mother and father tell him the stories, about how Emil had called his fellow soldiers “my boys.” How they had suffered, how they had all cared for each other.
Ray Kapaun told how his uncle had fought to save their lives in the camp, had stolen food, had prayed over the sick and the dying, had risked his life, taught them how to live.
And then he told the POWs sitting before him Friday what he thought his self-effacing uncle would say if he had had the chance on this day at the Hall of Heroes.
“Well, shucks. Are you kidding me? You’re doing all this for me? I was just doing my job. I was just doing the job God directed me to do.
“And then he would have wrapped his arms around all of you,” Ray Kapaun said. “And he would tell you: I am so happy you made it home.
“And please, please don’t feel sorry for me. Because I made it home, too.”