WASHINGTON, D.C. — The induction of Father Emil Kapaun into the Hall of Heroes on Friday did more than place the revered military chaplain into what is known as “the Pentagon’s most sacred place.”
It represents a significant shift in a long-held perception of American soldiers taken prisoner during the Korean War, military historian Bill Latham said.
“The significance is not just that the chaplain was recognized for heroism on the battlefield and in captivity, but that a POW was recognized for heroism in captivity, and that it was a Korean War POW recognized for heroism in captivity,” said Latham, who attended Friday’s ceremony.
Facing brutal conditions in the winter of 1950-51, a number of American POWs collaborated with their captors. Latham – whose book, “Cold Days in Hell: American POWs in Korea,” explores the topic – said half of the American soldiers in captivity that winter died.
Herbert Miller said he knew a number of camp mates who offered information to the Chinese – and he suffered for it, too.
He and two buddies had to stand in a freezing hole for three days after somebody leaked to the Chinese that they were praying on Christmas Eve. He said he was beaten several times for other reported “violations.”
One of those beatings broke his right elbow. He said he hasn’t been able to straighten his arm since.
When the POWs in his camp were finally released, they were sent home by ship. Onboard, Miller said, he was questioned about anyone who might have offered help to the enemy.
Even after his wounds healed enough for him to start working and settle down in upstate New York, Miller said, FBI agents came and questioned him in detail about other prisoners who had collaborated with the Chinese.
He couldn’t understand why the investigators were so focused on some of his fellow prisoners, Miller said, and not more concerned about POWs who had committed what he considered to be far worse betrayals.
But then, he also couldn’t understand why nobody else seemed to care about where they had been and what they did.
“They call it ‘The Forgotten War,’ and that’s what it was,” Miller said. “People just forgot about us back here. I think it was because they called it a ‘police action,’ not a war.
“Let me tell you, I fought in World War II, and the fighting in Korea was just as bad.”
Miller parachuted into France with the 101st Airborne early on the morning of D-Day in 1944. Later, he blew out his right knee landing in Holland as part of Operation Market Garden, an injury that forced his transfer to the infantry.
People didn’t treat him badly back home when he finally returned from Korea, Miller said. They simply acted like they didn’t care.
“They certainly weren’t lauded as heroes, and for many years many of them lived under a cloud of suspicion unfairly,” Latham said.
The Pentagon ceremony and Kapaun’s Medal of Honor “helps to lift that,” he said.
The parting of any clouds of suspicion may have best been symbolized by the long, loud standing ovation given at Friday’s ceremony to the POWs who were imprisoned with Kapaun. Nine of them attended Friday’s event and Thursday’s White House ceremony.
Almost everyone in the Pentagon auditorium was crying as the elderly former prisoners stood and bathed in the shower of applause, including Pentagon staffers who long ago grew used to ceremony.
Miller wept right along with them.
“That,” he said afterward, “was wonderful.”