Father Emil Kapaun, a Kansas priest and chaplain, likely will be awarded the Medal of Honor in the next few weeks or months for gallantry during the Korean War, Congressional officials said Thursday.
Both houses of Congress passed the Defense Authorization bill this week, which included language that waived a requirement that a Medal of Honor winner must have performed the heroic actions within the past two years to be considered for the honor. Kapaun’s heroics took place in 1950 and 1951, on battlefields and then in prison camps in North Korea.
“I think the president will sign the bill, and I think we’re closer than we’ve ever been” in getting Kapaun declared a Medal of Honor winner, said Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita, who helped push the wording included in that bill that would clear the way for the President Obama to award the medal to Kapaun, if the president agrees that Kapaun deserves it.
A secretary of the Army and a past chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have recommended Kapaun for the honor. Pompeo and Kansas Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran worked on the legislation passed this week. Roberts’ staff said Thursday that once President Obama signs the Defense Authorization Act into law, the Defense Department can proceed with consideration of the medal application for Kapaun.
Fellow Korean War soldiers, many still alive, said Kapaun, a priest from Pilsen, saved hundreds of soldiers’ lives and inspired them to resist Communist guards who tried to coerce them to betray their country.
“The innumerable sacrifices he made for his fellow prisoners are legendary – more often than not, at the risk of his own life,” Mike Dowe, who was in the camps with Kapaun, said in an email. “This was the reason the (guards) murdered him. They just couldn’t cope with the symbol of resistance to them and loyalty to his country and his God that he represented to his fellow POWs in that winter of starvation.”
The next steps
Washington is a place where it’s hard to predict or promise anything will come to pass, Pompeo said. Kapaun’s chances for the medal should have been approved long ago, he said.
“But we’ll continue to bird-dog it until it is done, and it sure looks more likely now that this is going to get done,” Pompeo said. “Everything looks right. And it’s going to be just the coolest thing in the world.”
The secretary of defense must now decide whether to send the application to the White House. The president decides whether Kapaun, or any other service person, deserves the honor. Pompeo said his staff will stay in touch with the Defense Department about the application.
Pompeo said he had read reports released this week by McClatchy News that questioned whether a U.S. Marine, recently awarded the Medal of Honor, might have won the honor based on exaggerated reports of his battlefield exploits in Afghanistan.
Pompeo said he can’t see how that case might slow or halt a presidential decision on Kapaun because Kapaun’s case has been checked out extensively for more than six decades. The military has heard frequent and vehement praise about Kapaun from his fellow soldiers and prisoners of war for more than 60 years. The Vatican is proceeding with a parallel investigation of whether Kapaun should be canonized as a saint.
“This investigation has been worked and worked and worked,” Pompeo said. “I can’t imagine anybody looking at this and saying it hasn’t been checked out.”
Kapaun, a priest and a U.S. Army chaplain, died in a North Korean prison camp in May 1951.
Before that, according to fellow soldiers, he dragged wounded soldiers through gunfire to safety, then rallied soldiers captured like himself to survive torture and starvation in frigid winter prison camps near the Chinese border. By the time he died, from weakness and disease, he had starved to what looked like a near skeleton, in part because he regularly gave his meager rations to hungry fellow prisoners.
Kapaun, after his death, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross — the Army’s second-highest award for valor — for his many heroic acts in battle before his capture. Fellow soldiers said then and now that it wasn’t fair, and wasn’t enough for what he’d done for his country. The Medal of Honor is the military’s highest award.
Dowe called Kapaun “the greatest man I have ever known.”
Kapaun grew up a farm boy near Pilsen, in Marion County, and served there as a parish priest before joining the Army. He was a chaplain in World War II and in many battles in Korea before he was captured at the battle of Unsan.
Helen Kapaun, Kapaun’s sister-in-law, said from her Bel Aire home on Thursday that she has been praying recently that Congress would finally pass the authorization they approved this week.
“I appreciate the work they’ve done in Congress, and am grateful for what they’ve done for Father Emil,” she said.
She said at least two or more of her six children might want to attend a White House medal ceremony if it ever happens. She won’t go, she said.
The medal, if awarded, would go to the family. Helen is the only surviving immediate family member; Helen’s husband, Father Kapaun’s brother Eugene, died in 2010.
Helen said she has no desire to own the medal.
“Eugene had always thought that the medal, if it ever was given, should go to the town of Pilsen, because that was his hometown,” she said. “But we haven’t really talked about it in a while.”