Emil Kapaun, a priest from Kansas celebrated for his actions during the Korean War and in a North Korean prisoner of war camp, will be awarded the Medal of Honor by President Obama, the nation’s highest military award for bravery.
Former Kansas Congressman Todd Tiahrt of Goddard called The Eagle on Friday and sent a note he had received from an officer in the Pentagon about preparations for a White House ceremony April 11. Tiahrt later posted the letter on his Facebook page, which said that Kapaun also will be honored April 12 at the Pentagon.
Obama is expected to present the medal to Kapaun’s sister-in-law, Helen, and her children. The president called Helen Kapaun at her Bel Aire home in December to tell her the news.
Helen Kapaun, 83, has said for years that if her brother-in-law ever was awarded the Medal of Honor, she would not go to the ceremony but would ask her children to go in her place.
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“But you kind of have to go when you’re requested” by the president of the United States, she said.
An announcement was expected later this month from the Pentagon and the White House about a possible Medal of Honor ceremony. But the news became public after Tiahrt’s Facebook post.
Sen. Pat Roberts and Rep. Mike Pompeo both called The Eagle after the Facebook posting to say that Kapaun deserved the honor.
In recent months, Roberts said, he had described to his “close friend” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta the many heroic acts of Kapaun, and urged him to urge Obama to bestow the award. Roberts, Pompeo and Sen. Jerry Moran said in a news release Friday night that Panetta has recommended that Kapaun receive the medal.
Pompeo said in recent months he met twice with White House staff, telling the story in some detail, urging the award be made. Both Pompeo and Roberts said Friday that they have urged officials to hurry in making a decision because they want Kapaun’s surviving – but aging – POW friends to see the ceremony in person.
“He agreed with that,” Roberts said of Panetta. “I don’t know how anyone could disagree with that once they hear the story.”
Pompeo said, “I urged the White House to move as quickly as possible so people who are getting a little older will be able to attend the ceremony. Apparently, now we are closer than ever.”
Pompeo said he was not happy that Tiahrt posted the Pentagon letter. He said Tiahrt had worked hard to help Kapaun’s cause but that the White House should have been allowed to make the announcement, given that it’s Obama’s decision on whether Kapaun is awarded the medal.
Wichita Diocese officials said Friday they could not comment on Friday’s developments, saying any statements would have to come from the Pentagon or the White House.
The Pentagon is expected to invite several of Kapaun’s fellow former prisoners of war to attend the ceremony. They survived horrific conditions in the prison camp after they were captured in the first battles against the Chinese Army in late 1950, shortly after China entered the Korean War.
All of these soldiers, now in their mid- or upper 80s, have lobbied for more than 60 years to persuade the Army to award Kapaun the Medal of Honor.
They also have lobbied the Roman Catholic Church to elevate him to sainthood. The Vatican recently completed an extensive investigation and is considering the matter.
Soldiers like Mike Dowe, William Funchess, Robert Wood, Robert McGreevy and Herb Miller, most of them Protestants, have spent decades writing letters or giving interviews describing repeated acts of bravery by Kapaun. They said he repeatedly ran through machine gun fire, dragging wounded soldiers to safety during the first months of the war.
They said his most courageous acts followed in a prisoner of war camp, where Kapaun died in May 1951. They said he saved hundreds of soldiers’ lives using faith and the skills honed on his family’s farm near Pilsen.
In the prison camp, he shaped roofing tin into cooking pots so prisoners could boil water, which prevented dysentery. He picked lice off sick prisoners. He stole food from his captors and shared it with his starving comrades.
Most of all, Kapaun rallied all of them, as they starved during subzero temperatures, to stay alive. When their future seemed hopeless, he persuaded them to hope. Hundreds died in the camps, but hundreds more survived.
“I am very pleased it is finally happening, and happening while some of the folks who knew him under the trying circumstances in the North Korean prison camp in that first winter are still alive to give testament to his achievements,” Dowe said Friday from his home in the Houston area.
“That’s great, I’ve been anxiously waiting, I am so glad to hear that,” Funchess said.
Funchess said on Friday that he first met Kapaun in a prison camp in February 1951. By that time, Funchess had not had a drink of water in three months – he’d eaten snow to stay alive. He came across a bearded scarecrow of a man bending over a fire, which was prohibited by the camp guards. The man was melting snow in a drinking cup and handed it to Funchess.
“It tasted great,” Funchess said.
“Later, I saw him (Kapaun) crossing a barbed wire fence, sneaking in at great risk to himself to tend sick and wounded enlisted men in a different compound.”
In the following months, after guards began abusing Kapaun for defying their brainwashing classes, Funchess, Dowe and others nearly came to blows with Chinese guards, risking their lives to protect Kapaun, who had become sick and was now regularly abused by the guards.
“I had greatest admiration and respect for Father Kapaun, and it was indeed agony when the Chinese came and physically removed him from my room, and took him on top of the mountain at the end of the camp,” Funchess said. “I had a pretty good idea what was going to happen.
“When I heard he had passed on, I knew it was a great loss, not only to the Catholics in our camp but the non-Catholics. All of us loved Father Kapaun.”
Dowe said the Chinese prison camp guards murdered Kapaun in May 1951 by isolating him in a hilltop building where the starving and enfeebled Army chaplain had no way of getting water or food. He said they did so because Kapaun openly defied the camp guards after they tried to brainwash him and other prisoners into denouncing their country.
Kapaun also violated camp rules by praying rosaries with other prisoners. By the time he died, other prisoners said, Protestants and men of other beliefs were praying the Catholic rosary with Kapaun and were openly resisting the brainwashing classes.
Tiahrt had spent years working on legislation to enable Kapaun to be awarded the medal. There were restrictions at the time that specified that the medal had to be awarded for heroics that had happened only a few years before. Pompeo, Roberts and Moran finally got that legislation passed in December 2011.
Tiahrt said Friday that his most significant regret about his nearly 20 years in Washington was failing to see the medal awarded while he was still in Congress.
A farmer’s son
Kapaun was a farmer’s son from Pilsen in Marion County; he became a priest and served in the Catholic Church in his hometown for a few years before he joined the Army as a chaplain during World War II.
He saw no combat and came back to Kansas as a small town priest for a few years after that war. Bored with civilian life and feeling a calling to serve soldiers, he rejoined the Army as a chaplain and was stationed with the 8th Cavalry regiment in Japan in 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea. His regiment was one of the first units to reinforce the badly outnumbered and outgunned South Korean Army and the few American military units already in Korea.
Kapaun Mount Carmel High School is named after him. The seed money that started the school came from Kapaun’s surviving POW friends, who came out of the camp in 1953.
Those friends immediately began to describe his bravery to the newspapers and wire services. And they immediately began to lobby for sainthood, and for the medal Obama will hand to his family 60 years later.