Father Emil Kapaun’s Army friends say he earned the Medal of Honor.
His family, and the soldiers who witnessed his heroism, say it should not have taken 60 frustrating years for the military to recognize that. There were times when his supporters nearly gave up.
The wait will finally end soon. News leaked out last month that President Obama will hand the medal to family members at the White House on April 11. An official announcement about the medal ceremony may come this week.
Kapaun’s family says the ceremony will finally happen because Kapaun’s prisoner of war friends kept pushing for it, even when the odds looked impossible.
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In 1953, when their guards finally let them go, Ralph Nardella, Felix McCool and Joseph O’Connor walked south carrying a grim-looking crucifix, hand-carved, nearly 4 feet long. They walked from North Korea to South Korea.
The Allies called it “Operation Big Switch,” in which the Allies and their communist enemies traded prisoners.
The three men looked aged beyond their years. They had survived starvation and torture. They had buried hundreds of friends.
First they got debriefed by Army officers. Then they carried the crucifix to the war correspondents standing nearby. They said they had a story to tell.
They talked for a long time, holding the crucifix like a relic. Within hours, people all over the world heard about a daring and resourceful priest from Kansas who had been murdered by the Chinese guards.
His name was Emil Kapaun.
• • •
Like all of Kapaun’s soldier friends, Mike Dowe loved him.
From spending time with him in the POW camp, Dowe knew that Kapaun’s father was a Czech farmer from Kansas, that his mother baked kolaches and that before Kapaun joined the Army as a chaplain, he had been a priest in his little hometown of Pilsen.
Dowe heard from other soldiers that Kapaun had been recklessly brave on many battlefields, dragging wounded soldiers through machine gun fire, getting a tobacco pipe shot out of his mouth, saving dozens of lives in the battle of Unsan, where he was captured.
Dowe crossed the no-man’s land that day, too, but he wasn’t with Nardella and the others then.
Chinese guards, angry with Dowe and others for taunting them, told Dowe and a half-dozen others that they would be punished. The other men were never seen again, Dowe said.
But he escaped by going to a latrine, dropping down into the filthy trench and crawling out. Then he jumped aboard a truck of prisoners headed to freedom.
In a prison hut two years before, in May 1951, Dowe, Nardella and other starving prisoners had stood protectively over Kapaun as he lay near death on the floor, weak from disease and starvation. They had nearly come to blows with Chinese soldiers who came intending to drag Kapaun away to die. They backed down only when Kapaun, in a weak voice, told his friends to stop arguing.
And now Dowe and Nardella were free.
• • •
Kapaun’s friends came home to celebrations they could not entirely enjoy.
Nardella, McCool and the others made speeches and gave newspaper interviews about the war and Kapaun. Walt Mayo, Bill “Moose” McClain and the two camp doctors, Sid Esensten and Clarence Anderson, told audiences how Kapaun had saved hundreds of lives in the camps, making homemade pans so prisoners could boil water to stave off dysentery. How he stole food from the guards to feed the starving prisoners.
Gerald Fink, who had carved that crucifix in the prison camp, told what Kapaun had meant to him even though Fink was a Jew.
Dowe, when he reached the Pentagon, told Army generals about Kapaun and other soldiers whose heroism would likely be lost to history.
Major Gen. William Dean had won the Medal of Honor in Korea and had spent most of the war as a prisoner. He and Dowe both needed time at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to recover from abuse in the camps.
“Write them all up,” Dowe said Dean told him.
Dowe wrote medal recommendations for soldiers. Dean endorsed them. Many were approved, Dowe said later.
“But they rejected my recommendation for the Medal of Honor for Father,” Dowe said. “They said it was against Army regulations to give a Medal of Honor to a prisoner of war.”
Dowe thought that was unfair. But his next move turned Kapaun once again into an international hero.
Dowe co-wrote an eyewitness account of Kapaun’s heroism. On Jan. 16, 1954, his story in the Saturday Evening Post brought Kapaun’s heroism to a worldwide audience.
“I have always wondered about my original Saturday Evening Post Kapaun article,” Dowe said last week. “I have never before or since in over a hundred publications found myself capable of writing anything so profound.”
Dowe was still disappointed about the lack of a medal for Kapaun.
But for many years, he didn’t know what else to do.
• • •
When the Catholic Church in 1953 mentioned Kapaun as a candidate for sainthood, Dowe and other POWs wrote letters and gave testimonies. Nardella and others raised money for the new Catholic high school in Wichita that would bear Kapaun’s name. Nardella brought the crucifix, where it went on permanent display in the school.
Nardella, McCool and others gave speeches about Kapaun for years to come. To this day, Aileen Marckmann regrets not listening closer to McCool, her uncle.
When she was 12, she accompanied him on trips as he talked about Korea, including stories about Kapaun.
“I was just a kid,” she said. “I don’t remember what he said.”
Nardella came to Wichita several times. He met Kapaun’s parents and told them how their son had saved many lives.
Pam Nardella was only a child when her father came home after the war.
“He didn’t speak about Korea at all,” she wrote recently from her home in New Jersey. “I was small and really didn’t care.”
So she didn’t know that Kapaun was her father’s best friend or that her father had risked his life to save him or that her father had risked his life again by taking over the camp’s religious services after Kapaun died.
All she really knew about Korea was that her father smoked too much and seemed at times to carry a weight of sadness.
At Arlington National Cemetery, when the military’s chaplain service gave its highest award to Kapaun, Dowe stood in for Kapaun’s parents. He wrote them afterward.
“Father Kapaun died fighting for the things he loved and believed in. I shall always consider it a privilege to have known so great a priest, so great a soldier and so great an American as your son.”
• • •
Years passed. The old soldiers began to die.
Mayo. Anderson. McCool. Nardella.
Dowe was still alive and still disappointed. He wanted justice for Father, as he called Kapaun.
Politicians for generations tried to get Kapaun the medal.
Congressman Dan Glickman of Wichita tried decades ago. Glickman’s successor, Todd Tiahrt, tried again as recently as 2002.
The Army rejected their applications even though one of the old barriers had come down. In 2002, Capt. Rocky Versace, a Vietnam War POW who was executed in 1965 for resisting his communist captors, was awarded the medal.
Dowe seized on the new precedent.
“I started turning over every rock I could turn over to get the Father Kapaun medal effort going again.”
• • •
Around that time, Dowe met Bill Latham.
Latham had been born more than 10 years after Kapaun died. He had flown Chinook helicopters in combat in the Gulf War.
By 2001, he was an English professor at West Point, N.Y. He began to interview Korean War POWs as part of an oral history project, often showing up at their reunions.
Latham began noticing the name “Kapaun” in papers he collected. At reunions, Latham thought there was something wonderful about how soldiers such as Phil Peterson, Esensten and Dowe talked about him.
Dowe seized on Latham’s enthusiasm. He said Kapaun should have received the medal.
“Esensten, Dowe and Peterson kept mentioning him by name as a source of inspiration,” Latham said later.
He met another soldier, Herbert Miller, who told a story of reckless bravery. During the battle of Unsan, Miller said, an enemy soldier put a rifle barrel to his head and was about to execute him as he lay wounded in a ditch. But with the battle still roaring all around them, Kapaun walked up, knocked the rifle barrel aside and lifted Miller out of that ditch.
The old soldiers’ passion for their friend touched Latham. After he heard about Tiahrt’s failed application, he called the congressman’s office.
Tiahrt’s staff told Latham that in 2002, Tiahrt had recommended to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that Kapaun be awarded the medal. Rumsfeld rejected it because of lack of “substantiating evidence.”
Latham suspected there was plenty of substantiating evidence. He now went to find it.
• • •
What Latham did next, Tiahrt said last week, finally broke through the barriers. A lieutenant colonel, Latham knew the military paperwork system better than the POWs did.
Latham, at the National Archives, gathered many declassified documents that demonstrated Kapaun’s heroism.
Next, “I explained my project to former POWs who had known Kapaun and invited them to send me sworn affidavits testifying to the heroic nature of his service, both at Unsan and during subsequent captivity,” he said.
“When he got it going again, I jumped on it,” Dowe said.
So did Peterson, McClain, Esensten, Miller and others. A year later, Latham had compiled a thick and carefully prepared packet.
He sent the packet to the Kapaun family in Wichita with advice he had gleaned from military friends on how to get it past Army bureaucracy: Send this to Tiahrt, he suggested to the Kapauns. And suggest to Tiahrt that he send it directly to the Secretary of the Army.
That’s what they did.
• • •
It worked – but only after the passage of more time.
In 2009, the Secretary of the Army, Pete Geren, nominated Kapaun for the Medal of Honor.
That news thrilled Dowe and the other POWs. They were all now near the age of 80 or older.
But there was still a legislative process to endure. The rules state that Medal of Honor acts should have occurred less than five years before the medal is considered. Tiahrt filed legislation to waive that requirement.
But it took years, and by that time, it was Tiahrt’s successor, Mike Pompeo, who pushed it through.
Then another long wait.
Pompeo lobbied the White House. U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, who had known Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for years, told him the story of Kapaun and asked him to ask the White House to hurry on behalf of Kapaun’s elderly soldier friends.
Panetta signed a recommendation, and it went to the White House – where there was another long wait.
• • •
In February, news leaked that President Obama had made a decision. And the Kapaun family said Helen Kapaun herself, the last living Kapaun to have known the hero, got a call from Obama in December to tell her the news.
Pentagon officials told her friend Father John Hotze of the Catholic Diocese of Wichita that the military wanted to include the POWs in the April ceremony.
A few days after the news leaked, Hotze posted a letter on Facebook from Kapaun written to Wichita Bishop Mark Carroll from the Korean War battlefields a few weeks before his capture in 1950.
“Three times we have been trapped by the Reds and have had to flee for our lives,” Kapaun wrote. “I lost everything I had except what I carried on my person. I lost my jeep and trailer with all my equipment. My assistant was shot and is now in the hospital. The Protestant Chaplain who was working beside me, was hit by a mortar shell and lost part of his leg. I was the only one who escaped unscathed.”
Kapaun’s letter, Hotze thought, was a vivid reminder of what Kapaun and the soldiers had lived through even before they all suffered in the camps.
“For nearly two weeks we were in battle, with no rest,” Kapaun wrote. “Many of my soldiers suffered heat exhaustion and sun stroke in the awful heat and climbing mountains. We are on the front lines but the Reds have not tried to advance for several days. That gives us a little much-needed rest. We killed thousands.”
Hotze had read all of Kapaun’s surviving letters that he sent home. Those letters showed that Kapaun thought constantly about his men, his soldiers, his friends.
That’s what Dowe remembered, too, when he saw the copy of Kapaun’s letter.
“You can see from that letter that Father wrote what a fantastic guy he was,” Dowe said last week. “The good Lord took care of him for a long time; he got a pipe shot out of his mouth, he saw people wounded all around him, but he kept going, helping everybody.”
When Dowe heard that the president had called Helen Kapaun, his voice nearly cracked. He hopes to go to the White House in April. So do several POWs. So do Aileen Marckmann and Pam Nardella.
“He sure did a lot for us,” Dowe said.