It took tough Army veterans like Mike Dowe, Ralph Nardella and Bill McClain 60 years to persuade the military to give Emil Kapaun the Medal of Honor.
It took so long that many of Kapaun’s fellow prisoners of war, including Nardella and McClain, died during the process. But their efforts were rewarded Monday.
Father Emil Kapaun, a Kansas priest and a U.S. Army hero during the Korean War, will be awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously on April 11, the White House said Monday.
“It’s about time,” Dowe said Monday after hearing of the announcement.
The White House said that President Barack Obama will award the medal to members of Kapaun’s family. Ray Kapaun, one of Emil Kapaun’s nephews, and other family members will be present at the White House ceremony.
“Emil’s life and story was one of love and compassion, devotion and heroics,” Ray Kapaun said. “But the story would never have been told if not for the men who were there with him. They told everyone and anyone who would listen for 60 years what Emil had done.
“Because of their devotion to him, and how they felt about him, they allowed us to see how much they loved and trusted and admired him. So this Medal of Honor I can honestly say is for them as well as Father Emil.”
Emil Kapaun, born in Marion County in 1916, served as a chaplain in both World War II and Korea. He died in a North Korean prisoner of war camp in May 1951.
The Secretary of the Army and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended Kapaun for the Medal of Honor in 2009. But special legislation had to pass Congress and the White House had to agree with the recommendation before the medal could be awarded.
Obama called Helen Kapaun, Kapaun’s sister-in-law, in December to tell her the news, the family has said.
That Kapaun would be awarded the Medal of Honor leaked last month when former Congressman Todd Tiahrt posted the news on his Facebook page. Tiahrt was among several members of the Kansas Congressional delegation who had pushed for Kapaun to be honored. The latest were Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, and Rep. Mike Pompeo.
“An amazing soldier, spiritual leader, and American, Father Kapaun is an inspiration to people in both the Catholic faith and military communities, and indeed, to all of us,” Pompeo said in a statement.
Dowe and Nardella were two of Kapaun’s close friends in the prisoner of war camp. They nearly came to blows with Chinese soldiers when they came to carry away Kapaun to his death.
Dowe had written a recommendation for Kapaun to receive the Medal of Honor in 1953, which was rejected. He had written and lobbied members of the Congress and Army officials ever since.
Nardella came to Kansas several times after the war to console Kapaun’s family and to honor his friend. He brought with him a large crucifix, carved by a POW in the camp to honor Kapaun after his death; that crucifix hangs on the wall at Kapaun Mount Carmel High School. Money to found the school was donated by the POWs, led by Nardella.
Father John Hotze, who was assigned years ago by the Wichita diocese to investigate Kapaun’s candidacy for sainthood, said he had interviewed at least 15 of Kapaun’s fellow prisoners of war. He said they all felt “confused” about why Kapaun did not get the Medal of Honor after the war.
“They felt confused because they’d seen others get the medal, and they’d seen up close what he had done that they felt was so deserving,” Hotze said.
“They will look on this as a great accomplishment for Father Kapaun – and that it should have happened 60 years ago.”
Kapaun was born on a farm near Pilsen, the eldest of two sons of Enos and Bessie Kapaun. He was ordained a priest in 1940 at what is now Newman University in Wichita.
He served as a priest at St. John Nepomucene in Pilsen. In 1944 he joined the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps, and served as the auxiliary chaplain at an army air base near Herington. He served from 1945 to 1946 in India and Burma.
He came home to become the priest of Pilsen again in 1946, but rejoined the Army chaplain service in 1948.
He was sent with the 8th Cavalry Regiment to Japan and deployed with his soldiers when they became part of the first reinforcements sent to the Korean War in July 1950, one month after North Korea invaded South Korea.
He earned a Bronze Star for heroism in action on Aug. 2, 1950. Soldiers who served with him said he repeatedly ran through enemy fire, dragging wounded soldiers to safety. On at least one occasion, his tobacco pipe was shot out of his mouth in battle.
In November 1950, after the Americans and their allies had destroyed the North Korean Army and advanced to within miles of the Chinese border, the Chinese Army sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers south. The 8th Cavalry, in the battle of Unsan, was destroyed by Chinese troops who greatly outnumbered them.
Kapaun would later be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions at Unsan. He dragged many wounded soldiers to safety under fire, and other soldiers said he saved more lives when he persuaded the Chinese to quit shooting into a dugout where he was protecting dozens of wounded Americans.
Kapaun stayed behind with the wounded soldiers, disregarding orders to evacuate. He was force-marched north, to prison compounds established in North Korea, along with hundreds of other wounded and hungry
Soldiers held captive with him there said he saved hundreds of lives, in part by making cooking pans out of discarded roofing tin. That allowed soldiers to boil drinking water out of snow, which held off dysentery.
He also picked the lice off sick and dying soldiers, stole food from guards to share with his fellow prisoners, washed their clothing, dug latrines and rallied starving prisoners in subzero temperatures to hang on to hope. Hundreds died but hundreds survived.
He also defied the Chinese guards, resisting their attempts to brainwash him and other Americans. He also continued to pray and hold religious services with fellow prisoners – acts that the Communist guards had prohibited.
Kapaun, weak from seven months of starvation, had suffered from several ailments in the days leading up to his death. But POWs, including Dowe, had stolen food and medicine for Kapaun, which Dowe said had begun to restore his health.
Seeing this, Dowe said, the Chinese guards forced their way into the hut where Kapaun was resting and ordered him taken to the camp “death house,” a “so-called hospital,” as Dowe called it, where Kapaun could be isolated from food and water. Kapaun died two days later.
“He was martyred,” Dowe said Monday. “The Chinese communists were afraid of him because of the inspiration he projected for us as a God-fearing, free man.”
In 1993 the Catholic church declared Kapaun a “Servant of God,” the first step toward possible canonization. The Wichita Diocese has spent years gathering evidence for Kapaun’s candidacy for sainthood. That evidence, including eyewitness accounts of his faith and heroism in the North Korean prison camps, is now in Rome being evaluated, church officials have said.
“Father Emil led by example,” Ray Kapaun said Monday. “His devotion was deep, to his faith, to his country and to the men who were there with him.
"If Father Emil were here today, he’d tell his POW friends that, ‘I’m so happy you boys made it home, because I made it home. too.’ ”