Father Emil Kapaun, the U.S. Army chaplain who died in a prison camp after saving dozens of soldiers' lives in the Korean War, is deserving of the Medal of Honor, the secretary of the Army has determined.
Kapaun, a native of Pilsen, in Marion County, and a former parish priest there, died of starvation and pneumonia in the prison camp at Pyoktong, North Korea, on May 23, 1951; he was 35. Soldiers who were with him have said that the communist Chinese camp guards murdered him because he rallied fellow starving soldiers to pray, to stay alive and to stay true to their country in the face of relentless brainwashing sessions.
Fellow prisoners of war have pleaded with the military for decades to give Kapaun the Medal of Honor. As a result, Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Goddard, as early as April 2001 asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to review Kapaun's eligibility for the honor.
In a letter Tiahrt received this week, Army Secretary Pete Geren wrote, "After giving this request careful, personal consideration, I have determined that Chaplain Kapaun's actions in combat operations and as a prisoner of war in Korea warrant award of the Medal of Honor.
"This brave Soldier clearly distinguished himself by his courageous actions. The Army and our nation are forever grateful for his heroic service."
Tiahrt said Thursday that the decision is not entirely complete. Congress and President Obama must sign off on it.
"But it's the Secretary of the Army who does the research and makes the key recommendation," Tiahrt said. "This is huge, and I'm very happy about this."
Tiahrt himself called Kapaun's remaining immediate family — his brother, Eugene, and Eugene's wife, Helen, who live in Bel Aire. The news stunned Helen, who spoke for her ailing husband.
"We are proud of him, as we should be," she said.
"But I don't think Father Emil would have wanted honors for himself. He would have said, 'Oh, shucks,' and thrown off any thoughts about honors to someone else."
The Roman Catholic Church has for several decades conducted a separate investigation to determine whether Kapaun should be declared a saint. That investigation has gained strength in recent months.
The Vatican earlier this year sent an investigator to Wichita to interview families and their doctors who say their children miraculously recovered from what looked like fatal medical problems after they prayed to the soul of Kapaun. Proving at least two miracles is a requirement for considering sainthood in the church.
The military during the Korean War had already awarded Kapaun the Distinguished Service Cross, its second-highest award. But fellow POWS said he deserved the nation's highest award.
A number of them dictated notarized affidavits testifying to his heroism under fire and in prison. Several fellow prisoners, after they were released at the end of the war, came to Wichita and Pilsen to extol Kapaun's heroism.
Kapaun was a chaplain of the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the First Army Division during the Korean War. Soldiers in that outfit saw him run through machine gun and artillery fire during a number of battles, dragging wounded soldiers to safety.
Four months after the war began, with the communist North Korean Army falling apart and the American army apparently victorious, the Chinese Army suddenly entered the war. Kapaun's 8th Cavalry regiment was surrounded and nearly annihilated by tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers in November 1950.
American soldiers who escaped the battle outside the North Korean village of Unsan said Kapaun refused to leave the wounded even after officers ordered and soldiers screamed at him to leave the battlefield.
In the following six months, on a horrific death march to prison camps and then in two prison camps just south of the Chinese border, Kapaun saved many lives. He escaped numerous times to steal food to bring back to starving prisoners, washed the filthy underwear of sick soldiers too feeble to do it themselves, and made pots and pans out of shredded roofing tin to boil the only clean water soldiers drank in the camps.
Soldiers said he used many skills he told them he'd learned as a farm boy growing up outside Pilsen.
They said he was a devout priest who violated camp rules every night by saying the rosary with fellow soldiers; but he sometimes spoke four-letter-words after confronting vicious guards mistreating prisoners.
When starving soldiers, freezing in subzero weather, began to hoard or steal food from one another, Kapaun would give his own food away and bless it in front of the soldiers as "food we cannot only eat but share."
"By offering pieces of his clothing and giving portions of his own meager rations to his injured comrades, Chaplain Kapaun unwittingly weakened his resistance which, in turn, hastened his untimely death," Tiahrt wrote Rumsfeld in 2001.
Helen Kapaun said she and the family were "shocked" when former POWs came home after the war and told hundreds of stories of her brother-in-law's heroics.
"All we knew of him was that he was a good priest and a good man," she said. "My husband had said that Father Emil was a man who was always religious and always meant what he said."