“He died because he loved and pitied us. He died that we might live.” — Father Emil Kapaun
The legend of Father Kapaun and the quest to elevate him to sainthood began in September 1953 as soon as Communist guards released prisoners at the end of the Korean War. A little band of fierce-looking Americans, with balding and blunttalking Ralph Nardella at their head, carried Emil Kapaun’s gold ciborium and a rugged wooden crucifix, an inch shy of four feet tall. They had risked their lives in a final act of defiance to bring those items across the fence line; the guards wanted to confiscate them, but Nardella and the others had threatened to stay in North Korea.
They walked directly to foreign correspondents covering the prisoner release and said they had a world-class story to tell. Within hours, wire services were sending it worldwide: the story of Father Kapaun, along with photos of Nardella, Joseph O’Connor and Felix McCool holding the crucifix.
They told how he’d had tobacco pipes shot out of his mouth as he dragged wounded off battlefields. They said he saved men on the Death March, washed the underwear of the sick, made pans out of roofing tin, stole food.
“Maybe I shouldn’t say it,” O’Connor said in a wire-service story that appeared in The Wichita Beacon, “but he was the best food thief we had.”
The stories appeared in papers around the world and made Kapaun an international hero.
Clarence Anderson, a doctor, told how Kapaun asked guards to forgive him even as they prepared his murder.
O’Connor told how Kapaun celebrated Mass under fire, spreading bread and wine on the hood of his jeep, never flinching at explosions.
“I am a Jew,” Sidney Esensten, another doctor, told the reporters. “But I feel deeply the greatness of the man, regardless of religion.”
Nardella said Kapaun had planned to give $1,000 in back pay to the poor in his parish in Kansas. Nardella had pledges from POWs for $1,000. Nardella wanted to deliver it himself.
The stories astonished Kapaun’s grieving family; they had not known the details of his heroism.
They told reporters stories of a kid who played priest when other boys played cowboys; who, as a young altar boy on the way to Mass, got off his bike to pick flowers for the altar.
Strangers thrilled to Kapaun’s deeds. But when reporters asked his mother about Emil, Bessie said she had opposed her son’s return to the Army.
“But he said the boys needed him more than we did — and he went.”
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Kapaun would have been upset had he known the risks his friends took to honor him.
Back in the camp, Walt Mayo, after the dying Kapaun handed him the ciborium, had hid it; guards took it anyway. Weeks later, Mayo, Nardella and the others nearly rioted when a prisoner saw the camp commander’s 4-year-old daughter throwing it in the air and catching it. Nardella demanded it; the Chinese refused until war’s end.
In the two years before their release, many prisoners talked about Kapaun day and night. A few weeks after Kapaun died, when a profane Marine Corps fighter pilot named Jerry Fink was brought to camp, Kapaun was nearly all he heard about. Even a tough Muslim POW named Fezi Bey told Fink that Kapaun had awed all the Turks.
“He is not of my religion, but he is a man of God,” Bey said.
Fink was a Jew with little interest in Christianity. He was also an artist, and he hated the guards. When Nardella said he wanted a shrine to honor Kapaun and defy the guards, Fink vowed to do something profound.
What happened became the next chapter in the Kapaun legend: the Jewish warrior carving a sculpture of the crucified Christ in a mud-hut hell.
Fink spent weeks picking over firewood. He selected pieces of scrub oak for the cross and fine-grained cherry wood for the body.
Other prisoners, including Mayo’s buddy Phil Peterson, showed Fink how to tear up old GI boots, removing the steel arches. Fink and Peterson spent weeks filing steel on rocks until they had sharp blades.
Fink made a chisel out of a broken drainpipe; he spent months carving a 47-inch-by-28-inch cross. He carved a 2-foot-long body and a bearded face that others said looked surprisingly like the face of Kapaun.
He twisted radio wire to make a crown of thorns. He sneaked up to the building of the camp commander, smashed a window, and used the ground glass to sand the sculpture.
Guards demanded to know who the face was.
“Abraham Lincoln,” Fink lied. The guards regarded Lincoln as a kindred spirit.
But when at last they saw it was Christ, some guards spat at it; others threw Fink into a punishment hole. But they seemed afraid to touch the sculpture.
Years later, when Fink visited Kapaun’s friends and family in Kansas, he talked of hate. “I can still bring up the hate. It’s what kept me going.”
But what made him carve the cross, he said, was the story of a man who rejected hate, who told all the Jerry Finks of the world to love their enemies. Fink did not emulate that idea — but he risked his life to honor it.
“If the meek shall inherit the earth, it will be because people like Father Kapaun willed it to them,” Fink told reporters in Wichita. “I am a Jew, but that man will always live in my heart.”
Visits by Fink and others brought some peace to the Kapauns; but it was not enough.
Bessie cried every time reporters called. She would sometimes play a recording of Emil’s voice, giving a sermon over Armed Forces Radio in Tokyo not long
before he shipped out for Korea. She would listen to her son talk about saints, and how they were tested. And she would cry.
When reporters asked Enos Kapaun about Emil, the old farmer looked at the ground.
“You know,” he said, “since he is gone, I am just no good.”
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The Catholic Church saw Kapaun’s potential for sainthood, but for decades did little to push it.
Wichita Diocese Bishop Mark Carroll, Kapaun’s boss when he served as a Pilsen priest, told reporters that Kapaun was a saint soon after POWs revealed his heroism. The diocese began collecting information; books were contemplated.
The church hierarchy decided that because Kapaun was a chaplain, its Archdiocese for the Military Services should lead the investigation.
Decades passed. Eventually, bishops succeeding Carroll realized that the understaffed chaplain service never pressed sainthood to conclusion; the Wichita Diocese decided to take over.
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The POWs never gave up.
Kapaun friends including Moose McClain, Mayo, Mike Dowe and others came repeatedly over the next decades to Wichita and Pilsen; they testified on tape, signed affidavits, wrote polite, insistent letters to the Army and the church.
They asked the military to review whether Kapaun should receive the Medal of Honor.
A fellow 8th Cavalry soldier who was awarded that medal said Kapaun should have received it, too.
“Maybe they thought a guy who didn’t carry a gun shouldn’t win the Medal of Honor,” Tibor Rubin said.
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No POW did as much for Kapaun after the war as Dowe. Over six decades he was a diplomatic and determined advocate for his friend.
Months after his release, Dowe went to work at the Pentagon, where he told of camps, tortures, heroes, collaborators — and Kapaun.
Army officers, impressed, introduced Dowe to Harold Martin, an editor at one of the nation’s respected media giants, the Saturday Evening Post. Martin, a gifted writer, helped Dowe write a story that on Jan. 16, 1954, brought an extended account of Kapaun’s heroism to a worldwide audience.
“He was a priest of the church, and a man of great piety,” the two men wrote. “But there was nothing ethereal about him, nothing soft or unctuous or holier-than- thou . . . outwardly he was all GI, tough of body, rough of speech sometimes, full of the wry humor of the combat soldier. In a camp where men had to steal or starve, he was the most accomplished food thief of them all. In a prison whose inmates hated their communist captors with a bone-deep hate, he was the most unbending enemy of communism, and when they tried to brainwash him, he had the guts to stand up to them and tell them to their faces that they lied.”
Dowe served Kapaun and country: He worked for an Eisenhower presidential commission studying prisoner of war conduct; he turned himself into a nuclear physicist, doing important work with nuclear weaponry and the Star Wars program. All the while, he told people about his great friend.
In 1955, actor James Whitmore played Kapaun in a national television show, “The Good Thief,” wearing an eye patch, stealing food, praying in violation of camp rules. Some script lines came right from Dowe’s story in the Post.
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They had made Kapaun a hero; the stories resonated everywhere.
Nardella, when he got a hero’s welcome in New Jersey, was surprised to learn that local newspapers and citizens had already raised the $1,000 Nardella had pledged for the Pilsen poor fund. Before Nardella took it to Kansas, that fund would grow much larger — to $8,300.
The Army by then had awarded Kapaun the Distinguished Service Cross, its second-highest award.
In May 1957, Cardinal Francis Spellman, friend to popes and one of the most prominent religious figures in the U.S., sat with Carroll in Wichita and honored Kapaun as they named a Catholic high school after him, the seed money for which was brought by Nardella.
At dinner that night, they heard impassioned speeches.
“Father Kapaun’s courage had the softness of velvet and the strength of iron,” Mayo told them.
“More than a man,” said Anderson, the doctor. “A hero and a saint.”
Nardella told them that he had nearly died one day from beriberi and pneumonia.
“It was the lowest point in my life,” Nardella said, until Kapaun came to his hut.
“Before you have an Easter you must have a Good Friday,” Kapaun told him.
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But the dinner showed how fast the memories of people can fade.
Kapaun’s brother Eugene, as his wife related later, was mystified to hear Carroll and Spellman mispronounce his and his brother’s last name as “KAYpin,” rather than “kuhPAWN.”
For years after, Eugene — who served as a maintenance man in the school that bore his own name — tried to correct people. No one listened. Eventually even people in Pilsen said “KAYpin.”
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The diocese as early as the late 1950s was handing out Kapaun prayer cards, one of which went to a two-story house in south Wichita.
There, where two parents and nine kids competed for two bathrooms, Sylvester and Frances Hotze raised a son who knew Kapaun because his parents taped the prayer card to the bathroom mirror; John Hotze saw Kapaun every time he brushed his teeth.
Later, after Hotze was ordained, he asked to serve Kapaun’s parish at Pilsen, an hour’s drive north of Wichita. Hotze felt called.
By 2001, when the diocese decided to step up efforts to investigate Kapaun’s candidacy for sainthood, Hotze became the logical choice to gather information and make a case to the Vatican.
He began to call old soldiers. They were glad to help him.
Kapaun’s war buddies had never given up pressing his case. Over decades, as all hope seemed lost, they kept telling his story, suggesting the Medal of Honor, suggesting their friend belonged in the ranks of saints.
Hotze traveled. He taped interviews with Dowe, William Funchess, Herb Miller, Bob McGreevy and others.
In 2009 they heard news from the U.S. Army.
It made their skin tingle.