Father Kapaun’s Medal of Honor comes home to Pilsen

At the pulpit in the church where war hero Emil Kapaun was baptized in 1916 and where he said his first Mass as a Catholic priest in 1940, nephew Ray Kapaun on Sunday stood a few feet from his uncle’s Medal of Honor and told hundreds of people that the medal had come home to where it belonged.

He said it belonged among the people who first believed in Father Kapaun, long before he joined the Army as a chaplain, long before he died a martyr and a hero in a Korean War prison camp in May 1951.

“The medal has made it home for everyone to see and to remember what his life was about,” Ray Kapaun said.

Fighting back tears, Ray Kapaun then said that before the day ended on Sunday, he would borrow the medal, still inside the glass-and-wood casing that has held it since it was handed to him at a White House ceremony in April. And he said he’d take a little walk outside.

Across the street and a short walk north of the church was the little house where Emil Kapaun was born and where Ray Kapaun used to sit with his grandmother Bessie, Emil Kapaun’s mother.

She would cry sometimes in the years after her son’s death. And she would wonder aloud to Ray whether her son would ever be awarded the Medal of Honor, as so many of his soldier friends told her he deserved.

“I’m going to walk over there and stand on that porch,” Ray Kapaun told parishioners in St. John Nepomucene Church. “And I’m going to hold the medal and tell Grandma: ‘The medal has come home.’ ”

Father Kapaun Day

Ray Kapaun presented the medal to the town of Pilsen on Sunday during Father Kapaun Day, an annual celebration of the Kansas farm boy and priest’s life that began years ago.

Over two days there have been speeches; dinners; the baking in Pilsen of kolaches, a traditional Czech pastry; and a 60-mile walk from Wichita to Pilsen, which is in Marion County. The walk honored Kapaun by imitating in part the ordeal of the march to prison camps that Kapaun and hundreds of U.S. Army soldiers endured in Korea after they were captured at the battle of Unsan in 1950.

In the walk this year, said the Rev. John Hotze, a Wichita Diocese priest who said Mass in Pilsen on Sunday, there were 170 walkers, most of them sleeping in tents during the three-day hike. Some of the walkers looked footsore and tanned as they turned up for Mass at midafternoon.

Hotze, who has spent 12 years investigating Kapaun’s qualifications for sainthood for the Vatican, said the church in September will send yet another thick collection of documents and other materials to Rome showing Kapaun’s qualifications for sainthood.

A previous trove of documents had documented Kapaun’s heroism; the next batch will show what Hotze has documented about miraculous recoveries attributed to Kapaun’s intercession from serious medical conditions that local doctors have said should have ended the lives of young people like Chase Kear, severely injured in a pole vaulting accident, and Avery Gerleman, who suffered what her doctors described as a terrible autoimmune disorder.

A Vatican investigator will be in Wichita in September to receive the documents, Hotze said.

Hotze said Mass on Sunday alongside Darrin May, the local priest, and Gen. Donald Rutherford, a Catholic priest who serves as chief of the Army’s chaplain service. He flew in from Washington, D.C., for the service.

Hotze told about 800 parishioners that “every one of us has the opportunity to become a saint.” But he said those who do are people who relentlessly serve others.

War hero

Kapaun was born on a farm near Pilsen. He was ordained a priest in 1940 at what is now Newman University in Wichita. As a child, while other boys played cowboy, he played priest, draping towels over boxes to make an altar.

He served as a priest at St. John Nepomucene, and then in 1944 joined the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps and served as a chaplain in World War II in Burma and India.

He came home to become the priest of Pilsen again in 1946 but rejoined the Army in 1948.

His 8th Cavalry Regiment, stationed in Japan, 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 November 1950, after the Allies 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, and Kapaun and hundreds of soldiers were captured..

Kapaun would be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions at Unsan. It was that medal the military upgraded to the Medal of Honor.

His prison friends said his heroics in the camps were even more spectacular. He saved hundreds of lives, in part by making cooking pans out of discarded roofing tin. That allowed soldiers to boil snow for drinking water, which held off dysentery.

He picked the lice off sick soldiers, stole food from guards to share with prisoners, washed prisoners’ clothing, dug latrines and rallied starving prisoners in subzero temperatures to stay alive. Hundreds died – including Kapaun – but survivors said it would have been much worse without him..

He defied the Chinese guards, resisting brainwashing. He also continued to pray with fellow prisoners – acts that the Communist guards had prohibited.

Coming home

The house up the street where Kapaun was born was moved to the town of Pilsen years ago.

But while his grandmother was still alive, Ray Kapaun said, and while the house was still at the farm two miles south and a mile west of town, his father, Gene, and his mother, Helen, would bring him and the other Kapaun children out there every few weeks. They always would find Bessie crying and waving on the tiny porch. And when they left a few hours later, she cried and waved again.

Ray Kapaun walked the Medal of Honor to that house late on Sunday afternoon. He and his brother David and his sister Angie Gerlach climbed the steps to a concrete porch barely large enough to hold the three of them.

Ray Kapaun has kept the medal since President Obama gave it to him and the Kapaun family. But he said that his dad had always said the medal should go to the town of Pilsen.

For 60 years, Ray Kapaun said, people – especially his grandmother – wondered whether the medal would ever come.

“But to Dad, it was never if but when.”

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