The Non-Combatant Hero: Emil Kapaun

Emil J. Kapaun died in a North Korean P.O.W. camp in 1951, locked away with dying prisoners so he would starve to death.

In the 61 years since then, this remarkable man has inspired a growing number of admirers. After his death, the Army recognized his service with a Bronze Star and Distinguished Service Cross. Today, he is being considered for the Medal of Honor by the President and for canonization by the Vatican.

The Post acquainted its readers with him in 1954, when it carried Ray M. Dowe, Jr.’s account of “The Ordeal of Chaplain Kapaun.” Dowe had been in the same prison, and knew how the Captain’s self-sacrifice had helped save the lives of many GIs.

Even before his internment, Dowe said, Father Kapaun had become a legend. He visited front-line troops on an old bicycle after his jeep was destroyed.

Helmet jammed down over his ears, pockets stuffed with apples and peaches he had scrounged from Korean orchards, he’d ride this bone-shaker over the rocky roads and the paths through the paddy fields until he came to the forward outposts. There he’d drop in a shallow hole beside a nervous rifleman, crack a joke or two, hand him a peach, say a little prayer with him and move on to the next hole.

It was his devotion to the wounded that finally cost him his freedom, and his life.

On November 2, 1950, the 8th Cavalry was encircled by Communist troops at Unsan. The soldiers were ordered to get past the enemy as best they could and regroup behind American lines.

Father Kapaun, who was unwounded, might have escaped with them. He refused to go. Of his own free will he stayed on, helping Captain Clarence L. Anderson, the regimental surgeon, take care of the wounded. And there, just at dark, the Chinese took him as he said the last prayers over a dying man.

Kapaun and Dowe were marched to a prison camp where they were barely kept alive on 500 grams of millet or cracked corn every day.

Korea 1950: An exhausted soldier is evacuated by Capt. Jerome Dolan and Chaplain Kaplaun.

Then they cut it down to 450 grams. It was obvious, Father said, that we must either steal food or slowly starve. And in that dangerous enterprise we must have the help of some power beyond ourselves. So, standing before us all, he said a prayer to St. Dismas, the Good Thief, who was crucified at the right hand of Jesus, asking for his aid. I’ll never doubt the power of prayer again. Father, it seemed, could not fail.

At the risk of being shot by the guards, he’d sneak at night into the little fields around the compound… and find hidden potatoes and grain.

When men were called out to [the supply shed] Father would slip in at the end of the line [then] slide off into the bushes… He’d come up behind the shed, and while the rest of us started a row with the guards doling out the rations, he’d sneak in, snatch up a sack of cracked corn and scurry off into the bushes with it.

Father Kapaun took his greatest risks, Dowe said, to slip away with food and supplies to the isolated house where the wounded were kept.

He scrounged cotton undershirts to make bandages. He took their old bandages, foul with corruption, and sneaked them out and washed them and sneaked them back again. He picked the lice from their bodies, an inestimable service, for a man so weak he cannot pick his own lice soon will die.

He joked with them, and said prayers for them, and held them in his arms like children as delirium came upon them. But the main thing he did for them was to put into their hearts the will to live. For when you are wounded and sick and starving, it’s easy to give up and quietly die.

He gathered and washed the foul undergarments of the dead and distributed them to men so weak from dysentery they could not move, and he washed and tended these men as if they were little babies.

He traded his watch for a blanket, and cut it up to make warm socks for helpless men whose feet were freezing.

He did a thousand little things to keep us going.

Inevitably, Kapaun fell victim to the starvation and harsh conditions that struck down so many of his comrades. Captain Anderson, the camp surgeon, nursed him through two serious illnesses. Kapaun had just recovered from them when he contracted pneumonia and fell into a delirious fever.

I believe that period of semiconsciousness was the only happy time he knew during his captivity. Around him there seemed to gather all the people he had known in his boyhood on the farm in Kansas and in his school days. Babbling happily, sometimes laughing, he spoke to his mother and his father, and to the priests he’d known in seminary.

Finally, he sank into a deep and quiet sleep, and when he awoke, he was completely rational. The crisis had passed. He was getting well.

He was sitting up, eating and cracking jokes, when the guards came with a litter to take him to the hospital [where] men in extremis were left to lie untended in filth and freezing cold, until merciful death took them.

The doctors protested violently, but the Chinese ordered Kapaun onto a stretcher and forbad anyone from going along to care for him.

Father himself made no protest. He looked around the room at all of us standing there, and smiled. He held in his hands the golden ciborium, the little covered cup in which, long ago, he had carried the blessed communion bread.

“Tell them back home that I died a happy death,” he said, and smiled again.

Then he turned to me. “Don’t take it hard, Mike,” he said. “I’m going where I’ve always wanted to go. And when I get up there, I’ll say a prayer for all of you.”

I stood there, crying unashamed, as they took him down the road, the little gold cup still shining in his hand. Beside me stood Fezi Gurgin, a Turkish lieutenant, a Mohammedan. “To Allah who is my God,” said Fezi Bey, “I will say a prayer for him.”

A few days later he was dead.

We hasten to add that Emil J. Kapaun, while a remarkable and inspiring individual, made no greater sacrifice than any of the 36,000 Americans who died in that war, or the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives defending this country.

All are heroes. All deserve to be remembered for the price they paid for our liberty.

Father Kapaun helping a wounded comrade. Statue located in Pilsen, Kansas. Image taken by Art Davis… Wikipedia