In the cold, barren hills of Korea more than 60 years ago, two teary-eyed soldiers stood in a prisoner of war camp where their chaplain lay dying.
The Rev. Emil Kapaun was weak, his body wracked by pneumonia and dysentery. After six brutal months in the hellish camp, the once sturdy Kansas farmer's son could take no more. Thousands of soldiers had already died, some starving, others freezing to death. Now the end was near for the chaplain.
Lt. Mike Dowe said goodbye to the man who'd given him hope during those terrible days. The young West Point grad cried, even as the chaplain, he says, tried to comfort him with his parting words: "Hey, Mike, don't worry about me. I'm going to where I always wanted to go and I'll say a prayer for all of you."
Lt. Robert Wood wept, too, watching the Roman Catholic chaplain bless and forgive his captors. He helped carry Kapaun out of the mud hut and up a hill on a stretcher after Chinese soldiers ordered he be moved to a hospital, a wretched, maggot-filled place the POWs dubbed "the death house." There was little or no medical care there. Kapaun died on May 23, 1951.
These two soldiers — and many more — never forgot their chaplain. Not his courage in swatting away an enemy soldier pointing a gun at a GI's head. Not his talent for stealing food, then sneaking it to emaciated troops. Not the inspiring way he rallied his "boys," as he called them, urging them to keep their spirits up.
The plain-spoken, pipe-smoking, bike-riding chaplain was credited with saving hundreds of soldiers during the Korean War. Kapaun (pronounced Kah-PAHWN) received the Distinguished Service Cross and many other medals. His exploits were chronicled in books, magazines and a TV show. A high school was named for him. His statue stands outside his former parish in tiny Pilsen, Kan.
But one award, the Medal of Honor, always remained elusive.
Dowe and other POWs had lobbied on and off for years, writing letters, doing interviews, enlisting support on Capitol Hill. Dowe's recommendation was turned down in the 1950s.The campaign stalled, then picked up steam decades later. Kapaun's "boys" grew old, their determination did not.
Now it has finally paid off.
On April 11, those two young lieutenants, Dowe and Wood, now 85 and 86, will join their comrades, Kapaun's family and others at the White House where President Barack Obama will award the legendary chaplain the Medal of Honor posthumously.
"It is about time," Dowe says.
Even now, Father Kapaun's story may still have one final chapter: sainthood.
The Korean conflict is sometimes called "the forgotten war," overshadowed by the global cataclysm of World War II and the nation's long struggle in Vietnam.
For veterans, though, there are vivid war memories: the desperation of eating weeds plucked from the dirt, the horror of discovering buddies who'd died overnight, the evanescent joy of taking a few puffs on their chaplain's pipe. Many men of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry regiment, credit Kapaun for their survival, emotionally and physically.
"He's in my prayers every night," Dowe says. "I ask him to help me rather than asking God to help him."
Dowe first talked about the chaplain in a told-to story in the Jan. 16, 1954, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. He described Kapaun as "the bravest man" and "best foot soldier" he'd ever known, a humble guy with a wry sense of humor (he made a game of counting lice on their uniforms) and a fierce desire to help others.
Every POW remembers something special about what Kapaun did to help the soldiers.
He'd pound rocks on bombed-out tin roofs to shape them into pans he used to wash the wounded.
He'd pray to St. Dismas, the Good Thief, before he foraged in sheds and fields, stuffing corn, peaches and other food in his pockets, then giving it all to starving soldiers.
He'd drag the injured into ditches, risking enemy attack, or haul them on stretchers in the snow, gently urging others to do the same. "Come on boys," he'd say, "Let's help these guys."
He'd hop on his rickety bike — his Jeep had been demolished — every time he heard gunfire, racing toward the action, zipping across rice paddies in his knit cap fashioned from a sweater arm.
"He figured somebody needed help or last rites," Wood says. "We used to call him To-The-Sound-of-the-Guns Kapaun."
Wood recalls how the chaplain once joined him on the front lines when the lieutenant volunteered to deliver ammunition to some troops. As he raced up the hill, Kapaun appeared with bandoliers wrapped around him.
"What are you doing, father?" a surprised Wood asked.
"I'm going with you, son," the chaplain told the lieutenant, who at 22 was about a dozen years younger.
About halfway up, they were fired upon, Wood says. Both jumped into a ditch. The trusty pipe Kapaun had clenched between his teeth had been reduced to a mere stem.
"Father, you still want to go?" Wood asked.
"Keep going, son," Kapaun replied.
Such feats were cited when it was announced in March that Kapaun would receive the Medal of Honor. The White House and Army cited the chaplain's "extraordinary heroism" during the Battle of Unsan in Korea, walking through "withering enemy fire" to comfort and provide medical help, staying with the troops though capture was almost certain, leading prayers at the risk of punishment and resisting re-education programs by the Chinese Communists.
Also mentioned was an incredible life-saving episode.
It was November 1950 when Chinese soldiers overran the U.S. troops near Unsan. Sgt. Herbert Miller, a hardened World War II vet, was huddled in a ditch, his ankle broken from a grenade attack. He played dead for a time, hiding beneath the corpse of an enemy soldier. But he was ultimately discovered by another.
Miller picks up the story six decades later:
"He pointed his gun at my head. I was looking into the barrel. I figured to myself: 'This is it. I'm all done.'"
Then almost miraculously, Miller saw a slender GI approaching across a dirt road. As he neared, Miller noticed a small cross on the soldier's helmet. Kapaun simply pushed the enemy aside — shockingly, without retribution.
"Why he never shot him," Miller says, "I'll never know. I'll never know. ... I think the Lord was there directing him what to do."
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