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Chaplain gets Medal of Honor 62 years after death

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 6, 2013 at 4:43 pm •  Published: April 6, 2013
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Kapaun reached down, scooped up Miller and carried him on his back as they were taken captive.

"Put me down. You can't carry me," Miller repeatedly told Kapaun. And he recalls the chaplain's reply:

"If I put you down, they'll shoot you."

Kapaun carried the wounded sergeant, or supported him, hobbling on one foot, until they arrived days later at the village of Pyoktong, where a POW camp was eventually established.

It was there on Easter Sunday 1951 that Kapaun, defying his captors, conducted Mass with a makeshift crucifix on a brilliantly sunny day. At the end of the service, Dowe recalls, the hills and valley echoed with the prisoners singing "America The Beautiful."

By then, Kapaun, a patch covering one injured eye, was very sick. About a week later, he almost died from a blood clot in his leg. But he kept going.

"As the kids say, he didn't just talk the talk, he walked the walk," Wood says. "When I think about him, I get all choked up. It was chaos. It was hell. To have this one man who still had the spark of civility in him — it was an inspiration."

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Back home, Dowe set out to have Kapaun's heroics recognized.

After the Saturday Evening Post piece, Dowe made a bid to have him awarded the medal. It failed.

The POWs talked about it at reunions over the decades, two Kansas congressmen tried, once in about 1990, and then about a decade later. Around the same time, a new champion entered the picture.

William Latham Jr., a retired lieutenant colonel, teacher and historian, was interviewing several soldiers held captive with Kapaun while researching a book, "Cold Days in Hell: American POWs in Korea." They told moving stories and urged Latham to take up their medal cause.

Latham scoured the National Archives, gathering evidence of Kapaun's deeds in battle and captivity. He found the chaplain's service documents and eyewitness accounts from Unsan. He collected affidavits from the obliging POWs.

Latham understood the nominating process, the rules and hurdles in securing the medal — especially after decades pass — so he was sure to compile a thorough case. He sent more than 5 pounds of material to Kapaun's family and urged it be shared with the local congressman, who gave it to the Army.

This time, there was success. Latham was thrilled — and not just for the chaplain's memory.

"Emil Kapaun didn't need a medal to prove his heroism, but this recognition is very important to the men who served with him and to the families of the many other POWs who never came home," he says. "How many chances do any of us have to recognize so many unsung heroes?"

But there's still unfinished business in Pilsen, where townsfolk hope Kapaun will one day be elevated from war hero to saint.

Around this hamlet of just 22 homes, Kapaun's name already has mythical status. Everyone knows the story of the modest farm kid who became an Army chaplain in 1944, served two years along the India-Burma border and returned to the military in 1948 for a second stint — dying at age 35 in captivity in Korea.

Today, there's a Father Kapaun Day every June at his former parish, St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church, a nearly century-old red brick building with a 115-foot steeple. Inside there's a museum celebrating Kapaun's life; outside a life-sized bronze statue of the chaplain, an Army captain, helping a wounded soldier.

An hour away, the Rev. John Hotze, judicial vicar of the Wichita Diocese, has been leading the case for sainthood.

When he officially started the project in 2008, he says, his first task was to look for any reasons Kapaun wasn't worthy. The closest thing to a flaw he found, he says, was a doctor in the POW camp who'd been frustrated because Kapaun, as a patient, gave his food to those he felt were needier. "That," he says, "was the worst anybody said about Father Kapaun."

Over the next three years, Hotze, with a team of researchers, presented a 160-question survey to some 55 people who knew Kapaun from his childhood to his dying days. Personal interviews were conducted around the country and an 8,000-page record was amassed of every word written about and by Kapaun, including some 1,500 articles and even his homilies, some of them in Czech. (The Kansas-born chaplain learned his parents' ancestral language.)

A postulator in Rome will assemble the case for canonization, which is ultimately decided by the pope.

Two miracles are needed, and Hotze says there are potential candidates: a college student who suffered a life-threatening head injury in a pole-vaulting accident but recovered and teenage girl who healed from liver and lung disease, without any need for dialysis. In both instances, Hotze says, their families and friends prayed to Kapaun for his intercession.

After three years of exploring Kapaun's life, Hotze says what stands out is his selflessness in extraordinary times.

"If we were in the same position as Father, our focus would be on 'how am I going to survive?'" he says. "For Father Kapaun it was 'how am I going to help other people to survive?' That sums up his life."

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Ray Kapaun was born after his uncle died, but he grew up hearing about him from his grandmother.

"In everything that Emil did, he led by example," Ray Kapaun says. "He wasn't a preachy person. He never expected anything from anybody that he wouldn't do himself."

The medal, he says, is both a family honor and a history lesson.

"It's a huge validation but it's almost an opportunity for a lot more people to know and see what kind of man he really was," he says. "I still read stories about him and get teared-up about what he did."

Ray Kapaun, now 56, will accept the medal on his family's behalf. He'll be joined by two other nephews and a niece of the chaplain. Kansas political leaders, Latham, the historian, Hotze, others members of the Wichita Diocese and the Pilsen parish will be there, too.

And, of course, the POWs.

This day, Ray Kapaun says, would never have arrived without their persistence. Some didn't live to witness the ceremony, but others will finally see their beloved chaplain given the recognition they've called for so long.

"What he did and what he meant is so important," Dowe says. "It's worth finding a way to carry that forward. ... I can only say I'm glad it's happening. It's a shame it couldn't have been sooner."

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Sharon Cohen is a Chicago-based national writer. She can be reached at scohen(at)ap.org. Tamara Lush in Tampa contributed to this report.