WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Obama presented the Medal of Honor to relatives of Father Emil Kapaun on Thursday, calling the priest from Pilsen “an American soldier who didn’t fire a gun, but who wielded the mightiest weapon of all a love for his brothers so pure that he was willing to die so they might live.”
More than 60 people – among them nine former POWs, Kansas bishops and high-ranking officials in the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, relatives of Kapaun and members of the state’s congressional delegation – attended the White House ceremony. Obama gave the medal to Ray Kapaun, one of Emil Kapaun’s nephews.
Emil Kapaun – who died in May 1951 in a North Korean prisoner of war camp – was honored for his actions Nov. 1 and 2, 1950, at the battle of Unsan, where his 8th Cavalry regiment was overrun by Chinese forces. He helped aid those wounded in battle with no regard for his own safety. Witnesses said Kapaun ran 200 to 300 yards outside a shrinking defensive perimeter to rescue wounded American soldiers despite fierce enemy fire.
Kapaun also stayed behind and let himself be captured by Chinese forces in order to care for wounded American soldiers. He was initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions, the Army’s second-highest military honor. That was upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
Some of those present for the ceremony served with Kapaun in combat or suffered with him in the prison camp, where the only things keeping them alive were handfuls of birdseed or stolen food, and the spiritual and emotional nourishment offered by the calm, humble chaplain from Kansas who openly defied their Communist captors.
“That faith – that they might be delivered from evil – was perhaps his greatest gift to those men,” Obama said Thursday. “That even amidst such despair, there could be hope; amid their misery in the temporal they could see truths that are eternal; that even in such hell, there could be a touch of the divine.
“Looking back, one of them said, that is what ‘kept a lot of us alive.’ ”
The Secretary of the Army and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended Kapaun for the Medal of Honor in 2009. But special legislation had to pass Congress because of statute of limitation issues and the White House had to agree with the recommendation before the medal could be awarded.
Obama phoned Helen Kapaun, Emil Kapaun’s sister-in-law who lives in the Wichita area, in December to tell her he would honor Emil Kapaun. Helen Kapaun did not travel to Washington, D.C., instead watching the ceremony in Wichita.
Emil Kapaun was born in 1916 on a farm near the tiny town of Pilsen, in Marion County, and was ordained a priest in Wichita in 1940. He served his church in Pilsen until 1944 when he joined the Army as chaplain; he served in India and Burma, then returned to Kansas and parish churches.
Obama talked about his own Kansas roots when describing the type of man Kapaun was.
“Now, I obviously never met Father Kapaun. But I have a sense of the man he was,” the president said.
“Emil and my grandfather were both born in Kansas, about the same time; both raised in small towns outside Wichita. They were part of that Greatest Generation – surviving the Depression, joining the Army, serving in World War II. They embodied those heartland values of honesty and hard work, decency and humility – quiet heroes determined to do their part.”
In 1948 Kapaun rejoined the Army as a chaplain and was stationed in 1950 in Japan with the 8th Cavalry regiment. That unit went to Korea only weeks after the North invaded the South on June 25.
After his capture at Unsan, Kapaun kept rescuing soldiers on the march to prison, persuading able-bodied soldiers to help carry their wounded comrades. In prison, he defied brainwashing attempts by the camp guards, picked lice off the sick, washed the clothes of wounded soldiers and with others stole bags of food while other POWs deliberately started fights to distract guards.
Kapaun has been declared a Servant of God by the Roman Catholic Church, and the Vatican is investigating his case for sainthood. Church officials from Wichita said winning the Medal of Honor will help those efforts.
Obama talked about Kapaun’s strong faith, even as he was mocked and punished by the Communist prison guards for holding secret religious services.
“They took his clothes and made him stand in the freezing cold – for hours,” Obama said. “Yet he never lost his faith. If anything, it only grew stronger.
“At night he slipped into huts to lead prisoners in prayer, say the Rosary, administer the sacraments, or offer three simple words: God bless you.”
After Thursday’s ceremony, those in attendance were invited to a White House reception. The Diocese of Wichita planned to host another reception on Thursday night.
On Friday, Kapaun will be honored again. He will be inducted into the Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon, which honors all Medal of Honor recipients.