It took 60 years for the men who served in the Korean War with Father Emil Kapaun to see his memory honored with the military’s highest award. Members of the heroic military chaplain’s family and a handful of Korean War veterans, most in their 80s, listened Wednesday as President Obama lauded Kapaun’s bravery and kindness before handing the Medal of Honor to his nephew, Ray Kapaun.
“In the chaos -- dodging bullets and explosions -- Father Kapaun raced between foxholes and into no-man’s lands, dragging the wounded to safety. When the enemy broke through and the combat was hand-to-hand, he carried on comforting the injured and the dying,” Obama said. Kapaun was “an American soldier who didn’t fire a gun, but who [carried] the mightiest weapon of all: the love for his brothers so powerful that he was willing to die so that they might live.”
Kapaun inspired those with whom he served with his commitment to his principles amid the darkness of a North Korean prisoner of war camp, several Korean War vets said in recent interview. Men froze and starved at the Pyoktong camp, which held U.S. POWs from late 1950 to 1953. But Kapaun picked lice off men too weak to do it themselves and stole grain from the Korean and Chinese guards who took the American soldiers as prisoners of war in late 1950. Kapaun died in the POW camp in 1951, but Obama described how upon their release in 1953 survivors carried a hand-carved wooden crucifix in honor of the priest.
Those who knew Kapaun began lobbying for him to receive the Medal of Honor in 1953. In 2009, the secretary of the Army agreed that Father Kapaun’s service during the Korean War warranted the honor. A series of Congressional actions led by legislators from Kansas, where Kapaun was born, led to the support from the Pentagon and White House.
The Korean War, which ended in a cease-fire 60 years ago, is known as the “Forgotten War.” This honor for Kapaun brings fresh attention to that conflict.
In a statement, the White House noted Kapaun “calmly walked through withering enemy fire in order to provide comfort and medical aid to his comrades” after Chinese Communist Forces attacked. “When they found themselves surrounded by the enemy, the able-bodied men were ordered to evacuate. Chaplain Kapaun, fully aware of his certain capture, elected to stay behind with the wounded.”
Herbert Miller, 86, described Kapaun pushing aside an enemy soldier who was prepared to shoot Miller. Then, Kapaun carried Miller upon his back as they were marched to the POW camp.
Obama said Kapaun’s humility and attitude of service, reminded him of his grandparents, who also grew up in rural Kansas. “They embodied those heartland values of honesty and hard work, decency and humility.”
The legacy of Kapaun is a testimony to the power of the human spirit and faith, Obama said in closing. “He reminds us of the good that we can do regardless of circumstances.”