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Korean War hero priest’s remains identified, Pentagon says

Emil J. Kapaun received the Medal of Honor posthumously for bravery and compassion.

Emil J. Kapaun celebrates Mass using the hood of his jeep as an altar, as his assistant, Patrick J. Schuler, kneels in prayer in Korea on Oct. 7, 1950. (U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Joey Thompson) (SGM Joey Thompson/335th Signal Command (Theater))

The remains of Emil J. Kapaun, the Catholic priest and Korean War POW who was given the Medal of Honor posthumously in 2013, have been identified, the Pentagon said Friday.

The almost complete set of Kapaun’s remains had been exhumed from a cemetery in Hawaii where they had been buried as unknown after the 1950-1953 war, his nephew, Ray Kapaun, said Friday.

The identification was made using dental records and DNA, he said.

Emil Kapaun, who ministered to Korean War POWs, to receive posthumous medal

He said he was not sure when the exhumation took place.

But in 2019, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency began disinterring 652 sets of unknown Korean War remains at Honolulu’s National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific to attempt identifications.

Emil Kapaun, who is also a candidate for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church, was beloved for ministering to American soldiers during the war’s fierce fighting, rescuing them under fire and caring for them when they became prisoners of war.

He died of illness and maltreatment on May 23, 1951, and his place of burial was lost. He was 35.

“I never envisioned we would have this day,” said Ray Kapaun, who accepted the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama in 2013. “That’s pretty incredible.”

He said he had been told the news Thursday in a telephone call from an army official at Fort Knox.

“At first it was too hard to believe,” he said in a telephone interview. “It couldn’t be real … All of a sudden out of the blue to have it happen, it’s still kind of hard to wrap our arms around it.”

“I was way beyond flabbergasted,” he said.

Others were, too, he said.

“Talking to the POWs who were in the camp with him that are still alive, and hearing their reaction at the news,” he said. “Those guys loved him dearly … [They] are in their late 80s, early 90s, and for them to be able to … witness this in their lifetime, I think that’s a miracle in itself.”

Ray Kapaun said he is not yet sure of funeral arrangements, especially in light of the pandemic.

The family will seek “everybody’s input as to what and where, and time frame-wise,” he said. “We realize that there’s going to be a lot of people that are going to want to be involved in bringing his remains back and having the services.”

Ray Kapaun said the Army believes his uncle’s body may have been buried in the Hawaii cemetery around 1956: “He was an unknown soldier because they had no way of identifying him.”

“His remains are pretty much intact, from what they have informed us so far,” he said. “They’re about 95 percent intact.”

He said he was not sure where his uncle had been buried originally in Korea or exactly how the body had been recovered and returned. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which made the identification, plans to brief the family in more detail, a spokesman said.

Emil 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,” Obama said in bestowing the nation’s highest medal for gallantry.

The son of a Czech immigrant, Kapaun had been raised on a farm near Pilsen, Kan. He became a priest and a military chaplain and served in the closing months of World War II. He served again in Korea with the 3rd Battalion of the First Cavalry Division’s 8th Cavalry Regiment.

During a ferocious battle with Chinese forces in November 1950, “Chaplain Kapaun calmly walked through withering enemy fire in order to provide comfort and medical aid to his comrades and rescue … wounded from no-man’s land,” his medal citation reads.

Surrounded by the enemy at a place called Unsan, now in North Korea, “the able-bodied men were ordered to evacuate,” the citation reads. “However, Chaplain Kapaun, fully aware of his certain capture, elected to stay behind with the wounded.”

After being captured, Kapaun, whose name is pronounced “Ka-PAWN,” knocked aside the rifle of a Chinese soldier who was about to execute Staff Sgt. Herbert Miller.

“He pushed that man’s rifle aside, and he picked me up,” Miller said in 2013. And for a time, Kapaun carried him on his back.

The American prisoners were marched 80 miles in frigid weather to a POW camp. Temperatures were often below freezing. The prisoners were put on a starvation diet and perished in droves.

But the priest worked to care for them. He stole food from the Chinese to feed them. He traded his watch for a blanket and cut up the blanket to make socks for his comrades’ frozen feet.

But then Kapaun’s health began to fail. He reportedly developed pneumonia. The prison guards ordered him to go to a “hospital,” his buddies recalled in 2013. The Americans had termed it “the dying room,” and protested. But the guards insisted.

“They wanted volunteers to carry him up there,” fellow prisoner Robert Wood remembered. “I was one of those who carried him up there.”

Ray Kapaun said: “I really do see this as a miracle. Just for this to happen. And at a time now when something good really needs to happen. It’s pretty special to say the least.”

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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