The Korean War, which will have its 63rd anniversary this June, has been labeled a forgotten war. At the same time, it was the first time the United Nations went to war. Over 33,000 Americans died during the bloody three-year conflict that saw the virtual destruction of South Korea’s economy. Yet, out of the carnage, the blood, and the mud, came heroes, like Father Emil Kapaun, who during the Battle of Unsan pushed a Chinese soldier aside to prevent an American serviceman from being executed. While in a POW camp, he stole food from his captors, and gave it to his fellow servicemen. He made pots out of the roofing tin in order to boil water and prevent dysentery. He also picked the lice off of sick POWs. Lastly, he dodged machine gun fire to drag wounded Americans to safety. Tragcially, Kapaun died in captivity.
After more than sixty years of lobbying, Father Kapaun, a humble man from the Midwest born to Czech immigrants, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. His nephew accepted it on his behalf on April 11.
Roy Wenzl of the Wichita Eagle wrote:
Kapaun’s nine fellow prisoners of war from the Korean War, most of whom have openly said they don’t particularly care for Obama or his politics, all thrilled to the speech in which the president described Kapaun’s heroics.
“This is an amazing story,” Obama told hundreds of onlookers in the East Room of the White House. “Father Kapaun has been called a shepherd in combat boots. His fellow soldiers who felt his grace and his mercy called him a saint, a blessing from God.
“Today we bestow another title on him – recipient of our nation’s highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor.”
Obama, toward the end of the speech, asked Kapaun’s POW friends to stand. The men, all of whom were starved and tortured and battled the cold and disease along with Kapaun in a North Korean prison camp in 1950 and 1951, stood up as the president and hundreds of onlookers clapped in sustained applause.
Bob McGreevy, an enlisted man who was one of the few to survive the camp’s “Death House” and who has never shirked from speaking bluntly, mouthed the words “thank you” to Obama when the president nodded at him from the podium a few feet away. McGreevy then said “thank you” to the crowd as they gave the POWs a standing ovation.
“He’s a good man, he’s just got a different way of thinking than I do,” McGreevy later said of Obama. “He did a fantastic job; everything he said about Father Kapaun’s heroics was true.”
More than 60 people – among them the 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 ceremony.
Father Kapaun’s Medal of Honor citation goes as follows:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty:
Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty while serving with the 3d Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy at Unsan, Korea, from November 1-2, 1950. On November 1, as Chinese Communist Forces viciously attacked friendly elements, Chaplain Kapaun calmly walked through withering enemy fire in order to provide comfort and medical aid to his comrades and rescue friendly wounded from no-man’s land. Though the Americans successfully repelled the assault, they found themselves surrounded by the enemy. Facing annihilation, the able-bodied men were ordered to evacuate.
However, Chaplain Kapaun, fully aware of his certain capture, elected to stay behind with the wounded. After the enemy succeeded in breaking through the defense in the early morning hours of November 2, Chaplain Kapaun continually made rounds, as hand-to-hand combat ensued. As Chinese Communist Forces approached the American position, Chaplain Kapaun noticed an injured Chinese officer amongst the wounded and convinced him to negotiate the safe surrender of the American Forces.
Shortly after his capture, Chaplain Kapaun, with complete disregard for his personal safety and unwavering resolve, bravely pushed aside an enemy soldier preparing to execute Sergeant First Class Herbert A. Miller. Not only did Chaplain Kapaun’s gallantry save the life of Sergeant Miller, but also his unparalleled courage and leadership inspired all those present, including those who might have otherwise fled in panic, to remain and fight the enemy until captured. Chaplain Kapaun’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness, above and beyond the call of duty, are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the 3d Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, the 1st Cavalry Division, and the United States Army.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Father Kapaun is also being reviewed for sainthood for his actions by the Vatican.
You can read more about Father Kapaun in Roy Wenzl and Travis Heying’s book: The Miracle of Father Kapaun: Priest, Soldier, Korean War Hero