Heroic Korean War priest remembered by prison-mate
By Carl Bunderson
Washington D.C. (CNA/EWTN News) – A fellow prisoner of war has fondly recalled the heroism of Father Emil Kapaun, a U.S. Army chaplain who died in a North Korean camp and is posthumously receiving the Medal of Honor April 11.
Eighty-five year-old veteran Mike Dowe still remembers the day in 1950 when he marched nearly 90 miles to the prison camp in Pyoktong after being captured at the battle of Unsan.
“There was this one character who kept going around encouraging people to carry the wounded, and helped in every way he could,” Dowe told CNA.
“Finally they marched us into a valley, and as we started out I was on the front end of a stretcher…and I said ‘I’m Mike Dowe, who’s that on the back?’”
“He says ‘Father Kapaun,’ and I said ‘Father Kapaun, I’ve heard about you,’ and he said ‘Well don’t tell my bishop.’ That’s how I met him.”
Father Kapaun was born in Pilsen, Kansas, to a farming family, and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Wichita in June, 1940. He became an Army chaplain in 1944, and served through 1946, and then re-joined in 1948. He was sent to Korea in July 1950, where was noted for his service to his compatriots.
The priest was captured by the Chinese in November at Unsan because he was in the habit of going back for the wounded.
“He would run across the fields rescuing the wounded…including sometimes 50-100 yards outside the American lines to drag some kid back,” Roy Wenzl, co-author of “The Miracle of Father Kapaun,” told CNA on April 8.
“At Unsan, he stayed back with the wounded and allowed himself to be captured so he could protect them.”
“He didn’t go around witnessing verbally about Catholicism and Christianity much…instead, he’d be on a march with the unit and he’d see guys digging a latrine, and he’d go out and dig with them.”
“It’s not like he avoided Christianity; I think he was the finest witness to Christianity I’ve ever heard of,” Wenzl said, “but what he did, is he first established a relationship with these guys, who were busy doing really dirty work, of helping them, finding ways to help them.”
Wenzl noted that Father Kapaun would stay up at nights writing letters to the families of deceased soldiers and writing home on behalf of wounded soldiers.
“He put on a virtual clinic about how to be a leader, and how to be an effective witness for Christianity…there’s a shortage of Catholics who behaved like him,” Wenzl observed.
For Wenzl, Father Kapaun’s witness is a “phenomenal” demonstrating that there are “real Christians” in the world. “If there were more of him, there’d probably be a lot more people in church on Sundays, because that’s the way to do it.”
The author said that Father Kapaun “treated everybody just the same way he treated the Catholics, and he treated Catholics like loved ones.”
Father Kapaun’s upbringing on a farm contributed to his ability to help his fellow prisoners at the prison camp at Pyoktong, on the Chinese border. In addition to his spirituality, Fahter Kapaun was the “most practical and resourceful problem-solver,” Wenzl said. These were skills he had learned growing up on a Kansas farm, where he was forced to find creative solutions to challenges presented to him.
Dowe said that the death rate of prisoners in nearby valleys was some ten times that in the valley where he and Father Kapaun were held, and so one “can see the kind of effect he had on people.”
“He taught them to maintain their will to live, by teaching them to hold to their beliefs, honor, integrity, and keeping with their conscience, their loyalty to their country and their God.”
A “good majority” of the men who survived Pyoktong “owe their life to Father Kapaun,” said Dowe.
Father Kapaun already has been awarded several military honors, but Thursday’s presentation of the Medal of Honor to his relatives is the highest military honor in the U.S., and is awarded for bravery.
His cause for canonization is open, and already several cures may have been due to his intercession. When asked if he believes if Fahter Kapaun is in heaven, Dowe responded, “I sure do.”
Father Kapaun died May 23, 1951, and was buried in a mass grave on the Yalu river.
“When he was being carried away, they took him to a place, a death house…and left him where they left people to die,” Dowe remembered.
“As he was leaving, I was in tears, and he said to me, ‘Mike, don’t be sad, I’m going where I always wanted to go, and when I get there I’ll be saying a prayer for all of you guys.’”