A Catholic U.S. Army chaplain who died nearly 62 years ago in a North Korean prisoner of war camp was awarded the Medal of Honor April 11 in a White House ceremony attended by family, friends, and the few soldiers remaining who witnessed his selfless heroism on the battlefields of the Korean conflict.
The Rev. Emil Joseph Kapaun was just 35 years old when he perished from starvation and pneumonia as a prisoner of war on May 23, 1951. But a handful of men who served with him never forgot his actions both under fire and as a captive going beyond the call of duty to shield, protect, and offer spiritual guidance to his fellow soldiers. After a six-decade campaign to persuade the powers that be that Kapaun was deserving of the nation's highest military honor, those who loved and remembered him stood by while President Obama presented the Medal of Honor to the late chaplain's 56-year-old nephew, Ray Kapaun.
“This is an amazing story,” the president told those assembled in the East Room of the White House for the somber ceremony. “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.”
Father Kapaun was honored for his heroic actions during combat at Unsan in November 1950 when his unit — the Third Battalion, Eighth Cavalry Regiment, First Cavalry Division — was attacked by Chinese Communist forces. According to the official Medal of Honor Citation, on November 1, as the American troops were being viciously assaulted, “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.”
A U.S. Army narrative recalls that during the battle, as Chinese Communist forces encircled his battalion, “Kapaun moved fearlessly from foxhole to foxhole under direct enemy fire in order to provide comfort and reassurance to the outnumbered soldiers. He repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to recover wounded men, dragging them to safety. When he couldn't drag them, he dug shallow trenches to shield them from enemy fire.”
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Images: Chaplain Emil Kapaun (left) and Kapaun giving Mass in 1950 (right)