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Servant of God: The Story of Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun

Across fierce fighting with communist Chinese and North Korean forces at Unsan, Korea, from November 1-2, 1950, Chaplain Emil Joseph Kapaun faithfully and fearlessly stood by his comrades. As the enemy bore down on and encircled Kapaun’s outnumbered unit, the 3rd Battalion of the 8th Cavalry Regiment, he repeatedly exposed himself to heavy enemy fire, racing across friendly foxholes to lift the spirits of and provide aid to the soldiers desperately fighting for their lives. Communist bullets did not stop him from risking his life to recover wounded men and dragging them to safety. If Kapaun was unable to drag an injured comrade to shelter, he improvised by digging shallow trenches to shield them from enemy gunfire. When orders came down that all able-bodied American troops were to retreat, Kapaun refused to abandon the wounded and the fallen. Although his decision to remain behind to care for the wounded meant he was certain to be captured, Kapaun did not waver in his duty to his comrades at Unsan and throughout the painful road that would soon follow.

Born in 1916 and raised on a farm in Pilsen, Kansas, Kapaun was ordained a Catholic priest in 1940 and joined the Army Chaplain Corps during World War II. He saw service in India and Burma before returning to the United States. Kapaun went on to rejoin the Army before the outbreak of the Korean War, which was ignited when the communist leader of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, sent his Soviet-equipped army across the 38th Parallel in an invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950.

Chaplain (Capt.) Emil J. Kapaun. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

Back on the ground at Unsan, enemy forces broke through the American defense on November 2. As the communists advanced toward the American position, Chaplain Kapaun spotted an injured Chinese officer among the wounded. He was able to convince the officer to negotiate the safe surrender of the embattled American defenders. Once taken prisoner, Kapaun bravely stood up to an enemy soldier who was preparing to execute Sergeant First Class Herbert A. Miller. Kapaun pushed the communist aside and ended up saving Sergeant Miller’s life. It was far from the final time that he would put himself in harm’s way to support his comrades in incredibly dangerous situations.

After their capture, Kapaun and the other American prisoners were forced to march several days northward toward enemy prisoner-of-war camps. Kapaun was an ever-present guardian to his comrades during the march. His care for the injured was so tireless that he refused to take a break from carrying the stretchers of the wounded.

Kapaun went on to spend seven months in enemy prison camps. According to his U.S. Army biography, “With disregard for his own safety and comfort, Ch. Kapaun tended to the sick and wounded, scoured for food, built fires against guards’ command, and fashioned iron sheet vessels to launder the clothing of the wounded and purify driving water.” Despite the risk of punishment, he also tended to the spiritual health of his fellow POWs, leading prayers and services. This work was dangerous. On one occasion, the enemy even forced Kapaun to sit outside in subzero temperatures without any clothing to punish him for his disobedience. No matter what they tried, the chaplain carried on with his duty. In one of his crowning acts of defiance, Kapaun conducted a sunrise service for his comrades on Easter morning, 1951.

Chaplain Kapaun hosting a mass out in the field and using the hood of a jeep as his altar. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The agonizing hardships of captivity took their toll on Kapaun’s physical health and he was eventually transferred to what has been described as a “filthy, unheated hospital.” As the U.S. Army records, “As he was being carried to the hospital, he asked God’s forgiveness for his captors, and made his fellow prisoners promise to keep their faith.” On May 23, 1951, Chaplain Kapaun died in Pyoktong, North Korea.

Emil Joseph Kapaun was not soon forgotten. Prisoners who returned recounted his bravery, compassion, and unbreakable spirit. They also credited him with saving not only their lives, but also the lives of hundreds more. For his actions during the Battle of Unsan from November 1-2, 1950, Kapaun was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, which was upgraded in 2013 to the United State’s military’s highest decoration for valor under fire, the Medal of Honor.

“He was a great man of faith, compassion and courage. He set a great example for every chaplain, and for any soldier,” reflected Colonel Robert H. Whitlock. Kapaun also received the title, “Servant of God” from the Roman Catholic Church in 1993. That distinction represents the second of four steps before being named a saint. Chaplain Kapaun’s road to possible canonization continues to be investigated by the Vatican to this day.


National Medal of Honor Museum: Emil J. Kapaun.

The Wichita Eagle: Kapaun Sainthood Could Soon be one Step Closer.

U.S. Army: Biography for Chaplain (Capt.) Emil Kapaun.

U.S. Army: Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun - A Hero Among Soldiers.

U.S. Army: Medal of Honor Recipient Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun.