Topeka As his fellow prisoners of war returned home from the Korean War, they shared stories of self-sacrifice about the Rev. Emil Kapaun, the humble priest from Kansas.
The prisoners of the 8th Cavalry Regiment spoke of how Kapaun, an Army chaplain, continued to look after his men even though he was wounded and sick himself. Risking his own life, Kapaun would sneak out after dark to scrounge food for those too weak to eat, fashion makeshift containers to collect water and wash their soiled clothes.
Kapaun died at the camp hospital seven months after he was first taken captive by the Chinese in 1950. More than a half-century later, the Army’s top civilian leader has recommended that Kapaun, who is also a candidate for sainthood, receive the Medal of Honor.
Helen Kapaun, the chaplain’s sister-in-law, said her husband, Eugene, 85, has prayed that he would live to see his brother honored.
“We hoped it would have been sooner,” Helen Kapaun said Monday. “I think there were a lot of circumstances that had to be finished in God’s hands. Now, it proves that he was a saintly, holy man.”
In one of his final acts as Army secretary, Pete Geren wrote to Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., saying he agreed that Kapaun was worthy of the honor. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has also endorsed Kapaun’s honor.
Seven chaplains have received the Medal of Honor, including Vincent Capodanno, a Navy chaplain from New York, killed in Vietnam in 1967. In 2006, Capodanno was declared a Servant of God by the Vatican, a step toward canonization.
Tiahrt began efforts to honor Kapaun in 2000 after reading about his life.
“It’s hard to imagine living through something like that. He handled it like a saint,” Tiahrt said Monday. “This is the kind of person that we ought to emulate.”
Congress must approve legislation sending Kapaun’s award to President Barack Obama, which Tiahrt hopes happens by year’s end.
The Rev. John Hotze of the Wichita diocese said Kapaun’s recognition has been a long time in the making.
“He saw it as a role of serving his men and laying down his life for his men,” said Hotze, who has a Web site honoring Kapaun. “It’s like Christ coming to the world to serve instead of being served. That’s what Father Kapaun was all about.”
Kapaun was born in 1916 near the central Kansas town of Pilsen, about 60 miles north of Wichita. Ordained in 1940, he was a parish priest and auxiliary chaplain at the Herrington Army Air Base near Pilsen.
He was later sent to Southeast Asia during World War II, driving thousands of miles to say Mass, often using his Jeep hood as an altar.
Kapaun returned to Kansas, but when the Korean War began he pleaded with his bishop to let him go back to the Army.
“They needed chaplains. He loved the service boys very much,” said Helen Kapaun, whose marriage was one of the last civilian ceremonies performed before Kapaun left for Korea.