Chaplain (Capt.) Emil Kapaun (Courtesy photo)
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Fellow prisoners of war called Kapaun the “good thief” because he stole food from the guards and gave it to his fellow prisoners.
Chaplain (Capt.) Emil Kapaun posthumously received the Medal of Honor on April 11 from President Obama, who presented it to family members as they and his friends and fellow soldiers recalled his valor during combat and as a prisoner of war in Korea.
His courage and compassion were needed Nov. 1, 1950. Blood-stained bodies littered the landscape near Unsan after a brutal battle led by a larger Chinese force. In the aftermath, hundreds of Americans were taken prisoner — and the wounded were simply killed where they lay.
As one enemy soldier took position over a wounded American, then took aim, the chaplain raced across the road and knocked the enemy aside. Kapaun then lifted the wounded soldier, Army Sgt. 1st Class Herbert Miller. A hand grenade had broken his ankle and torn the muscle off his leg.
“If I put you down, they will kill you,” Kapaun told Miller as he swiftly returned to the human caravan. Their journey to the prison camp would take a week and a half and cover 85 miles to the city of Pyoktong, North Korea. When Miller could walk, Kapaun was there to support his every step. When he could walk no more, the chaplain would again carry his comrade.
Kapaun, with 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, remained a prisoner of war until he died in May 1951 of a blood clot.
Miller shared his account and talked about the chaplain with Military Times on April 4.
Q. What do you remember most about Kapaun?
A. The enlisted men and the officers were kept in separate buildings. But Father Kapaun would slip out of his compound at night and come into the little huts where the enlisted men were. He would shut the door so no one would see him in there. He would pass around a little tobacco and say prayers with the men. He would encourage us and say, “Hang in there boys, we’re going to get out of here.” I can’t tell you how powerful a little encouragement can be when you are a prisoner, and Father Kapaun would risk his life to make sure we had it.
Q. How did his actions impact your life?
A. Well, the Lord sent him from across the road to pick me up, otherwise I would be dead.
That saved my life, but the things I watched him do later, they changed my life. The way he served people. His selflessness. He had pulled wounded soldiers from both sides off the battlefield. He just took care of everybody. He was a great model of a chaplain and a soldier. Another soldier had snuck a Gideons Bible into the prison camp, and I gave my life to the Lord right there. And Father Kapaun remains a great example for me as I serve the Lord.
Q. How did news of Kapaun’s death affect the prisoners?
A. Bad. He would bring us news and encouragement and, of course, that stopped. But it was worse than that. He was like a light in a dark place. It was like the bottom had dropped out.
I last saw him in the hospital. He had black and blue spots on his face and he was sick. I was very worried. There was no medical treatment in there. There were 900 prisoners who went in, and a little more than 300 came out.
I was there for a total of three years. Father Kapaun died in May 1951. He was only there for six months, but in that six months he made a lifetime of difference.
Q. How did you feel when you found out Kapaun’s MOH was approved?
A. I wondered why it took so long. We’ve been saying this to everyone we could ever since we got out of that prison camp. I don’t know what took the Army so long, but I am glad he’s finally going to get the recognition he deserves.
Q. If you could, what would you say to Kapaun today?
A. I would say, “Thank you for everything you have done for me.” That’s about all I could do.
Because of you I went on to have a wonderful wife of 58 years, Joyce, and a son and daughter. I had a wonderful career as a calibration technician for 34 years. I’ve had a very good life. So, well, thank you.