Modern Day Saint

Father Emil Kapaun


Father Emil was the most highly decorated military chaplain in United States history. He started life on the family farm in Pilsen, Kansas. Most of his neighbors were immigrants who came to America from Bohemia. He grew up working on the farm, enjoyed life on the plains, and was a devout Catholic. When he was old enough, he became an altar boy, leaving for school an hour early each day to serve Mass. As a student he loved to read about the missions in foreign countries and dreamed of becoming a priest someday. The parish priest encouraged him and even helped finance Emil’s education in the seminary, hoping he would become a diocesan priest.

He graduated from the seminary in St. Louis and was ordained a priest on June 9, 1940, just before the outbreak of World War ll. He was assigned to his home parish, but it was the war that changed his vocation. He volunteered to be an Army chaplain, and soon after his training he was assigned to Burma and India. He went wherever he was needed, traveling thousands of miles per month, serving Mass in mess tents, native villages, or even on the hood of a jeep. He was discharged along with most of the military in 1946 at the end of the war, but he felt he was needed in the military and shortly after returned to military duty.

Father Emil was transferred to occupied Japan where the United States had over 80,000 American troops. Father realized he had his work cut out for him, as most of the soldiers at that time were poorly educated and many had joined because of they could not find employment or just to get away from home. He again spent much of his time traveling where the troops were.

In 1950, his life changed again. North Korean leaders decide to invade South Korea and reunite the two countries. As a supporter of South Korea and member of the United Nations, the United States sent troops to their aid. Father Emil’s regiment was one of the first to serve. North Korea had an initial advantage due to its prior planning, supplying, and training. Fighting was fierce, and the South Koreans and Americans were often in retreat. Death and carnage were not uncommon. Through it all, Father did what he could to help the solders. He would pray with them, reassure them, console a GI who had just lost a friend, and (when possible) offer Mass. The soldiers revered him as tireless and fearless. As always, he traveled wherever he was needed. He was often seen carrying water and fresh fruit in his travels to distribute to the troops.

In September of 1950 the Americans began their offensive and attacked behind enemy lines. The North Koreans retreated, and Father Emil’s regiment pursued them. It was at this time the Chinese Army came to the aid of North Korea. At the small Korean village of Unsan, Chinese troops attacked the Americans. After several days of fierce fighting, the several hundred soldiers remaining were surrounded by the Chinese and had no option but surrender. Over a period of two weeks, the captured Americans were marched some 300 miles deep into North Korea to a place the prisoners called ’”The Valley.” During the march, while other soldiers rested, Father would go up and down the line of soldiers offering encouraging words or praying with them.

Life in The Valley was deadly, the buildings had little or no heat, the prisoners had no blankets (only summer uniforms), and the temperatures could drop to 40 degrees below zero. Many men froze to death in their sleep. Very little food was provided, and what they did receive was not nutritious. Lacking proper nutrition and medicine, many of the men became ill. It was during this time that Father Emil gained a reputation as a first-rate thief who felt he had to steal food or watch his men starve to death.

Tradition has given the name Dismas to the thief who was crucified next to Jesus and asked Him, “Jesus, remember me when you enter your reign.” And Jesus replied, “I assure you, this day you will be in paradise with me.” Father Emil would pray to the ‘good thief’ before searching for food. The prayers worked. He usually returned with something. Many of the other soldiers also invoked St. Dismas before beginning their search for food. The penalty if caught was severe.

Father Emil did what needed to be done. He encouraged, prayed, told jokes, and sat with those who were sick. Once, he traded his watch for a blanket from a Communist guard. He used the blanket to make socks for some of the weaker prisoners. He practiced what he preached. Although religious activities were forbidden, he visited the men in their huts at night, spending time in prayer and checking on their health.

A description from a fellow prisoner described Father Emil: “In his soiled and ragged fatigues, with his scraggly beard and his queer woolen cap, made of the sleeve of an old GI sweater, pulled down over his ears, he looked like any other half-starved prisoner. But there was something in his voice and bearing that was different—with dignity, a composure, a serenity that radiated from him like a light. Wherever he stood was holy ground, and the spirit within him – a spirit of reverence and abiding faith – went out to the silent listening men and gave them hope and courage and a sense of peace.”

Early in 1951, the prisoners were moved to another camp which was no better than The Valley. There, the illness and suffering became even worse. Weakened from conditions in the camp, Father Emil one day twisted his ankle. He kept on moving, but it soon became infected. An American doctor realized he had a blood clot and told him to elevate his leg, apply heat, and stay off his feet for two weeks. The prisoners came to his aid with aspirin, heated bricks and extra food. He appeared to improve but gradually became worse and was stricken with diarrhea, then pneumonia. By May of 1951, Father knew he was going to die. When the guards saw how ill he was, they knew how to get rid of the troublesome priest. They transferred him to the place the guards called “the hospital,” but the prisoners had another name for it. They called it “the dying place” because no one ever survived. Patients slept on mud floors and no one cared for them. Father Emil, who had cared for so many, spent the last two days of his life alone in a dirty, dark room with no food or medical care. He died on May 23, 1951.

Father Emil received many military medals and civilian awards, but the greatest recognition of his service came in 1993, when he was declared a Servant of God. This is the first stage of what will probably lead to his canonization.

Jim Fritz

Reference: Heroic Catholics of the Twentieth Century by Sr. Elizabeth Ann Barkett, SJW



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