Blog Post

Cause Opens for Heroic Army Chaplain

 by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS Staff Writer (June 17, 2008) The young priest from Kansas was only 35 years old when he lay dying in a Communist prison camp in North Korea. Malnourished, his lungs clouded with pneumonia, as the enemy prepared to carry him away to the “death house,” he was heard whispering, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” The Cause for the canonization of Servant of God Fr. Emil J. Kapaun, a native of Pilsen, Kansas and an Army Chaplain who died while in a North Korean Prisoner of War Camp in 1951, will be officially opened on June 29. The Bishop of the Diocese of Wichita, the Most Rev. Michael O. Jackels will be the celebrant at the 10 a.m. Mass in Fr. Kapaun's home town. After the celebration of the Mass, a short ceremony will take place in which the officials of the diocesan canonization process will take their oath of office and the Fr. Kapaun's Cause for Sainthood will be officially opened. Although most Catholics have never heard of him, there are plenty of people alive today who are here because of the heroic faith and iron will of this gentle giant of a priest. For instance, in the biography of Fr. Kapaun by William Maher entitled, Shepherd in Combat Boots, Captain Joseph O’Connor recalled a time during an especially heated battle when artillery shells were exploding everywhere and the unit was in danger of being captured. Fr. Kapaun approached him and said he wanted to offer Mass in a front-line position. “Father, things are pretty hot here at present and I don’t think you should be up here,” O’Connor told him, but Fr. Kapaun insisted. He chose a spot near the front line and a group of Catholic soldiers gathered around him. The Mass progressed as shells exploded 150 yards away. As Maher wrote, “the men were ready to run for cover, but Kapaun ignored the danger and continued praying.” O’Connor later contended that the enemy was deliberately firing shells at the makeshift Mass. But this doesn’t surprise anyone who knew the priest as a young boy growing up in Kansas. Born in the spring of 1916 on a farm in the Flint Hills of Kansas, Emil Kapaun grew up in the tight-knit Bohemian community of Pilsen. The eldest son of Enos and Bessie Kapaun, he was a quiet, hard-working boy, skilled with his hands and superior at his studies. He served daily Mass at St. John Nepomucene and helped out around the church when he wasn’t working on the farm. St. John’s pastor, Fr. John Skelnar, realized a dream come true when young Emil decided to enter the priesthood, making him the parish’s first candidate for priesthood. Emil was ordained for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita on June 9, 1940. After serving as a priest in the diocese, he was permitted to serve his country during World War II as a U.S. Army chaplain. After returning safely from the war, he studied at Catholic University of America then once again returned to parish work in the diocese of Wichita. When the Korean conflict broke out, he answered the Army's call for chaplains. On Sept. 25, 1948, Fr. Kapaun was granted permission to re-enlist in the Army. This would be his final tour of duty on earth. Surviving members of the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division tell stories of Father Kapaun’s legendary behavior in war, from his quiet and simple acts of kindness to moments of breathtaking courage. General Willard Latham of Arlington, Texas remembers: “We’d be under heavy enemy fire and then you’d see the Father come up to the line with that rusty old carbine he probably never fired and a white cross on his helmet. He had canteens all around his pistol belt and he’d go from foxhole to foxhole offering water and prayers to each soldier. He called it vespers.” But his greatest test of faith came on Nov. 2, 1950. After volunteering to stay behind with injured soldiers, Fr. Kapaun was captured by the North Korean and Communist Chinese forces. One of his fellow captives, Herb Miller, now 75 years old, remembers how Fr. Kapaun carried him on the two-month long march to Camp No. 5 at Pyoktong after their capture. Miller had been badly injured by a grenade and as the captured GIs were driven toward the camp in the mountains overlooking Manchuria, Fr. Kapaun carried him every step of the way. “I don’t know where he got his strength,” Miller said. “I kept telling him to put me down, but he said, ‘No, if I put you down, they’ll shoot you.’ He just kept going. How he did it I’ll never know.” Once inside the prison camp, Fr. Kapaun and his fellow inmates were subjected to brutal conditions of sub-zero temperatures and food rations of only about 450 grams of unshelled corn a day. In the first six months of 1951, 1,700 American prisoners died. Corpses were stacked eight feet high in the prison compound. Fr. Kapaun never hesitated to volunteer for burial duty. “He’d take the soiled clothes from the dead men, spend countless hours washing them in the icy river, and then give them to somebody who needed them,” said Col. William McClain of Norcross, Ga., who spent three years with Fr. Kapaun in Pyoktong It was the little things he did, that bolstered the prisoners’ spirits, McClain said, such as the time the chaplain looked all over camp for a piece of tin which he fashioned into a pan. After scrounging for wood, he started a fire and heated melted snow. When the men woke in the mornings, Father Kapaun would pass out cups of heated water and say with a grin, “Here you go, fellas, hot coffee.” Fr. Kapaun soon became known to prisoners as “the Good Thief,” for his frequent forays in the night looking for food scraps. Little of what he gathered went into his own stomach, however. Survivors he probably hastened his own death by giving away his clothing and food, which weakened his resistance to the pneumonia that would finally kill him. Even with an ankle injury and an infection from a wood chip that struck him in the eye, nothing stopped  him from venturing out in the dark to visit “his boys.” After a quick prayer and words of encouragement, he would limp off again to the next building. The deplorable conditions finally took their toll and by 1951, Fr. Kapaun’s health began to deteriorate rapidly. It was during these last days that survivors say his capacity to forgive reached an extraordinary degree. For instance, when a Chinese officer accused him of spreading anti-Communist propaganda, Father Kapaun simply smiled and said he was just spreading “Christian love” and promised to pray for the officer’s soul. When two American soldiers, after hours of torture, falsely accused the chaplain of instigating rebellion among the prisoners, Father Kapaun quickly went to the men and comforted them by saying, “You never should have suffered for a moment trying to protect me.” In the end, the Chinese cut off all medical care and deprived the dying chaplain of food. Just before they carried him away to the prison hospital, called the “death house” by prisoners because so few ever returned from it, Fr. Kapaun was heard whispering the Gospel passage, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Two days later, on May 23, 1951, Fr. Kapaun died. He was buried in a mass grave on the Yalu River. Refusing his final request, the Chinese prevented the Americans from praying over their chaplain’s grave. That spring the Chinese plowed the field where he was buried and planted a garden. Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, former Archbishop of the Archdiocese of the Military Service (now serving as Archbishop of Baltimore) called for Fr. Kapaun to receive the title of Servant of God in 1993. Over the last 15 years, both the Archdiocese of the Military Services and the Diocese of Wichita have been collecting information on Father Kapaun's life of virtue. The information gathered thus far will provide a basis for the documentation needed for the canonization process.  © All Rights Reserved, Living His Life Abundantly/Women of Grace. Those last forgiving words of Fr. Kapaun summarize his life and the whole gospel message. In “The Last Words of Catholic Saints and Sinners,” renowned author Paul Thigpen gathers hundreds of the most profound final utterances of saints and sinners from the time of Christ to the 21st century.