Priest is awarded highest military award for bravery

U.S. Army chaplain Father Emil Joseph Kapaun, who died May 23, 1951, in a North Korean prisoner of war camp, was awarded the Medal of Honor, nation’s highest military award for bravery. He is pictured ministering to a soldier in this undated handout photo. (CNS photo/St. Louis Review)

By Joseph Austin and Mary P. Walker

The legacy of Army chaplain Father Emil Kapaun endures because of the men who knew him on the battlefield and in a prison camp during the Korean War, said the spokesman for the Army Office of the Chief of Chaplains.

"The legacy is kept alive by the stories of the soldiers," Chaplain Kenneth W. Stice, a colonel, told Catholic News Service at a media round-table at the Pentagon. "That legacy goes on whether recognized ... or not."

With Stice were the priest’s nephew Ray Kapaun and Father John Hotze, judicial vicar for the Diocese of Wichita, Kan., the home diocese of Father Kapaun. They spoke to CNS the day before President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Honor posthumously to the war-hero priest in a White House ceremony.

It is the nation’s highest military award for bravery. Ray accepted the honor on behalf of his uncle, who died May 23, 1951, in a North Korean prisoner of war camp. Many of those who had served with the priest looked on from their seats.

One of these soldiers was Joe E. Ramirez of Houston, who said, "I’ve been waiting for that ceremony for 60 years." He saw the courage of Father Kapaun firsthand, both on the battlefield and in the POW camp. Ramirez attended the ceremony with his son, Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Joe E. Ramirez Jr. of St. Mary Catholic Center in College Station, who grew up hearing stories about Father Kapaun’s heroism. At age 81, his father hopes to live long enough to see another ceremony for Father Kapaun –– his canonization.

Ramirez witnessed Father Kapaun retrieve the wounded in the midst of battle. Although he could have avoided capture, the chaplain of the 1st Cavalry Division stayed behind to help the wounded. After Ramirez was captured, he met up with the priest and helped him carry the wounded on the march north to the POW camp. Forced to move at night to avoid being seen by aircraft, they traveled about 20 miles a day.

At the camp, Father Kapaun strived to uplift the men’s spirits in the midst of inhumane conditions. "The man was everywhere –– in every shack –– to talk to them and say a prayer," Ramirez said. Father Kapaun was also busy with the responsibilities of the priesthood, including administering the last rites. During the bitterly cold winter of 1950-1951, Ramirez said that 1,600 perished. Father Kapaun took on the grim task of undressing the dead and giving their clothes to other prisoners who needed them.

In presenting the award, Obama said: "That faith ... that even in such hell, there could be a touch of the divine ... was perhaps the greatest gift to those men. I’m told that in their darkest hours in the camp in that valley, these men turned to a psalm ... ‘Even though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.’"

Born six years after the priest’s death, Ray came to know his uncle through the many stories told by his father and mother and the soldiers who knew him in his final days.

The POWs who knew the priest continued to talk about him after their liberation, noted Stice.

"I do believe that he is a saint after all that I’ve found out about him," Father Hotze said about the late priest, who is a candidate for sainthood. Father Hotze has investigating the chaplain’s life for his cause since 2001.

"I think what sets him apart is that he was willing to give totally of himself," he said. "If you look at his life, growing up he was a typical Kansas farm boy, (whose) family did not have much." He had to be creative with what tools he had, the priest said.

The nephew recalled a story about his uncle that he said has been passed down for generations. The grandparents of the future priest were going into town, and they entrusted the boy with caring for the farm while they were gone.

Young Emil accepted the responsibility with eagerness but encountered an obstacle when it came time to milk the cow, because "Grandma was the only one who could milk that cow," Ray said. "The cow wouldn’t (even) let him get close."

Emil went back into the house and found his grandmother’s work garments and bonnet. He dressed himself up just the way she would have done, and then waddled out to the barn in just the way "that Grandma would always do ... (and) had no problem whatsoever milking the cow," Ray continued.

"He was a very smart person growing up," he explained. His uncle as a youngster would always help his classmates, tutoring them, and investing the time to make sure they could complete their assignments.

Years later in the POW camp that was his home in his final days, Father Kapaun used his wits to steal food from the guarded warehouse to supply the starving soldiers with food, Father Hotze told CNS.

"He gave his life for his sheep," Army Chief of Chaplains Father Donald Rutherford told a Pentagon Channel reporter during the media round-table.

Father Rutherford, a Catholic priest who holds the rank of major general, said he encourages his young chaplains to look at Father Kapaun as an example of the "Army values: of being soldiers, of loyalty, of respect, of dignity, of selfless service, of honor, (and) of personal courage."

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