Some surprising news has come to light about the man who could become the first Roman Catholic Saint to emerge from the Korea War.
The remains of Father Emil Kapaun, a U.S. Army Chaplain who died in North Korean captivity, were thought to be in an unmarked grave on the Yalu River near Prison Camp 5 but may actually be in Hawaii.
Father Kapaun’s remains may have been among the sets of remains repatriated by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command – now the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) – before the suspension of its repatriation program in 2005, according to a source in Kapaun’s hometown of Pilsen, Kansas,
Kapaun’s surviving relatives reportedly received noticed that his remains may be among those yet to be definitively identified at the DPAA’s lab in Hawaii.
The Washington Post reported in 2011 that “roughly 8,000 U.S. service members from the [Korean] war are still missing, with 5,500 of them thought to be buried in North Korea.”
“For decades, their recovery has been tied up with U.S. efforts to engage with the isolated authoritarian government over its nuclear weapons program,” the article said.
The U.S. conducted 33 investigative and recovery operations in North Korea from 1996 to 2005, according to the DPAA website.
“Unidentified Korean War remains are located at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific and at DPAA’s Laboratory in Hawaii,” the website says. “Efforts are underway to identify these remains using DNA and other methods.”
Father Kapaun’s remains may have been repatriated by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command
The DPAA also estimates that “peninsular Camp 5 on the south bank of the Yalu River,” where Kapaun is thought to have been buried, holds 550 remains.
In the past, the program for repatriating the remains of those missing in action has been suspended due to tensions between North Korea and the U.S.
In April 2010, Reuters reported that North Korea had threatened to “abandon a search for the remains of U.S. soldiers” in what experts identified as a “likely a move by the destitute North to win cash from Washington, which due to political reasons had suspended joint recovery projects that once brought cash to the reclusive state’s depleted coffers.”
The article also noted that “more than 20 sets of remains had been identified” prior to the suspension of recovery work in 2005.
“Nurtured by the soil of Kansas, He consecrated the soul of Korea!”
While the location of Father Kapaun’s remains is unclear, his memory still burns brightly for the folks back home.
A memorial to Kapaun in Pilsen includes an inscription honoring his sacrifice during the Korean War: “Nurtured by the soil of Kansas, He consecrated the soul of Korea!”
Like Dwight Eisenhower, another former Kansas farm boy, Emil Kapaun answered the call to serve and said: “I shall go to Korea.” However, unlike Ike, who returned to Washington from the Korean battlefield in November 1952 and was later sworn in as the 34th President of the United States, Emil Kapaun never came home. He died in a POW camp in North Korea in the spring of 1951.
The memorial to hometown son Emil Kapaun features a statue showing him assisting a wounded POW on their death march during the internecine Korean conflict. It is a visual testimony to the accounts of many fellow POWs – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and atheist – who spoke of the priest’s compassion and true grit under the most trying of circumstances.
Kapaun was a POW of North Korean and communist China during the particularly bitter winter of 1950-51. Karl Warner, of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, wrote that “the cold permeated every aspect of soldiers’ lives during the first winter in North Korea.”
“Unfortunately, winter came early in 1950, and the Americans found the cold to be just as deadly an enemy as the North Koreans fleeing before them,” he said, noting that temperatures approached 32 degrees below zero.
Prior to his capture, Father Kapaun was providing assistance during a battle on November 1, 1950, when the 8th Calvary Regiment of the 1st Calvary Division “was ambushed and surrounded by the Chinese at Unsan, Korea,” according to the testimony of Korean War veteran Peter Busatti.
“All hell broke loose on this night, mortars were falling in on us, machine gun fire broke in from all sides, men were running and screaming at us from all directions. It was a massacre too difficult to describe in detail. Almost all of the group I was with were killed or captured.”
Fellow POWs – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and atheist – spoke of the priest’s compassion and true grit under the most trying of circumstances
The Chinese captured Father Kapaun the next day because he had gone back into the fighting to minister to the sick and the wounded. He then made the long trek in the bitter cold with the other POWs to Prison Camp 5 at Pyoktong on the Yalu River.
Busatti was released November 22, 1950 – the day before Thanksgiving – to UN lines along with 26 other wounded men as a goodwill gesture. He thus brought back word for Father Kapaun’s family that he was still alive as a POW, although with reportedly severely frost-bitten feet.
For three years his parents waited for the final word on his fate.
Finally, fellow POWs, who survived and were repatriated in the Operation Big Switch POW exchange as a part of the 1953 Armistice, reported the circumstances of his death. They said that Kapaun died of a combination of phlebitis from a blood clot in his leg, dysentery, pneumonia, malnutrition, and starvation. He had been taken away to the POW camp “hospital” by the guards and died on May 23, 1950 – the “hospital” being the place prisoners were sent to die.
Kapaun-Mt. Carmel High School in Wichita, named for Father Kaupan priest, was the first stop on a recent trip to Kansas. Scott Carter of the Diocese of Wichita’s Father Kapaun Guild showed display cases at the school that contain artifacts from Kaupan’s life and priestly duties.
The most impressive object is a crucifix carved by Jewish-American artist Major Gerald Fink, a Marine fighter pilot, as a tribute to Father Kapaun.
Fink never knew Emil Kapaun, having arrived at Prison Camp 5 a few weeks after the priest died. He heard, however, extraordinary narratives from his fellow POWs about this exceptional individual, who ministered to the ill while he himself was sick and who shared his meager rations while he himself starved. So Fink decided to carve a cross in his memory.
“The Story of Chaplain Kapaun” by Father Arthur Tonne contains POW Ralph Nardella’s recollection of the making of the carving.
“The crucifix was made of firewood and it took Gerry Fink two and a half months to complete it,” Nardella said. “Before embarking on this project, Gerry had to fashion his own tools. He made a knife out of the steel arch support of a discarded army boot, a chisel out of a drain pipe bracket, and a mallet … His crown of thorns, resembling barbed wire, was made from old scrap pieces of radio wire … Most of the carving was done during daylight hours without the permission of the guards.”
Somehow the crucifix survived and was brought out of the POW camp and carried into Freedom Village in the DMZ “on the last day of the prisoner exchange by four close friends of Father.”
Kapaun ministered to the ill while he himself was sick and shared his meager rations while he himself starved
The roughly 75-mile drive northeast from Wichita to Pilsen passes through Kansas farm country. On the approach to Pilsen, above the treetops and the rolling hills, one sees in the distance the steeple of Saint John Nepomucene Church, the home parish of Emil Kapaun, where he was baptized and later served as first assistant and then priest before leaving for military service.
Built of red bricks in 1914-15, the church, with its stunning stained-glass windows, is a tribute to the faith of Emil Kapaun’s Bohemian-American Catholic community.
Local docent Harriet Bina provided an informative narrative of Father Kapaun and his life in Pilsen, as well as of miraculous events attributed to him, as she gave a guided tour of the church and the nearby Kapaun museum. It was fortuitous that the Medal of Honor presented posthumously to Emil Kapaun by President Obama in April 2013 was temporarily on display at the museum.
Pope John Paul II named Emil Kapaun a Servant of God
THE ROAD TO SAINTHOOD
Today, the Diocese of Wichita is moving forward with the paperwork necessary to have its favorite son declared a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. The first step toward canonization occurred in 1993 when Pope John Paul II named Emil Kapaun a Servant of God.
In a letter posted on the Cause for the Canonization of Emil Kapaun website, Father John Hotze wrote that the “Congregation for [the Causes of] Saints met to discuss the historical documents” presented for the canonization of Father Emil Kapaun and voted affirmatively with regard to their completeness and accuracy.
In order to advance Emil Kapaun on the next step toward canonization – Venerable – additional documentation was reportedly forwarded recently to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in the Vatican regarding the circumstances of a claimed miracle.
The miracle reportedly occurred after pole vaulter Chase Kear cracked his skull in October 2008, causing severe trauma. A neurosurgeon said Kear underwent a “miraculous” recovery after his family and friends began praying to Father Kapaun.
Kansas is still awaiting further word from Rome. But thanks to a Medal of Honor and reports of miracles, the lost Saint of the Forgotten War in Korea is finally receiving his just rewards.
Featured Image: Father Emil Kapaun, right, helps carry a soldier off a battlefield during the Korean War. (From Wikimedia Commons)
Edited by Bryan Betts
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