Sunday, July 25, 2021

The Return of Father Emil Kapaun to Wichita

Father Emil Kapaun was a hero of the Korean War (Medal of Honor, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Purple Heart). Fr. Kapaun was an Army chaplain who not only was highly respected by his troops, he performed heroically -- saving his men -- after being captured by the North Koreans. His story is here. That story includes his period as a parish priest in Pilsen, Kansas, just north of Wichita and part of the Diocese of Wichita. An excerpt of his story is below:

Bishop Carroll received Chaplain Kapaun’s last report and letter along with a package of Korean War mementos in October of 1950. There was lit- tle hint of what was to come: after weeks of making great progress, many of the U.S. soldiers thought the war would be over by Christmas. However, just as they had the North Korean Army on the run and almost defeated, the Chinese decided to enter the war. Father Kapaun and the men of the 8th Cavalry Regiment were the first to encounter the Chinese. On the night of November 1, 1950, while protecting the town of Unsan, Chaplain Kapaun’s outfit was attacked from all sides by the combined Communist forces. A fierce battle ensued, and Fa- ther Kapaun went about anointing the dying and dragging the wounded to safety. Captured once, Father Kapaun escaped when his captors were shot by U.S. soldiers. Offered a last chance to retreat to safety, Father Kapaun and an Army Medic, Doctor Clarence Anderson, decided to remain and look after the wounded. 

Deep in the day on November 2, the group was captured by the Communists. Seeing a wounded soldier about to be shot by a North Korean, Father Kapaun rushed over, pushed the gun aside, and picked up the wounded GI, Sergeant Herbert Miller. In disbelief at the chaplain’s bravery, the North Korean let the two live. After a few days, Father Kapaun and the other prisoners of war were marched between 60-100 miles to a prison camp at Pyoktong. Many had difficulty walking because of frostbitten feet and battle wounds. Those who tarried were often left for dead or shot, but Father Kapaun went along the line encouraging the soldiers to help carry those who couldn’t walk on their own, all the while doing his own part to carry the wounded. Because of his example, many soldiers lived who would have otherwise died.

Once at the prison site, the officers were separated from the enlisted men and were kept in huts located on a hill above the rest of the camp. During the next seven months this modest priest from Pilsen became the saintly hero of Prison Camp No. 5. Even though he himself was forced to undergo the same daily sufferings as the other prisoners - and often was treated far worse - Father Kapaun selflessly dedicated himself to serving both the spiritual and physical needs of the other men in the camp. 

Long before the normal day began, Father Kapaun was up at 5:30 a.m., even in the -20 °F temperatures of winter, gathering sticks for fires. These he would use to melt snow into clean water for the men to drink. Using a talent he had perfected on the farm, he fashioned vessels out of old iron sheeting so he could have containers to launder the clothing of the sick and wounded and have a place to store purified water. Father Kapaun would slip out of the camp to scrounge for corn, salt, millet, and soybeans for the starving POWs, praying to St. Dismas, the Good Thief, before every one of these missions. He would travel around to the huts of the other prisoners to give aid to the sick and wounded, pick lice off of men, wash the clothes of the weak, incontinent POWs, and even bathe those too ill to do so themselves. When men died, he often volunteered for the burial duty so he could say a few quick prayers over their grave.

As a result of the care his gave the soldiers under his care and his heroism, Fr. Kapaun has been made a "Servant of God" by the Vatican -- the first step to canonization as a saint. Each of my children attended Kapaun High School. 

Earlier this year, some amazing news -- after 70 years, his remains were identified. They will be returned to Wichita in September and he will be interred in a crypt under construction at the Wichita Cathedral. The full program and other information is here. People are expected to attend from all over the world. If you are interested but not able to attend, the funeral and attending events will be televised on ETWN.

I'll have more as the date approaches. 

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