FATHER EMIL J. KAPAUN

 
 
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      Elizabeth Hajek Kapaun and her husband of one year, Enos, had moved the bed into the warm kitchen of the remote farmhouse and had completed all the other preparations that expectant parents of 1916 would make for the birth of their first child.  On April 20, Holy Thursday, their son Emil Joseph was born at 11:00 a.m. Rev. John Sklenar, surely the most towering and influential person in the area, baptized the boy on May 9th at the one-year-old St. John Nepomucene Church in Pilsen, Kansas, three miles from the Kapauns’160 acre farm.  Emil was christened for a life in the pious, hard working Kapaun family in this Bohemian enclave just forty miles south of the central Kansas town of Abilene, the boyhood home of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

          Thirty-five years later Captain (Chaplain) Emil J. Kapaun was dead.  He was the victim of malnutrition and pneumonia in a prisoner of war camp in North Korea.  The intervening years of Emil’s life are the story of one man’s dedication to Christ and to the Church. The last seven months of his life, spent in the POW camp, are the inspiring story of a saintly hero consumed in living a life of Christian virtue and service to his fellow man under the most difficult and despicable conditions imaginable.

      Emil’s German-Bohemian ancestry was typical for residents of the Pilsen area in 1916 and today.  His father Enos had been born of German and Bohemian background in Czechoslovakia in 1880.  His family emigrated to Pilsen, Kansas, in 1887.  Emil’s mother, Elizabeth Hajek, was born in 1895 in Trego County, Kansas, of Bohemian parents.  Enos and Elizabeth were married on May 18, 1915.  Father Sklenar officiated at the nuptial Mass in Pilsen.

      Emil had only one sibling, a brother Eugene, born in 1924 when Emil was almost eight years old.  Emil always had a close relationship with his family.  He was a willing worker who was assigned chores like gardening and weeding on the family farm.  Emil enjoyed hiking, hunting, swimming and fishing.  Even as a youth, Emil was skilled at repairing and building implements, a talent that served him well all his life and especially in the POW camp. 

      The young Emil was quiet and retiring, with a keen sense of humor.  Like his parents, the Kapaun boy was hard working and neighborly; but, typical of the German-Bohemian immigrants of the area, he was also tenacious and determined.  He grew up with these talents and traits into a handsome man, blond and slender, with wide-set eyes, a cleft chin and a strong nose.

      Emil started school at age six in the fall of 1922.  He attended the Pilsen School, District 115, where three Sister Adorers of the Precious Blood of Christ (Wichita) taught grades one through eight.  Emil completed eight grades in six years with almost perfect report cards and attendance. His instruction was in both English and Bohemian, and Emil studied intensely to understand the difficult Bohemian language.  He frequently arrived in Pilsen one hour before the start of school in order to serve Mass for Fr. Sklenar.  Emil continued to serve Mass during vacations and on free days.  He received his First Holy Communion on May 29, 1924, and he was confirmed by Bishop Schwertner on April 11, 1929, seven months after starting his high school education at Pilsen High School.  The Sisters continued to serve as his teachers at Pilsen High School, and his cousin Emil Melcher came to Pilsen to live with the Kapauns while he attended high school with Emil Kapaun.  The two Emils became close life-long friends as a result of their family and high school experiences together during the next two years.

      In September of 1930, Emil Kapaun entered Conception, a boarding high school and college in Missouri.  His tuition and board were covered by scholarships.  He was an exceptionally good student, active in sodality, drama, and choir.  He learned Latin and Greek, and had duties as sacristan, head librarian and writer for the school newspaper.  During his six years at Conception, Emil returned each summer to help out on the family farm. Each day of those summers in Pilsen started with Mass and Holy Communion for Emil, no matter how much work had to be done that day. He graduated from high school in 1932 and spent the next four years studying classics and philosophy at Conception College.

      Fr. Sklenar, along with the Bishop of Wichita and several of Emil’s aunts, were able to put together financial assistance for Emil so he could begin his studies for the priesthood at Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, in late summer of 1936.  By August of 1939, Sub-deacon Emil Kapaun was assisting with street preaching in the Bohemian language around the area of Caldwell, Kansas. His first sermon was delivered in Bohemian from the pulpit at St. John Nepomucene in Pilsen that same year when he was the deacon at Christmas Midnight Mass.  Bishop Christian Winkelmann ordained Emil on June 9, 1940, at St. John’s Chapel on the campus of Sacred Heart College in Wichita.  Fr. Kapaun, the first Pilsen native to be ordained, celebrated his first Mass at his home parish eleven days later in the presence of 1,200 guests.  On June 30 of that year he was assigned to be the assistant pastor at his own parish, St. John Nepomucene in Pilsen.  He made good use of his Bohemian language skills there.

      Bishop Winkelmann assigned Fr. Kapaun the additional duty of serving as the auxiliary chaplain at the army airbase in Herington, Kansas, sixteen miles north of Pilsen.  This appointment lasted for eighteen months in 1943-44, and allowed Fr. Kapaun to learn the needs of enlisted personnel and experience the satisfaction of a calling to the chaplaincy. 

      In November of 1943, Fr. Sklenar (now a monsignor) retired and his assistant at Pilsen, Fr. Kapaun, became the pastor.  As pastor, Fr. Kapaun desired to spark an interest in the Bible among the younger members of the parish.  For Christmas that year Fr. Kapaun gave every boy and girl in Pilsen a copy of the New Testament.  But the conscientious Fr. Kapaun, concerned that some who had known him since childhood would be reluctant to confide in him as their priest, requested that Bishop Winkelmann assign a different Bohemian speaking priest to St. John.  The bishop relieved him of his pastoral duties at Pilsen and his auxiliary chaplain duties at Herington, and recommended him for U.S. Army chaplaincy on July 12, 1944. 

      Fr. Kapaun received a great deal of personal challenge and satisfaction, both mental and physical, from the daily army regimen he experienced at the Fort Devens, Massachusetts, Army Chaplaincy School from August to October 1944 and at his first  post, Camp Wheeler, Georgia, from October 1944 to March of the following year.  It was at Camp Wheeler that Chaplain Kapaun started his habit of sending a copy of his monthly chaplain’s report along with a long letter to his bishop in Wichita.  In these reports he listed the number of Sunday and daily Masses he offered, the number of confessions he heard, the number of instructions in the faith he conducted, as well as the general attitude toward faith that he found among the Catholic and non-Catholic service personnel.  Both Bishop Winkelmann and later Bishop Carroll sent written responses to every monthly report and letter written by Fr. Kapaun.

      Chaplain Kapaun served the remainder of World War II and until May 1946 in Burma and India. He considered the missionary priests and sisters there to be real heroes for all the spiritual and physical work they did in those countries to build up the faith and to serve the faithful, especially during that time of deprivation and hardship caused by war.  For his own part, Fr. Kapaun traveled two thousand miles by Jeep in May 1945 to celebrate Mass for troops in forward areas, two thousand five hundred miles in July, and two thousand miles in October.  He was promoted to the rank of captain on January 3, 1946, and left Calcutta on May 3 of that year bound for San Francisco.  He was separated from the service one month later and spent two weeks of his vacation that July serving as the substitute pastor in Strong City, Kansas. 

      While waiting to find living accommodations in Washington, D.C., to attend Catholic University on the G.I. Bill, Fr. Kapaun served in brief stints as temporary administrator of St. John Church in Spearville, Kansas, and as assistant pastor at St. Teresa Parish in Hutchinson.  When he finally found a place to live in Washington, he left Kansas to pursue post-graduate studies in education and history so he could become certified to teach in his home state.  He completed a dissertation entitled “A Study of the Accrediting of Religion in the High Schools of the United States,” and Fr. Kapaun was granted a Master’s Degree in Education from Catholic University in early 1948. During his course of studies at the university, Fr. Kapaun wrote to Bishop Carroll in Wichita requesting the bishop’s permission to go back into active military duty as a chaplain.  Bishop Carroll instead assigned Fr. Kapaun to be pastor of the largely Bohemian parish in Timken, Kansas.  After six months as pastor at Timken, Fr. Kapaun again wrote to Bishop Carroll requesting his permission to re-enlist.  Fr. Kapaun told the bishop that he loved his pastoral work in Timken, but that his conscience told him that his priestly duty was in the service.  The bishop granted his request and Chaplain Kapaun reported to the Anti-Aircraft Artillery Corps at Fort Bliss, Texas, in late 1948.  The routine of sharing his monthly chaplain’s reports with the bishop was renewed, as was the bishop’s written response to each report. 

      From December 12-16, 1949, Chaplain Kapaun had what was to be his final visit to Pilsen.  He shipped out to Yokohama, Japan, in January of 1950.  Fr. Kapaun was in Japan from February to July 1950.  One day each month he participated in a Day of Recollection with other Catholic chaplains in Japan in order to refurbish their spiritual lives and to enable them to carry out the duties of the chaplaincy.  On July 18, 1950, Chaplain Kapaun landed at Po Hong Dong, Korea, with the First Cavalry Division of the United States Army. For the next four months Chaplain Kapaun tended to his chaplaincy duties with fierce devotion.  All the while he experienced first-hand the horrors of the Korean War:  the killed and wounded, the shell-shocked, the refugees, the heat and mosquitoes in summer, the wind and cold in winter, the sweat all year round, the frequent lack of sleep and hot food, and the constant nerve-racking noise and confusion of battle. 

      Chaplain Kapaun escaped with his life on three separate occasions.  His smoking pipe was shot out of his mouth by a sniper’s bullet. He lost all his possessions, including his Mass kit and Jeep.  However, he always carried the holy oils, the Blessed Sacrament and his confession stole next to his body. Fr. Kapaun celebrated Mass on the battlefield (many times with the hood of the Jeep as the altar), kept up the morale of the GIs, helped the Catholic servicemen in their efforts to be faithful, tended to the wounded, and buried the dead (ally and enemy alike). Many times he took time to write personal letters to the next of kin of servicemen who had died in battle to reassure the relatives of the fallen soldiers that they had died in the presence of a priest and with the consolation of the last rites.

      Fr. Kapaun was present when the allies captured An sung, and he celebrated Mass at a mission there.  The local Korean Catholics, who hadn’t attended Mass or seen a priest in months, joined the troops in assisting Fr. Kapaun at this moving service.

      Fr. Kapaun received the Bronze Star Medal for heroism in action on August 2, 1950, near Kumchon, where he rescued a wounded soldier despite intense enemy fire.  This chaplain raised on the farm in Kansas was becoming a legend to many in the Eighth Cavalry Regiment for his heroism and faith.

      Bishop Carroll received Chaplain Kapaun’s last report and letter along with a package of Korean War mementos in October of 1950.  On November 2, 1950, Chaplain Kapaun was captured by the North Korean army and its Chinese allies and became a prisoner of war.  During the next seven months this modest priest from Pilsen became the saintly hero priest of Pyoktong prison.

      The communist forces had surrounded Chaplain Kapaun’s outfit near Unsan on the night of November 1, 1950.  Fr. Kapaun was captured once but escaped when his captors were shot by allied soldiers.  He was captured a second time the next day when he went back to be with the wounded.  He and the other POWs were marched for days to the prison camp at Pyoktong.  Father had difficulty walking because of his frostbitten feet.  Once at the prison site, the officers were separated from the enlisted men and kept in a farmhouse located on a hill above the rest of the camp.  Fr. Kapaun would sneak down the hill to tend to the sick and wounded, and he would even sneak out of the camp to scrounge for corn, salt, millet, and soy beans for the starving POWs.  He prayed to St. Dismas before every one of these missions.  He gathered sticks to make fires to heat water in the twenty-below-zero temperatures of February 1951.  Using the talent he had perfected on the farm in Kansas, he fashioned vessels out of old iron sheeting so he could have containers to launder the clothing of the wounded and have a place to store purified water.  He led daily prayers for the POWs and tended to their spiritual needs. 

      It is remarkable that this man served as the pastor and caretaker for the officers and enlisted men of Pyoktong prisoner of war camp while he himself was participating in the daily routine demanded of the prisoners.  Required indoctrination sessions were held every morning and every afternoon. Long before these sessions began each day, sometimes as early as 5:00 a.m., Fr. Kapaun was off on his rounds.  He led the prisoners in prayer for their daily material and spiritual needs and for their deliverance and liberation.  He even led prayers for their captors.  His favorite prayers were the rosary and the prayers from the Mass and from the Stations of the Cross.  He ministered to all, even conducting separate services for the Protestant POWs.  After prayers he made his rounds in the camp, burying the dead and tending to the sick and dying.  He boiled water in his home-made vessels and laundered the soiled clothing of the weak, incontinent POWs, and he bathed those too ill to do so themselves.  Then he reported to indoctrination where his Chinese captors taunted him that his God must not exist since He would not rescue him. According to a 1954 letter from fellow POW Lt. Walter Mayo reprinted in Fr. Arthur Tonne’s book The Story of Chaplain Kapaun, the prisoners were buoyed by Fr. Kapaun’s retort to the communists that, “God is as real as the air they breathed but could not see, as the sounds they heard but could not see, as the thoughts and ideas they had and spoke but could not see or feel.” The POW survivors report that Fr. Kapaun frequently told the indoctrinators that the Chinese would eventually be saved from the disasters which communism had brought them.  After the daily indoctrination sessions Fr. Kapaun went back to tending to the needs of his flock.  Fr. Tonne calls Fr. Kapaun, “…the counselor, the nurse, the leader, the provider, the defender of his fellow prisoners...”  Fr. Kapaun was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross on August 18, 1951.  He received this medal for tending to the wounded and dying without regard to his personal safety at Unsan on November 1 and 2, 1950.  It was at Unsan that Fr. Kapaun had volunteered to remain behind with the wounded and where he was captured.

      Fr. Kapaun’s witness while imprisoned at Pyoktong kept the other prisoners from losing hope and giving in to the torture and indoctrination they experienced there.  His Chinese captors considered him to be an agitator and a propagandist, but they did not know what to make of the fact that he would not be scared or threatened or humiliated.  They were afraid to eliminate him or stop him for fear the other prisoners would start a rebellion.  The story of Fr. Kapaun is the most mentioned memory of the surviving POWs of Pyoktong.  They admired and loved him for the witness he gave by his kindness, humility, cheerfulness, piety and hard work.  Fr. Kapaun’s words and example were instrumental in the conversion of several fellow POWs.  His words and works, his mild manner and soft speech, gave all the men, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, agnostic or atheist, faith to persevere through the endless indoctrination sessions and tortures.  His caring example gave them the faith to serve one another. 

      Chaplain Kapaun, suffering from a clot in his leg and an infection in his eye, led Easter services for the prisoners in 1951.  He employed a cane to help him walk, and his infected eye was covered with a black patch.  Shortly after Easter, Fr. Kapaun was immobilized on the floor of the prison so that he could heal. The POWs who visited him knew he had to be suffering great pain, but Fr. Kapaun rarely let on that he was hurting.  Over the protests of the other POWs, the Chinese captors ordered Fr. Kapaun to the prison hospital after six weeks of immobilization in the camp.  Everyone knew that hardly any prisoners came back alive from the hospital.  It was a place to go to die.  Father Kapaun died in that hospital, alone and so weakened that he was unable to even pick up the plates of the meager meals left by the guards. 

      Sources differ on the exact date and cause of Fr. Kapaun’s death.  The U.S. Army records indicate that he died of pneumonia on May 6, 1951.  His fellow prisoners insist that he died on May 23, 1951, and that the cause of his death was malnutrition and starvation.    

      Despite the disagreement about these details of Fr. Kapaun’s death, both the army and the POWs agree that this man must be honored and never forgotten for the virtues he lived in that grim camp during those seven months.  Two artifacts from that time and place have come to us as such an honor and remembrance to Fr. Kapaun.  One is the pyx that Chaplain Kapaun always carried on his person in the camp until it was confiscated by the Chinese and made into a child’s toy.  The POWs convinced their captors to return the pyx to them before liberation.  The other artifact is a hand-carved crucifix created by POW Major Gerald Fink, a Jew.  Major Fink carved the crucifix as a tribute to Fr. Kapaun, whom he had come to admire and love for the example of faith and good works the priest displayed in that camp. 

      It is assumed that Fr. Kapaun’s remains lie buried today in a common, unmarked grave close to the location of the gruesome hospital of the POW camp at Pyoktong, North Korea, near the Yalu River.  He was only thirty-five years old when he died, eleven years a priest. May he rest in peace. And may the whole world come to be as inspired by his life of virtue and service as those were who knew him as priest on the prairies of Kansas and as chaplain on the battlefields of Korea.

  

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Maher, William L.  A Shepherd in Combat Boots, Chaplain Emil Kapaun of the 1st Cavalry Division.    
                 Shippensburg, PA, 1997.

 Tonne, Rev. Arthur.  The Story of Chaplain Kapaun, Patriot Priest of the Korean Conflict
                Emporia, KS, 1954.

     
     
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