Father Emil Kapaun: The Saint in the Foxhole

Father Emil Kapaun

Born of Czech immigrants in the small farming town of Pilsen, Kansas, in 1916, Emil Joseph Kapaun was ordained a priest in 1940 and served as an Army chaplain in Burma in World War II. During the Korean War, Captain Emil Kapaun was the Catholic chaplain assigned to the 3rd Battalion of the 8th Cavalry. On All Soul’s Day, November 2, 1950, this battalion of 3,000 soldiers was unexpectedly attacked by a force of more than 20,000 Chinese troops. The Americans, taken by surprise and fighting valiantly, never had a chance.

Father Kapaun ran from foxhole to foxhole, dragging out the wounded and giving Last Rites to the dying. Over the sound of gunfire and explosions he heard confessions. Feverishly working beyond the American lines in no-man’s land, he actually stopped an execution and negotiated with the enemy for the safety of wounded Americans. No one knows how many young soldiers he carried to safety on his back. Going back again and again he was finally taken prisoner as he tried to rescue another wounded soldier.

By daybreak the battle was over and hundreds of newly captured American POWs, including Father Kapaun, began a brutal forced 87-mile death march to a POW camp. Those wounded and unable to continue were shot dead. Father Kapaun picked up a wounded POW and began carrying him on his back, imploring others who were still in fair condition to do the same. Some followed his example and many managed to make it alive to the prison camp.

Against the orders of his Chinese guards Father Kapaun cared for the sick and wounded, built fires for warmth and cooking, searched for scraps of food, and even set up a makeshift system to purify drinking water. To the great anger of his guards, Father Kapaun managed to gather the men together, officers and enlisted men, black men and white men, even atheists, agnostics and others, to join together in saying the Rosary.

Father Kapaun became an inspiration to the other POWs. The priest would preach openly to the men even though his captors ordered him not to do so. He would pray one-on-one with POWs and some even embraced the faith and were baptized. Praying was banned and when Father Kapaun ignored it and prayed with his men his captors would strip him naked and make him stand on a block of ice for hours on end

On Easter Sunday 1951, the bedraggled, starving prisoners saw a silhouetted figure standing alone, illuminated by the morning sun. As the men approached they realized it was Father Kapaun, wearing his priest’s stole and holding a Missal. Somehow he had received permission to hold an Easter Service. He could not say Mass but he read some Psalms and everyone recited out loud the prayers from Good Friday including the Stations of the Cross. Survivors say that some men openly wept.

Worn down from the horrendous conditions and suffering from his own wounds and poor treatment, Father Kapaun died on May 23, 1951. He was credited with saving hundreds of lives through the loving care, compassion and spirituality he demonstrated to all his men.

In 1993, Captain Chaplain Emil Joseph Kapaun was declared a Servant of God by Pope John Paul II. The canonization process of this selfless priest is underway and there are two miracles under investigation at the present time. In 2013 he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama, becoming one of only five chaplains to receive our nation's highest award.