PILSEN, Kan. (KSNW) – Prisoners of war credit Father Emil Kapaun with saving their lives.
He served in WWII and the Korean War, and all we know about his time in both wars is because of the stories of the men he served with and was held captive with, as a prisoner of war.
Growing up in Pilsen, Emil Kapaun just knew he wanted to be a missionary.
“Life on the farm, faith was the central part of the community, that they lived in,” Father Kapaun guild coordinator Scott Carter said.
He became a priest, a soldier, a chaplain, and was sent to India in WWII.
“It was dangerous work, he flew by airplane, he traveled by Jeep, up through the mountains, he said a few times he barely escaped alive,” Carter said.
Kapaun made it back to Pilsen and then enlisted again.
He was with the 1st Cavalry Division, one of the first to head overseas, when the Korean War broke out.
“He would make do with whatever he had, whether it be ammo crates, sometimes they would use abandoned houses, but a lot of time he used the hood of his jeep for mass,” Carter said.
Despite the fact his Jeep was shot up a few times, he still became a very welcomed sight for troops.
“They would travel right up the front lines, wherever the men were,” Carter said.
He said the Chaplain would hold Mass, even under heavy fire.
“All the guys were looking around and starting to get nervous, but they looked up at Chaplain Kapaun and he was totally engrossed in the mass,” Carter said. “He just kept celebrating as if nothing was going on, almost like he was back home at Pilsen.”
Kapaun’s dedicated service even continued when he was taken as a prisoner of war.
Carter said he would steal food for starving soldiers, and he helped the sick.
“He would have someone actually create a disturbance, to distract all the guards, and he would sneak in, grab the medicine, and then give it to the doctors to help the men,” Carter said.
He was also punished for his good deeds.
“There’s different stories about how maybe he was made to stand out on the ice with just a shirt and boxers on, in negative 20 degree, 30 degree temperatures,” Carter said.
He said he gave he men hope.
“He would insist that the men think and believe that they were going to make it out of the prison camp alive,” Carter said.
While some Americans made it out of the camp, Kapaun didn’t.
For his actions in Korea, Kapaun was awarded the Medal of Honor, 60 years after his death.
“You are sitting here looking at someone who you realize they may not be here if it wasn’t for this heroic man,” Carter said.
Kapaun Mt. Carmel President Rob Knapp attended the Medal of Honor ceremony.
“When you meet them, the first sense that you get is a great sense of gratitude for their service, and for their ability to come back and share the stories, that we can now pass on to the next generation,” Kapaun Mt. Carmel President Rob Knapp said.
The former prisoners also risk their own lives to bring back pieces of the past.
“This is the sort of stuff he would use or hand out to the troops,” Carter said.
The New Testament, part of his mass kit, the cross from the lining of his helmet, all of these things now displayed at the school that bears his name.
After Kapaun died in the camp, the men decided to keep his spirit of hope alive.
They asked a Jewish man, who never met the chaplain, to carve a crucifix.
The school also has the tools on display, that the man used to carve the cross. One was made of the metal from a soldier’s boot.
“The importance that, that piece had for them was so great that they knew they had to take it with them at the end of the war,” Knapp said.
It comes into three pieces, and that’s how they got it out of the camp.
Knapp said the story goes, three men rolled it up in a bedroll and snuck it across to the American side.
“They took it out of the bedroll and put it back together, and we are able to display a picture of them holding this crucifix, Knapp said.
He said the picture shows what the chaplain meant to the prisoners, halfway around the world, from where his service all started.
“He grew up very much with the faith, but also a patriotic sense of duty to the country and loved America,” Carter said.
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