Hero’s life is a reminder of what wearing a uniform should entail
TONIGHT, U.S. CST, thousands will gather in Wichita, Kansas, at the Hartman Arena to celebrate Mass and pray the rosary in thanksgiving for the return to America of the mortal remains of Father Emil Kapaun. Now a candidate for sainthood and posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama in 2013, the Korean War chaplain was buried in a mass grave after succumbing to malnutrition and pneumonia at a Chinese POW camp in May, 1951. The story of his return home as told by the Wichita Eagle is testament to the love of the soldiers who served with him and to modern genetic science.
As Fr Kapaun’s CMH citation makes plain, he was neither captured nor defeated on the day his 3rd Battalion was overrun by Chinese forces at the Battle of Unsan, November 1–2, 1950. He chose to stay with his men, rescuing some during close quarters combat. On several occasions that day and subsequently, he physically intervened to prevent summary executions. Stealing food for his fellow prisoners, tending to their wounds and going without sustenance himself meant his death by either disease or firing squad was inevitable. He died on 23 May, 1951, aged 35.
A World War II chaplaincy veteran already when the 1st Cavalry Division was mobilised to Korea, he knew exactly what he was doing, even if – as one comrade who survived the war remembered – his physical bravery was otherworldly:
Joe Ramirez thought the priest was crazy. Most of the time he was afraid to put his head up, but every time he did he saw [Kapaun] bopping around the battlefield while bullets were spraying like a fire hose. A sniper bullet once buzzed close enough to cut the priest’s pipe in half. His jeep and trailer were blown up, destroying his Mass kit and clothes. Fortunately, he always kept the Eucharist and holy oils in his field jacket. His assistant was shot and sent to the hospital. Not long after, he was side by side with another chaplain, Arthur Mills, a Protestant, when a mortar landed and blew part of his colleague’s leg off.
Joe Drape is a well-known New York Times sportswriter and by his own admission not particularly religious. The parlance of boxing, baseball and NFL commentary was perfect for the biography he chose to write about the Kansan Rev whose reputation for service in extremis was cultic in his own time. “War is terrible,” Kapaun wrote to his bishop not long before his capture, but he was “glad to be with the soldiers in time of need” and wanted the communists to be given a “good licking.” An excerpt from Drape’s book is several minutes of reading well spent.
Out of respect, I won’t essay the obvious present-day comparisons of heroism with local terrorism, American treason or global cowardice. I do note that “General” Mark Milley admitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday that he contacted the heirs of Fr Kapaun’s killers to apologise for democracy. It is not improbable that in the 1950s he would have been cashiered with a current alongside the Rosenbergs.