President Barack Obama presented the medal to Kapaun’s nephew, Ray Kapaun, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. Ray was joined by other family members and veterans of the Korean War who served with Kapaun.
Kapaun was ordained a priest in 1940, and served under the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wichita in Pilsen, Kansas. In 1944, he began serving as an Army chaplain. In 1993, Kapaun was named a “Servant of God” by the Vatican, and is currently a candidate for sainthood.
During the Medal of Honor ceremony, Obama described Kapaun’s acts of courage and compassion.
“When commanders ordered an evacuation, he chose to stay and tend to their wounds. When the enemy broke through and there was combat hand-to-hand, he carried on, comforting the injured and the dying, offering them some measure of peace before they left this Earth. When enemy forces bore down, it seemed like the end.
“Father Kapaun spotted a wounded Chinese officer. He pleaded with (him) and convinced him to call out to his fellow Chinese. The shooting stopped, and they negotiated a safe surrender, saving those American lives.
“Then as Father Kapaun was being led away, he saw another American, wounded, unable to walk, lying in a ditch, defenseless. An enemy soldier was standing over him, rifle aimed at his head ready to shoot. Father Kapaun pushed the enemy soldier aside. And then as the enemy soldier watched, stunned, Father Kapaun carried that wounded American away.
“This is the battle we honor today. An American Soldier who didn’t fire a gun, but who wielded the mightiest weapon of all, the love for his brothers, so pure, that he was willing to die so they might live.
“He carried that wounded Soldier for four miles on the death march and when Father Kapaun grew tired, he’d help the wounded Soldier hop on one leg. When other prisoners stumbled, he picked them up. When they wanted to quit, knowing stragglers would be shot, he begged them to keep walking.”
The president then when on to describe how Kapaun cared for the Soldiers right up until the time of his death.
Obama then presented the Medal of Honor to Ray Kapaun, Father Kapaun’s nephew.
Above and Beyond
Kapaun’s Medal of Honor nomination is “for conspicuous acts of gallantry and intrepidity, at the risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty, Nov. 1-2, 1950, during the Korean War.”
Among the documents and interviews within the nomination package, one of the narratives reads:
“As Chinese Communist forces encircled (3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry during the battle of Unsan,) Kapaun moved fearlessly from foxhole to foxhole under enemy direct fire in order to provide comfort and reassurance to the outnumbered Soldiers. When the Chinese commandos attacked the battalion command post, Kapaun and other members of the headquarters withdrew 500 meters across a nearby river, but Kapaun returned to help the wounded, gathering approximately 30 injured men into the relative protection of a Korean dugout.”
The narrative goes on to describe how the battalion became entirely surrounded by enemy forces. It recounts how Kapaun spent the next day, Nov. 2, repeatedly rescuing the wounded from “no-man’s land outside the perimeter.”
As the battalion’s position became hopeless, “Kapaun rejected several chances to escape, instead volunteering to stay behind and care for the wounded.” At dusk, he made his way back to the dugout.
“Among the injured Americans was a wounded Chinese officer,” it continues. “As Chinese infantry closed in on their position, Kapaun convinced him to negotiate for the safety of the injured Americans.”
The narrative then describes how, after Kapaun’s capture, he intervened to save the life of a fellow Soldier who was “lying in a nearby ditch with a broken ankle and other injuries. As Chinese soldiers prepared to execute” the Soldier, “Kapaun risked his own life by pushing the Chinese soldier aside” thereby saving the Soldier’s life.
The narrative continues with other acts of bravery and charity, both during the march north and throughout their ordeal at the prisoners of war camp. Kapaun died there, May 23, 1951.
Many prisoners of war were inspired by Kapaun, including Mike Dowe, who at the time was a first lieutenant.
He recounted how U.S. soldiers ran out of ammunition in the Anju, North Korea, area in early November 1950, when “wave after wave” of Chinese Communist forces launched a surprise attack across the border into Korea.
Thousands of soldiers were taken prisoner and were forced to march northward in what Dowe termed “death marches.” Soldiers who were too weak or injured to keep up were shot, he said.
It was then that Dowe, who was a member of the 19th Regiment, 24th Infantry Division, first saw Kapaun carrying the wounded and encouraging others to do the same.
The POWs eventually were taken to a valley near Pyoktong, near the Yalu River in northwest North Korea near the Chinese border.
“I don’t know the name of that valley, but we called it the ‘Kapaun Valley’ because that is where Father Kapaun instilled in us a will to live,” he said.
Kapaun tended to the wounded and encouraged people to share and help each other, Dowe said. He also snuck out of camp at night and stole food, which he would bring back and share with everyone.
Then, in January 1951, the soldiers were moved to Pyoktong, along the Yalu River. The enlisted were located in a valley and the officers were separated and placed on a hill, Dowe said. Turkish prisoners were co-located with the enlisted.
Conditions in the camps were miserable during winter 1950-1951, which Dowe said was one of the coldest ever in Korea. Temperatures then had dipped to minus 28 degrees Fahrenheit.
Dowe said the soldiers were still wearing their summer uniforms, because they’d been told they would be home by Thanksgiving 1950, not realizing at the time that the Chinese would join the North Koreans in attacking the United Nations forces.
All of the trees in the area had been stripped away, but there was a wood fence around the officer’s compound on the hill, Dowe said. Each morning, Kapaun got up before everyone else and went out into the “subzero” weather to collect wood from that fence, he said.
Kapaun would use that wood to heat water for coffee in a pan that he had fashioned from scrap metal. Dowe said he still has vivid recollections of that “little guy with the beard and scraggly hat pulled over his ears, made from the sleeve of a sweater, bringing coffee to everyone. You can’t imagine how good that was to start the day off for us.”
At night, the men would pass the time telling stories before falling asleep, Dowe said. A favorite topic was describing the food they’d like to order once they got home. “Some of the best stories were told by Father Kapaun, who described his mother’s cooking back on the farm,” in Kansas, Dowe said. Kapaun was always keeping the men’s spirits up, he added.
The chaplain continued to make nighttime forays outside the prison camp to the surrounding countryside, with the purpose of stealing food for the Soldiers in the camps. Dowe often accompanied him on what he termed “ration runs.”
Sometimes they would raid a warehouse where 50 pound bags of millet and cracked corn were stored. Dowe said millet is like bird seed and very hard to digest. The two would first distribute it to the enlisted.
Soon, Kapaun became known as the “Great Thief,” Dowe said. He explained that the nickname was given to him, not just because he was so successful at stealing food, but also because it was learned that Kapaun prayed to Saint Dismas, who was the penitent thief crucified alongside Jesus, as described in the Bible.
The Chinese often try to brainwash the POWs by lecturing them on the evils of capitalism and the virtues of a communist society, Dowe said.
“Father Kapaun would rebut the lectures with intelligent responses that the Chinese found impossible to counter,” Dowe recalled. “That would infuriate them. Some who resisted the lectures would be tortured or killed. We thought Father Kapaun would be killed as well.”
At one point, the guards took Kapaun away. “We thought that was the end for him,” Dowe said. Then, a few days later they brought him back to camp.
“They were absolutely afraid of him,” Dowe said, explaining why he was returned. “There was an aura about the guy. He was fearless. He had a way of addressing people that was frank and straightforward. They couldn’t understand why he wasn’t afraid like others. Threats and intimidation had no effect on him.”
More than half of the prisoners died that winter, Dowe said. They often died at night and the soldiers would drag the bodies outside. Every day there were burial details. Soldiers assigned to these details would carry the bodies about half a mile past the enlisted area in the valley and across the Yalu to an island where they would be buried.
“Father Kapaun always volunteered for burial details,” Dowe said. “He’d recover the clothing from the dead, wash it, and then provide clean clothing to the enlisted.”
Besides providing clothing to the Soldiers, Kapaun would dress their wounds, offer words of encouragement and say prayers, Dowe said, adding that he did this despite being warned by the guards not to minister to the Soldiers.
Easter Sunrise Service
Despite warnings from the guards, Kapaun got up extra early on Easter Day 1950 to begin a special sunrise service. It would be his last Easter.
“It was a fantastic sermon,” Dowe recalled, saying it was the most “momentous event” in his life. He said hymns were sung and the echoes carried. Soon, he said, POWs up and down the valley were joining in. “It was absolutely amazing. There were a few who claimed that Father Kapaun seemed to have a halo around him.”
The Chinese quickly arrived, but then became too afraid to stop the service, Dowe said.
The week after the sermon, Kapaun collapsed from a blood clot in his leg, Dowe said. There were some American doctors in the camp who treated it and he was walking and eating again soon after.
Kapaun then contracted pneumonia. The military doctors took care of that as well, Dowe said. After Kapaun recovered, guards became upset that he hadn’t died. They prepared to remove him to the “death camp,” a place where very sick prisoners were taken to die, and where no food or medical attention was given to them.
When the guards came, “we pushed them away,” Dowe said. “They brought in troops with bayonets and threatened everyone if people didn’t pick him up and carry him away.
“Father Kapaun told everyone to stop resisting and not to ‘fight them on my behalf.’ I was in tears,” he continued, his voice tinged with emotion. “And then he turned to me and said ‘Mike, don’t cry. I’m going where I’ve always wanted to go. And when I get there, I’ll be saying a prayer for all of you.’”
After the death of Kapaun, some of the guards who spoke English confided to Dowe that they were afraid of the “unconquerable spirit of a free man loyal only to his God and his country.”
After the war, which ended in 1953, Dowe was invited to testify to the committee involved in writing the POW Code of Conduct, which is still in effect today. Dowe said Kapaun had a strong influence on him and he shared that with the committee, which emphasized the “loyalty” and “keeping the faith” aspects of the code.
“Father Kapaun instilled that kind of loyalty in others, enabling them to maintain their honor, self-respect and will to live,” Dowe said. “I’ve seen over and over again that those who did not display that loyalty would invariably give up and die, often within 24 hours.”
Dowe said Eisenhower gave him a personal commendation for his contribution to the committee. However, Dowe said the real credit should go to Kapaun, whom he credits with saving the lives of hundreds of POWs, directly or indirectly.
Following the war, Dowe went on to serve in the Army, retiring as a colonel in 1970 and then working as a defense contractor. He currently is a scientist at Raytheon.
He said he prays to Kapaun every night, asking him for help and guidance. And, he said, he knows Kapaun is in Heaven praying for him and his fellow POWs.
Dowe said Kapaun had a positive impact on the many non-Catholics in the prison camp as well. He said the commander of the Turkish POWs told him as they were being liberated, “I will pray to my God Allah for Father Kapaun.”