b. 20/04/1916 Pilsen, Kansas. d. 23/05/1951 Korea.
DATE OF MOH ACTION: 01/11/1950 Unsan, Korea.
Emil Joseph Kapaun was born on April 20, 1916, and grew up on a farm 3 miles (4.8 km) southwest of Pilsen, Kansas, on rural 260th Street of Marion County, Kansas. His parents, Enos and Elizabeth (Hajek) Kapaun, were Czech immigrants. He graduated from Pilsen High School in May 1930. Kapaun also graduated from Conception Abbey seminary college (College of New Engleberg; Conception Seminary College) in Conception, Missouri, in June 1936 and Kenrick Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1940.
On June 9, 1940, Kapaun was ordained a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Wichita by Bishop Christian Herman Winkelmann at what is now Newman University in Wichita, Kansas. He celebrated his first Mass at St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church in Pilsen, Kansas. In January 1943, Kapaun was appointed auxiliary chaplain at the Herington Army Airfield near Herington, Kansas. In December 1943, Kapaun was appointed priest.
Kapaun entered the U.S. Army Chaplain School at Ft. Devens, Massachusetts in August 1944, and after graduating in October began his military chaplaincy at Camp Wheeler, Georgia. He and one other chaplain ministered to approximately 19,000 servicemen and women. He was sent to India and served in the Burma Theater from April 1945 to May 1946. He ministered to U.S. soldiers and local missions, sometimes traversing nearly 2,000 miles (3,200 km) a month by jeep or airplane. He was promoted to captain in January 1946. He was released from active duty in July 1946. Under the G.I. Bill, he earned a Master of Arts degree in Education at Catholic University of America in February 1948. In September 1948, he returned to active duty in the U.S. Army and resumed his chaplaincy at Fort Bliss near El Paso, Texas. In December 1949, Kapaun left his parents and Pilsen for the last time, bound for Japan.
In January 1950, Kapaun became a chaplain in the 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, often performing battle drills near Mount Fuji, Japan. On July 15, 1950, the 1st Cavalry Division and Kapaun embarked and left Tokyo Bay sailing for Korea, less than a month after North Korea had invaded South Korea.
After being taken prisoner in 1950 by the Chinese, Father Kapaun nursed the sick and wounded at a squalid communist prisoner-of-war camp in North Korea, and went to extraordinary lengths to administer and provide for his fellow prisoners despite the deplorable conditions and the cruelty of their North Korea captors. Eventually a blood clot in his leg prevented his daily rounds, and he was moved to a hospital, where he was allowed to die from starvation and pneumonia. He was thrown into a mass grave along with other mistreated American prisoners along the Yalu River. After the war, the Chinese plowed the field and planted it over with rice to hide the site.
In the 2000s a campaign was embarked to have his bravery and sacrifice be recognized and honored, the result of which culminated in President Barak Obama posthumously awarded Father Kapaun the CMOH in April 2013. His nephew received the Medal. A cenotaph was erected for him in the Saint John Nepomucene Church Cemetery in his hometown of Pilsen, Kansas, and his name is inscribed on the Courts of the Missing Memorials Walls in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii. In 2021, his remains were positively identified as being buried in the Unknown Soldiers area of National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. On September 29, 2021, a Mass of Christian Burial was held in Kapaun’s home state of Kansas at the Hartman Arena in Park City, near Wichita. Afterwards, a horse-drawn caisson carried his remains to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Wichita, where he was given military honors and interred inside the church.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving with the 3d Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division during combat operations against an armed enemy at Unsan, Korea, from November 1-2, 1950. On November 1, as Chinese Communist Forces viciously attacked friendly elements, Chaplain Kapaun calmly walked through withering enemy fire in order to provide comfort and medical aid to his comrades and rescue friendly wounded from no-man’s land. Though the Americans successfully repelled the assault, they found themselves surrounded by the enemy. Facing annihilation, the able-bodied men were ordered to evacuate. However, Chaplain Kapaun, fully aware of his certain capture, elected to stay behind with the wounded. After the enemy succeeded in breaking through the defense in the early morning hours of November 2, Chaplain Kapaun continually made rounds, as hand-to-hand combat ensued. As Chinese Communist Forces approached the American position, Chaplain Kapaun noticed an injured Chinese officer amongst the wounded and convinced him to negotiate the safe surrender of the American Forces. Shortly after his capture, Chaplain Kapaun, with complete disregard for his personal safety and unwavering resolve, bravely pushed aside an enemy soldier preparing to execute Sergeant First Class Herbert A. Miller. Not only did Chaplain Kapaun’s gallantry save the life of Sergeant Miller, but also his unparalleled courage and leadership inspired all those present, including those who might have otherwise fled in panic, to remain and fight the enemy until captured. Chaplain Kapaun’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness, above and beyond the call of duty, are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the 3d Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, the 1st Cavalry Division, and the United States Army.
BURIAL LOCATION: CATHEDRAL OF THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION, WICHITA, KANSAS.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE US ARMY, FORT BELVOIR, VIRGINIA.