As we approach this long weekend and prepare to celebrate Memorial Day on Monday, May 29th, Cale Clarke spent an episode of The Cale Clarke Show speaking with the VP of College Relations at Benedictine College and author of The Rosary of St. John Paul II, The Fatima Family Handbook, and A Hero Priest’s Return to Kansas, Tom Hoopes. Together, Cale and Tom paid tribute to the subject of the latter work, one Servant of God Fr. Emil Kapaun, a legendary priest who served as both a captain and a military chaplain in the U.S. Army and was ultimately awarded the Medal of Honor for his valiant service.
“You can’t be a Catholic in Kansas and not hear about Fr. Emil Kapaun,” began Hoopes. Hoopes, who had moved from the east coast to Kansas after he had left the National Catholic Register to work at Benedictine, quickly learned that the priest and soldier known as Fr. Kapaun was somewhat of a legendary figure amongst the Kansans.
Emil was born in 1916 to a family of Czech immigrants who ran a farm in small-town Kansas. While hardworking and diligent, it wasn’t long before Emil felt called to a more adventurous vocation in the priesthood. After becoming an assistant pastor in his home parish in Pilsen, Fr. Kapaun felt he was still being called to do more. He became an army chaplain and was subsequently assigned to an airbase, but that appointment only lasted 18 months before Fr. Kapaun requested to enter the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps.
Throughout 1945, Fr. Kapaun was assigned to different posts in Burma and India, where he served through the end of World War II. He was known to have driven thousands of miles in his jeep to attend to the soldiers on the frontlines, and for his bravery and valor, he was promoted to Captain.
After World War II, Fr. Kapaun was released from service and was assigned to a Bohemian parish back in Kansas. While he loved the pastoral work he was doing at home, Fr. Kapaun felt his conscience was calling him back to the military. He wrote his bishop requesting to return overseas as an Army chaplain and his request was granted. He was deployed to Yokohama, Japan in January of 1950.
However, it was only 6 months before another war erupted when North Korea invaded the South. The U.S. military was called upon to assist the South and it wasn’t long before Fr. Kapaun once again became known for his unwavering devotion to the needs of his brothers in arms.
As in World War II, Fr. Kapaun earned a reputation as a fearless chaplain and stoic beacon of hope amidst the horrors of war. When he wasn’t praying with the soldiers in bombed-out shelters and saying Mass on the hood of his Jeep, he was saving lives, tending to the sick and wounded, and recovering bodies.
“He would go and hold prisoners in his arms while they died. He got the Medal of Honor for pushing a Chinese soldier aside who was going to kill an American and pulling Herbert Miller off of the battlefield to safety,” said Hoopes. God gave Fr. Kapaun the strength and courage to be a source of hope and morale for the men around him.
However, it was once again time for God to call Fr. Kapaun to a different ministry. On November 2nd, 1950, Fr. Kapaun and the remainder of his outfit were captured by communist forces and were marched to a Chinese prisoner-of-war camp in Pyoktong, North Korea. Along the way, Fr. Kapaun encouraged those who were wounded and carried those who could not walk themselves.
Once at the camp, Fr. Kapaun began the pastoral work of his new parish, Prisoner Camp No. 5. During his last seven months on earth, Fr. Kapaun became a living saint to those around him.
“He would go from camp to camp and just help people keep their spirits up,” said Hoopes. “He would see what he could scrounge for them and bring it by. Just getting anything, even a little trinket that you don’t need, is going to help raise your spirits. He would say a prayer with them if that’s what they needed, he would tell a joke, he’d ask for them to tell him a joke. And the guys over there with him were just incredibly moved by this, and they can’t talk about him without tears in their eyes because of what he did for them.” Many men, because of what Fr. Kapaun did for them, survived the war when they could have easily died.
In May of 1951, an exhausted Fr. Kapaun fell ill with pneumonia and a blood clot in his leg. When the Chinese discovered this, they attempted to move him to the “Death House”, the POW’s name for the hospital. Understanding that he would die there, his fellow prisoners fought back, but Fr. Kapaun stopped them: “Don’t worry about me. I’m going where I always wanted to go, and when I get there, I’ll say a prayer for all of you.” The other prisoners demanded that they be the ones to carry him to his deathbed.
Fr. Kapaun died on May 23, 1951, at the age of 35. He was buried atop a hill near the camp and his remains did not make it back to the United States for years. They remained unidentified until 2021, 70 years after his death, and his nephew Ray Kapaun was finally able to take the mortal remains of Fr. Emil Kapaun home to Kansas.
The case for Fr. Emil Kapaun’s canonization was opened in 1993, granting him the title of Servant of God. As of 2016, the Congregation for Causes of Saints has been reviewing the Statement on the Life, Virtue, and Holy Reputation of Fr. Kapaun. If accepted, he will be granted the title of Venerable.
In memory of Servant of God Fr. Emil Kapaun and of all those who have valiantly given their lives in the service of God and country, we would like to encourage all of our listeners to make an effort this weekend to visit a cemetery and honor those who have fallen. We should never forget the sacrifice that others have made abroad so that those at home may remain free.
“The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” -G.K. Chesterton
Tune in to The Cale Clarke Show weekdays at 5pm CT