Under a Field of Flowers: Captain Emil Kapaun
Somewhere in Korea, along the banks of the Yalu River, the mortal remains of Captain Emil Kapaun lie in an unmarked grave under a field of flowers alongside the bodies of the prisoners of war to whom he ministered. A garden was planted over the mass grave by the Chinese and Koreans, to obscure it. His life was a warm and holy light in a cold and evil darkness and even his captors greatly feared him. May his name be forever counted among the Righteous.
Truth is stranger than fiction but Father Kapaun’s story is almost beyond belief. Miracles have been attributed to him and he seems destined to become a saint, in addition to being the recipient of America’s highest award, the Congressional Medal of Honor. I do not generally hold with miracles, being a man more inclined to ascribe such things to magnets and medicine. But if proof for the influence of God in the world was required of me, I should put the life and death of Emil Kapaun into evidence without hesitation.
The spire of St John Nepomucene Catholic Church can be seen for miles over the plains. Pilsen Kansas never had more than 100 citizens and perhaps 25 families still remain, most descendants of the original Bohemian settlers who bought the land from the railroad. When the bricks for the church were unloaded from the train in Lincolnville, the joke was “How many churches are you going to build?” In today’s money, St John Neopomucene would have cost 677,000 dollars and would have cost more but the local people built it.
The Kapaun farm was three miles southwest of Pilsen, somewhat nearer to the original town which had moved north a few miles. By the time Emil Kapaun was born in 1916, the magnificent new brick church would have been nearing completion. Stories grow up around people: the Knights of Columbus say Emil Kapaun played at being a priest as a child, decorating a home-made altar with flowers. It would not be the last improvised altar from which Emil Kapaun would conduct mass.
Introibo ad altare Dei, ad Deum qui lætificat iuventutem meam
I shall go in to the altar of God, the God who gives joy to my youth
Pilsen then had a high school: these days, you’d have to go to either Lost Springs for elementary or Lincolnville for high school. After graduation in 1930, Emil Kapaun studied with the Benedictines at Conception College, Conception Missouri, then at Kendrick Theological Seminary in St. Louis. In 1940, Emil Kapaun was ordained and returned to Pilsen, where he served as assistant to Fr. Sklenar.
Benedictus es, Dòmine, Deus univèrsi,
quia de tua largitàte accèpimus panem, quem tibi offèrimus,
fructum terrae et òperis mànuum hòminum:
ex quo nobis fiet panis vitae.
Blessed art thou, Lord, God of the universe,
who through thy generosity we have bread to offer.
Earth hath given it, human hands have made it.
It becomes for us the bread of life.
The USA entered WW2 late 1941. In September 1942, the US government purchased 1700 acres of land a half-hour north of Pilsen and built Herington Army Airfield. Fr. Kapaun became an auxiliary chaplain at Herington Field, usually the last stop before the heavy bomber crews were deployed overseas.
Fr. Sklenar turned 70 and resigned. Fr. Kapaun was appointed pastor of St. John Nepomucene. The Knights of Columbus say Emil Kapaun asked to be relieved of the pastorate, believing himself a great moral obstacle to his friends and relatives in Pilsen, believing them superior to himself in both age and education. We do know his bishop gave him permission to volunteer for the Army as a chaplain in July of 1944 and served at Camp Wheeler, Georgia.
Fr. Kapaun was sent to the Burma theater in April of 1945, where he was sent forward to minister to troops on the front lines. He returned to the USA in 1946 and served in St. John Church, Spearville Kansas. After discharge from the Army in July of 1946, Kapaun was sent to Catholic University, Washington D.C. and graduated with an M.A. in education in February of 1948. Thereafter he became the pastor at Timken Kansas.
Fr. Kapaun reenlisted in the US Army in September of 1948, serving at Ft. Bliss Texas. He left his parents and friends in Pilsen Kansas in December of 1949 with orders for Yokohama Japan and never returned.
The 8th Cavalry Regiment made an amphibious landing at Pohang on 30 June 1950 and fought its way toward Yongdong to relieve the beleaguered 21st Regiment, 24th Division. The more famous landing at Incheon somewhat obscures the 1st Cavalry’s remarkable landing at Pohang. Between June and late October, 1st Cavalry had entered Pyongyang. The North Koreans had been badly beaten down and the American commanders were optimistic. Nobody had really expected the Chinese to intervene. Confident, cocky, lazy, dead. The 8th Cavalry Regiment was ordered to relieve the ROK at Unsan, only to find themselves entering a kill zone. On 1 Nov the Chinese attacked the 8th Cavalry Regiment. 1st and 2nd Battalions fell back into Unsan.
Fr. Kapaun’s 3rd battalion was mauled. They formed up around three tanks and fought through the night. By daylight, the 3rd Battalion had been annihilated, its men overwhelmed in human charges.
The complete text of Captain Kapaun’s Medal of Honor citation:
Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun, while assigned to Headquarters Company, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism, patriotism, and selfless service between Nov. 1-2, 1950. During the Battle of Unsan, Kapaun was serving with the 3rd Battalion of the 8th Cavalry Regiment. As Chinese Communist forces encircled the battalion, Kapaun moved fearlessly from foxhole to foxhole under direct enemy fire in order to provide comfort and reassurance to the outnumbered Soldiers. He repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to recover wounded men, dragging them to safety. When he couldn’t drag them, he dug shallow trenches to shield them from enemy fire. As Chinese forces closed in, Kapaun rejected several chances to escape, instead volunteering to stay behind and care for the wounded. He was taken as a prisoner of war by Chinese forces on Nov. 2, 1950.
After he was captured, Kapaun and other prisoners were marched for several days northward toward prisoner-of-war camps. During the march Kapaun led by example in caring for injured Soldiers, refusing to take a break from carrying the stretchers of the wounded while encouraging others to do their part.
Once inside the dismal prison camps, Kapaun risked his life by sneaking around the camp after dark, foraging for food, caring for the sick, and encouraging his fellow Soldiers to sustain their faith and their humanity. On at least one occasion, he was brutally punished for his disobedience, being forced to sit outside in subzero weather without any garments. When the Chinese instituted a mandatory re-education program, Kapaun patiently and politely rejected every theory put forth by the instructors. Later, Kapaun openly flouted his captors by conducting a sunrise service on Easter morning, 1951.
When Kapaun began to suffer from the physical toll of his captivity, the Chinese transferred him to a filthy, unheated hospital where he died alone. As he was being carried to the hospital, he asked God’s forgiveness for his captors, and made his fellow prisoners promise to keep their faith. Chaplain Kapaun died in captivity on May 23, 1951.
Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun repeatedly risked his own life to save the lives of hundreds of fellow Americans. His extraordinary courage, faith and leadership inspired thousands of prisoners to survive hellish conditions, resist enemy indoctrination, and retain their faith in God and country. His actions reflect the utmost credit upon him, the 1st Cavalry Division, and the United States Army.
Memènto etiam fratrum nostròrum,
qui in spe resurrectiònis dormièrunt,
omniùmque in tua miseratiòne defunctòrum,
et eos in lumen vultus tui admìtte.
Omnium nostrum, quaesumus, miserère,
ut cum beàta Dei Genetrice Virgine Maria,
beàtis Apòstolis et òmnibus Sanctis,
qui tibi a saeculo placuèrunt,
aetèrnae vitae mereàmur esse consòrtes,
et te laudèmus et glorificèmus
per Filium tuum Jesum Christum.
Remember our brothers
Who sleep in the hope of resurrection.
Bring all the departed into thy mercy
and admit then into the light of thy presence.
Upon all of us, we pray, show mercy
and with the holy mother of God, the Virgin Mary
and with the holy apostles and all the saints
who always did thy will in this world.
May we, like them, merit eternal life
that we may praise and glorify thee
through thy son, Jesus Christ.