The Rev. Emil Kapaun
The Rev. Emil Kapaun

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In war or peace there’s never enough chaplains to serve the men and women in the military who seek divine guidance.

Chaplains offer solace to military personnel. Their words of comfort and encouragement can be a tremendous spiritual and moral boost for soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. Time and again they have demonstrated their strength and courage in combat and other locations. Many of them sacrificed their lives.

Perhaps the most famous war stories in modern history occurred in World War II when four chaplains sacrificed their lives to save others as their troop ship, the USS Dorchester, was sinking in the ferocious waters of the North Atlantic after torpedoes fired from a German U-boat penetrated the vessel.

The weather was cold, the sky clear and moonless on Feb. 3, 1943, when the Army transport ship steamed toward Greenland with 904 people on board. Only 239 of them survived the sinking. It was the worst single loss of U.S. personnel of any of the many American convoys that crossed the ocean in WWII.

The men of faith and valor gave up their life jackets and met death together after the torpedoes struck, killing officers and enlisted men, merchant seamen and civilian workers aboard.

Their names were George Fox, a World War I Marine who later became a Methodist minister; Rabbi Alexander Goode, a Jewish man with a medical degree; the Rev. Clark Poling, Reformed Church and a seventh generation in a line of pastors and the Rev. John Washington, a Catholic priest.

Many of the lifeboats were destroyed by the U-boat torpedoes, and others were lost by wave action or were frozen to the ship in the cold water of the Atlantic. The ship vanished within 30 minutes after taking the hit.

The Chapel of Four Chaplains honors the four members of the clergy at the former Philadelphia Naval shipyard. Across the country, more than 300 memorials of various sorts honor their memory.

At least nine U.S. military chaplains have won the Medal of honor, the nation’s highest award for valor.

The last recipient of the award was the Rev. Emil Kapaun, a Catholic priest who grew up on a farm on the outskirts of Pilsen, Kansas. Ray Kapaun, his nephew, accepted the Medal of Honor for him in ceremonies at the White House on April 11, 2013.

Kapaun was known as “The Priest in Combat Boots.” He was 29 years old when he was assigned to the India-Burma Theater of Operations in 1945 when WWII was winding down. He returned to the U.S. in 1946 and remained in the states until 1950 when he was reassigned to Japan.

The Korean War exploded in June 1950 when North Korean troops stormed into South Korea to begin what turned out to be a brutal and bloody 37-month conflict.

The chaplain was with the 8th Regiment, 1st Calvary Division on July 18 when the division landed on the shore of Yongil Bay at Pohangdong, a village about 25 miles from the closest enemy positions. When the firing commenced, the work of the chaplain intensified.

When Rev. Kapaun was informed that a Protestant chaplain had been wounded in the battle, he trekked several miles through the war zone to render aid and comfort.

In a letter to a friend back home, Kapaun knew his life and the life of soldiers around him was in danger. He didn’t believe he would live through the night of heavy action.

“We are close to heaven,” he wrote to his friend, “but really we are more like in hell.”

The well-manned North Korean Army, supported by Russian tanks and other weapons, held the upper hand until U.S. forces could be mobilized after the surprise attack on South Korea. Casualties on both sides were heavy.

Soldiers who served with the priest recalled they literally had to move bodies out of the way to set up an altar. Other times Kapaun would move within 500 yards of the firefight to say Mass. 

Father Kapaun was in the thick of the fighting. He was at the Pusan Perimeter when the Americans made a last-ditch stand before counterattacking and driving the invaders back across the 38th Parallel into North Korea. He ministered to the dead and the dying, heard confessions against the sounds of artillery, machine guns and rifles, distributed Holy Communion and said Mass from improvised altars on the front of a Jeep or Army truck.

On Oct. 30, three months after his arrival in Korea, Father Kapaun and other members of his battalion were asleep from fatigue when Communist Chinese forces overran their positions. He was among a few hundred U.S. soldiers captured that night near Unsan.

He and his comrades from the 1st Cavalry’s 8th Regiment were marched 87 miles to a temporary POW camp, which was near Prison Camp 5 at Pyoktong, North Korea, where they eventually wound up. The grueling march lasted two weeks.

During the march, the priest moved up and down the long line of prisoners offering prayer and encouragement, and urging them not to give up.

Once at Camp 5 (also known as The Valley), he worked tirelessly cleaning the bandages of soldiers and picking lice from their bodies. He bathed those suffering from dysentery, one of the highest rates of death at the POW camp.

He traded his watch for a blanket and then used the blanket to make socks for fellow soldiers. He couldn’t bear to watch his comrades starving for food, so he would sneak into cornfields and guard huts at night and return to camp with corn or salt. One time he returned with a 100-pound sack of potatoes.

The long hours and his relentless efforts to treat and help his fellow soldiers took a toll on the priest. Chinese guards took him to a place they identified as a “hospital.” U.S. prisoners had labeled it “the dying place.”

Father Kapaun died two days later. He was 35 and had served in two major wars. Death was due to malnutrition and pneumonia. He was buried in a mass grave near the Yalua River.

Thirteen chaplains were killed or died in prison camps in the Korean War.

Father Kapaun was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest military honor, before he received the Medal of honor. He is the most highly decorated chaplain in U.S. military history. He also was awarded the Purple Heart and other military decorations.

Soldier/Chaplain Emil Kapaun brought light to the darkest of places in war. When the book on human history is completed, death, darkness and evil don’t get to write the final word. It’s people like Father Kapaun who will write it.

Memorial Day is two weeks away. It is one day of the year when Americans come together to honor those who sacrificed their lives for our country. The four chaplains on the USS Dorchester and Father Kapaun, working the hills and rice paddies in Korea will be remembered in our prayers on the special holiday.

We honor them when they are lowered in their graves and buried in our hearts.