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Obama awards America’s highest military honour to Catholic chaplain

By on Friday, 12 April 2013

Obama holds a pocket stole that belonged to Fr Emil Kapaun (Photo: CNS)

Obama holds a pocket stole that belonged to Fr Emil Kapaun (Photo: CNS)

A Catholic Korean War chaplain who selflessly pulled wounded men from enemy fire and helped his fellow prisoners of war keep a sense of hope was honoured posthumously with the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military honour, in a White House ceremony yesterday.

In paying tribute to Fr Emil Kapaun, an Army captain, President Barack Obama told multiple stories of the “shepherd in combat boots” from Kansas who voluntarily stayed behind with the wounded to face certain capture, rather than evacuate when his division was overrun at Unsan, Korea, in November 1950.

“This is the valour we honour today – an American soldier who didn’t fire a gun, but who wielded the mightiest weapon of all, a love for his brothers so pure that he was willing to die so that they might live,” the US president said.

Fr Kapaun received the Bronze Star before his capture and the Distinguished Service Cross after he died. Within the Catholic Church, he has an active cause for sainthood, having been recognised by the Vatican as a “servant of God”, a first step in the investigation of someone who is being considered for sainthood.

Some of Fr Kapaun’s fellow prisoners, who walked out of their prison camp carrying a crucifix they’d fashioned to honour their deceased chaplain, were in attendance at the ceremony. The medal, given to members of the armed forces for distinguished gallantry above and beyond the call of duty in active service, was presented to Ray Kapaun, a nephew of the priest, who never knew his uncle.

Guests for the ceremony in the East Room of the White House included Fr Kapaun’s extended family, military chaplains and other officers, people from his hometown parish, St John Nepomucene Catholic church in Pilsen, Kansas; and various members of the Archdiocese for Military Services including Auxiliary Bishop Richard Higgins, vicar for Veterans Affairs.

Also in attendance was Herb Miller, who, as a sergeant in 1951, was injured when a grenade exploded near him. As Obama told the story, a Chinese soldier was about to execute Miller, when Fr Kapaun stepped in to stop him. The priest then carried Miller and assisted other wounded prisoners on a lengthy march to a prison camp at Pyoktong.

“He carried that injured American, for miles, as their captors forced them on a death march,” said Obama. “When Fr 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 that stragglers would be shot – he begged them to keep walking.”

Fr Emil Kapaun

Fr Kapaun’s actions that day are what was being recognised with the Medal of Honor, Obama said, but he continued with stories of the priest’s selfless actions in the prison camp – helping smuggle in more food; giving away his clothes to freezing men; fashioning pots to boil water to battle dysentery; praying with the men in their huts; celebrating Easter Mass.

Obama said Fr Kapaun’s background reminded him of his own grandfather’s.

“Now, I obviously never met Fr Kapaun,” Obama said. “But I have a sense of the man he was, because in his story I see reflections of my own grandparents and their values, the people who helped to raise me. Emil and my grandfather were both born in Kansas about the same time, both were raised in small towns outside of Wichita.

“They were part of that Greatest Generation – surviving the Depression, joining the Army, serving in World War II. And they embodied those heartland values of honesty and hard work, decency and humility – quiet heroes determined to do their part.”

For the priest, he continued, that meant joining the Army during the Second World War and returning to military service after a two-year hiatus during which Fr Kapaun earned a master’s in education at The Catholic University of America.

“After the Communist invasion of South Korea, he was among the first American troops that hit the beaches and pushed their way north through hard mountains and bitter cold,” Obama said. “In his understated Midwestern way, he wrote home, saying, ‘this outdoor life is quite the thing’ and ‘I prefer to live in a house once in a while’.

Suffering from an assortment of ailments, Fr Kapaun died in that prison camp in Pyoktong on May 23, 1951.

Fr Emil Kapaun

  • AnthonyPatrick

    What an inspirational priest! A true and faithful servant of the Church and of his fellow men in their hours of need. Why did it take so long for such service to be recognized by his own country?

  • wondering

    beautiful story- but why did Father not dress in his collar?

  • Michael Marsh

    Theres something wrong with this story. Where is all the anti-Catholic comments? Hopefully there will not be any.

  • Joe

    Already one dumb comment about why this brave priest is not wearing his collar…
    In fact I have seen pictures of him with his collar on, – but in combat or in prison you are given a certain attire to wear. I am ‘wondering’ why some people lack common sense.

  • Andrew Young

    Because military uniform for chaplains in the US Forces is shirt and tie. His clergy status is marked by the cross on his lapel. If a picture of him not wearing a collar is the only comment you can make having read the heroic story of Christian witness this man lived out among his fellow abused prisoners of war, then I feel sorry for you.

  • U.S.

    More than one Catholic U.S. military chaplain has received the Medal of Honor. I believe that so far, Catholics are the only denomination or religion to have received it for having served as Chaplain.

  • wondering

    First of all I did not know that the tie was the proper dress for his status so you assumed I was trying to be rude- I was not. The story is very touching and Father is very brave- If you read my comment I asked a question I did not accuse!

  • wondering

    First of all I did not know that the tie was the proper dress for his status so you assumed I was trying to be rude- I was not. The story is very touching and Father is very brave- If you read my comment I asked a question I did not accuse

  • Augustine

    Catholics are not a “denomination”; we are the Church.

  • JoyInTheLord

    Truth, love, and beauty are alien to muck and vitriol. They do not mix.

  • Thomas Gallagher

    No. One Protestant chaplain has been awarded the Medal of Honor, and five Catholic priests. The first priest was Cmdr. Joseph T. O’Callahan, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroic lifesaving and firefighting as well as for giving Last Rites to dying sailors, aboard the aircraft carrier USS Princeton off Okinawa in 1945. Three Catholic chaplains got the Medal of Honor in Vietnam, two posthumously. Father Kapaun’s Medal, however, seems to be in a special category. In Korea in 1950, he endured enemy fire repeatedly, stayed behind with frontline soldiers who were about to be captured, and helped carry wounded men along a death march into captivity, when their failure to keep up with the line of march meant certain death. Then in a prison camp he tended the wounded, stole food for malnourished men, repeatedly encouraged officer-prisoners to remain strong and hopeful (several have credited their survival to his encouragement and example) and then, when he was carried to a Death House to be left to die without food or drink, he prayed for the souls of his captors! This was saintly heroism beyond the understanding of most of us, and his cause for sainthood goes forward, with two miracles already on record. But . . . Catholic blog-sites in the USA have virtually ignored the awarding of the Medal of Honor to his family. Thank you, Catholic Herald, for remembering. By the way, Catholic chaplains in the US do not wear a dog collar, but rather the same tie worn by other officers.

  • Paul

    I’m a Catholic, a military vet… and a former seminarian… and I understand your confusion. The standard for Catholic priests is to where clerics but it’s standard for all military chaplains (including non-Catholic chaplains) to where a uniform with their specific religion indicated with a pin on their collar.

  • Paul

    Is it his way of honoring a Catholic priest or else showing Catholics that their priority needs to be in serving their government?

  • El_Tigre_Loco

    I am awed by Fr Kapaun’s actions.

    I am also awed by BHO inserting himself in the story:

    “Obama said Fr Kapaun’s background reminded him of his own grandfather’s.”

    And why now? I smell an attempt to placate the Catholic Church which the government is simultaneously trying to destroy.

    Give me a break.

  • Juanita

    What a holy priest Father Kapaun was. His story is one of courage and selfless LOVE.

  • Ted

    Another great example of the power of Christ in a life dedicated to him. Let us all take from this story and strive for Holiness and pray to Father Kapuan so that we can fulfill our duties faithfully as well.

  • Ted

    I will take you at your word but you have to understand that today their is an air of criticism for Catholics and it is very tiring. The Lord is moving in hearts and we need to be open and asking him daily to see the good in all situations. Your comment was innocent as you said and hopefully now you can pray to Father Kapaun to intercede for you to become a saint as well in the place where God has you. Yours in JMJ

  • Michael Marsh

    Amen to that.

  • sharon

    Beautiful man of God what an example of a life that served our Lord.

  • JoyInTheLord

    Thank you for the info, Thomas. I have not really read his life story yet but it sure makes a happy Catholic out of me, thankful that this man, Fr Kapaun, offered himself to God with a big YES so that CHRiST can continuously work through him.

    I am not quite happy though about the ‘dog collar’ you wrote at the end of your post. To me, it is a symbol of oblation, and must be regarded with respect. As to the Catholic blogs virtually ignoring him, maybe not really. With so much misinformation about the Catholic Faith out there, the blogs are busily trying to set the records straight.

    Fr Kapaun, pray for us!

  • Pope Zicola

    That is a valid point.

  • brasil_nut_4u

    Now if only that American President could take lead after this tremendous Catholic priest and learn the value of sacrifice… or at least imprint the definition in his self-centered, narcissistic head.. the World and America would is a much better place…

  • brasil_nut_4u

    Perhaps because Father was a U.S. Military Chaplain… all chaplains in the United States and Canada wear the military uniform of the branch of service they minister to… as a piece of trivial they get a rifleman, hopefully a marksman or better yet a sharp shooter, to defend them because according to the Geneva Convention NO CHAPLAIN (regardless of faith tradition) is to carry a weapon!

  • brasil_nut_4u

    Actually as stated … Chaplains in the United States must wear the uniform of the service branch they minister to… it is NOT a shirt and tie but whatever uniform of the branch… Catholic priest, for the most, are they only ones in the United State that wear clerics or the Roman Collar … so unless he is serving as a Veteran’s Hospital Chaplain he must wear a uniform

  • brasil_nut_4u

    Actually all military chaplains wear the uniform of the service branch they minister to (i.e. the uniform of the Army, Air Force or Navy — in which he [the chaplain] can opt to wear the uniform of a US Marine or US Coast Guard he serves on the base or camp). And if you don’t mind being corrected… there are many other Chaplains, Catholic and Protestant that have received this honor… he is just the latest this honor has been extended to… Military Chaplains of all faith traditions are strong solid men/women… just seems that the Christian ones (priest and ministers) take on Christ in their mission and therefore the story of their lives are worth honoring!

  • Pope Zicola

    Phew!
    Are we relieved and delighted that you said: ‘We are THE Church’ rather than that dumb-dumb declaration from the Clown Mass Brigade ‘We are Church’.
    That ‘we are Church’ rubbish was something I heard the other day… but that’s another story.
    I came across the story of Fr Kapaun’s exemplary service to the Roman Catholic Church and Country some months ago on two pretty good, right-on-the-money American Roman Catholic websites. What a real morale booster and inspiration to US Roman Catholics in their fight for their freedoms and liberty in accordance with their faith and their constitution.
    Here in the UK, we really don’t know the half of it – or allowed to know the half of it!
    What sickens me, though, is that President Obama is the US President of the day who has been charged with presenting the medal.
    Obama is the US President responsible for forcing through laws which are in direct conflict with Church teaching – in spite of concerns and protestations about this. Whilst the wider western world has been busy telling this emperor that he’s wearing the finest designer clothes (including our media), few of us on the ground are tired and sore-throated with yelling that he is not a very good president.
    To see a photo of Obama handle Fr Kapaun’s stole in his hands is …. ugh!
    Whatever about the United State’s highest honour, a higher honour will come to Fr Kapaun in God’s good time.
    Canonisation into the communion of Saints who would be filled with joy to welcome him there.
    Now THAT is something Obama can neither grandstand nor have the power to bestow…
    … try as he might!

  • Mainely Brit

    Dear Wondering,
    I think the person in the photo with Mr Obama might be Father’s nephew. Father himself died in the prison camp in 1951.