The following comes from a January 13 Christian Review article by Peter LaFave:
“If you don’t straighten out your marriage when the war’s over, I’ll come down from Heaven and kick you in the ass”.
~Fr. Emil Kapuan to a fellow POW, before being led to the infamous “death house” in North Korea’s Pyoktong prison camp.
It was through sheer grit, Faith, and humor that Father Kapaun inspired hundreds of fellow captives through imprisonment in one of North Korea’s most infamous POW camps in 1951, and it is estimated that he saved several hundred lives before ultimately losing his own. Now, the Vatican is taking a close look at the Pilsen, Kansas native and Medal of Honor recipient, and considering his case for sainthood.
Born on Holy Thursday, April 20, 1916, on a farm in Pilsen, KS (population 100), Emil Kapaun was raised in a devout household, where he tended the family farm, and attended seminary before entering the Army Chaplain core and deployed in 1950 to the perilous front lines of war-torn Korea.
On All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1950, Father Kapaun had just finished saying Mass on the hood of a jeep, and was hearing confessions when the explosions started. Within the hour, his company was overrun by scores of Chinese shock troops, who swept through the American’s mountain positions like wildfire. Though he had the opportunity to fall back with his main division, Father Kapaun volunteered to stay behind to aid the wounded and pray with the dying. By nightfall, he was a captive.
By the time Father Kapaun and his fellow prisoners reached Pyoktong, the notorious prison camp along the North Korean border, the cluster of squalid, ramshackle barracks was already home to over 1,000 allied prisoners, though it was hardly suited for the approaching winter. Not long after Kapaun’s arrival, the temperature plunged to twenty below zero. At night, the men were huddled together for warmth, sleeping with their feet in each other’s armpits to avoid frostbite. It was common for men to wake up to find that the man next to them had succumbed to hypothermia during the night, and some would commit suicide by rolling away from a cellmate’s body heat during the night.
Morale could not have been lower, but Father Kapaun wasted no time in ministering to the disheartened POWs.
When a violent wave of dysentery swept through the overcrowded camp, he made a daily chore of rising before dawn and boiling water to bathe the sick and wash their soiled clothes, telling stories and jokes to lighten the men’s spirits.
He began saying Mass in secret, saving what little bread morsels he had for communion hosts and gave spiritual talks to the non-Catholic POWs, urging them to pray for their captors and preaching often on the power of forgiveness.
By the spring of 1951, the prisoners noticed that their beloved chaplain was becoming weaker by the day. In May, after months of selfless aid to the sick and dying, he developed pneumonia and a dangerous blood clot in his leg. His captors, whom he had frustrated since his arrival, seized on the opportunity to finally dispose of him, and assigned him to an isolation hut with no heat, where the seriously ill were “quarantined,” essentially receiving no rations or medical attention. Nicknamed “the Death Hut” by the prisoners, very few men made it out alive.
As the guards were leading him away, the men realized it was the last they’d ever see of the man who had saved so many of their lives. Kapaun urged his comrades—many of them weeping—not to be sorry for him, “I am going to be with Jesus Christ. And that is what I have worked for all my life.”
On May 23, 1951, Father Emil Kapaun breathed his last.
[i] “The Miracle of Father Kapaun” Pg. 50, Roy Wenzel and Travis Heying, Ignatius Press, 2013