Among the dying, Capt. Emil Kapaun traded his watch for a blanket at a North Korean prison camp—and cut the blanket up and made it into socks for fellow prisoners.
President Obama awarded Kapaun (pronounced Ka-PAWN), an Army chaplain who died in that prison camp in 1951 at age 35, the Medal of Honor Thursday.
The son of Czech immigrants to a small Kansan town, Kapaun enlisted during WWII and was dispatched to the Southeast Asian theatre of war, where he gained a reputation for just appearing wherever the fighting was.
He returned home, received a masters in education from Catholic University, and picked up as a parish priest in Pilsen, Kan. But Kapaun reupped for military service in 1948.
“Serving in those parishes…it didn’t work out,” Kapaun told a fellow prisoner in the bleakness of the North Korean camp. “I mean…my God, Bob! Have you ever had to deal with one of those women’s committees of a church Altar Society?”
In Korea, Kapaun resumed his constant presence under duress. When enemy fire rendered his jeep inoperable, he took to riding a bicycle along the front lines. One of his fellow prisoners, Ray M. Dowe, Jr., wrote in the Saturday Evening Post in 1954 about the chaplain’s rides:
Helmet jammed down over his ears, pockets stuffed with apples and peaches he had scrounged from Korean orchards, he’d ride this bone-shaker over the rocky roads and the paths through the paddy fields until he came to the forward outposts. There he’d drop in a shallow hole beside a nervous rifleman, crack a joke or two, hand him a peach, say a little prayer with him and move on to the next hole.
Kapaun was awarded the Bronze Star in Korea for heroism in August 1950—the chaplain ran through enemy fire, dragging soldiers to safety—months before his detention.
But he was captured, uninjured, by the Chinese military in 1950, after refusing to leave wounded soldiers. The chaplain pushed away the weapon of a Chinese soldier standing over an American with a broken ankle, and the two were taken on the Tiger Death March to a North Korean prison camp, Pyoktong, with Kapaun carrying the solider for a time.
At Pyoktong, prisoners lived on less than 500 grams of millet a day and might die at three or four a night in a room.
Kapaun turned old t-shirts into bandages, and snuck out to wash old bandages and old garments for the suffering. He was called “The Good Thief,” delivering stolen food retrieved on trips inside guards’ areas. He recited American menus for starving prisoners, and led officers in “America, the Beautiful” and the national anthem (“God Save the Queen” for Brits in the camp). He fixed leaking water pouches with burned down soles of rubber boots; held a sunrise Easter Mass; and became a huge pain in the ass for Chinese guards trying to indoctrinate the prisoners, calling the Communists liars and mocking them:
“Where is your God now?” guards demanded.
“Right here,” he replied.
(Walt) Mayo one day heard a Chinese officer lecture Kapaun.
“Don’t ask God for your daily bread,” the officer said. “Ask Mao Zedong. He’s the one who provides your daily bread.”
“If this is an example of God’s daily bread,” Kapaun said, “then God must be a terrible baker.”
“He joked with them, and said prayers for them, and held them in his arms like children as delirium came upon them,” Dowe wrote in 1954. “But the main thing he did for them was to put into their hearts the will to live. For when you are wounded and sick and starving, it’s easy to give up and quietly die.”
Kapaun fell ill in the spring of 1951. Despite an apparently improved condition, guards took him away to a dingy, dark building to die alone. En route, Kapaun asked God to forgive the Chinese guards.
“Tell them back home that I died a happy death,” he told fellow soldiers.
Kapaun was declared a “servant of God” by the Catholic Church, considered a precursor to sainthood.
“People had lost a great deal of their civility,” Robert Wood told the Washington Post of the camp. “We were stacking the bodies outside where they were frozen like cordwood and here is this one man — in all of this chaos — who has kept . . . principles.”