The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

National and world

April 6, 2013

Rev. Emil Kapaun was a hero to many in Korean War

In the cold, barren hills of Korea more than 60 years ago, two teary-eyed soldiers stood in a prisoner of war camp where their chaplain lay dying.

The Rev. Emil Kapaun was weak, his body wracked by pneumonia and dysentery. After six brutal months in the hellish camp, the once sturdy Kansas farmer’s son could take no more. Thousands of soldiers already had died, some starving, others freezing to death. Now the end was near for the chaplain.

Lt. Mike Dowe said goodbye to the man who’d given him hope during those terrible days. The young West Point grad cried, even as the chaplain, he says, tried to comfort him with his parting words: “Hey, Mike, don’t worry about me. I’m going to where I always wanted to go and I’ll say a prayer for all of you.”

Lt. Robert Wood wept, too, watching the Roman Catholic chaplain bless and forgive his captors. He helped carry Kapaun out of the mud hut and up a hill on a stretcher after Chinese soldiers ordered he be moved to a hospital, a wretched, maggot-filled place the POWs dubbed “the death house.” There was little or no medical care there. Kapaun died on May 23, 1951.

These two soldiers — and many more — never forgot their chaplain. Not his courage in swatting away an enemy soldier pointing a gun at a GI’s head. Not his talent for stealing food, then sneaking it to emaciated troops. Not the inspiring way he rallied his “boys,” as he called them, urging them to keep their spirits up.

The plain-spoken, pipe-smoking, bike-riding chaplain was credited with saving hundreds of soldiers during the Korean War. Kapaun received the Distinguished Service Cross and many other medals. His exploits were chronicled in books, magazines and a TV show. A high school was named for him. His statue stands outside his former parish in tiny Pilsen, Kan.

But one award, the Medal of Honor, always remained elusive.

Dowe and other POWs had lobbied on and off for years, writing letters, doing interviews, enlisting support on Capitol Hill. Dowe’s recommendation was turned down in the 1950s.The campaign stalled, then picked up steam decades later.

Kapaun’s “boys” grew old — their determination did not. Now it has finally paid off.

On April 11, those two young lieutenants, Dowe and Wood, now 85 and 86, will join their comrades, Kapaun’s family and others at the White House where President Barack Obama will award the legendary chaplain the Medal of Honor posthumously.

“It is about time,” Dowe said.

Even now, Father Kapaun’s story still may have one final chapter: sainthood.

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