This Army Chaplain Literally Stood in the Line of Fire

Meet Emil Kapaun, the army chaplain who stood in the line of fire to help others.

Though we were both born in Kansas 68 years apart, I am honored to share a number of connections with someone on the path toward sainthood named Emil Kapaun.

There is the fact that he grew up on a farm and learned early the value of hard work. While my childhood home was not on a farm, I grew up around the farms of my grandparents and multiple aunts and uncles, so I certainly developed an appreciation for the discipline and sacrifice of farming.

Second, Emil’s faith was strong — it is what eventually led him to the priesthood. For a time, I discerned priesthood myself and count those as very blessed years that have made me a better husband and father. 

Finally, the Korean War is part of our mutual histories. My paternal grandfather was a soldier in that war, and Emil served as a chaplain to troops stationed there. It is from this period that we see his heroism displayed most dramatically, but it seems to me that his whole life led him to the point where he was able to answer God’s call in such an inspiring way.

As I deepened my knowledge of his story, I came to admire his true courage under fire and his zeal for what he found God calling him to do. The connections we share help me see him as a fellow Kansan, which gives me hope that any one of us has the capacity within us to give as much as Emil did when we discover God’s call for our lives.

Farmers share a special connection to the Creator, and I imagine that Emil learned the lessons of working hard and cooperating with God’s grace to produce a harvest. God brings all life into being, and we are sustained even now by God’s loving care. A farmer stakes his or her life on that conviction, watching the weather and the crops closely throughout the growing and harvesting seasons. But God eventually called Emil out of farming to the priesthood, where his efforts would yield souls instead of grain.

After his ordination, Father Kapaun served as a chaplain during World War II and then the Korean War. This form of ministry obviously held very real hazards, but by the accounts that he left behind, Father Kapaun was inflamed by a desire to serve those in his care during the most difficult times in their lives.

Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Father Kapaun did not know if or when the day would come when he would be asked to make such an act, but he often put himself in harm’s way to fulfill his mission of ministering to the troops. 

His bravery in a specific moment, the Battle of Unsan, would gain him a posthumous awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor. A citation from the U.S. Army describes his heroism during that battle: 

As Chinese Communist forces encircled the battalion, Kapaun moved fearlessly from foxhole to foxhole under direct enemy fire in order to provide comfort and reassurance to the outnumbered Soldiers. He repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to recover wounded men, dragging them to safety. When he couldn’t drag them, he dug shallow trenches to shield them from enemy fire. As Chinese forces closed in, Kapaun rejected several chances to escape, instead volunteering to stay behind and care for the wounded. He was taken as a prisoner of war by Chinese forces on Nov. 2, 1950.

Eventually, Father Kapaun would indeed lay down his life for others. As a prisoner of war, he accompanied his unit on a bitterly cold, 60-mile march to a prison camp, and he spent seven months confined there. Though faced with incredibly harsh conditions himself, Father Kapaun spent his days and efforts caring for any and all in need. He snuck around after dark to look for food and to give encouragement. On Easter Sunday of 1951, he openly celebrated a sunrise Mass in defiance of the guards.

His actions were so profound and impactful that many of his fellow prisoners credited Father Kapaun with their survival. His own illness and lack of proper medical care led to his death on May 23, 1951 — he died praying for God’s forgiveness for his captors.

After his death, more and more stories began to surface about Father Kapaun. He not only cared for the physical needs of his fellow prisoners, he tended to their spiritual and emotional needs as well during the tremendously difficult experience of war. Because of these witnesses, the Catholic Church began an investigation into Father Kapaun’s life. In 1983, he was designated as a Servant of God, the first step on the path to becoming a canonized saint.

Recently, Father Kapaun’s remains were identified and then returned to his home state of Kansas for the proper funeral rites. It is the most recent in what we hope is an increasing number of events that will spread the word about Father Kapaun’s life of virtue and sacrifice and further his cause for canonization. That will take prayer and time, but if it is God’s will, it will certainly happen. 

Though I hope I never find myself in the midst of a war, Father Kapaun reminds me to be ready at all times to answer God’s call, no matter where that leads. For him, that meant leaving the fields of Kansas to live and die on the battlefields of a foreign land. The situation of my own life might be less dramatic than a prisoner-of-war camp, but I hope to carry his trust in God’s love and hopeful resilience wherever God leads me. 

Where is God calling each of us to go? What might we be asked to sacrifice? Will we have the strength to give it? No matter the challenges we face, we can take confidence in the example of Father Kapaun, who shows us that God can do amazing things even in the midst of the worst of circumstances.

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