JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM –
In 1950, they simply knew him as “padre.” They have since referred to him as the bravest man they’ve ever known, their hope, their idol, their savior, and have even called him “God’s man.” He’s attributed to saving their lives, both literally and figuratively. He performed miracles during some of the darkest moments in history, when all hope had been lost. It may be called the “forgotten war,” but they will ensure his name is remembered by all.
U.S. Army Chaplain (Capt.) Emil J. Kapaun, truly led his life by example. He returned to service as a military chaplain in 1949, after already having served during World War II. This commitment put him in harm’s way again, as the Korean War began, and he was sent to the front lines. It was there he began to earn respect and admiration from his fellow soldiers, as he risked his life continuously to minister and provide aide to the wounded.
“I was enlisted, so I knew of Father out on the front lines,” said Robert McGreevy, Korean War veteran and former prisoner of war. “Bullets were flying everywhere, but he still went out and took care of the dying. He was the bravest man I ever knew.”
During the Battle of Unsan in November of 1950, Chaplain Kapaun’s unit was overrun and they retreated to safety, but he insisted on staying behind to help the wounded, dying and those who could not help themselves. Because of that, he was captured and taken to a prisoner of war camp more than 60 miles away. Along the way, Chaplain Kapaun continued to help the wounded and encouraged others to do the same. He urged his fellow soldiers to do the right thing in the face of what they presumed to be certain death.
“Father saved our lives, really,” McGreevy said. “He kept morale up; told us not to give up hope. Everyone who knew him idolized him in those moments.”
Chaplain Kapaun consistently taught the men at the prison camp what it means to live selflessly. He continued to care for, comfort and encourage the men. He risked his own life time and time again by stealing food or medicine from the guards, or offering his own daily rations to his fellow prisoners in order to keep them alive longer. McGreevy said every man who was with him in that camp has preached for more than 70 years that Chaplain Kapaun was a true hero, a “miracle man.”
After more than six months at the prison camp, Chaplain Kapaun’s deteriorated health and malnutrition caused him to develop pneumonia, which he never recovered from. He died on May 23, 1951. The men who did make it out of Prison Camp #5 alive whole-heartedly believe it was because of their padre, McGreevy said.
Despite Chaplain Kapaun being buried at the camp and classified as unaccounted-for, for decades after, he left that camp by way of the survivors, in a manner of speaking. They shared his story as often as they could, and told the world how their lives were saved because of him.
“I can’t thank the POWs enough,” said Ray Kapaun, Chaplain Kapaun’s nephew. “They came out of that camp and told his story. If not for them Father Emil [Chaplain Kapuan] would have been another unknown soldier, but they gave him his legacy. They basically gave me my uncle, they let me see what my uncle was and what kind of life he led. I can’t give them enough thanks and praise.”
And Chaplain Kapaun’s legacy did grow. In 1993, Chaplain Kapaun was officially named a Servant of God, which began his road to sainthood. In 2008, the Cause for the Canonization of Chaplain Kapaun was officially launched. In 2013, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Ray accepted the honor from President Barack Obama on his uncle’s behalf. And in 2015, Chaplain Kapaun’s formal life story and works (called the “Positio”) was officially sent up to the Congregation for Saints in Rome. The congregation was getting ready to vote on Chaplain Kapaun’s advancement to the next step of sainthood just before the pandemic hit, which paused the process.
In May of 2021, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) announced that Chaplain Kapaun’s remains had been positively identified. His remains had previously been interred in a grave marked “unknown” at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu in 1956, and had been disinterred in 2019 as part of DPAA’s Korean War Disinterment Project. Chaplain Kapaun was finally accounted for. Ray and his family traveled to the DPAA facility at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii for a chain of custody ceremony on September 21, 2021, which began Chaplain Kapaun’s final journey home after more than 70 years.
“To actually be here and have the honor to meet him and to lay my hands on his bones when he’s never been seen, but so widely known, it’s just exhilaration, it’s happiness, it’s tugging and ripping your heart out,” Ray said. “It’s everything, but sad.”
Ray said until her dying day his grandmother never gave up hope that her son would be home one day. She never stopped believing, praying that he would return. He is overjoyed to be able to be the one to finally grant his grandmother’s wish.
As dozens of service members lined up to salute Chaplain Kapaun as he departed the DPAA facility, Ray’s eyes filled with tears. Despite feeling like the closing of a long chapter in their family’s history book, Ray said he doesn’t see this moment as closure to his uncle’s story.
“Closure has kind of a sad meaning,” Ray said. “To me, it’s a continuation of his legacy, a growing of his legacy. Now, more people are going to know what Father Emil [Chaplain Kapaun] did, more people are going to know how he lived his life.”
In fact, Ray hopes the monumental news of his beloved uncle returning home after all these decades will help shed light on Chaplain Kapaun’s canonization process, and maybe even expedite the process a bit. McGreevy agreed.
“It’s a wonderful miracle they were able to find him, so this is a way to share his legacy,” McGreevy said. “Everyone who knows Father sees him as a saint already. I just pray every day it happens in my lifetime. He was God’s man.”
In the meantime, the Kapaun family is honored to escort Chaplain Kapaun home to Kansas and give him the honorable burial he so deserves. As a true testament to his impact on the world, several thousand seats were reserved for those who wanted to honor Chaplain Kapaun at the September 29th funeral in Wichita. A ceremony that the now 90-year-old McGreevy said he would walk all the way from Maryland to attend.
“I think the greatest thing for me is the POWs who are still alive can finally say that their padre is coming home,” Ray said.