Father Emil Kapaun, Shepherd in Combat Boots

Kapaun one day walked into a hut and took an apparently dying prisoner in his arms. Chester Osborne Jr. was one of Moose McClain and Dowe’s closest friends, but they saw, with eyes trained by experience, that he would die soon. Kapaun cradled Osborne in his arms, laid Osborne’s head on his shoulder. Kapaun then bluntly told Osborne to quit dying.

As a “precaution” he told him, “I’ll give you the last rites, just in case.” But he told Osborne to fight harder for his life. Then he prayed, for about five minutes.

Osborne rallied. This surprised everybody in that hut.

Most men died quickly when they got that sick, and a lot of men got sick now.

(Roy Wenzl, “The Miracle of Father Kapaun”)


Beginning Sunday, December 6, 2009, The Wichita Eagle published an eight part series called “The Miracle of Father Kapaun” in eight consecutive editions of the daily newspaper. The Eagle, owned by the McClatchy Company, had devoted dozens of articles over the years honoring a courageous Korean War chaplain who grew up on a farm in Pilsen, a Czech community not too far north of Wichita. Although much had been written about the Servant of God, Father Emil J. Kapaun, including several books, no story had yet gone into depth about the effect the priest had on his fellow troops during his four months of heroic service on the battlefield and six months of hell as a prisoner of war at Pyoktong, North Korea, near the Chinese border. At the insistence of Tom Shine, a deputy editor for the newspaper, award-winning journalist Roy Wenzl took up the challenge and wrote an incredible in-depth account of a super human chaplain that should win the Shepherd in Combat Boots (title of William Maher’s biography) the Medal of Honor, which he so rightly deserves, and, on a far higher plane, the honor of sainthood. (A reported miracle of healing through Father Kapaun’s intercession is now under investigation in the case of Chase Kear, whose astounding recovery from a mortal injury is recorded here.)

1In order to write his account Wenzl had to move fast. With the help of an army historian he compiled names and addresses of fellow POWs and other soldiers who knew Father Kapaun in Korea. Then he had to arrange interviews before their stories were buried with them in the grave. With a videographer, he traveled to five different states getting first hand accounts from the survivors of Pyoktong and other Korean War vets who witnessed the chaplain’s exploits on the battlefield.

Hope is the virtue his fellow soldiers and prisoners remember him insisting upon most when pain, frostbite, disease, starvation, and death were daily fare at the hands of merciless Chinese Reds. Bob McGreevy would watch Father Kapaun make the rounds around the prison camp, praying with those who would join him, hearing others’ confessions, and giving out some parched corn. Sometimes the corn was so coarse it scratched the intestines of the starving soldiers, causing intense pain; but it would keep them alive if they chewed it well and gulped it down. Father that he was, Kapaun would gather the men together in huddles and beg them to eat: “Don’t let your families down. Stay alive! Whatever else you do keep eating.” Most did; others despaired, and died. Starvation in the hellhole was horrific. When things were at their worse, soldiers huddled next to corpses, pretending to keep themselves warm by mutual body heat, all so that the guards would keep up with the same rations. The utterly desperate picked undigested corn from frozen feces, boiled them in snow water in a tin cup over a hidden fire, anything to stay alive.


Father Emil was remembered as a holy priest in his home parish of Saint John Nepomucene in Pilsen, where he was assigned after ordination to assist an elderly pastor. The Bohemian parishioners, of course, knew him as one of their own. Often times he would preach in their native Czech language. When he didn’t, the older folk resented it. When he did, the non-Czechs and younger generation resented it. His sermons, which he always wrote out in English, were challenging and inspirational. Here is a sampling of his words of wisdom taken from the Father Kapaun website:

Saints were much different than the ideas we have from worldly things. Their values were true and lasting values, not the passing, trivial things of this world.

If there is anything pleasing to God it is a sincere and devout prayer.

John (the Baptist) was a strong character — he was not a reed shaken with the wind. He stood up for the truth; he did not change his mind as the days went along, and he proved his caliber later by giving his life because he dared to stick to the truth.

Of ourselves we have nothing. Of ourselves we are nothing.

First of all we must be humble enough to acknowledge that we are too poor to help ourselves and are in great need of help.

My purpose is not to present a biographical sketch of Father Kapaun’s whole  life, but to highlight some of the major events in Roy Wenzl’s account of his mission in Korea. To better appreciate that some background information will be helpful. My source for much of what follows is William L. Maher’s book, A Shepherd in Combat Boots. It can be purchased from our bookstore here.

The life of a parish priest in the town where he had grown up was very difficult for Father Kapaun. Hard as he tried, he felt he was more of an obstacle than an asset. The relationship with his flock (which included about forty-six Czech families) was too personal, and there was nothing he could do about that. In the eyes of his elders, he was still the son of Enos and Bessie. His own generation of classmates and friends would have respected him greatly even had he not become a priest, but he was still Emil, and it was practically impossible for the young, warm-hearted curate to maintain the proper reserve and detachment that would fortify his spiritual authority.

Chaplain Emil Kapaun

World War II was raging and the twenty-eight year-old priest asked his bishop’s permission to enlist his services as an army chaplain. Permission granted, he was received into the army in August, 1944. An interesting aside is that the young chaplain received his military training at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. Devens is almost in the backyard of Saint Benedict Center, Still River; it’s the monastery’s next-door neighbor to the west. Father Kapaun brought with him into the service many practical mechanical and carpentry skills, which he had learned from his father living the poor life on a farm. Needless to say, he also brought the experiential knowledge of agriculture and animal husbandry, knowledge that served him well in dealing with the native peoples of the Far East.

After training, Father Kapaun was sent to Burma where he served the troops and people during the last months of the world war. At this time the Nationalist Chinese were our allies and they were grateful for American support in fighting the Japanese. Four years later, after the Communists defeated the Nationals, the situation was drastically reversed. By 1950, Americans were expelled from the country, or imprisoned, while the Reds consolidated power and spread revolutionary Marxist doctrine beyond their border into North Korea. The Russians were also giving military training, ammunition, machine guns, artillery, and tanks to the North Koreans. While doing pastoral work in the rugged mountain lands of Burma, Father Kapaun met hundreds of missionary priests, brothers, and sisters. He loved working with them and seriously considered entering Saint Columban’s Mission Society. These were very happy days for our priest, and so was part of the year 1946, when the war’s end brought him a promotion to captain and a chaplaincy assignment to India. When he returned to the United States, Father Kapaun’s bishop sent him to earn a masters degree at Catholic University in Washington. In 1948, after helping out at a couple of parishes (including a brief return to his first parish in Kansas) he rejoined the military and was sent to Japan. In July, 1950, he was ordered to go to Korea, one month after the Communist North had crossed the 38th parallel and invaded the South.


War in Korea

2General Douglas McArthur was in charge of the U.S. forces in the East. He preferred his own First Calvary Division, the “best” regiment in the army, which he headed in WWII, but decided to take that division’s commissioned officers and place them in charge of other divisions. These would make the advance guard that would be the first Americans to arrive in Korea along with a contingent of UN troops under American command. Meanwhile, in Japan, Father Kapaun’s Eight Cavalry continued more intense training, waiting for the inevitable call.

When that call came in mid-July Father Kapaun accompanied an amphibious assault that included about 10,000 troops and 2000 jeeps and tanks. Unfortunately these soldiers were unprepared, as were those already in Korea. The North’s forces vastly outnumbered the combined U.N. and South Korean troops and the communists were driving south with the resistance in retreat. Equipment was not working, vehicles were breaking down, and  monsoon season was in full swing, which meant that communication was disrupted. Father Kapaun had thought that victory would come swiftly and the real enemy, the Russian Reds, would be totally humiliated. With this hope he had written to his brother and sister: “We are expecting plenty of resistance from the Russians. It hardly seems possible that we are actually going to war. I hope we will be strong enough to put the Russians in their place.”

The Eighth Calvary had made it to the front lines by the end of July, but the superior manpower of the enemy was having a devastating effect on the troops. Chaplain Kapaun distinguished himself from the start by bravely running from one post to another assisting the wounded, hearing confessions, and occasionally saying Mass from a makeshift altar. However, it was a losing battle, the front was falling back and the men were in disarray physically and emotionally. Death was everywhere. “This fighting,” he wrote home, “is nerve-wracking. Many of my soldiers crack up — they go insane and scream like madmen. It seems like a dream. I don’t know if I will live through the day or night. We are close to heaven, but really we are more like in hell. . . . This war!! What a hard thing to understand.”


It Seemed Like a Lost Cause

The heat was in excess of 100 degrees and the water supply was running out. In desperation men would drink from stagnant ponds and end up paying the price with dysentery. The terrain, mountains and hill after craggy hill, made it all the worse. Roads, being unpaved, were impossible in the rain for most vehicles to travel on. Soldiers moved on foot and boots wore out fast. Most of the American soldiers who died actually died from disease and exhaustion. Father Kapaun somehow kept his strength even if he had nothing to eat for days. He would race from one hold out to another, many miles away, risking his life, darting up hills — “like a mountain goat,” to quote one army doctor who worked in his unit. All the soldiers in all the units on the front knew him, by sight and reputation; he seemed ubiquitous. He would always ask a soldier he didn’t know for his name, and he had a gift for remembering them all. What was really tough on the soldiers’ spirits was that they began to realize how few they were in comparison to the Communists. In fact, they were outnumbered fifteen to one. The enemy was everywhere, to the right to the left, in front and behind; they never knew when or where they’d be surprised, at night or at dawn, they just never knew.


A Priest and a Hero’s Hero

Father Kapaun often insisted on offering Mass even in the most dangerous areas. Once when mortar shells were exploding only 150 yards away he just kept on praying the Mass. The Catholic soldiers were so impressed by his fearlessness that they stayed with him until Mass was complete. This happened numerous times, as testified by his troops, and he was always serene and calm as he prayed, and no one was ever hurt while attending the chaplain’s Masses.

Another cavalryman, Lieutenant William A. McClain, who became a POW with Father Kapaun, told of the chaplain’s bravery during battle:

“He seemed to appear from nowhere during a combat operation and stay long enough to perform his duties and then disappear. He was never bothered by enemy mortar and small arms fire coming into the vicinity of where he was helping others. He would conduct religious services whenever possible.

“He expressed no fear of the enemy and stories of his brave deeds of dragging soldiers to safety, tending to their wounds and suffering circulated among the officers and men. How many lives were saved because of him? Only God knows for sure. His exposure to the terrible combat operations was for him, I believe, a dress rehearsal, for what followed.”

Father Kapaun’s jeep was hit so many times with bullets and shrapnel that it finally bit the dust. He had to abandon it and use a bicycle to get around the battlefield. His Mass kit was also pelted twice and the utensils and little chalice were too battered to fix. South Korean priests gave him a third kit, the essentials of which he decided to carry inside his leather jacket with his chalice tied to his belt. Nothing could stop Father Kapaun from offering Mass. His soldiers needed the graces, and so did he.

One time a report came in about a wounded soldier who was left on the front because there were no litters left to carry him. Kapaun asked for his location. He and an assistant then dashed ahead to rescue the man with no thought for their own safety. Machine gun and small arms fire sprayed bullets all around them. They found the wounded soldier and carried him back to camp and saved his life. For this particular act of heroism (almost routine for the chaplain) Father Kapaun was awarded the Bronze Star.

Braving the battlefield, often crawling on his hands and knees, Chaplain Kapaun was always searching for the wounded. He kept his guardian angel busy with so many close calls. A bullet once clipped the pipe in his mouth right in half. He was unfazed. He picked up the half-pipe, smiled, and took a good drag. Another time a shell nicked his helmet and knocked it off his head. Not even a scratch. The chaplain had his share of minor wounds, however. He got hit in the elbow once and the bone was seriously damaged. Every time he picked up a pen after that, he wrote awkwardly, and in pain.

One thing that Father Kapaun insisted on was giving the dead a proper burial. Even during a battle he and others would go out afterwards to bury the dead. He would do this, when he could, even for the North Koreans.

The retreat continued and the death count mounted. South Koreans were everywhere on the run for their lives. Women, children, and the elderly were lucky to find any shelter. All the young men were fighting in the advanced guard and the number of widows and orphans grew by the thousands.


A Brief Turn for the Better

Finally, by autumn, supply units were able to reach the troops and strengthen them physically and militarily. Food, ammunition, jeeps, and, most important of all, clean water were at hand. The wounded were taken away to Japan for treatment. The First Calvary received a large number of re-enforcements and a better-trained contingent was dropped off behind enemy lines. For the first time, the North Koreans found themselves in a bad spot, as the forces for freedom pressed them from both ends. Rumors were floating around, however, that were very disturbing. The generals kept denying them, but they still filtered through: The Chinese had entered the war and had crossed from Manchuria into Korea. They were well armed and they were as countless as a locust swarm.

Meanwhile, the American troops were moving quickly north. Father Kapaun was with the First Calvary when its battalions made it across the 38th parallel into North Korea, making it all the way to the abandoned capital of Pyongyang. They rendezvoused again with the Eighth not long afterwards. Father Kapaun was able to offer Mass every morning, hear hours of confessions, baptize some converts, and give instruction and First Communion to non-practicing Catholics.  A false security was taking over. South Korean forces were chasing the Communists all the way to the Chinese border, setting up base at Unsan in a mountainous area below the Yalu River. Some thought the war was about to end. Suddenly, the South Koreans ran into trouble from an unexpected enemy surge.

General Walton H. Walker, commander of the Eighth, immediately sent three of his regiments north to assist the South Koreans. Kapaun went with them. They set up a reserve base south of Unsan.


China Sends Massive Re-Enforcements

November 1, All Saints Day, Father Kapaun said four Masses for the Third Battalion of the Eighth Calvary regiment and, at the end of the day, settled down for a good night’s sleep. Soon after midnight scouts ran back into camp saying that hundreds of enemy troops were seen moving through the fields in the shadows. Translators heard their conversation. They were Chinese. Then came the blitzkrieg siege. Roy Wenzl captured the scene from accounts of eye-witnesses: “[A] bugle blew, and then another, accompanied by the ghostly calls of sheep horns blown by Chinese peasant soldiers. Then machine guns sprayed pink tracer bullets, and mortars began thumping. Wild music broke out in the night, war songs from bugles and thousands of throats.”

The First and Second Battalions were also under siege by overwhelming forces. The First was able to retreat south, and most of the Second, but the eight hundred men of the Third were overrun and had to fight it out. There were about twenty thousand Chinese troops. Soldiers set their own jeeps on fire so that they could see whom they were shooting at. Men were falling everywhere. Father Kapaun and a private named Patrick Schuler drove a jeep right into the enemy and managed to load a few wounded and get them south. Waves of Chinese kept coming. Machine-gunner, Tibor Rubin, who would receive the Medal of Honor for his heroism, kept unloading rounds killing dozens of the enemy, but hundreds replaced them. All during the battle, the chaplain raced from foxhole to foxhole, giving last rites and hearing confessions, and running out and dragging the wounded into the camp. Men who saw this said that he looked as calm as he did when saying Mass. Nineteen year-old Bob McGreevy heard officers yelling at Kapaun to stop. The priest shouted back: “No, my place is with the wounded,” and off he’d go again. Kapaun and medic, Clarence Anderson, were able to get about forty wounded to a dugout, which was exposed outside the camp’s perimeter. Herb Miller, who was the first to see the enemy approaching, played dead, his ankle too shattered to make a run for it. As soldiers approached he’d toss grenades at them, then pull a dead soldier on top of him and play dead again. Another GI nearby rolled him a few more grenades. The perimeter kept shrinking as the hours passed. Mortar rounds landed in the dugout beyond and killed some of the wounded. More mortars hit. There was nowhere to hide and the wounded were sitting ducks.


Prisoners of War

The Death March Begins

3Father Kapaun had to decide quickly what to do. Should they all die fighting, or should they surrender, and maybe live to see another day? He was unable to bear it when he realized that the Chinese were deliberately targeting the dugout. It was a bold move. He approached a captured and wounded Chinese officer and told him to tell his men that he would surrender if they stopped firing at the wounded. The surrender saved the lives of forty wounded GIs. The Reds stopped shooting. Doctor Anderson survived this ordeal and six months in the Chinese prison camp. Kapaun would not survive the camp. The brave medic said of his friend: “He was more than a man; he was a hero and a saint.”

Meanwhile, a Chinese soldier came upon Herb Miller, who was hiding under a corpse. He stuck a rifle to the American’s head and prepared to fire. Father Kapaun was walking nearby with his captors and saw what was about to happen. The Chinese soldier looked up to see an unarmed American, walk away from his captors, and approach him. He held his fire. So did the chaplain’s captors. The priest walked right up to Miller and, pushing the muzzle away from his head, gave him a hand, saying in a calm voice: “Let me help you up.” Then, lifting the wounded soldier up on one foot, he carried him piggyback, with Miller’s arms wrapped around the chaplain’s skinny shoulders. The Chinese just watched. They didn’t know what to do. “Father Kapaun had that effect on those guys,” Miller said. Days later, as the “death March” of one hundred miles to the prison camp of Pyoktong commenced , Miller begged Father Kapaun to let him down, for he could see how much the priest was suffering in the cold of the mountain winter. All Kapaun would say was: “If I let you down, Herb, they will shoot you.” Herb Miller knew how true that was because he had seen it happen to others who couldn’t keep up, and he would see it happen again.

Thus began six months of captivity, and six months of horror. The mission and the suffering of Father Kapaun ended with his death in the “death hospital” of Pyoktong camp on May 23, 1951. Cause of death was, in the end, malnutrition and complications from a starvation diet.



I will end my review here and redirect our readers to the above-cited sources where ‘the rest of the story’ can be read. It would not do justice to the Servant of God, Emil Kapaun, for me to simply encapsulate his exploits for the six frigid months he spent as a prisoner of war. The whole story must be read. I could not put the book, A Shepherd in Combat Boots, down until I finished it. The same holds true with even more earnestness for Roy Wenzl’s eight part series for the Wichita Eagle, The Miracle of Father Kapaun.

On Sunday, June 29, 2008, Father Emil Kapaun’s cause for canonization was officially opened by the Wichita, Kansas, Diocese, with a solemn memorial Mass held at his parish church, Saint John Nepomucene, in Pilsen. June 29, in Pilsen, is now officially Emil Kapaun Day.