The Word Among Us

July/August 2012 Issue

When the Ordinary Becomes the Extraordinary

The life and Death of Army Chaplain Emil Kapaun

By: Kevin and Dominic Perrotta

When the Ordinary Becomes the Extraordinary: The life and Death of Army Chaplain Emil Kapaun by Kevin and Dominic Perrotta

The ruined church was a fitting backdrop for the impromptu service held at prisoner of war Camp No. 5, in Pyoktong, North Korea, on Easter morning. 1951.

The small group of American prisoners were in bad shape themselves. After their positions were overrun by communist Chinese soldiers the previous November, they had endured forced marches, bitter cold, and gradual starvation.

Few of the men were in worse shape than their leader, Fr. Emil Kapaun. The slightly built, thirty-five­year-old Army chaplain had carried a wounded companion on his back for miles after their capture. Weakened by his habit of sharing his meager food ration with fellow prisoners, he could now hardly walk.

Weeping, Fr. Kapaun told his fel­low POWs he was sorry that he lacked the bread and wine to celebrate Mass for them. He heard their confessions, led them in the Glorious Mysteries of the rosary, and gave a sermon on Christ’s suffering and his forgiving his enemies. Many in the ragged group also wept as they sang the Our Father.

Yet an air of sober triumph marked the service, and the Chinese camp authorities regretted not having shut it down. The prisoners had found it too encouraging. Those who survived would recall it as a shining moment in the gloom of their captivity.

Within weeks, Fr. Kapaun suc­cumbed to the effects of infection and malnutrition. But he was hardly forgotten. Spurred by the testimony of his fellow captives, the chaplain’s home diocese of Wichita, Kansas, has recommended him for canonization.

An Ordinary Start. Those of us who have never had to endure any­thing like the brutality of a POW camp may find Fr. Kapaun’s experi­ence difficult to relate to. Yet from the very beginning, there was an ordinari­ness about Emil Kapaun himself that makes him accessible to everyone.

He was a small-town boy, the older of two sons born on the family farm three miles outside Pilsen, Kansas. Still today, Pilsen has only one signif­icant building, St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church, where Emil was baptized.

A skinny boy with a sunny disposi­tion, Emil learned hard work from his parents and the other Czech immi­grant farmers in the community. Despite the long walk, he missed hardly a day of school and served at the 6:00 a.m. Mass every day. He earned above-average grades, was an unspectacular but eager athlete, and an avid fisherman.

As a high school freshman, Emil began thinking about the priesthood. He was attracted to a missionary order, but he let his parish pastor persuade him to enter the diocesan seminary.

“Far from Being a Saint.” Emil’s letters from the seminary suggest that any struggles he had regarding his vocation to the priesthood came from a sense of the greatness of the role. “Maybe you do not realize fully what it means to be a priest,” he wrote his cousin, but “I am more convinced that a man must be a living saint in order to dare to take that step.… Gee whiz, I have a feeling I am far, far from being a saint.”

Emil was ordained in June 1940. To his family’s delight, his first assignment was at Pilsen. Fr. Emil mobilized boys in the parish to help with landscaping the church prop­erty. In his homilies, he challenged his community to heroic faith. At a funeral, he preached on a passage in 2 Maccabees in which a mother exhorts her sons to martyrdom.

When the United States entered World War II at the end of 1941, Kapaun immediately petitioned his bishop to let him join the Army Chaplain Corps. He served only during the final months of the war, in India and Burma, far from combat. Nevertheless, he relished military life. He enjoyed the rigors of training and his relationships with fellow chap­lains and the men he cared for. “It is a rough life—but I like it rough,” he told a friend.

After the war, Fr. Emil’s life might have continued on from one rural Kansas parish to another. But in 1949 the Army issued a new appeal for chaplains. Fr. Emil received permis­sion to reenlist, and within months he was stationed in Japan.

There, on Armed Forces radio in April 1950, he preached on the early Christian martyrs. A recording sur­vives: “We can surely expect that in our own lives, there will come a time when we must make a choice between being loyal to the true faith or of giving allegiance to something else which is opposed. . . .” For Fr. Kapaun, that time was very close.

With Matter-of-Fact Courage. Fr. Emil accompanied American troops that landed in Korea at Inchon in July. From then until November, in a series of intense engagements, he became known for calmly exposing himself to enemy fire in order to pro­vide first-aid and last rites to men on the battlefield.

His courage and trust in God went along with a matter-of-fact manner and a constant cheerfulness. A snapshot shows him grinning, with the fragment of his favorite pipe in his hand, its stem shot away.

For a while, he said Mass on the hood of a Jeep, often within the sound of the guns. But he lost so many Jeeps to enemy fire that he began riding a bicycle to reach soldiers along the battle lines. Eventually, it too was shot up.

On All Souls Day 1951, his unit was surprised by Chinese soldiers at Unsan. With characteristic disre­gard for his own safety, Fr. Kapaun worked under enemy fire to gather the wounded to a makeshift aid station. When the remnants of the American unit were ordered to with­draw, he insisted on staying with the wounded to help them after capture.

Love Does These Things. Winter conditions at the POW camps in the mountains near the Chinese bor­der were miserable in the extreme. The prisoners were herded into unheated huts and served small por­tions of almost indigestible raw grain. There was no clean water or sanitary facilities.

Weakened by hunger, dysentery, frostbite, and lice, “it was easier to die than live in those days,” one POW wrote later. Some soldiers stopped eating, rolled away from the body-warmth of their comrades at night, and let themselves freeze to death.

In this grim situation, Fr. Kapaun rose to the challenge. His fellow pris­oners often awoke in the subzero dark to hear him banging discarded metal sheeting into pots. He used them to boil snow, raising the prisoners’ spirits with morning “coffee”—and reducing the spread of dysentery. He washed men who became too weak to clean themselves, then washed out their soiled clothes in a frigid stream near the camp. He sewed bits of fab­ric into socks.

By example and gentle words, Fr. Kapaun discouraged the healthier prisoners from hoarding scarce food. He proved to be an expert at finding food in the fields around the camp— and in the guards’ storerooms. Before sneaking off on a food-finding expe­dition, he would say a prayer to St. Dismas—the “good thief” who died next to Jesus at Calvary.

At night also he would elude the guards to go from hut to hut to encourage the men. He never pushed his faith on anyone, but he would ask, “Would anybody care to say a prayer?”

“There was something in his voice and bearing that was different—a dig­nity . . . a serenity that radiated from him like light,” one prisoner wrote later. “By his presence he could turn a stinking, louse-ridden mud hut, for a little while, into a cathedral.”

The Best Medicine. Through it all, Fr. Emil kept his sense of humor. To a newly arrived soldier who asked what the Communists were going to do to them, he replied, “They’re going to shoot the officers and let the enlisted men go.”

Kapaun also became the chief an­tagonist against efforts at political in­doctrination. Camp authorities would mock him for God’s powerlessness to save the prisoners. “Where is your God?” they asked. “Right here,” the priest answered.

“Don’t ask God for your daily bread,” an indoctrinator told him. “Ask Mao Zedong. He’s the one who provides your daily bread.”

“If this is an example of God’s daily bread,” Kapaun responded, “then God must be a terrible baker.” His sarcasm left the Chinese Communist baffled.

In one indoctrination session, an official threatened to shoot all the pris­oners “so that your bones will forever fertilize the soil of North Korea!” After a pause, the chaplain’s droll voice was heard: “What a dumb s.o.b.”

Quiet Martyr? After the war, the Army compared the death rate at the Korean camps where American soldiers were imprisoned that win­ter. The rate at Camp No. 5 was lower than all the others. From the testimony of survivors, the Army con­cluded that Fr. Kapaun’s efforts were the leading reason.

The chaplain persevered in his efforts till the end, though his last weeks were a slow stations of the cross. Camp officials watched closely as he grew weaker. Finally, sensing their opportunity to eliminate him, they came to transport him to the “hospital”—a building where men were simply left to die.

As he was being taken away, Fr. Kapaun mentioned the Maccabees to his fellow prisoners. He blessed them—and asked his guards for for­giveness. He died a few days later, alone, on May 23, 1951.

Holiness in Our Reach. In many respects, Emil Kapaun was not a notable person. He was not a highly trained specialist, a great athlete, or a learned theologian. He died rather young, without any major accom­plishments. His spiritual life does not seem to have been enhanced by visions or dramatic spiritual gifts. In many ways, he was an ordinary man, an ordinary parish priest.

In the POW camp, he did ordinary things for his fellow prisoners: mak­ing pots and boiling water, picking lice, smuggling food, cracking jokes, offering words of encouragement, saying prayers. What was extraordi­nary about Fr. Kapaun was that he went on doing these ordinary helpful things under the most grueling cir­cumstances, right to the end.

It is this that makes him a compel­ling model for all of us.

Dominic Perrotta served in the US Army Medical Corps and is a physician in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His father, Kevin Perrotta, is a writer and editor. Click here for more information about Fr. Kapaun and his cause for canonization.