This year, we mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War -- a time when thousands of our prisoners of war finally came home after years of starvation and hardship and, in some cases, torture. And among the homecomings, one stood out.
A group of our POWs emerged carrying a large wooden crucifix, nearly four feet tall. They had spent months on it, secretly collecting firewood, carving it -- the cross and the body -- using radio wire for a crown of thorns. It was a tribute to their friend, their chaplain, their fellow prisoner who had touched their souls and saved their lives -- Father Emil Kapaun.
This is an amazing story. Father Kapaun has been called a shepherd in combat boots. His fellow soldiers who felt his grace and his mercy called him a saint, a blessing from God. Today, we bestow another title on him -- recipient of our nation’s highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor. After more than six decades of working to make this Medal a reality, I know one of Father Kapaun’s comrades spoke for a lot of folks here when he said, “it’s about time.”
Father, as they called him, was just 35 years old when he died in that hellish prison camp. His parents and his only sibling, his brother, are no longer with us. But we are extremely proud to welcome members of the Kapaun family -- his nephews, his niece, their children -- two of whom currently serve in this country's National Guard. And we are very proud of them.
We're also joined by members of the Kansas congressional delegation, leaders from across our armed forces, and representatives from the Catholic Church, which recognizes Father Kapaun as a “Servant of God.” And we are truly humbled to be joined by men who served alongside him -- veterans and former POWs from the Korean War. (Applause.)
Now, I obviously never met Father Kapaun. But I have a sense of the man he was, because in his story I see reflections of my own grandparents and their values, the people who helped to raise me. Emil and my grandfather were both born in Kansas about the same time, both were raised in small towns outside of Wichita. They were part of that Greatest Generation -- surviving the Depression, joining the Army, serving in World War II. And they embodied those heartland values of honesty and hard work, decency and humility -- quiet heroes determined to do their part.
For Father Kapaun, this meant becoming an Army chaplain -- serving God and country. After the Communist invasion of South Korea, he was among the first American troops that hit the beaches and pushed their way north through hard mountains and bitter cold. In his understated Midwestern way, he wrote home, saying, “this outdoor life is quite the thing” -- (laughter) -- and “I prefer to live in a house once in a while.” But he had hope, saying, “It looks like the war will end soon.”
That’s when Chinese forces entered the war with a massive surprise attack -- perhaps 20,000 soldiers pouring down on a few thousand Americans. In the chaos, dodging bullets and explosions, Father Kapaun raced between foxholes, out past the front lines and into no-man’s land -- dragging the wounded to safety.
When his commanders ordered an evacuation, he chose to stay -- gathering the injured, tending to their wounds. When the enemy broke through and the combat was hand-to-hand, he carried on -- comforting the injured and the dying, offering some measure of peace as they left this Earth.
When enemy forces bore down, it seemed like the end -- that these wounded Americans, more than a dozen of them, would be gunned down. But Father Kapaun spotted a wounded Chinese officer. He pleaded with this Chinese officer and convinced him to call out to his fellow Chinese. The shooting stopped and they negotiated a safe surrender, saving those American lives.
Then, as Father Kapaun was being led away, he saw another American -- wounded, unable to walk, laying in a ditch, defenseless. An enemy soldier was standing over him, rifle aimed at his head, ready to shoot. And Father Kapaun marched over and pushed the enemy soldier aside. And then as the soldier watched, stunned, Father Kapaun carried that wounded American away.
This is the valor we honor today -- an American soldier who didn’t fire a gun, but who wielded the mightiest weapon of all, a love for his brothers so pure that he was willing to die so that they might live. And yet, the incredible story of Father Kapaun does not end there.
He carried that injured American, for miles, as their captors forced them on a death march. When Father Kapaun grew tired, he’d help the wounded soldier hop on one leg. When other prisoners stumbled, he picked them up. When they wanted to quit -- knowing that stragglers would be shot -- he begged them to keep walking.
In the camps that winter, deep in a valley, men could freeze to death in their sleep. Father Kapaun offered them his own clothes. They starved on tiny rations of millet and corn and birdseed. He somehow snuck past the guards, foraged in nearby fields, and returned with rice and potatoes. In desperation, some men hoarded food. He convinced them to share. Their bodies were ravaged by dysentery. He grabbed some rocks, pounded metal into pots and boiled clean water. They lived in filth. He washed their clothes and he cleansed their wounds.
The guards ridiculed his devotion to his Savior and the Almighty. They took his clothes and made him stand in the freezing cold for hours. Yet, he never lost his faith. If anything, it only grew stronger. At night, he slipped into huts to lead prisoners in prayer, saying the Rosary, administering the sacraments, offering three simple words: “God bless you.” One of them later said that with his very presence he could just for a moment turn a mud hut into a cathedral.
Yet, for Father Kapaun, the horrific conditions took their toll. Thin, frail, he began to limp, with a blood clot in his leg. And then came dysentery, then pneumonia. That’s when the guards saw their chance to finally rid themselves of this priest and the hope he inspired. They came for him. And over the protests and tears of the men who loved him, the guards sent him to a death house -- a hellhole with no food or water -- to be left to die.
And yet, even then, his faith held firm. “I’m going to where I’ve always wanted to go,” he told his brothers. “And when I get up there, I’ll say a prayer for all of you.” And then, as was taken away, he did something remarkable -- he blessed the guards. “Forgive them,” he said, “for they know not what they do.” Two days later, in that house of death, Father Kapaun breathed his last breath. His body was taken away, his grave unmarked, his remains unrecovered to this day.
- President Barack Obama bestowing the Medal of Honor on the late Fr Emil Kapaun
A Soldier Who Never Fired a Gun: Father Kapaun's Uncommon Valor (America Magazine)