(WASHINGTON) — The Rev. Emil Kapaun, an unusual Korean War hero, will posthumously received the Medal of Honor Thursday for his heroism on the battlefield and for his care of the soldiers with whom he served that earned their enduring respect.
He’s only the sixth military chaplain to receive the nation’s highest award for valor.
It has also earned him a review by the Catholic Church, which has investigated whether the Army chaplain from Pilsen, Kan., should be considered for sainthood. He was named a Servant of God by the Catholic Church in 1993, the first step in a long road toward possible sainthood.
It was Kapaun’s heroic actions and unselfish dedication to caring for his fellow soldiers in a North Korean prisoner of war camp that has earned him the most recognition. It also cost him his life. The 34-year-old died in a North Korean prison camp in May 1951, 62 years ago.
Ray Kapaun never knew his uncle. He was born six years after he died in that camp, but he has an intimate connection — thanks to the recollections of family members, neighbors and POWs — to the man he affectionately calls Father Emil.
The Rev. Kapaun arrived in South Korea in July 1951 with the first U.S. forces who responded to the North Korean invasion.
Arriving from Japan, his 8th Cavalry Regiment helped with the breakout of U.S. forces that had been trapped in Pusan, the southeast corner of South Korea.
He and his unit saw constant combat as they helped push North Korean forces northward. The unarmed chaplain’s heroism and dedication to the troops he serve were already being noted by his military superiors. That September Kapaun received the Bronze Star for his heroic actions. In November 1950, the unit was surrounded by Chinese forces and he and his fellow soldiers were captured.
Ray Kapaun knows how at the moment of capture his uncle stayed behind to take care of wounded soldiers, including Herbert Miller, who had been shot in the ankle.
A Chinese soldier with a weapon approached Miller and, according to Kapaun, “pointed it right at his head and was getting ready to pull the trigger.”
Kapaun says at that point his uncle got up and “strolled over to this Chinese soldier and basically pushes him to the ground.”
He then picked up Miller and walked away. Kapaun says the stunned Chinese soldier did not know how to react. “It was that kind of courage that he had,” Kapaun said.
“It was more wanting to help his fellow man no matter what it would do to him, never a thought in his mind of what would happen to him and all of his stories relate back to that.”
Upon being released, the former prisoners instantly lobbied for Kapaun to be honored for his heroism. He was honored with the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor.
But Kapaun’s inspirational story has still resonated through the decades, eventually gaining the support of members of Congress who, in 2012, passed legislation requesting that Obama award Kapaun the Medal of Honor.
His nephew believes that “right now is the right time, I truly believe that because so many people know about Father Emil that now is the right time for this.”
He is also humbled by the Catholic Church’s own review of his uncle’s life. He describes both that and the Medal of Honor “like a shining light at this point.”
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Ruth Brown, Idaho Press-Tribune
Ruth Brown, Idaho Press-Tribune