December 5, 2008

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Possible U.S. saints: Father Emil Kapaun

John F. Fink(Twenty-eighth in a series of columns)

Father Emil Kapaun was an Army chaplain who died on May 23, 1951, at age 35 in a Chinese POW camp during the Korean War. He is buried somewhere along the Yalu River in North Korea.

As he was being carried away to die, while suffering intense pain, he told his fellow prisoners, “If I don’t come back, tell my bishop that I died a happy death.”

He was born in 1916 in Pilsen, Kan. He was ordained a priest in 1940 and, during World War II, served as an Army chaplain in China and Burma. In 1949, he was sent to Japan and in 1950 to Korea.

He was captured by the Chinese on Nov. 2, 1950, as he was giving the last rites to a dying soldier. During the next six months and 21 days, he did everything he could to minister to his fellow prisoners’ spiritual and physical needs.

The prisoners suffered from wretched and unsanitary conditions with a meager and unhealthy diet. Father Kapaun soon learned that they had to steal food or slowly starve to death. He risked his life by sneaking into fields around the prison to look for hidden potatoes and sacks of corn. While other prisoners kept guards occupied, he would sneak into a supply shed, grab a sack of cracked corn and scurry off into the bushes.

But the men continued to die. The POWs had to bury their own dead, and Father Kapaun always volunteered to do it, praying for their souls as he dug their graves. He buried them naked, taking their clothing to help warm the living. He washed the foul undergarments of the dead, and distributed them to men who could barely move because of dysentery.

Enlisted men POWs were held in their own huts, and Father Kapaun learned how to escape to visit them. He would lead a quick prayer service before giving a short sermon, urging the men not to lose hope and not to fall for the doctrines that the Chinese were trying to indoctrinate them with. A prisoner who survived, First Lt. Mike Dowe, said that Father Kapaun’s presence turned a stinking, louse-ridden hut—for a little while—into a cathedral.

The prisoners were forced to sit for hours to listen to lectures by “Comrade Sun,” a fanatic who hated Americans.

According to Lt. Dowe, “Father was not openly arrogant, nor did he use subterfuge. Without losing his temper or raising his voice, he’d answer the lecturer point by point, with a calm logic that set Comrade Sun screaming and leaping on the platform like an angry ape.”

Father Kapaun was never punished, although he was threatened, and it soon became evident, Lt. Dowe said, that “the Chinese were afraid of him. They recognized in him a strength they could not break, a spirit they could not quell.”

Eventually, Father Kapaun battled dysentery, pneumonia and a blood clot in one of his legs. The Chinese carried him to what served as a hospital, where he died.†

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