Servant of God Emil Kapaun
All Man, All Priest
Join me today to meet a priest and hero of the Korean War.
Name: Father Emil Joseph Kapaun
Life: 1916 - 1951
Status: Servant of God
You can listen to this as a podcast on Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Spotify or right here on Substack. If you prefer video, you can also follow on YouTube and Odysee (unfortunately, videos may be slower to update).
The mortars began firing just before sunset. The remnants of the 8th Cavalry Regiment hunkered down, their final defence being organized by Lieutenant Walter Mayo. The 8th Cavalry had been the tip of the American advance into North Korea. Now they were deep in enemy territory, their last route of escape about to be cut off.
It was All Saints’ Day, November 1st of 1950. The communist assault began as night fell. They pressed in, but Lieutenant Mayo moved the men he had left strategically, holding the line as Chinese made rockets were fired into the camp.
As the fighting went on, one soldier, Peter Busatti, dived into a foxhole. Then he heard someone drop in behind him. It was Father Emil Kapaun, the chaplain assigned to the 8th Cavalry. Kapaun asked Busatti if he was alright, and helped him to disinfect a wound. Busatti said an act of contrition. Kapaun blessed him. And then Busatti popped back up to fight, and Kapaun continued to scramble through enemy fire to help.
Bullets were coming by so close that one of them hit Father Kapaun’s pipe. At one point he got too far from the American camp, and two communists grabbed him. They were dragging him off when Busatti, now in a new position, saw what was happening. The Americans opened fire and the communists dived for cover, with Kapaun getting safely back to the camp.
Around midnight it was clear that the position was hopeless. Hundreds had died, and the Americans were pulling back. Once he was sure that all the wounded were safe, Kapaun went with them. But then, as he was about to cross a river to safety, someone told him that there were still men left behind.
Kapaun turned around and walked back into North Korea.
The story of Emil Joseph Kapaun had started in 1916 in a small farm near Pilsen, Kansas. Emil Kapaun was a hard worker with an interest in machinery. He was not above using that knowledge for mischief, such as when he rewired a girl’s car so that when she tried to turn it on it delivered an electric shock to her car seat. But as Emil grew up, he felt increasingly certain that he was not going to be a farmer like his father. He was going to be a priest.
By the 1940s Emil had become a priest in the Pilsen diocese, only to discover that people who had known him as a boy, especially the older ones, struggled to see him as a priest. He asked his bishop if there might be another assignment for him. It was 1944, and the the bishop knew exactly who would benefit from another priest. He transferred Father Kapaun into the corps of chaplains.
By 1945, Father Kapaun was in Burma, bouncing along between military installations in a jeep or flying in a small airplane. It was risky, but he found he liked it. After the end of the second world war, Father Kapaun returned to civilian life to get a degree in Education. He had been glad to return from the war, but now he felt himself increasingly called back to the military. When he heard that the military chaplains were desperate for Catholic priests, he asked his bishop to send him.
And so it was that by 1950, Captain Emil Kapaun was back in the East, stationed in Japan. Among his other duties he found time to contribute to a radio broadcast. He spoke on the subject of persecution.
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… O God we ask of Thee, to give us the courage to be ever faithful to Thee. (Listen to the whole thing below)
It was a strange choice of topic, because in just a year, Kapaun would face exactly that test.
In June of 1950, the North Korean army swept down into South Korea. At first Kapaun wasn’t sure it would amount to much. But the North Koreans were winning, and soon the 8th Calvary Regiment was part of an American led UN force steaming across the ocean to intervene.
The intervention began in September of 1950 with an amphibious assault on the South West coast of modern South Korea. It was a success. The attack didn’t just surprise the North Koreans, it cut off their supply lines. Much of the North Korean invasion force went into retreat, and as they moved back North the Americans pursued them. And at the tip of the American advance was 8th Cavalry Regiment.
Father Kapaun did not stay behind the lines. He was always moving between concentrations of men. As Kapaun bounced from place to place on a jeep, smoking his faithful pipe, he often came under enemy fire. His mass kit got shot apart by a stray bullet. Kapaun got another one. Then it too was hit. By now the jeep had been destroyed as well, and Kapaun kept his mass kit in his pockets as he rode around on a bicycle. Even his pipe was shot, so that he had to carve a new stem for it out of bamboo. In his letters home, he admitted that he was shaken by the violence. But he was there as a priest, as a man to be called Father, so apart from his correspondence he kept these thoughts to himself.
There were bright spots too. In one liberated South Korean village, there was a church. The priests had fled the approach of the communists. Kapaun didn’t speak any Korean and the villagers didn’t speak English. What they had in common was the mass, in Latin.
As I said the prayers at the foot of the altar I could not help but think I could not speak the language of these people nor could they speak mine, but at the altar we had a common language. I imagine the people felt the same way.
It was a cold October. Out on his bicycle, Kapaun got frostbite on his feet. His bullet-magnet of a pipe got shot, again. But the Americans didn’t mind pushing forward, because victory was close and it seemed very likely they would all be home by Christmas. In mid October, Father Kapaun wrote to his aunt back in Kansas.
The Reds are on the run and we are hot after them. By the time you get this letter the war may be over.
It was his last letter to her, because in the next few days, everything changed.
On October 19, 1950, a new army entered the war. The Chinese communists had been watching with concern, and now they threw thousands of men into the battle. This time it was the Americans’ turn to be taken by surprise. They had been pursuing a demoralized, fleeing enemy. Suddenly they were facing a new wave of new soldiers, well equipped and fresh to the fight. The Americans had pushed in too fast, too deep into North Korea. They were being surrounded.
By November 1st, the 8th Cavalry Regiment had Chinese communist soldiers to the West, North and South. Many Americans retreated under cover of darkness, but many more remained. By November 2, the communists were mopping up the remaining soldiers. Many of the men of the 8th Cavalry regiment, including Peter Busatti and the courageous Lieutenant Mayo were captured. And so was Father Kapaun.
The men were sent to Prison Camp 5, in Pyoktong, in the North West of North Korea along the Chinese border. The communists were were not quite bold enough to do away with all the conventions for prisoners of war, but they kept the men in poor conditions and on starvation rations: just enough food to keep them alive, but exhausted.
Kapaun was not allowed to continue his work as a chaplain. He completely ignored this rule, praying with anyone who needed him. He was housed with the other officers, but he’d sneak down into the separate area for the enlisted men to pray in the evenings, praying for their safety, their survival, but also for the communist guards.
One of the jobs that everyone hated was digging graves for the recently dead. Kapaun always volunteered, and it took the guards a long time to figure out that he was using the assignment to say last prayers for the dead.
Soon into his time at the camp, Kapaun ran into Peter Busatti, the soldier he had first met in a foxhole. Busatti was surprised that Kapaun remembered his name, then even more surprised when Kapaun told Busatti not to worry, he would be going home soon. It was a crazy thing to say, since there was no way to know what the communists would do. But Busatti held onto the hope it gave him. And oddly enough, less than a month later, Busatti was randomly selected to leave as part of a prisoner exchange.
For those who stayed in the camp, conditions were not good. The men were slowly starving. A lot of people snuck into the storage where food was kept. And no one was quite so good at this as Father Kapaun. Somehow he would find hundred pound bags of grain and filling his pockets with salt. Food was scarce, and many people horded it. But Kapaun shared what he found with everyone, often giving his own portion away and going hungry.
In the years that followed, many of the men wrote letters about how Father Kapaun had kept their hope alive. It was the little things, the way he stayed cheerful and optimistic, always ready to pray or console. Father Kapaun shared his now battle-scarred pipe with anyone who wanted to use it. As the weather got colder, he traded his watch to a guard for a blanket, then cut it up to make socks for men who were sick. When people were arguing over who would do the really nasty jobs - like cleaning out the latrine - they often found that during the argument Father Kapaun had quietly stepped out and done the job for them.
It wasn’t just the men who noticed Father Kapaun. The guards noticed too.
A regular part of camp life was reeducation. The men had to sit in classes as they were lectured by the most ideological communists about the evils of capitalism and religion. The point of the classes was to wear down resistance. Those who got mad or shouted back were punished. And at the beginning, the communists often took shots at Father Kapaun. They asked him where his God was now? Instead of praying, he should be thanking Mao and Stalin for his food. Father Kapaun never got angry, but also never showed the slightest sign of intimidation.
The good Lord, as He fed the thousands on the mountain, will also take care of us. Mao Tse‑Tung could not make a tree or a flower or stop the thunder and lightning.
Ironically, most of the communists who spoke English had learned it from Christian missionaries. So when they went on about the evils of religion, Kapaun often shamed them to silence by asking them if that was really true of the missionaries who had taught them. Eventually the communists declared that Kapaun was an agitator and a propagandist and stopped talking to him. As one of the officers, Captain Robert Burke, later wrote:
They didn’t know quite how to handle the priest, because he could not be scared, threatened, cajoled, or humiliated.
Other people were not so strong. Two officers were taken away and punished. When they came back they denounced Kapaun for crimes he had not committed. Afterwards, they slunk back to the barracks, afraid of the reception they would get for turning on the popular priest. But it was Kapaun who met them at the door and welcomed them in, telling them that he didn’t blame them.
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By Easter of 1951, Father Kapaun decided to hold an Easter celebration in spite of the guards. He no longer had the materials to celebrate mass, but he led the men through the stations of the cross. Everyone could see that Kapaun was exhausted. He walked with a crutch. He had an eye infection and wore an eye patch to hide it.
Soon after Easter, Father Kapaun got very sick. His leg got worse. The men asked for the communists to send a doctor, but they responded that maybe the priest should try praying for it. The truth was that the communists would be glad to see Father Kapaun die. From their point of view, he had been nothing but trouble.
And so the officers of the 8th Cavalry Regiment rallied around Father Kapaun, nursing him as he was lost in sickness and delirium for about six weeks. But as spring arrived, the fever passed, and once again Kapaun was lucid. The pain from his leg intense, and he was crying. And perhaps he knew what was about to happen, because when the officers had gathered around he began to tell them a story from the Bible.
It was the story from 2 Maccabees, chapter 7, of the woman with seven sons who were martyred in front of her, one by one. She was crying too, Father Kapaun explained, but not because she was sad. As Lieutenant Mayo recalled,
[H]er tears were tears of joy because she knew her sons were in heaven.
Father then looked at us and said he was crying for the same reason. He said that he was glad he was suffering because Our Lord had suffered also and that he felt closer to Him.
The communists had been watching too. Now that it was clear that Father Kapaun was getting better, they decided to intervene. And so they came in and announced that now Father Kapaun would be transferred to the hospital. Everyone knew that most of the soldiers in the hospital were simply left alone and unattended to die, so this transfer was a death sentence. As Captain Burke later wrote,
They couldn’t take him out and shoot him because they feared a rebellion, so they waited until illness and over-work finally got the best of this stalwart soul.
As Kapaun was being carried out, he remained cheerful. He gave away the few possessions he had. He encouraged the men to hold on until they got home. And then he spoke to the guards, and asked them to forgive him if he had wronged them. And as he was being carried out, he looked at Lieutenant Mayo and said,
if I don’t come back, tell my Bishop that I died a happy death.
Father Kapaun did not return from the hospital. His remains would not be recovered until 2021.
Most of the prisoners were exchanged in 1953. When they emerged from the camp, the officers of the 8th Cavalry Regiment had one thing in common: they wanted to tell the story of Father Emil Kapaun. Their lobbying got him the Bronze Star and the Distinguished Service Cross. His example inspired the Catholic men’s group ‘Kapaun’s Men’. They put up a statue with the inscription: All Man, All Priest. And the process for his canonization got under way. This is a process that is at its earliest stage: Father Kapaun is now considered a Servant of God. The Church moves slowly in such matters, and it will likely be decades or even centuries before the process is complete. In the meantime, we can follow and pray along.
So we may not yet be certain that Father Emil Kapaun is a saint. But as for whether he was a man, there is no doubt. Captain Burke said it best:
This is how I remember the finest man I ever knew, the most outstanding priest I’ve ever seen, the hero of heroes, and to put it simply, ‘the most unforgettable character I’ve ever met’, that diamond in the rough that we all would be proud to call Dad, the man we respect and admire and cherish in our hearts — our beloved Father Kapaun.
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