Reprinted from Magnificat (

Credible Witness: Emil Kapaun

By Heather King

Emil Kapaun (1916–1951), a Catholic priest and U.S. Army chaplain from Kansas, exhibited heroic virtue as a prisoner of war during the Korean War. 

Born in the small farming community of Pilsen, Kapaun was ordained in June 1940 and assigned to his home parish in Kansas. He entered the U.S. Chaplain Corps in 1944, served during World War II in the Burma and India Theater, and with the Korean War brewing at the beginning of 1950 was assigned to Japan and Korea.

On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. In July, Kapaun and the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division were sent to defend the South. Father Kapaun quickly became known for his willingness to risk his own life in order to save his men. He sometimes used the hood of his Jeep as an altar on which to celebrate Mass and hear confessions. 

The 8th Cavalry Regiment pushed into North Korea, and on November 1, 1950, it suffered a surprise attack by the Chinese army at Unsan. When Father Kapaun’s commanders ordered evacuation, he chose to stay. 

By all accounts, Father Kapaun refused to save his own skin, dodged bullets, and gave the last rites to as many dying soldiers as he could reach. He carried one man, whose leg had been shattered by shrapnel, in his arms to safety.

During the forced eighty-mile march to a prison camp in the freezing cold, Father Kapaun shored up flagging spirits and encouraged his men to help those too wounded to walk. 

He spent seven months as a POW. Nearly half the prisoners died that first winter: from cold, starvation, lice infestations. Given such conditions, Father Kapaun decided to pray to Saint Dismas, the good thief, and then would sneak extra rations for his men. He offered freezing prisoners his own clothes, bathed their wounds, exhorted them to keep going. 

The guards ridiculed his faith. At night he slipped into huts to lead prisoners in prayer and administer the sacraments. “Just for a moment,” one said, “he could turn a mud hut into a cathedral.” 

He had been forbidden to celebrate Easter Mass, but did so anyway, holding up a small crucifix he had fashioned from sticks. But his own health was rapidly failing. Suffering from malnutrition, dysentery, pneumonia, and a blood clot in his leg, Father Kapaun was hauled off to a “death house” and deprived of food and water. He lasted two days, dying on May 23, 1951.

His surviving fellow prisoners were freed two years later, and the Father Kapaun stories began trickling out. 

Almost seventy years later Herbert Miller, the Sergeant First Class whose leg had been shattered at the Battle of Unsan, described the ensuing forced march: “Father Kapaun helped me along, sometimes he’d carry me, sometimes he’d put his arm around me, helping me hop on one leg. That’s the way we went, from there to prison camp. It was a long journey. God sent that man to me. As sure as I was born the Lord sent him and he obeyed.… You’ll never find a man like him, not on this side of heaven.” 

He was posthumously awarded the military’s Medal of Honor in 2013, and is one of the most decorated military chaplains in U.S. history. Father Kapaun’s cause for canonization was formally opened in 1993, giving him the title Servant of God.