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Remembering Father Emil Kapaun, Laid to Rest in His Native Kansas

By Tom Shine, News Director, KMUW Radio

A funeral Mass for Father Emil Kapaun will be held today (WED), more than 70 years after he died in a North Korean prisoner of war camp.

Kapaun was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery on the battlefield during the Korean War. He also is being considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church.

Officials from the church and military will be in attendance at today's (WED) Mass at Hartman Arena in Park City. The service will be followed by a procession in downtown Wichita, where Kapaun's remains will be taken by horse-drawn caisson to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Members of the 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas, Kapaun's former unit, will carry the remains into the cathedral. The remains will be interred in a crypt installed earlier this month.

Kapaun's remains returned to Kansas on Saturday from Honolulu, where he was buried as an unknown soldier shortly after the Korean War ended. Among those accompanying Kapaun's remains was his niece, Air Force Maj. Christina Roberts. His remains were taken to his hometown of Pilsen for viewing and a vigil over the weekend. They were returned to Wichita for a funeral vigil Tuesday night at Hartman Arena.

This is the second Mass held to honor Kapaun since he died. A memorial Mass was held for him in July 1953 at the Cathedral. But his casket, draped by an American flag, was empty. Wichita Bishop Carl Kemme said today's (WED) events will serve two purposes. "Not only to kind of shine a spotlight on his heroic witness but also to give him the funeral rites and burial that he certainly deserves," Kemme said.

The Catholic Diocese of Wichita will broadcast the Funeral Mass through EWTN, Catholic TV and the diocese's YouTube channel.

Several downtown streets, including Central, will be closed through 2:30 p.m. Wednesday. Wichita Police and other law enforcement agencies will escort the caisson and help with traffic control.

Call to service

Kapaun was born in 1916 in Pilsen, a small farming community in Marion County, about 70 miles northeast of Wichita. He was ordained into the priesthood in 1940 at what is now Newman University. A mural honoring Kapaun adorns the school's chapel. He served as a priest in the parish he grew up in, St. John Nepomucene. He also was assigned as an auxiliary chaplain at the Army airbase in Herington, where he found he enjoyed working with enlisted men. He joined the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps during World War II, serving in Burma and India in the closing days of the conflict.

After the war, he earned his master's degree in education from American University before becoming the parish priest in Timken, a small town in Rush County. Bishop Mark Carroll allowed him to enlist in the Chaplain Corps in 1948. Kapaun was stationed in Japan with the 1st Cavalry Division, which was among the first troops to land in Korea when the Korean War broke out in June 1950.

The Korean War

Kapaun was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Unsan on November 1-2, 1950. According to his medal citation, "Chaplain Kapaun calmly walked through withering enemy fire in order to provide comfort and medical aid to his comrades and rescue friendly wounded from no man's land." His nephew, Ray Kapaun, accepted the medal from President Barack Obama in 2013.  When American forces pulled back from Unsan, Kapaun stayed behind to care for the wounded soldiers, even though he knew he would be taken as a prisoner. After his capture and imprisonment, he stole food to help feed his fellow POWs. He tended to the sick and washed the clothes of prisoners too weak to do so. He also provided spiritual comfort during a brutally cold winter that saw nearly half the prisoners die. Bishop Kemme says Kapaun served all of the prisoners, regardless of their faith. "He didn't ask them whether they were Catholic," Kemme said. "He didn't ask them any questions. He just saw a human being, and he did whatever he could, in those dire circumstances, to help them in their dignity, to help them be strong in the midst of such a challenging experience. That human love is stronger than death."

Possible sainthood

Kapaun's actions in the POW camp led the Vatican to name him a Servant of God in 1993, the first step in the long process to sainthood. Vatican officials are expected to name Kapaun as venerable, the next step in the journey to sainthood. That step has been delayed because the pandemic halted most activities at the Vatican over the past year. He would become just the fourth American-born saint, and the first from Kansas, if he is canonized. Kapaun died in May 1951 after falling ill at the POW camp. He was 35. Kapaun was buried in a shallow grave, and the location of his remains remained a mystery for nearly 70 years.

Recovering and identifying Kapaun's remains

Shortly after the Korean War ended in 1953, nearly 900 sets of unidentified remains were returned from North Korea. They were buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, known as the "Punchbowl." The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, part of the U.S. Department of Defense, maintains a laboratory at the Punchbowl where it helps identify remains. In 2019, it began working through the unidentified remains from Korea. Earlier this year, defense officials said Kapaun's remains were identified using dental records and DNA provided by Eugene Kapaun, Father Kapaun's brother and Ray Kapaun's father.

Discover more about Father Emil Kapaun, war hero and candidate for sainthood. 

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