In 1950, the men in his POW camp simply knew him as "padre." A fellow POW has referred to the padre as the bravest man he ever knew and even "God's man." It may be called the "forgotten war," but those who knew the padre have ensured his name is remembered by all.
Army Chaplain (Capt.) Emil J. Kapaun, truly led his life by example. He returned to service as a military chaplain in 1949, after already having served during World War II. This commitment put him in harm's way again as the Korean War began, and he was sent to the front lines. It was there he began to earn respect and admiration from his fellow soldiers, as he risked his life continuously to minister and provide aid to the wounded.
'The Bravest Man I Ever Knew'
"I was enlisted, so I knew of Father out on the front lines," said Robert McGreevy, Korean War veteran and former prisoner of war. "Bullets were flying everywhere, but he still went out and took care of the dying. He was the bravest man I ever knew."
During the Battle of Unsan in November of 1950, Kapaun's unit was overrun; they retreated to safety, but he insisted on staying behind to help the wounded, dying and those who could not help themselves. Because of that, he was captured and taken to a prisoner of war camp more than 60 miles away. Along the way, Kapaun continued to help the wounded and encouraged others to do the same. He urged his fellow soldiers to do the right thing in the face of what they presumed to be certain death.
"Father saved our lives, really," McGreevy said. "He kept morale up; told us not to give up hope. Everyone who knew him idolized him in those moments."
Kapaun consistently taught the men at the prison camp what it means to live selflessly. He continued to care for, comfort and encourage the men. He risked his own life time and time again by stealing food or medicine from the guards or offering his own daily rations to his fellow prisoners in order to keep them alive longer. McGreevy said every man who was with him in that camp has preached for more than 70 years that Kapaun was a true hero, a "miracle man."
After more than six months at the prison camp, Kapaun's deteriorated health and malnutrition caused him to develop pneumonia, which he never recovered from. He died on May 23, 1951. The men who did make it out of Prison Camp #5 alive wholeheartedly believe it was because of their padre, McGreevy said.
A Growing Legacy
Despite Kapaun being buried at the camp and classified as unaccounted-for for decades, his story left that camp by way of the survivors. They shared his story as often as they could and told the world how their lives were saved because of him.
"I can't thank the POWs enough," said Ray Kapaun, the chaplain's nephew. "They came out of that camp and told his story. If not for them, Father Emil [Chaplain Kapuan] would have been another unknown soldier, but they gave him his legacy. They basically gave me my uncle; they let me see what my uncle was and what kind of life he led. I can't give them enough thanks and praise."
And Kapaun's legacy did grow. In 1993, Kapaun was officially named a Servant of God, which began his road to sainthood. In 2008, the Cause for the Canonization of Chaplain Kapaun was officially launched. In 2013, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Ray Kapaun accepted the honor from President Barack Obama on his uncle's behalf. And, in 2015, Kapaun's formal life story and works — called the positio — was officially sent up to the Congregation for Saints in Rome. The congregation was getting ready to vote on Kapaun's advancement to the next step toward sainthood just before the pandemic hit, which paused the process.
Final Journey Home
In May 2021, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced that Kapaun's remains had been positively identified. His remains had been interred in a grave marked "unknown" at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu in 1956. They were disinterred in 2019 as part of DPAA's Korean War Disinterment Project, and Kapaun was finally identified. The priest’s nephew, Ray Kapaun, and his family traveled to the DPAA facility at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, for a chain of custody ceremony on Sept. 21, 2021. That began the chaplain's final journey home after more than 70 years.
"To actually be here and have the honor to meet him and to lay my hands on his bones when he's never been seen, but so widely known, it's just exhilaration, it's happiness, it's tugging and ripping your heart out," Ray Kapaun said. "It's everything, but sad."
Ray said his grandmother, until her dying day, never gave up hope that her son would be home one day. She never stopped believing, praying that he would return. He said he's overjoyed to be the one to finally grant his grandmother's wish.
As dozens of service members lined up to salute Chaplain Kapaun as he departed the DPAA facility, Ray's eyes filled with tears. Despite feeling like the closing of a long chapter in their family's history book, Ray said he doesn't see this moment as the end of his uncle's story.
"Closure has kind of a sad meaning," Ray said. "To me, it's a continuation of his legacy, a growing of his legacy. Now, more people are going to know what Father Emil did, more people are going to know how he lived his life."
In fact, Ray hopes the monumental news of his beloved uncle's return home after all these decades will help shed light on Kapaun's canonization process and maybe even expedite the process a bit. McGreevy agreed.
"It's a wonderful miracle they were able to find him, so this is a way to share his legacy," McGreevy said. "Everyone who knows Father sees him as a saint already. I just pray every day it happens in my lifetime. He was God's man."
In the meantime, the Kapaun family is honored to escort him home to Kansas and give him the honorable burial he so deserves. As a true testament to his impact on the world, several thousand seats were reserved for those who wanted to honor Kapaun at the Sept. 29 funeral in Wichita. It's a ceremony that the now 90-year-old McGreevy said he would walk all the way from Maryland to attend.
"I think the greatest thing for me is the POWs who are still alive can finally say that their padre is coming home," Ray said.