© 2024 KMUW
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Thousands gather to remember Father Emil Kapaun as he is laid to rest in his native Kansas

Hugo Phan

Services were held in Wichita for Father Emil Kapaun, who died more than 70 years ago in a North Korean prisoner of war camp.

More than 5,000 people gathered at Hartman Arena on Wednesday for a funeral Mass for Father Emil Kapaun.

The service took place more than 70 years after Kapaun died in a North Korean prisoner of war camp.

“Welcome home, Uncle Emil. Home at last,” said Ray Kapaun, Father Kapaun’s nephew, during remarks at the funeral.

Kapaun, an Army chaplain, 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 for his actions in the POW camp, where he helped other prisoners.

“His love was simple, effective, selfless, and deep,” said Wichita Bishop Carl Kemme, who celebrated Wednesday’s Mass. “I never tire of reading the accounts of how in those last months, weeks, and days, he would go at night among the huts of the wounded, the sick and the depressed to do whatever he could to lift their spirits. 

“He would lead them in prayer, sing a song, tell a joke, pick lice off their bodies, boil water in a … helmet to give them a drink of clean water to ward off dysentery. Give them some meager amounts of food he had somehow managed to get even, yes, even by stealing. In short, to do whatever he could to bring light to those who entered into a darkness.”

Kapaun's remains returned to Kansas on Saturday from Honolulu, where he was buried as an unknown soldier in a military cemetery shortly after the Korean War ended. His remains were identified earlier this year.

Wednesday’s crowd included a large number of Catholic clergy from Wichita and throughout the Midwest plus members of the military. It also included students from Kapaun Mount Carmel High School in Wichita.

Kapaun’s casket was placed on the altar by a military honor guard from the 1st Cavalry Division in Fort Hood, Texas. Kapaun was a member of the unit.

The crowd gave a standing ovation to some of the men in attendance who were prisoners of war alongside Kapaun. Some of the POWs made the trip to Pilsen, Kapaun’s hometown, last weekend when his remains were returned there for a few days.

“I can't describe to you what that has been like when these guys would get together and sit and talk about Father, the love that they had for him, the  devotion that they had for him,” Ray Kapaun said during the funeral.

“It truly was what true love meant and what true belief meant because they really would still, to this day, lay down their lives for him.” 

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 of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Wichita. But his casket, draped by an American flag, was empty.

Wednesday’s service was followed by a procession in downtown Wichita, where Kapaun's remains were taken by horse-drawn caisson to the Cathedral from Veterans Memorial Park. 

Thousands of people – many of them students from Catholic schools – lined Central leading up to the Cathedral.

An honor guard took Kapaun's remains inside for a private service. Outside, members of the military fired three volleys in his honor. That was followed by the playing of taps.

Kapaun’s remains were interred in a crypt installed earlier this month.

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 Nov. 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 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.

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 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.

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.

Ray Kapaun, in his closing remarks at Wednesday's funeral, asked people to continue his uncle's example of how one person can make a difference.

“We've got to carry on his passion,” he said. “We've got to keep that name and that word out there to continue to grow like a wildfire burning across the Kansas plain and across this country to make sure nobody forgets what this moment is right now. Nobody forgets what today is.”

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.
Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.