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'He Finally Gets To Come Home': Remains Of Medal Of Honor Recipient Father Emil Kapaun Identified

Catholic Diocese of Wichita
Father Emil Kapaun is shown celebrating Mass from the hood of his jeep in Korea in 1951. Kapaun died in a North Korean POW camp and Department of Defense officials say they have identified his remains.

When Ray Kapaun’s cell phone rang Thursday morning in his house north of Seattle, he didn’t recognize the number — so he let it go to voicemail.

“My wife came out, she goes, ‘You may want to listen to this message,’ ” Ray Kapaun recalled. “‘It's from somebody at Fort Knox about your uncle.”

Ray’s uncle is Father Emil Kapaun, a Medal of Honor recipient who died in a North Korean prisoner of war camp in 1951. He was buried in a shallow grave there.

But it turns out his remains, along with other soldiers, were returned to the U.S. shortly after the end of the Korean War. They were buried at the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, informally known as the “Punchbowl.”

Ray Kapaun called Fort Knox back, though he still thought it might be a prank. Only after asking more detailed questions did he realize it was true.

“All of us in our family never thought we would ever have this happen,” Kapaun said. “I mean … you always hoped, and you always prayed that it would, but you know … “

Ray Kapaun said his uncle’s remains were recently identified using dental records and DNA provided by Eugene Kapaun, Father Kapaun’s brother and Ray’s father.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, part of the U.S. Department of Defense, maintains a laboratory near the Punchbowl where it helps identify remains.

Defense officials say more than 7,000 U.S. troops are still unaccounted for from the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 until 1953. About 5,000 were lost in North Korea.

Ray Kapaun said he once visited the lab during a business trip to Hawaii.

“When you walk that cemetery out there and see all the unknown soldiers that are still out there, it was amazing that they were able to identify his remains,” he said. “I mean, it's hard to describe what that feeling is right now, actually.”

Ray Kapaun receives the Medal of Honor for his uncle, Father Emil Kapaun, from President Barack Obama in a 2013 ceremony at the White House.

Father Kapaun was born in 1916 in Pilsen, a small farming community in Marion County. 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 an Army chaplain in World War II before returning to Kansas to serve as a parish priest. He enlisted again and was among the first troops that landed in Korea after war broke out in June 1950.

He 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.”

When American forces pulled back, Kapaun declined to retreat and stayed behind with the wounded soldiers. He later helped negotiate a safe surrender to Chinese forces, sparing the lives of the wounded.

He was initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest military decoration. But his fellow soldiers lobbied on his behalf for more than 60 years before Kapaun was awarded the highest military award, the Medal of Honor, in 2013 by President Barack Obama.

Ray Kapaun represented the family at the White House ceremony and a later ceremony at the Pentagon, where Father Kapaun is part of the Hall of Heroes.

After his capture and imprisonment, Father Kapaun 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.

He died in May 1951 after falling ill. He was 35.

His actions in the POW camp led the Vatican to name Kapaun a Servant of God in 1993, the first step in the long process to sainthood. He would become just the fourth American-born saint if he is canonized.

Ray Kapaun said he has been in touch with the Catholic Diocese of Wichita about Father Kapaun’s burial.

“Because of the sainthood process that's going on right now, a lot of thought has to be given to that as far as the safety of the remains,” Ray Kapaun said.

He said the family should have a better idea of burial arrangements in a few weeks.

Father Kapaun’s parents are buried in Pilsen. His Medal of Honor also was given to the town, as Eugene Kapaun had requested before he died.

Ray Kapaun said he never knew his uncle; he was born after he died. But he spent summers on the family farm in Pilsen and listened to the stories his grandmother, Bessie, told about her son.

“She never gave up that hope that he was going to come home,” Ray Kapaun said of Bessie. “And, so he finally gets to come home.”

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 a board member of the Public Media Journalists Association, serving as small station representative, a volunteer coach for League 42 and an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.