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Why does Father Emil Kapaun's story still resonate after 70 years? A filmmaker explores

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Courtesy photo
Travis Heying holds Father Emil Kapaun’s Medal of Honor in front of a monument at the Punchbowl, a national military cemetery in Hawaii.

Wichita Eagle photographer and videographer Travis Heying produced a 2009 documentary about Father Emil Kapaun, the Korean War hero and candidate for sainthood.

He’s working on another about Kapaun’s remains being identified 70 years after he died in a Korean prisoner of war camp.

In a photo released by the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, Kapaun says Mass in the field during the Korean War.
In a photo released by the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, Kapaun says Mass in the field during the Korean War.

Wichita Eagle photographer and videographer Travis Heying produced a documentary in 2009 about the life of Father Emil Kapaun. With Kapaun's remains scheduled to return to Kansas this weekend, Heying is working on another video, this one on how the remains were identified 70 years after Kapaun's death in a North Korean prisoner of war camp.

Kapaun, an Army chaplain from Marion County, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his battlefield bravery in Korea. The Vatican also is considering him for sainthood for his efforts to serve others in the POW camp.

Heying and writer Roy Wenzl — who chronicled Kapaun's life in the book, "The Miracle of Father Kapaun" — are in Hawaii this week as the Army transfers Kapaun's remains to his family.

Heying talked with KMUW about the continuing allure of the Kapaun story, his new video and where Kapaun's cause for sainthood stands with the Vatican.

The questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Interview Highlights

You've covered this story for more than a decade now. What continues to draw you to it?

You know, I get asked that question a lot. Why does this story mean so much to you? And you know, if I'm being really honest, I think some people are surprised by that because I'm really not a very religious person.

But I think that Kapaun's life can serve as a great inspiration for all people. I don't think you have to be religious. I don't think you have to be Catholic to be deeply inspired by this man's selfless service to others.

I think Kapaun … really lived his life based on what … he believed the teachings of Jesus really were. And I think that we just need an example like him today now more than ever.

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So you and reporter Roy Wenzl are in Hawaii this week. Explain what you're doing there.

So last March, it was announced that the remains of Father Kapaun had been identified. It turns out those remains have been buried here in Hawaii at the Punchbowl cemetery since the mid- 1950s. This week, those remains are going to be handed back over to the Kapaun family and then loaded onto a commercial airliner and brought back to Wichita this coming Saturday.

So this week we're going to try and accomplish two things: We're doing some interviews with people at a laboratory here that were instrumental in the process of identifying those remains, and then covering the ceremonies that go along with the body coming back to Kansas.

Can you explain how extraordinary it is that his remains were ever identified?

The remains were thought to be buried in a mass grave along the Yalu River in North Korea, and the officers who were with Kapaun in 1951 thought there's just no way they're ever going to find him. The North Koreans are not going to cooperate. We're just never going to get those remains back.

It turned out … there were some extraordinary circumstances that happened around the time that Kapaun died, notably that he was buried separately. And those remains were turned over to the United States during something called Operation Glory at the conclusion of the Korean War. It turns out that Father Kapaun's body was one of those 4,000 and some bodies that were turned over to the United States in 1954 through 1956. And he has been buried as an unknown soldier here at the Punchbowl Cemetery in Honolulu ever since.

In your first video, you interviewed several former POWs who were in the camp with Father Kapaun when he passed away. Have you been in touch with them for this video, and what's their reaction?

I have been in touch with one of the main ones, a POW by the name of Mike Dowe. Mike is instrumental, more so than a lot of them, in terms of when he was freed in 1953, he really just made it his life's mission to tell the story of this man that he believes saved the lives of thousands of his fellow prisoners.

So I went back to Houston in June to pay Mike Dowe another visit and interview him again and talk to him about how he felt about this moment coming. Obviously, Mike is overwhelmed, and Mike, along with one of the other POWs, we'll be coming back to Wichita to pay their respects to this man that they believe saved their life.

Ray Kapaun, who's Father Kapaun's nephew, received the Medal of Honor for him from Barack Obama. I know you know Ray and the family, where are they at right now?

Roy and myself got to know Ray a lot better during this time. And ... we couldn't do this story without his help.

He told me something interesting in the very beginning when all of this was happening and he'd got this call from the Department of Defense saying, "Hey, we identified your uncle." He told me that his wife pulled him aside and just said, "Ray, it's important that you enjoy this moment. I know it's emotional and it's stressful." And I think … he's really enjoyed watching this moment happen.

And when you talk to Ray about it, one thing he will always tell you is that what he cares about more than anything else are those POWs like Mike Dowe. And I know that Ray has a very close relationship with some of those POWs, and he wants to make sure that this moment is as much about them as it is about anything else.

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Travis Heying shoots video of Ray Kapaun at the Punchbowl, a national military cemetery in Hawaii. Ray’s uncle, Father Emil Kapaun, was buried there for 70 years as an unknown soldier before his remains were identified earlier this year.

What story are you trying to tell with your new video?

The story I'm hoping to tell is what an incredible mystery this was to unravel. And there's just so many little parts and so many little things that had to happen in order for us to get to this place where they make this announcement that they've identified his remains.

The second part of the story is just the emotional homecoming of this Kansas war hero, this man that a lot of Catholics back in Kansas already believe is a saint. And that homecoming is going to be incredibly emotional.

You've been to Rome with a group from the Wichita diocese that went to talk with Vatican officials about Father Kapaun's cause for sainthood. What's your sense of the Vatican's perspective of the Father Kapaun story?

The Vatican always moves at their own pace, sometimes that's fast and sometimes that's slow. Right now, the status of Father Kapaun's cause is … he's a Servant of God. Now last March, a year and a half ago when the pandemic was first getting to be a problem, though, there was supposed to be an announcement about a possible elevation of Kapaun's cause to the next level, which would be venerable.

That announcement was pushed back because of the pandemic. And nobody seems to know when that announcement is going to happen.

Hopefully with Kapaun's homecoming and him being in the news, that announcement about his next stage toward sainthood, hopefully that announcement comes soon.

When people ask you about Father Kapaun the person, what's the first thing you tell them?

I just describe him as a true hero. And he did it in ways that we don't normally associate with heroism. He never picked up a gun, and he didn't fight that way. His heroism came through just his selfless actions to help others.

And so when I think about that notion of helping people that need help, I just think there's no better example than Kapaun.

In my lifetime of 24 years of working in journalism, there's just no better example of that selfless service to others that I've ever known.