ARLINGTON, Va.—Korean War hero and Catholic U.S. Army Chaplain Father Emil J. Kapaun performed courageous deeds worthy of the Medal of Honor because he “chose to live his life for others and not for himself” in imitation of Jesus Christ. That was the central message of a speech Thursday by the Reverend Monsignor John J.M. Foster, J.C.D., Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, to dozens of Medal of Honor holders, their friends, relatives, and other VIPs at a luncheon sponsored by American Airlines’ military veterans initiatives program at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City. The luncheon was timed to coincide with National Medal of Honor Day.
Father Kapaun died of pneumonia on May 23, 1951, in a North Korean prisoner-of-war camp, six months after he and members of the Army’s 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division were taken prisoner in battle by Chinese communists at Unsan, Korea. His fellow prisoners remember the fearless priest from Pilsen, Kansas, for the way he intervened to save the life of a wounded U.S. soldier lying in a ditch as an enemy combatant stood over him aiming to fire a fatal shot, carried the soldier on the long march to a POW camp, and as winter set in, provided some of his own clothing to those suffering from freezing temperatures and snuck past guards to forage rice and potatoes from surrounding fields while they starved on tiny rations of millet, corn and birdseed, as well as many other acts of valor and generosity.
In his speech, Msgr. Foster recounted some of those other acts for which Father Kapaun is remembered: everything from sharing his pipe of Prince Albert tobacco to encouraging a fellow prisoner with the words, “Have faith, have faith. Don’t give up. We’ll get out of here someday,” shaping scraps of tin into pans for boiling water, inventing games to keep the minds of his fellow POWs off their situation, washing clothes and picking the lice off those too weak to do it themselves, and leading the American officers in singing “America the Beautiful” and the “Star Spangled Banner” to keep up morale.
“The personal qualities of character possessed by Father Kapaun and the person he was may—arguably—be found to a greater degree in all three-thousand five-hundred persons awarded the Medal of Honor than in the rest of us,” Msgr. Foster said. “Yet we, too, possess those qualities of character, those virtues. Indeed, Father Kapaun’s Catholic upbringing taught him that virtues must be practiced to become second nature and perfected in us. That’s a good lesson for each of us today. Courage, generosity, forgiveness, adaptability, good humor, kindness, and self-sacrifice must be practiced day in and day out.”
Msgr. Foster noted that “Father Kapaun was born on April 20, 1916, which that year was Holy Thursday in the Catholic liturgical calendar. While some may see it as coincidence, it must surely be Divine Providence that the Gospel passage proclaimed at Mass that day ended with these words of Jesus: ‘If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do’ (Jn 13:14–15).”