The Korean war was one of the most brutal conflicts in human history. Millions lost their lives in a three year span, many of them from the bitter cold. When the war ended in 1953, a group of American POW’s emerged from the darkness of a prison camp bearing an almost four foot high crucifix made from firewood, with a crown of thorns woven from radio wire. They wouldn’t leave the hell they’d survived without it. It was made by a Jewish POW in honor of the Catholic chaplain that men of every faith loved: Fr. Emil Kapaun.
Fr. Kapaun grew up in rural Kansas. He was baptized at the parish his parents were married in and eventually served as pastor there, but he felt the call to leave the comforts of home to become a military chaplain.
As a chaplain he was known for his intense devotion to the soldiers who he called, “my boys.” He traveled thousands of miles celebrating masses for them, often using the hood of his jeep as the altar.
On November 2, 1950, Fr. Kapaun was among a few thousand US soldiers overrun by 20,000 Chinese Communist soldiers. In the ensuring chaos he ran among fox holes, past the front lines, and into no man’s land to drag the injured to safety, comfort the wounded, and anoint the dying. He continued his work even after the call to evacuate.
He came upon one wounded soldier, Sgt. Herbert Miller, with an enemy soldier standing over him, aiming his rifle and about to pull the trigger. Fr. Kapaun pushed the soldier aside and picked Sgt. Miller off the ground. The communist soldier could have killed them both but stood there, stunned by the courage of the unarmed chaplain.
After the fighting ceased the captured soldiers were sent on a death march to a prison camp. Any person straggling or too wounded to continue was shot. For about 40 miles, he alternated between helping Sgt. Miller walk and carrying him. He also helped other men complete the march, picking them up when they fell and encouraging them to press on.
At the prison Camp Fr. Kapaun offered his clothes to the cold. He risked his life, somehow managing to sneak out to nearby villages for extra food for the men who were on starvation rations. He made a bowl to boil water to save them from dysentery, washed their clothes, and tended their wounds. It’s not just big stuff like starting a movement that makes someone a Saint. Sometimes it’s small acts of kindness in extreme circumstances.
He prayed Mass when he could and led the men in prayer services. On Easter he celebrated a prayer service and led the POW’s in songs of praise that erupted throughout the whole camp.
The guards hated him for the hope he brought to the prisoners. They tortured him, made him stand naked in the freezing cold, and “educated” him for hours on end about communism. When Fr. Kapaun got sick the guards seized their chance to be rid of him. They took him to a place the prisoners referred to as the “death house” to end his life. No one ever came back alive.
The prisoners were in tears as they carted him off, but he comforted them saying, “I”m going to where I’ve always wanted to go, and when I get there I’ll say a prayer for all of you.” The last image they have of him is Fr. Kapaun blessing the guards as he was taken to his death and praying out loud, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Fr. Kapaun is the most highly decorated chaplain in US military history. Nine of the men he had helped survive that prison camp were present when he was finally awarded the medal of honor in 2013, including Sgt. Miller, who he had carried through that 40-mile death march 63 years before.
No doubt, there are many stories like Fr. Kapaun’s that we’ll never learn of on this side of eternity: men who died far from home, who laid down their lives for their friends in the course of war. But when the story of human history is done, death, darkness, and evil don’t get the final word. The love of God does. That love burns bright in the hearts of the saints, illuminating even the darkest of places.