Chaplain gets Medal of Honor 62 years after death

By Sharon Cohen

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, April 7 2013 12:00 p.m. MDT

In this Sunday, June 3, 2001 photo, Eugene Kapaun, left, and Bishop Eugene Gerber look at the statue honoring Chaplain Emil Kapaun at its unveiling at St. John Nepomucene Church in Pilson, Kan. Kapaun served in the Korean War and died in a prisoner of war camp on May 23, 1951. Soldiers who knew him never forgot the plain-spoken chaplain who urged them to keep their spirits up and is credited with saving hundreds of soldiers during the Korean War. On April 11, 2013, President Barack Obama will award Kapaun the Medal of Honor posthumously.

The Wichita Eagle, Dave Williams, Associated Press

In the cold, barren hills of Korea more than 60 years ago, two teary-eyed soldiers stood in a prisoner of war camp where their chaplain lay dying.

The Rev. Emil Kapaun was weak, his body wracked by pneumonia and dysentery. After six brutal months in the hellish camp, the once sturdy Kansas farmer's son could take no more. Thousands of soldiers had already died, some starving, others freezing to death. Now the end was near for the chaplain.

Lt. Mike Dowe said goodbye to the man who'd given him hope during those terrible days. The young West Point grad cried, even as the chaplain, he says, tried to comfort him with his parting words: "Hey, Mike, don't worry about me. I'm going to where I always wanted to go and I'll say a prayer for all of you."

Lt. Robert Wood wept, too, watching the Roman Catholic chaplain bless and forgive his captors. He helped carry Kapaun out of the mud hut and up a hill on a stretcher after Chinese soldiers ordered he be moved to a hospital, a wretched, maggot-filled place the POWs dubbed "the death house." There was little or no medical care there. Kapaun died on May 23, 1951.

These two soldiers — and many more — never forgot their chaplain. Not his courage in swatting away an enemy soldier pointing a gun at a GI's head. Not his talent for stealing food, then sneaking it to emaciated troops. Not the inspiring way he rallied his "boys," as he called them, urging them to keep their spirits up.

The plain-spoken, pipe-smoking, bike-riding chaplain was credited with saving hundreds of soldiers during the Korean War. Kapaun (pronounced Kah-PAHWN) received the Distinguished Service Cross and many other medals. His exploits were chronicled in books, magazines and a TV show. A high school was named for him. His statue stands outside his former parish in tiny Pilsen, Kan.

But one award, the Medal of Honor, always remained elusive.

Dowe and other POWs had lobbied on and off for years, writing letters, doing interviews, enlisting support on Capitol Hill. Dowe's recommendation was turned down in the 1950s.The campaign stalled, then picked up steam decades later. Kapaun's "boys" grew old, their determination did not.

Now it has finally paid off.

On April 11, those two young lieutenants, Dowe and Wood, now 85 and 86, will join their comrades, Kapaun's family and others at the White House where President Barack Obama will award the legendary chaplain the Medal of Honor posthumously.

"It is about time," Dowe says.

Even now, Father Kapaun's story may still have one final chapter: sainthood.

The Korean conflict is sometimes called "the forgotten war," overshadowed by the global cataclysm of World War II and the nation's long struggle in Vietnam.

For veterans, though, there are vivid war memories: the desperation of eating weeds plucked from the dirt, the horror of discovering buddies who'd died overnight, the evanescent joy of taking a few puffs on their chaplain's pipe. Many men of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry regiment, credit Kapaun for their survival, emotionally and physically.

"He's in my prayers every night," Dowe says. "I ask him to help me rather than asking God to help him."

Dowe first talked about the chaplain in a told-to story in the Jan. 16, 1954, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. He described Kapaun as "the bravest man" and "best foot soldier" he'd ever known, a humble guy with a wry sense of humor (he made a game of counting lice on their uniforms) and a fierce desire to help others.

Every POW remembers something special about what Kapaun did to help the soldiers.

He'd pound rocks on bombed-out tin roofs to shape them into pans he used to wash the wounded.

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