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Chaplain gets Medal of Honor 62 years after death

By Sharon Cohen

Associated Press

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

He'd pray to St. Dismas, the Good Thief, before he foraged in sheds and fields, stuffing corn, peaches and other food in his pockets, then giving it all to starving soldiers.

He'd drag the injured into ditches, risking enemy attack, or haul them on stretchers in the snow, gently urging others to do the same. "Come on boys," he'd say, "Let's help these guys."

He'd hop on his rickety bike — his Jeep had been demolished — every time he heard gunfire, racing toward the action, zipping across rice paddies in his knit cap fashioned from a sweater arm.

"He figured somebody needed help or last rites," Wood says. "We used to call him To-The-Sound-of-the-Guns Kapaun."

Wood recalls how the chaplain once joined him on the front lines when the lieutenant volunteered to deliver ammunition to some troops. As he raced up the hill, Kapaun appeared with bandoliers wrapped around him.

"What are you doing, father?" a surprised Wood asked.

"I'm going with you, son," the chaplain told the lieutenant, who at 22 was about a dozen years younger.

About halfway up, they were fired upon, Wood says. Both jumped into a ditch. The trusty pipe Kapaun had clenched between his teeth had been reduced to a mere stem.

"Father, you still want to go?" Wood asked.

"Keep going, son," Kapaun replied.

Such feats were cited when it was announced in March that Kapaun would receive the Medal of Honor. The White House and Army cited the chaplain's "extraordinary heroism" during the Battle of Unsan in Korea, walking through "withering enemy fire" to comfort and provide medical help, staying with the troops though capture was almost certain, leading prayers at the risk of punishment and resisting re-education programs by the Chinese Communists.

Also mentioned was an incredible life-saving episode.

It was November 1950 when Chinese soldiers overran the U.S. troops near Unsan. Sgt. Herbert Miller, a hardened World War II vet, was huddled in a ditch, his ankle broken from a grenade attack. He played dead for a time, hiding beneath the corpse of an enemy soldier. But he was ultimately discovered by another.

Miller picks up the story six decades later:

"He pointed his gun at my head. I was looking into the barrel. I figured to myself: 'This is it. I'm all done.'"

Then almost miraculously, Miller saw a slender GI approaching across a dirt road. As he neared, Miller noticed a small cross on the soldier's helmet. Kapaun simply pushed the enemy aside — shockingly, without retribution.

"Why he never shot him," Miller says, "I'll never know. I'll never know. ... I think the Lord was there directing him what to do."

Kapaun reached down, scooped up Miller and carried him on his back as they were taken captive.

"Put me down. You can't carry me," Miller repeatedly told Kapaun. And he recalls the chaplain's reply:

"If I put you down, they'll shoot you."

Kapaun carried the wounded sergeant, or supported him, hobbling on one foot, until they arrived days later at the village of Pyoktong, where a POW camp was eventually established.

It was there on Easter Sunday 1951 that Kapaun, defying his captors, conducted Mass with a makeshift crucifix on a brilliantly sunny day. At the end of the service, Dowe recalls, the hills and valley echoed with the prisoners singing "America The Beautiful."

By then, Kapaun, a patch covering one injured eye, was very sick. About a week later, he almost died from a blood clot in his leg. But he kept going.

"As the kids say, he didn't just talk the talk, he walked the walk," Wood says. "When I think about him, I get all choked up. It was chaos. It was hell. To have this one man who still had the spark of civility in him — it was an inspiration."

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