The Introduction to The Miracle of Father Kapaun: Priest, Soldier and Korean War Hero | Roy
Some people regard the meek man as one who will not put up a fight for anything but will let others run over him. . . . In fact from human experience we know that to accomplish anything good a person must make an effort; and making an effort is putting up a fight against the obstacles. — Father Emil Kapaun
Emil Kapaun is a rare man. The Vatican is considering whether the priest deserves to be canonized a saint, and the president of the United States is pondering whether the soldier is worthy of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
[Editor's note: Since the publication of The Miracle of Father Kapaun, President Obama awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously to Fr. Kapaun.]
There was nothing remarkable about Emil Kapaun’s childhood or early manhood to suggest that he would become a Korean War hero and might someday be declared a Catholic saint. He grew up on a farm in Kansas, where he was born in the kitchen on April 20, 1916. His parents were pious and hardworking, but so were lots of farmers in America’s heartland.
Kapaun was a good student at the local public school and later at an abbey high school and college, but with his quiet and unassuming manner he did not stand out as exceptional. His early priesthood and military chaplaincy were uneventful.
When we began the research for Kapaun’s story, the chief investigator of his cause for sainthood confided some concerns about his own work. Rev. John Hotze had spent a decade investigating Kapaun for the Vatican. He said one of the frustrating things about talking to Kapaun’s Catholic supporters is that many of them used clichés to describe him—surrounding the man’s actions with choirs of angels singing and playing harps: “He was such a holy man.”
Years ago, some initial Church investigators appeared to seek the same type of descriptions when they questioned Kapaun’s fellow prisoners of war. They asked those survivors of North Korea’s POW camps whether Kapaun prayed fervently” every day; whether he was “holy” at all times; and whether dying soldiers got up and walked immediately after Kapaun had laid his hands on them. Although the questions irritated Kapaun’s battle-scarred friends, they answered them politely enough.
The Kapaun these friends remembered, however, was no painted-plaster saint. He was a regular guy. He did ordinary things. And he stank and looked dirty because the POWs never got to bathe.
Kapaun saved hundreds of lives, said Lt. Mike Dowe, but not “by levitating himself two feet off the ground”. He did practical things, such as boiling water and picking lice— tasks that can seem small but that made a huge difference for malnourished and sick POWs. The mostly soft-spoken man had a temper, Dowe recalled, and he sometimes used colorful language to get his point across.
This gritty reality was just the kind of thing Hotze intended to track down, he explained to us, as clichés would not do the job. Andrea Ambrosi, the Vatican investigator who helped Hotze prepare Kapaun’s documents for the Vatican, had told him that Rome wanted the real Kapaun—warts, rags and all.
The job appealed to Hotze, a Wichita Diocese priest who tells good stories in his Sunday homilies. Hotze knew that many great saints down through the ages had been bad boys before their conversions. Paul and Augustine: notorious. Francis of Assisi: as fond of ladies as he was of wining and dining. Although not everyone makes a dramatic 180-degree turn on his way to his best self, every man is in need of conversion; each one has weaknesses and has done things he regrets. Hotze thought the flawed Kapaun would be not only more believable, but more able to offer hope to those who struggle to overcome their failings.
Hotze gathered for the Vatican stories about Kapaun told by non-Catholic POWs—the Protestants, Jews, agnostics and atheists who had no qualms about relating the priest’s foibles. And so far, Rome has given Kapaun the title Servant of God, the first of four steps toward canonization. Hotze’s approach shaped the way we wrote our own story for the Wichita Eagle in 2009. We too wanted to show Kapaun as he really was.
This book is based on what Kapaun’s fellow soldiers told photographer Travis Heying and me about the priest’s actions in the Korean War. Although we went in search of the real man, we nevertheless heard stories about Kapaun that sounded miraculous, and for newspaper reporters and editors, the miraculous creates challenges. What soldiers say Kapaun did is so heroic that it defies believability. He saved hundreds of lives, they say, while placing his own at risk. How could such a story be written credibly?
Travis and I began our research by calling Dowe, Herb Miller and Kapaun’s other prisoner-of-war friends in June 2009. We drove or flew all over the United States to talk with them. We saw firsthand that they had suffered deeply.
They are still suffering. They choked up sometimes as they told us what they had experienced.
We admired these veterans, but still we wondered whether they had embellished their stories over sixty years of steaks and beers at POW reunion banquets.
One thing that convinced us that Kapaun’s friends were telling us the truth was that they demanded we tell the truth in what we wrote about him. And we found consistency between what they said and the letters and recorded testimonies that the guys had given about Kapaun over the years. Kapaun’s friends do not consider themselves experts on miracles, but they know what they saw, and as far as they are concerned, the man himself was something like a miracle.
By the time we talked to most of them, the secretary of the army and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had learned enough about the already decorated U.S. Army captain to recommend him, posthumously, for the highest military honor in the United States. The Pentagon is in the business of declaring war heroes, not saints. But to many of Kapaun’s eyewitnesses, they amount to the same thing.
One of the striking things we learned about Kapaun was how little he said on any given day. In civilian life, as in camp, he listened more than he talked. He almost never preached. The chaplain did not even bring up the subject of prayer without permission.
On the march, Kapaun sometimes didn’t bother to introduce himself to fellow soldiers as a chaplain or even as an officer. Instead he would throw himself into whatever task they were doing. And then, after the men saw him work harder than any other guy, he would ask whether there was anything more he could do for them, including praying with them.
Some soldiers didn’t care for chaplains, considering them Holy Joes who sermonized while grunts did the dirty work. But they liked Kapaun a lot, and one reason was that he made himself one of them. His way of witnessing Jesus was to spare the platitudes and dig foxholes or latrines alongside sweating soldiers.
Another reason the men liked Kapaun was that he treated everyone with respect. He showed Protestants, Jews, Muslims and nonbelievers the same kindness he bestowed on Catholics. Kapaun’s friends said this quality stuck out because many people, even many practicing Christians, fail in showing regard to those different from themselves. When Kapaun died, the Muslim Turks in camp revered him as much as anybody else did.
That’s who Father Kapaun was. And we know now how he got that way.
In that Kansas farmhouse where he grew up, Kapaun had read the Gospels by kerosene lamplight. In those pages, he had found a hero to imitate—the Jesus who claimed he was divine but who walked among ordinary men, healing them, feeding them, standing up for the weakest among them and dying for them. Jesus won people over more with actions than with words.
In a homily Kapaun prepared for Palm Sunday 1941, while he was still a young parish priest, he wrote that if a crisis ever came, a person who wants to help others should imitate Christ. And that’s what Father Kapaun did.