KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The first time he saw Father (Capt.) Emil Kapaun, Herbert Miller lay in a frozen, blood-stained ditch in North Korea.
It was November 1950 and Miller, an Army sergeant who had parachuted into Normandy, France, on D-Day, had a gun pointed at his head by a Chinese soldier.
Hit by a hand grenade, his ankle broken, Miller figured he was a goner.
But then, seemingly out of nowhere, a soldier bearing a small cross on his helmet appeared.
“Chaplain Kapaun came from across the road,” Miller recalled in a recent phone interview, weeks shy of his 87th birthday. “He pushed that man aside. He picked me up and carried me. We were both captured at that time.
“I kept telling him, ‘You can’t carry me like that. You put me down,’ ” Miller said, worried he was too much of a physical burden for the slender Kapaun. “He said, ‘If I put you down, they’ll shoot you.’ ”
That Kapaun (pronounced kah-PAWN) will finally receive the Medal of Honor more than 60 years after he died in a North Korean prison camp is “a relief,” Miller said from his winter home in Florida. “Without him, a lot of fellows would have never made it.”
Those who lived to tell about Kapaun’s heroics during the Korean War wouldn’t stop talking about him, even after he received the Distinguished Service Cross and other accolades.
They thought he deserved more, Miller said, and so they kept talking about how Kapaun stole food from his captors to feed starving soldiers, somehow sneaking away at night from the officers’ to the enlisted side of the prison camp; how he jumped into foxholes to tend to the wounded, and bolstered the sagging spirits of “his boys” with prayers and tobacco smoked in the stub of a bullet-razed pipe he’d share.
That decades-long persistence has finally paid off.
At a ceremony Thursday at the White House, President Barack Obama will posthumously award the legendary Catholic priest from Pilsen, Kan., the nation’s highest military honor, making him the sixth chaplain to receive the Medal of Honor, according to Army officials. Supporters in the Roman Catholic Church are promoting him for sainthood.
In 1955, the Army named Kapaun Barracks and Kapaun Chapel in Kaiserslautern after him. Kapaun Barracks, the chapel included, was later transferred to the Air Force and renamed Kapaun Air Station.
Several local events commemorating Kapaun’s award are also planned Thursday in Kaiserslautern.
A Catholic Mass, led by Air Force and Army chaplains, will be held at 11:30 a.m. at Kapaun Chapel. Following the service, military officials will lay a wreath at the memorial to Kapaun, a bust of the chaplain erected outside the chapel.
A relay run starting at 3 p.m. by the air station’s Airman Leadership School drill pad is intended to commemorate the 87-mile forced march Kapaun and fellow soldiers made to the prison camp near Pyoktong, North Korea, according to Air Force officials. Each runner or team will start at one-minute intervals for 87 minutes. A retreat ceremony will follow at 5 p.m.
Father (Lt. Col.) Redmond Raux, the deputy chaplain for the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein Air Base, said Kapaun embodied a true military chaplain. “He was there with those he served, through the trials, all the challenges, as he continued to care for those incarcerated with him as POWs.”
The national recognition of Kapaun, he thinks, will make people who work on the air stationand see the chapel memorial reflect on his accomplishments “at a deeper level.”
For civilian Tom Sheputa, who works on Kapaun, it already has. While still in the States, he picked up a DVD about Kapaun, all the more curious about him after receiving orders to Kapaun Air Station.
“What he did was just heroic,” Sheputa said. “He totally sacrificed himself for the good of all the men; it didn’t matter what religious affiliation they were. He saw himself as a servant to all the POWs. That eventually got him into trouble. The Chinese saw what a leader he was and they wanted him out of the picture.”
After coming down with a bout of dysentery accompanied by pneumonia, Kapaun was sent to the camp’s “hospital,” which POWs called the “death house,” a place with little-to-no medical care. Kapaun died two days later, on May 23, 1951.
“It’s hard, you know, to bring him to mind,” said Miller, his voice cracking. “It puts a lump in your throat because he didn’t live to get back here.”