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Father Emil Kapaun celebrates Mass using the hood of his jeep as an altar, as his assistant, Patrick J. Schuler, kneels in prayer in Korea on Oct. 7, 1950, less than a month before Kapaun was taken prisoner. Kapaun died in a prisoner of war camp on May 23, 1951.
Father Emil Kapaun celebrates Mass using the hood of his jeep as an altar, as his assistant, Patrick J. Schuler, kneels in prayer in Korea on Oct. 7, 1950, less than a month before Kapaun was taken prisoner. Kapaun died in a prisoner of war camp on May 23, 1951. (Raymond A. Skeehan/U.S. Army)

PILSEN, Kansas (Tribune News Service) — When the plane carrying the remains of Korean War hero Father Emil Kapaun landed him back in Kansas at last, Paul Roach rose from his chair on the tarmac and gave his old pal a slow salute. Then he remained standing, and stayed standing for a good 20 minutes.

This is not easy to do with a body in the mid-90s — a body that still feels the aches and other reminders of prolonged Korean War prison camp starvation and other abuses. But when Kapaun's casket came out of the airplane's belly and the seven honor guards gave it the slow salute, Roach stood under the noonday sun and gave his own slow salute, age and frailty be damned.

It was welcome-home time for Kapaun, who befriended Roach in a North Korean prison camp after Roach saw the Army platoon he led get annihilated in 1950. Roach survived more than two years in the prison. Kapaun did not.

Roach came because he's one of a now-tiny band of Kapaun's surviving POW brotherhood. Roach is in poor health, and frail, but he came to represent those POWS, living and dead.

Worried about picking up an illness, he stayed away from the welcome-home crowds at Kapaun's home church on Saturday and Sunday.

And so he missed scenes of awe and joy.

Homecoming for Kapaun

Wearing matching blue T-shirts proclaiming "Home at Last," four pre-teen girls stood waiting with hundreds of others along the side of the road leading into this tiny community on Saturday. The road leads past St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church.

Shortly after 2 p.m. the young girls burst into song — "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America" — sung well, sung in interlocking harmony from much practice. They sang as they watched for the motorcade bearing Kapaun's remains, the cars and blue and red lights coming up from the south, past farms and intersections where summer-tanned farmers and their families sat in roadside chairs to wave him home, past two rows of hundreds of roadside American flags flapping in a light breeze.

The girls are from here; the four of them go to this church and some of them — like Emil Kapaun — were baptized here: Maria Carlson, Kate Wessell, Alexandra Carlson, Gabriel Stuchlik.

The girls waited; the motorcade arrived, rolling into the church lot where hundreds of church people and farmers and town people stood. Some cried, some made the sign of the cross; bearded men took off their billed caps and laid them over their chests.

Time and fate have not been always kind to this town and the surrounding community. It ought to be honored more than it is. Pilsen after all, with its church and few-dozen houses and surrounding wheat fields gave the world Father Emil Kapaun: A Medal of Honor Army chaplain, a possible saint who died saving others, a gentle soul with a spine of steel and a true-life story that sounds like that of a far-fetched movie super-hero.

But whatever its tiny size, and however it is described (a town with one church and one working soda pop machine) this community of farmers and grandmothers and pastry-baking church ladies knows how to worship, how to love, and how to strike awe in the hearts of outsiders. They showed this yet again on Saturday.

A military honor guard carried Kapaun's casket into the church and placed him near the font where he was baptized in 1916, and just a few feet below the altar and lectern where he said Mass and preached homilies, preached not only in English but in Czech, the native language of many of his older fellow Pilsen church-goers in the 1940s. He had taught himself to speak and write in that language as a way to please them.

Father Brian Bebak stepped to the casket, sprinkled it with holy water — then delivered a spare and short message: There would be no Mass celebrated at this moment of Father Kapaun's homecoming; the mass would come later, with the bishop presiding. Today, Bebak told them, there would be only this ritual-free gathering. "Come forward if you want," Bebak said. "If you would like to do so, you can touch your rosaries or other items to the casket."

And the people did so, a few at a time, and did so in an awesome quiet.

They touched the casket with hands and prayer cards, prayer books and prayer rosaries. And as if they knew what was going on, the babies present in the church refrained from fussing.

The people reached out hands to Kapaun one at a time: A woman wearing a traditional Catholic church laced white veil. Another woman, a black laced veil. Girls wearing the blue T-shirts that Harriet Bina had obtained for everyone. Bina herself, bowing her head to kiss the casket, tears streaming; she had known Kapaun's parents, Bessie and Enos Kapaun, had seen the grief in their faces, had heard from friends about the edge in Bessie's voice when Bessie said she didn't want the Army's medals: "I just want my son home."

And now he was home, 72 years after he walked out of the church for the last time. And only a little more than a dozen years or so after the four singing girls were born.

Those girls don't know the worst of Kapaun's story — not yet. They don't know yet all the worst of how he starved, how he gave away his own food to shame fellow prisoners of war to stop stealing from each other. They don't know about the bullets kicking up dust at his feet, or how he reached up a hand to bless the prison camp guards who in May 1951 led him to his death.

But they know enough for now.

"We know that he risked his life for the country, and how he did it for us," Kate Wessell said.

"His story makes you think — about not always worrying about your own comfort," Maria Carlson said.

And so, in the church a few minutes after those girls sang outside, hundreds of people from the church and community came forward to the casket, their babies not crying, their elders not coughing, the feet of Kapaun's people not stirring enough to make more than a light sound of shuffling.

And mothers held their children's hands as the children touched the red, white and blue flag draped over the casket.

Honoring an old friend

On Sunday, there was a happy communal church meal and then Harriet Bina cleared the church of people.

Ray Kapaun, Father Kapaun's nephew, led Paul Roach and his family in. Ray walked Kapaun's old friend arm in arm to the casket.

It was, Roach said, the first time he had stood before Kapaun since the fight with prison guards in which American POWs tried to save his life.

At the casket, Roach pulled a pale blue POW organization cap out of a back pocket.

He laid it on Kapaun's casket. "I want him to have this to represent all those men he helped so much," he said.

Roach sat down near Kapaun for 20 quiet minutes.

Then he stood again, and turned to speak, to Kapaun's family and to his own. He stood for a long time, as he had stood to salute the day before.

In the prison camp in May 1951, the guards who despised and feared the defiant priest and soldier came at last to his prison hut to carry him to what prisoners called the Death House.

"We knew they were going to isolate him and let him die."

Fellow POW Mike Dowe and other Kapaun friends raised the alarm. Dozens of POWs came running or hobbling to the hut, all of them enfeebled by starvation. Some, as Dowe said later, began arguing and shouting, some of them pushing guards armed with rifles tipped with bayonets.

"There were at least 50 of us all ready to fight," Roach told his loved ones. "But Father made us stop. He said, 'Mike, let them take me. I've wanted to go to heaven all my life and meet our savior.' "

Roach paused in his telling. Ray wept, standing beside him.

"And that was the last any of us saw him — until today."

 ©2021 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)

Visit The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.) at www.kansas.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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