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Kapaun Chapel is named after Chaplain (Capt.) Emil Joseph Kapaun, a Kansas native and posthumous recipient of the Medal of Honor.
Kapaun Chapel is named after Chaplain (Capt.) Emil Joseph Kapaun, a Kansas native and posthumous recipient of the Medal of Honor. (U.S. Army)

HONOLULU, Hawaii (Tribune News Service) — None of his family or his closest Korean War compatriots thought Tuesday’s events were possible, not in 70 years.

But the day has come. And Father Emil Kapaun can come home to Kansas now.

Farm boy. Catholic priest. U.S. Army chaplain. Defiant prisoner of war who stole food and medicine right under the noses of camp guards. Medal of Honor recipient, possible Roman Catholic saint — and now, finally, a long-lost son of Kansas returning to a family that can lay him to rest.

On Tuesday, 70 years after he died in a North Korean prisoner of war camp, U.S. Defense Department searchers for missing soldiers gave the hero’s remains to his family in a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

The searchers, along with Bishop Carl Kemme and others from the Diocese of Wichita, made a human tunnel outside the Senator Daniel I. Inouye Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency laboratory building, where they had identified his remains in March.

An honor guard made up of men and women from all branches of the military escorted Kapaun’s flag-draped remains outside past more than 50 saluting soldiers on one side and white coated lab anthropologists and lab technicians on the other.

Ray and Lee Kapaun walked a few steps behind, with Johnie Webb beside them; Johnie is a deputy director of the Hawaii based search teams and a legend among former POWs and fellow MIA searchers.

Ray wept as the hearse took his uncle.

U.S. Army chaplain Fr. Emil Kapaun died in a prisoner of war camp in Korean on May 23, 1951. On April 11, 2013, former President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Kapaun, credited with saving hundreds of soldiers during the Korean War, the Medal of Honor.
U.S. Army chaplain Fr. Emil Kapaun died in a prisoner of war camp in Korean on May 23, 1951. On April 11, 2013, former President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Kapaun, credited with saving hundreds of soldiers during the Korean War, the Medal of Honor. (U.S. Army)

“You guys really did this right.” Ray told Johnie.

“We’re glad to provide every honor he deserves,” Johnie said. “All of us are glad to be a small part of the effort to send him home.”

For Ray, this day was the latest tribute in a wild six months since his phone rang at his home on Whidbey Island in Washington State in March; a U.S. Army soldier told him the Defense Department had found his uncle, who starved to death in 1951 after saving many fellow starving prisoners of war in North Korea.

In the weeks after his uncle’s identification Ray traveled; he talked many times to the few surviving POWs who revered their chaplain friend.

In June he flew to Hawaii, where he touched the bones of the uncle he’d never met. On the lab table where Kapaun’s bones lay, Ray placed items from the priest’s long-dead parents: Bessie Kapaun’s rosary, Enos Kapaun’s scratched and worn pocket watch. A small container of Kansas prairie dirt scraped from the soil of the old Kapaun farm southwest of Pilsen, in central Kansas.

Ray made many calls after March. He talked with the POW William Funchess, who in 1951 hugged Father Kapaun night after night trying to warm the dying man’s body. Funches died only weeks after Ray called him.

Ray talked many times with the former POW Mike Dowe, who wrote Father Kapaun’s first Medal of Honor recommendation in 1954. He visited — and hugged — the POW Robert McGreevy in Maryland, who struggles now to stand. At the battle of Unsan, where they were both captured in 1950, McGreevy had been a 19-year-old soldier who saw Kapaun repeatedly ignore officers’ orders to evacuate; Kapaun instead gathered a knot of soldiers. “Some of you aren’t going to make it,” Kapaun said. “I’m going to give you the last rites.”

Dowe has said the POWs who revere Kapaun all thought his body would never be found, they thought the Chinese guards in North Korea had rolled his body into one of the many mass graves that were dug in Camp Five, where they were imprisoned. More than 1,400 of the 3,000 American and Allied prisoners in Camp Five starved or froze to death in the first winter of the war.

But the Chinese in 1954 had sent 4,200 sets of remains south after the war.

The odds were long that one set might be those of Father Kapaun. Not only was 4,200 only a fraction of those killed in North Korea, but the Army had found it impossible in the mid-1950s to identify more than 850 of those Korean War remains.

They buried them as “unknowns” in the Punchbowl, an ancient volcanic crater now called the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. In August 2019, as part of a concerted effort to finally identify the Korean War unknowns, soldiers dug up hundreds of sets of remains and sent them to the Pearl Harbor laboratories for analysis.

Ray Kapaun poses with President Barack Obama after receiving the Medal of Honor on behalf of his uncle, Father Emil Kapaun.
Ray Kapaun poses with President Barack Obama after receiving the Medal of Honor on behalf of his uncle, Father Emil Kapaun. (Stars and Stripes)

In March, to the surprise of his friends and family, scientists using DNA and other investigative methods identified Kapaun’s remains.

Finding him at last was a shock to Ray and Father Kapaun’s surviving POW friends. “It’s like somebody up above was making this happen,” former POW Dowe said.

Ray Kapaun has worked relentlessly since March to make this reunion of loved ones about more than him or his family. Dowe and the other POWs years ago all became like second fathers to him.

For Dowe it was a gathering of brothers. In May 1951, while Kapaun lay sick and starved, Dowe and other POWS got into a shoving match with camp guards when the guards came to take Kapaun away to what they called a hospital and what the POWS called “The Death House.” “They got aggressive with their bayonets,” Dowe said. The enfeebled and sick Americans relented only when Kapaun himself told them to stop fighting.

Those men can rest easy now.

He’s coming home.

___

(c)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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