After 60 years and through the determination of prisoner of war friends and author William C. Latham, Father Emil Kapaun will be posthumously receiving a Congressional Medal of Honor next month.
In 1953, when their guards finally released them, POWs walked south carrying a grim-looking, hand-carved, almost 4-foot-long, hand-carved crucifix, from North Korea to South Korea. First they were debriefed by Army officers. Then they carried the crucifix to the war correspondents standing nearby. They said they had a story to tell. They talked for a long time, holding the crucifix like a relic. Within hours, people all over the world heard about a daring and resourceful priest from Kansas who had been murdered by the Chinese guards. His name was Emil Kapaun.
Kapaun’s father was a Czech farmer from Kansas. Before Kapaun joined the Army as a chaplain, he was a priest in his little hometown of Pilsen. Kapaun was recklessly brave on many battlefields, dragging wounded soldiers through machine gun fire, getting a tobacco pipe shot out of his mouth, saving dozens of lives in the battle of Unsan, where he was captured. Kapaun saved hundreds of lives in the camps, making homemade pans so prisoners could boil water to stave off dysentery and stealing food from the guards to feed the starving prisoners.
On Jan. 16, 1954, a story in the Saturday Evening Post brought Kapaun’s heroism to a worldwide audience. But this was not enough; years passed, old soldiers began to die, and people began to lose hope.
Around 2002, Bill Latham entered the picture. Latham began noticing the name “Kapaun” in papers he collected. At reunions, Latham thought there was something wonderful about how soldiers talked about him. They said to him that Kapaun should have received the medal. The old soldiers’ passion for their friend touched Latham. After he heard about Todd Tiahrt’s failed application, he called the congressman’s office. Tiahrt’s staff told Latham that in 2002, Tiahrt had recommended to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that Kapaun be awarded the medal. Rumsfeld rejected it because of lack of “substantiating evidence.” Latham suspected there was plenty of substantiating evidence. He now went to find it.
Read more on how the story unfolds here. For more on Latham’s new book, in which Fr. Kapaun figures prominently, click here.