AMAC Exclusive – by Eleanor Vaughn
Pilsen, Kansas, is a town so small it’s never been incorporated. Located 40 miles south of the boyhood home of Dwight D. Eisenhower, it’s little more than a handful of homes and a red brick Catholic church not far from the highway. Yet this quiet town hummed with excitement this week as, after seventy years, one of America’s greatest heroes finally returned home.
Father Emil Kapaun was born on April 20, 1916 in Pilsen. After becoming the first native of his hometown to be ordained in 1940, he became an assistant pastor in his home parish before joining the Army as a chaplain. After some service near the end of World War II, he came back to the United States before again shipping out to serve in the Korean War, rising to the rank of Captain. During the battle of Unsan, with his battalion surrounded, Father Kapaun fearlessly faced down enemy fire to provide comfort and reassurance to the outnumbered American forces, dragging wounded men to safety and encouraging others to continue the fight.
After all able-bodied American troops were ordered to evacuate, Father Kapaun stayed behind. He negotiated with a Chinese officer to ensure the safety of the wounded American troops who were unable to escape. After his capture, despite the risk to his own life, he saved an American serviceman from execution by shoving the would-be executioner aside. As a prisoner of war, he risked his life by foraging for food for others, caring for the sick, and encouraging the other prisoners to continue practicing their faith despite strict Communist prohibitions against religion. Finally, after months of inhumane treatment, Father Kapaun succumbed to illness and, at the age of thirty-five, died on May 23, 1951.
In light of his heroic actions, Pope John Paul II took the first step toward his possible canonization to sainthood by naming Father Kapaun a Servant of God in 1993. In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded Father Kapaun the Congressional Medal of Honor. For years, his body was unidentified, one of thousands of unknown casualties of the Korean War, and some worried he had been buried in an unmarked mass grave, never to be found again. But in a Providential turn of events, he was found to have been lying peacefully in the Punchbowl, a scenic military cemetery in Hawaii, surrounded by other unidentified soldiers from the Korean War. After months of testing, his identity was confirmed by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and now he has returned to Kansas.
To be awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor, one must go “above and beyond the call of duty.” The same could be said about becoming a saint. But Father Kapaun isn’t the only one in this homecoming story who went above and beyond the call of duty.
His mother, Bessie Kapaun, lit a candle for his return every week. She did this for so long that she was able to have a cross made (https://www.kansas.com/news/special-reports/father-kapaun/article254320498.html and https://www.kansas.com/sports/varsity-kansas/varsity-football/article254523822.html) out of the matches. The people of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency spent countless hours looking, testing, and re-testing samples, to confirm that they had found Father Kapaun’s body. His fellow POWs kept his legacy alive, telling his story to his family, his community, and eventually, the whole world. From Korea, to Hawaii, to Kansas, those touched by Father Kapaun, including many who never met him, have gone above and beyond.
So, finally, after seventy years, Father Kapaun has made it home. He first returned to St. John Nepomucene, the church where he was once assistant pastor, where the people who have waited and prayed could see him once more. Pilsen, Kansas once more embraced its most beloved son.
Then Pilsen did a most extraordinary thing. It said goodbye to Father Kapaun again. His body left St. John Nepomucene and Pilsen and travelled the sixty-six miles of highway to Wichita, to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. There, with his dog tag hanging from his casket and the faithful lining the way, he was laid to eternal rest. As it did seventy-two years ago, Pilsen let Father Kapaun go, to share him with the world.
It’s a story whose ending started with love. Father Kapaun loved his men, his mother loved her son, Pilsen loved its priest, and the POWs loved their chaplain. All of this love fed hope, even when there was no reason to hope. In the face of the encroaching enemy, the hope of a chaplain who believed that staying behind could save lives. The hope of a faithful son who believed that eternity was waiting outside of the walls of a POW camp. In the face of impossible loss, the hope of a mother who kept praying, week after week, for a son who would not come home in her lifetime. The hopes of prisoners, the people of Pilsen, and believers everywhere who kept the faith that Father Kapaun could be found and brought home to rest.
This hope turned into work. Those who had been imprisoned with Father Kapaun told his story far and wide, to any and all who would listen, because they refused to leave him behind, lost in a mass of bodies or forgotten in the mists of time. Scientists and researchers, using old records and new techniques, worked to identify one body from among thousands. It was not easy, and it was not fast. But they did it.
The truth is that sometimes good men die without seeing home again, but that does not mean they will be forgotten. Mothers are not always reunited with their sons in this life, but those sons can still come home. Sometimes, hope means working without seeing the end of the tunnel, because the goal is noble and the pursuit is just.
But sometimes, we get to see the work pay off. After seventy years, the hopes of his family and friends have finally been realized. Father Kapaun is home once more, the ordinary son of Pilsen made extraordinary by love.
Eleanor Vaughn is a writer who lives in Virginia.