Father Emil Kapaun always knew he wanted to be a Catholic priest. He accomplished that goal and also became one of the most decorated Army chaplains in America.
He died in a prisoner of war camp during the Korean War but not before saving the lives of countless fellow prisoners. A new book tells his story and also details the campaign to make him a saint. The men he saved and the people in his home state of Kansas already think he is.
Here & Now's Robin Young speaks with Joe Drape about his new book "The Saint Makers: Inside The Catholic Church and How a War Hero Inspired a Journey of Faith."
Book Excerpt: 'Saint Makers'
By Joe Drape
Father Kapaun raced from foxhole to foxhole, as the front lines were now his parish. His helmet sat heavy past his ears; a chalice was attached to his belt. He had taken to carrying two canteens as well as stuffing his knapsack and pockets with apples and peaches he had foraged. He would toss the canteen in first, slide in himself, and then hand over the fruit. Sometimes, Father Kapaun took a minute for some small talk and to pack his pipe with tobacco. He’d offer them a puff.
“You mind a quick prayer?” he’d ask.
No one said no. It didn’t matter whether they were Catholic or not.
Joe Ramirez thought the priest was crazy. Most of the time he was afraid to put his head up, but every time he did he saw the priest bopping around the battlefield while bullets were spraying like a fire hose. A sniper bullet once buzzed close enough to cut the priest’s pipe in half. His jeep and his trailer were blown up, destroying his Mass kit and clothes. Fortunately, he always kept the Eucharist and holy oils in his field jacket. His assistant was shot and sent to the hospital. Not long after, he was side by side with another chaplain, Arthur Mills, a Protestant, when a mortar landed and blew part of his colleague’s leg off.
In one of the villages abandoned by rice farmers, Father Kapaun found an old bicycle. The front tire wobbled, the back tire was practically sideways, but he pedaled it from squad to squad throughout the day, dropping off the water and fruit and praying with his boys.
When the battalion claimed a hill or had run off some Reds, Father Kapaun stacked ammo boxes and balanced a stretcher atop them for a makeshift altar just as he had as a boy for his make-believe Masses. It didn’t matter that mortar fire was landing forty yards away—he shared the Eucharist and stayed to hear confessions from soldiers knowing that they were being sent out to patrols within minutes or hours. All he had to do was look at his blood-soaked uniform and keep track of the number of last rites he gave to dying soldiers to take measure of the carnage that he was in the midst of—his boys had killed thousands, he estimated. He didn’t want to know how many Americans had died. Sadder still were the Korean families he passed as they fled after their villages were destroyed. Mothers were crying as they carried infants and tugged on the hands of their little ones. Behind them, their husbands and sons were pushing wagons with food and meager belongings that they managed to salvage.
Both sides were exhausted, terrified, and on edge. Father Kapaun <<AU: Correct? Edit per action that follows>>was doing reconnaissance with a squadron when they came across a North Korea soldier in a ditch clutching a grenade. The GI’s raised their guns to shoot him. Father Kapaun stepped forward and held out his canteen. He shook it and nodded, “go ahead.” They stared at each other as his boys stared down the barrels of their rifles. Finally, the North Korean took the water and surrendered.
It did not take long for word of the “all man” priest to spread throughout the troops. Father Kapaun did not command anything, but he inspired loyalty, especially among the enlisted men. They watched time after time as he risked his own life to search for the wounded.
In mid-battle, Father Kapaun watched as an officer ordered an assault on a hill dotted with North Koreans, machine guns pointing down on them.
“Is this necessary?” he asked. “Isn’t it kind of dangerous to attack this hill?”
The officer stood down. The North Koreans left without firing a shot.
He could be funny as well. He was sitting in a jeep one afternoon with a rifle propped up next to him. When a startled soldier asked him why he was armed, Father Kapaun smiled: “The Lord helps those who helps themselves.”
Eventually, the fighting subsided. The 1st Cavalry had secured a perimeter near the Nakdong River. While his men got some rest, Father Kapaun wanted to go check on some other companies in the area. He had no way to go see them. The 8th Cavalry was moving through and Father Kapaun tended to those soldiers. He asked an officer, Captain Joseph O’Connor, if he could get some transportation. O’Connor had heard of the chaplain; he told him he could have a jeep.
“No, I don’t want to put you out,” said Father Kapaun, winning another fan.
In mid-August, he finally had a moment to decompress. He needed to write Bishop Carroll. He apologized for the poor condition of the paper and ink that he had scavenged.
“Many thanks for your kindness and remembrances. It must be the prayers of the others which have saved me so far,” he wrote.
Not wanting to alarm his friend and boss, he skipped his near-death experiences and the horrors he had witnessed. He remained upbeat, though, saying that help was on the way in terms of more soldiers and that “we should give them a good licking.”
He assured the bishop that he was performing his spiritual duties, but since he had lost all his records in the jeep explosion he had to guess on the numbers: Sunday Masses drew more than two hundred soldiers. He had heard four hundred confessions, baptized two boys, and prepared another six or eight for their First Confessions and First Communions.
“War is terrible! I feel sorry for the Korean people who have to leave their homes. As the Reds approach, nearly everything is destroyed—homes, lives, and food,” he wrote.
Then Father Kapaun told him what the bishop knew all along.
“I am glad to be with the soldiers in time of need.”
The additional American troops Father Kapaun had prayed for arrived in a surprise attack at Inchon. The amphibious attack behind enemy lines freed up the 1st Cavalry to press on toward Seoul and lifted spirits among the soldiers. The Reds were on the run and Father Kapaun thought the war might be over within weeks. On October 1, 1950, the 1st Cavalry rolled into the village of Ansong around noon, catching its North Korean occupiers by surprise. The firefight was over quickly, and the village, about forty miles south of Seoul, was in American hands. The posters of Joseph Stalin and North Korean ruler Kim Il-sung came down. The flags of the United States and South Korea went up. Enemy soldiers replaced the locals in the village’s jails and refugee camps.
Ansong was the closest Father Kapaun had been to civilization for months. He found his way to the hospital and offered to help with the village’s civilian population. At first, the doctors or nurses could not understand him. He pulled out his rosary beads as well as the stole, or vestment, he wrapped around his neck when saying Mass. Finally, he pointed to the white cross on his helmet and then made the sign of the cross. They understood—a nurse took him out of the hospital and through narrow, twisting alleys until they reached the village’s Catholic church. It had been trashed—the crosses were broken and the statues shattered. The altar, however, was still standing. Father Kapaun told the 1st Cavalry’s interpreters to spread the word that he would conduct Mass the following morning to celebrate the liberation of Ansong.
Alongside some soldiers and villagers, Father Kapaun cleaned up the church the best that they could. The following morning, he was joined by an overflowing local crowd eager to practice their faith in public again. They even provided two Korean altar boys who understood the Mass’s cues and could recite the prayers in Latin. The Koreans could not understand the Americans and the Americans could not understand their hosts, but Father Kapaun knew that here before the altar they spoke a common language. His hosts mobbed him after Mass. They tugged at his garments and hugged him with tears in their eyes. After all the cruelty and death that he had witnessed, Father Kapaun was himself moved to tears. These people had never lost faith.
The 1st Cavalry pushed on to Seoul in good spirits, and those spirits were lifted even more now that South Korea’s capital was under the control of United Nations forces. Now it was on to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, to end the war once and for all. Before crossing the 38th parallel, the regiment stopped in Munsan, a rural town on the south bank of the Imjin River. Father Kapaun found a wheat field on the south side of town that could have been transplanted from the great plains of Kansas. He hung his stole around his neck and spread out an altar cloth on the hood of his jeep. He was hopeful that the end of the war was near.
“Take good care of yourselves,” he told his boys as he finished Mass.
It was a good thing—there were skirmishes along the way to Pyongyang. He continued to ride along with the medics to look for the wounded. One afternoon, they were on their way back to camp with a couple of soldiers in tough shape. Suddenly, the driver was slumped next to him, wounded by machine gun fire. Father Kapaun grabbed the wheel and somehow zigzagged between mortar explosions and bullets pinging the jeep, to get them all to safety.
His fearlessness once again was the talk of the regiment.
On October 19, 1950, members of the 1st Cavalry were on the outskirts of Pyongyang listening to the church bells ring a welcome. The boys had built a pontoon bridge over the Taedong River, and they entered the capital city gingerly. The city showed signs of war—craters, rubble, the smell of munitions. But its more than 500,000 residents were gone, mostly. Father Kapaun, who was now attached to the 8th Cavalry Regiment, was sent to the northern part of the city. Their mission was to secure the perimeter and round up any prisoners. He at least had a bed in what looked like a military academy as well as a shower and, finally, polished combat boots. This was a luxury of civilization compared to the months he spent in the field in sweat-stained, monsoon-soaked clothes. Rations were replaced with meat and vegetables, and the comedian Bob Hope brought a USO show to town.
Father Kapaun, however, was conspicuously absent. He offered daily Masses, but he missed meals and appeared to be preoccupied. One night, Captain O’Connor saw him near a building the battalion had occupied and made as their headquarters. He followed Father Kapaun to a ramshackle hut next door, where he found him sitting on an ammunition box and hunched over a desk made from an ammo crate. He had a pen, paper, and a stack of cards—more than five hundred. On the cards were the names of the men who had been killed in combat. Each also had the name and address of his next of kin, and a remark to let him know whether the soldier had been given his last rites. Father Kapaun was writing personal notes to their loved ones, reassuring them they had died under the loving gaze of Christ. When Captain O’Connor offered to help, Father Kapaun waved him off.
“Thank you,” he said, “but this is a chaplain’s job.”
Excerpted from "The Saint Makers: Inside The Catholic Church and How a War Hero Inspired a Journey of Faith" by Joe Drape. Copyright © 2020 by Joe Drape. Republished with permission of Hachette Book Group.
This segment aired on December 1, 2020.