Memorial Day and the “Shepherd in Combat Boots”

U.S. Army chaplain Father Emil Joseph Kapaun, who died May 23, 1951, in a North Korean prisoner of war camp, is pictured celebrating Mass from the hood of a jeep Oct. 7, 1950, in South Korea. He was captured about a month later. The Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award for bravery, was awarded to the priest posthumously at the White House April 11, 2013. (CNS photo/courtesy U.S. Army medic Raymond Skeehan)

For many, Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer, a day of rest to spend with family and friends. But for all Americans, this should be a time to remember the sacrifice of those men and women who, in the words of President Lincoln, “gave the last full measure of devotion,” sacrificing their lives to preserve our freedom.  Masses will be celebrated today at the Catholic cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Washington, to remember those who died in service to the nation, and to pray for loved ones who died this past year.

“No one has greater love than this – to lay down one’s life for one’s friend” (John 15:13).  In recent weeks, Father Emil Kapaun – a Korean War chaplain who embodied those words – was remembered and honored in both a White House ceremony and at an outdoor Mass at Saint Jude Regional Catholic School in Rockville, Maryland.

Father Kapaun died on May 23, 1951, in a prisoner of war camp in North Korea, and he was buried in an unmarked grave. But his faith and his courage were never forgotten, especially not by the soldiers to whom he ministered on the battlefield and in the prison camp.

This man, remembered as “the shepherd in combat boots,” grew up on a family farm outside of Wichita, Kansas. After serving as a chaplain in World War II, he became a small-town parish priest back home. When the Korean War broke out, he again became an Army chaplain, and his regiment was one of the first sent into combat.

The soft-spoken priest soon became known for the Masses he celebrated on the hoods of Jeeps. He also rode an old bicycle to the front lines to minister to soldiers, and earned a Bronze Star for dodging machine gun fire and dragging wounded troops to safety.

Later, Father Kapaun ignored an evacuation order, opting instead to stay with wounded troops who were subsequently captured by the Chinese and North Korean forces that surrounded them. After helping a wounded Chinese officer, he stopped another Chinese soldier from executing a wounded American soldier, Herb Miller. Father Kapaun carried Miller on his back and helped him walk as the men were forced to make a long death march to a prison camp.

At the camp, Father Kapaun became a parish priest for the prisoners of war there, using his farm skills to get them sanitary drinking water and sneak them food. He prayed the rosary and gave hope to prisoners of all different faiths.  A fellow prisoner later said the priest could turn a mud hut into a cathedral.

The guards saw the opportunity to rid themselves of Father Kapaun when he became ill, so he was taken to an isolated hut to die.  He blessed his guards, repeating the words of Jesus on the cross, “Father forgive them.” He told his fellow soldiers not to worry, “I’m going to where I always wanted to go.” A few days later, he died in that death house.

Those fellow soldiers helped collect money after the war to establish Kapaun Mount Carmel Catholic High School in Wichita. In 2001, a bronze statue showing the priest helping a wounded soldier to his feet was dedicated at the priest’s hometown parish, Saint John Nepomucene Catholic Church in Pilsen, Kansas, where the cause for his canonization was later opened in 2008.

Father Kapaun was posthumously awarded the nation’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor, on April 11. President Obama noted that when the Korean War ended 60 years ago, a group of POWs emerged carrying a four-foot cross they had fashioned out of firewood, with radio wire as a crown of thorns, to honor their priest, Father Kapaun. Some of those men, including Herb Miller, attended the White House ceremony.

“This is the valor we honor today – an American soldier who didn’t fire a gun, but who wielded the mightiest weapon of all, a love for his brothers so pure that he was willing to die so they might live,” President Obama said.

Earlier this month, Father Paul Lee, the pastor of the Shrine of Saint Jude Parish in Rockville, whose family was among the refugees who fled from Communist North Korea, celebrated an outdoor Mass on the hood of a Jeep for the students of Saint Jude School so they would remember the faith and sacrifice of this heroic priest.

This Memorial Day is a special time of prayer and remembrance, for Father Kapaun and for all those who have died to preserve our freedom. At a time when our freedom of conscience is increasingly challenged by government actions, we should stop to pray and thank God for their sacrifice, and resolve to stand up for the freedoms for which they gave their lives. One hundred and fifty years ago at Gettysburg, President Lincoln urged us to honor our military dead by taking up “the unfinished work” of safeguarding our freedom. That is our responsibility as Americans, this Memorial Day and every day.