Story by: Nick Simeone, AFPS
WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel inducted the nation's latest Medal of Honor recipient into the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes April 12: Army Chaplain (Capt.) Emil J. Kapaun, who died while counseling and saving countless fellow service members, even as his own life was about to end in a prisoner of war camp during the Korean War. Kapaun was just 35 years old when he died May 23, 1951. His remains were never recovered.
A day after President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Kapaun the nation's highest military honor for acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty, Hagel described Kapaun as one of the unheralded heroes of the Korean conflict, noting the courageous Catholic chaplain had sacrificed everything so others could live.
"In a day when real heroes are hard to find, at a time when America is searching for a center of gravity, it's particularly important that we grab a hold of people like Father Kapaun, and not just acknowledge those acts of heroism and gallantry in what he did as a clergyman, but the composite, who he was and what he was about," Hagel said at the ceremony.
Kapaun was serving with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division at Unsan, Korea, in 1950, where, as a prisoner of war held by the Chinese, he administered faith to his fellow POWs, giving last rites to some, his own clothes to others, and even regularly sneaking out of camp to steal food so other captives would not perish.
Accounts from survivors credit him for their ability to endure horrific camp conditions, including severe cold, disease and starvation.
Kapaun would himself die as a prisoner, but not before serving as a leader to thousands of men captured along with him.
"I know of no finer example to point to," said Hagel, as he inducted Kapaun, who hailed from Pilsen, Kan., into the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes. Kapaun "just didn't appear in the Korean War. Something shaped him," the secretary added.
Only six other chaplains have been awarded the Medal of Honor. Kapaun has been named a "Servant of God" by the Vatican, and he is considered a candidate for sainthood.