Medal of Honor to be given to Korean War POW

by Abigail Pfeiffer on March 14, 2013

Photo of Emil Kapaun as a First Lieutenant. Photo courtesy of

This week, the White House and President Obama announced that the Medal Of Honor, the highest award given for bravery during war, will be given posthumously  to Father Emil Joseph Kapaun for his bravery during battle at Unsan, North Korea and at his subsequent time in a North Korean POW camp.

Kapaun was captured in November 1950 at Unsan, North Korea. During this battle, several battalions of the 8th Cavalry Division were overrun by Chinese soldiers, and Kapaun’s courageous acts helping the wounded endeared him to the enlisted men and officers alike. In an article for the Wichita Eagle, Roy Wenzl wrote: “GIs saw Kapaun running from foxhole to foxhole, dragging wounded out, saying prayers over the dying, hearing confessions amid gunfire, ripping open shirts to look at wounds. Men screamed at him to escape, but he ignored them.”

Lt. Walt Mayo witnessed Kapaun run 300 yards outside the defensive perimeter to bring the wounded soldiers into the perimeter. During the battle, Kapaun focused on giving aid and comfort to the wounded along with the company doctors. The Chinese fired mortar rounds into the dugout that held the wounded, and eventually Kapaun decided to surrender and “appeal to Chinese humanity.”

Becoming a POW is never a positive scenario, but to be a POW of the Chinese and North Koreans in 1950-1951 was the worst of luck. The majority of prisoners who died in Communist POW camps during the Korean War died between 1950-1951. Mainly this was due to the intentional starvation of the prisoners.

During the freezing march to the prisoner camp,  Kapaun carried men who were too weak or wounded to walk. In addition, he encouraged others who were strong enough to carry the weaker men, who would be shot if they failed to keep up with the march. He earned the respect of the soldiers who recognized his strength and compassion.

While at the camp, Kapaun led men in stealing food, because he understood that in their situation it was “steal or starve.” When the death rates began increasing and men were dying from exposure and malnutrition, they could still count on Kapaun to offer hope and whatever help he could possibly give. He dug latrines, mediated disagreements between POWs, gave away his own food and clothing, and worked to increase camp morale.

One of the men who was in the POW camp with Kapaun noted that: “The miracle of Father Kapaun was not just that he patched leaky buckets

Capt. Kapaun (right),helps another soldier carry an exhausted troop off the battlefield early in the Korean War. Photo courtesy of

or stole food. It was that he rallied men to embrace life when life looked hopeless. When starvation inspired betrayals, Kapaun inspired brotherhood.”

Sadly, in spring 1951, Father Kapaun succumbed to a blood clot and died in May 1951 while still incarcerated as a POW. In death, he still inspired the men in camp to carry on and survive and he, and his legacy, have not been forgotten.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: