On Memorial Day, Remembering a Peaceful Chaplain
I adore the military. I respect those who serve and the sacrifices both they and their families have made for the good of this country. It is my most gnawing regret that I have never served.
Thankfully, I have had the benefit of knowing many military people who have served in various capacities: reservists who never left the States and those that have served in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Draftees who served in Vietnam and the Pentagon. Black ops specialists. Public relations professionals. Admirals to recruits. Of all these, the most circumspect, the most generous and the most industrious have always been the chaplains. They also tend to be the funniest. They speak of their time in uniform with great respect and muted pride.
Recently, I learned of a truly remarkable chaplain, Father Emil Kapaun. He was the son of Czech immigrants and raised in Kansas. He entered the Army just a few years after becoming ordained and served the final two years of World War II stationed at home and then in the Burma theater of operations. Coincidentally, the same theater as my grandfather served.
After World War II Fr. Kapaun was discharged, briefly, and continued his education. However, on the eve of the Korean War he reenlisted. He was initially sent to Japan and then to Korea, where he served with the First Calvary Division as they fought from South Korea in the the North.
While moving with the military he served the many roles of a Chaplain: confessor, Mass celebrant, morale officer, tending to the wounded, and burying the dead. All while fighting the same rigors as his fellow soldiers: combat, extreme weather, fatigue, poor food and lack of sleep.
However, in November of 1950, his outfit was overrun and captured by a force of Chinese communists. Fr. Kapaun escaped death several times, but could not escape capture. He was eventually sent to a prison camp in Pyoktong, North Korea.
It was here that Fr. Kapaun was perhaps the most needed. He tended to his fellow prisoners, sharing his meager rations and looking after their spiritual needs. He crafted materials from scratch, cared for the sick and said Mass. All under the mocking gaze of his atheist captors.
He eventually died, either from infection or neglect, in May of 1951, just a short while after officiating his final Easter Mass. He was 35-years-old.
His chaplaincy is far better detailed in the biography A Shepherd in Combat Boots, Chaplain Emil Kapaun of the 1st Cavalry Division. You can also read more at the website dedicated to his honor, FrKapaun.org. Both spotlight the extraordinary stories of his humble heroics far better than I can in this short blog.
On this Memorial Day, as you remember all those who serve and gave the last full measure of devotion, please save a moment to remember Fr. Emil Kapaun and the many chaplains who have served those who protect us.
(Thank you to Fr. Matthew Weber of St. Bridget’s Parish in Glassboro, NJ for enlightening me to the story of Fr. Kapaun.)
- Jerry Silverman: The Jewish Chaplains Memorial (huffingtonpost.com)
- Remembering the Meaning of Memorial Day (blogher.com)