President Obama posthumously awarded Emil Kapaun the Medal of Honor for his "extraordinary heroism" during the Korean War, delivering an emotional tribute Thursday to the Catholic Army chaplain who saved hundreds of soldiers before a room filled with family, military chaplains and a handful of his surviving comrades.
Known as the "Soldiers' Chaplain," and a "shepherd in combat boots," Capt. Kapaun died at the age of 35 in a prisoner camp in North Korea more than 60 years ago. But the memory of his courage swatting away an enemy soldier pointing a gun at a GI's head, his talent for stealing food from his captors and sneaking it to the hungry, and his constant, encouraging words for fellow prisoners of war left a lasting legacy.
Mr. Obama recalled Kapaun's bravery and string of selfless acts before handing the Medal of Honor to his nephew, Ray Kapaun.
"In the chaos — dodging bullets and explosions — Father Kapaun raced between foxholes and into no-man's lands, dragging the wounded to safety," Mr. Obama said. "When the enemy broke through and the combat was hand-to-hand, he carried on comforting the injured and the dying."
Kapaun, Mr. Obama said, was "an American soldier who didn't fire a gun, but who [carried] the mightiest weapon of all: the love for his brothers so powerful that he was willing to die so that they might live."
When Kapaun's commander ordered an evacuation when they were far outnumbered in an assault by the Chinese, he chose to stay behind, gathering the wounded and comforting the injured and dying, Mr. Obama said.
After negotiating a safe surrender, a Chinese soldier was standing over a U.S. sergeant with a gun pointed at his head when Kapaun marched over and pushed the enemy aside. He then carried the soldier miles to the prison under threat that anyone who stopped marching would be killed.
The chaplain's faith was so strong that at one point in the middle of squalor and torment at the prison, he held an Easter service and led U.S. troops in singing the Lord's Prayer and "America, the Beautiful."
"They sang so loud that other prisoners across the camp not only heard them, they joined in, too," Mr. Obama said. "That faith — that they might be delivered from evil — was perhaps the greatest gift to those men. That even amidst such hardship and despair, there could be hope. Amid the misery of the temporal, they could see the those truths that are eternal."
After a brutal six months in the prison camp, thin and suffering from dysentery, his captors ordered him to be moved to a hospital, a wretched place with little to no medical care that the POWs dubbed "the death house."
Shortly before leaving his fellow soldiers, he comforted them, telling his distraught friends not to worry — that he was going to where he always wanted to go. He died there May 23, 1951.
"I can't think of a better example to follow — his life is a testimony to his human spirit and the power of faith and reminds us of the good we can do each and every day. We can always be an instrument of His will," Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Kapaun was so beloved that the remaining prisoners secretly carved a 4-foot crucifix out of firewood in his honor and carried it out of the prison camp when they were freed. The day they returned home, they also began calling for him to receive the nation's highest military honor.
In the years since, the plainspoken, pipe-smoking chaplain received the Distinguished Service Cross, a high school was named in his honor, and his gallantry has been the subject of books, magazines and a TV show. The Catholic Church is considering declaring Kapaun a saint. Until Thursday, however, the Medal of Honor award had eluded him.
After the ceremony, Ray Kapaun told reporters gathered outside the White House that he never met his uncle but was so thankful for the soldiers who survived the prison and wouldn't let "him die in our hearts."
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