President Obama Awards Chaplain Emil Kapaun the Medal of Honor

President Obama Awards Chaplain Emil Kapaun the Medal of Honor


The President:
Good afternoon, everybody. Please have a seat. On behalf of
Michelle and myself, welcome to the White House. Thank you, Chaplain. This year, we mark the 60th
anniversary of the end of the Korean War — a time when
thousands of our prisoners of war finally came home after
years of starvation and hardship and, in some cases, torture. And among the homecomings,
one stood out. A group of our POWs emerged
carrying a large wooden crucifix, nearly four feet tall. They had spent months on it,
secretly collecting firewood, carving it — the
cross and the body — using radio wire for
a crown of thorns. It was a tribute to their
friend, their chaplain, their fellow prisoner who had
touched their souls and saved their lives —
Father Emil Kapaun. This is an amazing story. Father Kapaun has been called
a shepherd in combat boots. His fellow soldiers who felt his
grace and his mercy called him a saint, a blessing from God. Today, we bestow
another title on him — recipient of our nation’s
highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor. After more than six decades of
working to make this Medal a reality, I know one of Father
Kapaun’s comrades spoke for a lot of folks here when he
said, “it’s about time.” Father, as they called him, was
just 35 years old when he died in that hellish prison camp. His parents and his only
sibling, his brother, are no longer with us. But we are extremely proud to
welcome members of the Kapaun family — his nephews, his
niece, their children — two of whom currently serve in
this country’s National Guard. And we are very proud of them. We’re also joined by members
of the Kansas congressional delegation, leaders from
across our armed forces, and representatives from
the Catholic Church, which recognizes Father
Kapaun as a “Servant of God.” And we are truly humbled to
be joined by men who served alongside him — veterans and
former POWs from the Korean War. (applause) Now, I obviously never
met Father Kapaun. But I have a sense
of the man he was, because in his story I
see reflections of my own grandparents and their
values, the people who helped to raise me. Emil and my grandfather were
both born in Kansas about the same time, both were raised in
small towns outside of Wichita. They were part of that
Greatest Generation — surviving the Depression,
joining the Army, serving in World War II. And they embodied those
heartland values of honesty and hard work, decency
and humility — quiet heroes determined
to do their part. For Father Kapaun, this meant
becoming an Army chaplain — serving God and country. After the Communist
invasion of South Korea, he was among the first American
troops that hit the beaches and pushed their way north through
hard mountains and bitter cold. In his understated Midwestern
way, he wrote home, saying, “this outdoor life is
quite the thing” — (laughter) And “I prefer to live in
a house once in a while.” But he had hope, saying,
“It looks like the war “will end soon.” That’s when Chinese forces
entered the war with a massive surprise attack — perhaps
20,000 soldiers pouring down on a few thousand Americans. In the chaos, dodging
bullets and explosions, Father Kapaun raced
between foxholes, out past the front lines
and into no-man’s land — dragging the wounded to safety. When his commanders ordered an
evacuation, he chose to stay — gathering the injured,
tending to their wounds. When the enemy broke through
and the combat was hand-to-hand, he carried on — comforting
the injured and the dying, offering some measure of
peace as they left this Earth. When enemy forces bore down,
it seemed like the end — that these wounded Americans,
more than a dozen of them, would be gunned down. But Father Kapaun spotted
a wounded Chinese officer. He pleaded with this Chinese
officer and convinced him to call out to his fellow Chinese. The shooting stopped and they
negotiated a safe surrender, saving those American lives. Then, as Father Kapaun
was being led away, he saw another American —
wounded, unable to walk, laying in a ditch, defenseless. An enemy soldier was
standing over him, rifle aimed at his
head, ready to shoot. And Father Kapaun marched
over and pushed the enemy soldier aside. And then as the soldier
watched, stunned, Father Kapaun carried that
wounded American away. 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 that they might live. And yet, the incredible
story of Father Kapaun does not end there. He carried that injured
American, for miles, as their captors forced
them on a death march. When Father Kapaun grew tired,
he’d help the wounded soldier hop on one leg. When other prisoners
stumbled, he picked them up. When they wanted to quit —
knowing that stragglers would be shot — he begged
them to keep walking. In the camps that
winter, deep in a valley, men could freeze to
death in their sleep. Father Kapaun offered
them his own clothes. They starved on tiny rations of
millet and corn and birdseed. He somehow snuck
past the guards, foraged in nearby fields, and
returned with rice and potatoes. In desperation, some
men hoarded food. He convinced them to share. Their bodies were
ravaged by dysentery. He grabbed some rocks, pounded
metal into pots and boiled clean water. They lived in filth. He washed their clothes and
he cleansed their wounds. The guards ridiculed his
devotion to his Savior and the Almighty. They took his clothes and made
him stand in the freezing cold for hours. Yet, he never lost his faith. If anything, it
only grew stronger. At night, he slipped into huts
to lead prisoners in prayer, saying the Rosary,
administering the sacraments, offering three simple
words: “God bless you.” One of them later said that with
his very presence he could just for a moment turn a mud
hut into a cathedral. That spring, he went further
— he held an Easter service. I just met with
the Kapaun family. They showed me something
extraordinary — the actual stole, the purple
vestment that Father Kapaun wore when he celebrated Mass
inside that prison camp. As the sun rose
that Easter Sunday, he put on that purple stole and
led dozens of prisoners to the ruins of an old
church in the camp. And he read from a prayer missal
that they had kept hidden. He held up a small crucifix
that he had made from sticks. And as the guards watched,
Father Kapaun and all those prisoners — men
of different faith, perhaps some men of no faith
— sang 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 — filling that valley with
song and with prayer. That faith — that they
might be delivered from evil, that they could make it home —
was perhaps the greatest gift to those men; that even amidst
such hardship and despair, there could be hope; amid their
misery in the temporal they could see those truths that are
eternal; that even in such hell, there could be a
touch of the divine. Looking back, one of them said
that that is what “kept a lot of “us alive.” Yet, for Father Kapaun,
the horrific conditions took their toll. Thin, frail, he began to limp,
with a blood clot in his leg. And then came dysentery,
then pneumonia. That’s when the guards saw their
chance to finally rid themselves of this priest and
the hope he inspired. They came for him. And over the protests and
tears of the men who loved him, the guards sent him
to a death house — a hellhole with no food or
water — to be left to die. And yet, even then,
his faith held firm. “I’m going to where I’ve
always wanted to go,” he told his brothers. “And when I get up there, I’ll
say a prayer for all of you.” And then, as was taken away,
he did something remarkable — he blessed the guards. “Forgive them,” he said, “for
they know not what they do.” Two days later, in
that house of death, Father Kapaun breathed
his last breath. His body was taken away,
his grave unmarked, his remains unrecovered
to this day. The war and the awful captivity
would drag on for another two years, but these men held on —
steeled by the memory and moral example of the man
they called Father. And on their first day
of freedom, in his honor, they carried that beautiful
wooden crucifix with them. Some of these men
are here today — including Herb Miller, the
soldier that Father Kapaun saved in that ditch and then
carried all those miles. Many are now in their
80s, but make no mistake, they are among the strongest men
that America has ever produced. And I would ask all of our
courageous POWs from the Korean War to stand if they’re able
and accept the gratitude of a grateful nation. (applause) I’m told that in their darkest
hours in the camp in that valley, these men
turned to a Psalm. As we prepare for the
presentation of the Medal of Honor to Father
Kapaun’s nephew, Ray, I want to leave you with
the words of that Psalm, which sustained these
men all those years ago. “Even though I walk in the
valley of the shadow of death, “I will fear no evil,
for you are with me; “Your rod and your
staff, they comfort me. “You prepare a table for me in
the presence of my enemies. “You anoint my head with
oil; my cup overflows. “Surely, your goodness and love
will follow me all the days “of my life. “And I will dwell in the
house of the Lord forever.” Ray, would you please join me
on stage for the reading of the citation? Military Aide:
The President of the
United States of America, authorized by Act of
Congress, March 3, 1863, has awarded in the name of
Congress the Medal of Honor to Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun,
United States Army, for conspicuous gallantry and
intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond
the all of duty. Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun
distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above
and beyond the call of duty while serving with
the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st
Calvary Division during combat operations against an
armed enemy at Unsan, Korea, from November 1st to 2nd, 1950. On November 1st, as Chinese
Communist Forces viciously attacked friendly elements,
Chaplain Kapaun calmly walked through withering enemy fire
in order to provide comfort and medical aid to his comrades and
rescue friendly wounded from no-man’s land. Though the Americans
successfully repelled the assault, they found themselves
surrounded by the enemy. Facing annihilation, the
able-bodied men were ordered to evacuate. However, Chaplain Kapaun, fully
aware of his certain capture, elected to stay behind
with the wounded. After the enemy succeeded in
breaking through the defense in the early morning
hours of November 2nd, Chaplain Kapaun continually
made rounds as hand-to-hand combat ensued. As Chinese Communist Forces
approached the American position, Chaplain Kapaun
noticed an injured Chinese officer amongst the wounded and
convinced him to negotiate the safe surrender of
the American forces. Shortly after his
capture, Chaplain Kapaun, with complete disregard for his
personal safety and unwavering resolve, bravely pushed aside
an enemy soldier preparing to execute Sergeant First
Class Herbert A. Miller. Not only did Chaplain Kapaun’s
gallantry save the life of Sergeant Miller, but also
his unparalleled courage and leadership inspired
all those present, including those who might have
otherwise fled in panic to remain and fight the
enemy until captured. Chaplain Kapaun’s extraordinary
heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty
are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service
and reflect great credit upon himself, the 3rd Battalion,
8th Cavalry Regiment, the 1st Calvary Division
and the United States Army. (camera shutters clicking) (applause) (camera shutters clicking) Chaplain Rutherford:
And let us pray
together: Lord, God, let us go forth into the world
in peace and dedication to your service. Let us follow Chaplain Kapaun’s
example and hold fast to that which is good; render to
no person evil for evil; strengthen the faint-hearted. May we support the weary,
encourage the tired, and honor all peoples. Let us love and serve, and
may God’s blessing be upon us, pray with us today and always,
as we ask and pray in your Holy Name. Amen. The President:
Well, I can’t imagine a
better example for all of us — whether in uniform
or not in uniform, a better example to follow. Father Kapaun’s life I think is
a testimony to the human spirit, the power of faith, and reminds
us of the good that we can do each and every day regardless
of the most difficult of circumstances. We can always be an
instrument of his will. So I hope all of you have
enjoyed this ceremony. I certainly have been
extremely touched by it. To the Kapaun family,
God bless you. To all our veterans,
we’re so proud of you. And my understanding is that
the White House has pretty decent food — (laughter) — so I hope all of you
enjoy the reception. Thank you very much. (applause)

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