Former POW recalls martyrdom of Army chaplain

March 25, 2014

HOUSTON — U.S. Army Chaplain Father Emil Joseph Kapaun is remembered and revered by countless people for many things. While some know him as the young priest and miracle worker from their hometown Diocese of Wichita, Kan., others are among the few lasting survivors and former prisoners of war (POWs) who were witness to Kapaun’s heroism in the battlefields and prison camps of North Korea.

More than 60 years have passed since the death of the Kansas-born Catholic priest who was murdered in the Korean War for his faith and his unconquered spirit of hope and love in Christ.

Although having served on the front lines of combat, Father Kapaun never carried or fired weapons to fight communism. Instead Father Kapaun, only bearing his chaplain’s cross, resisted the enemy by tirelessly aiding the wounded and dying.

It was the unselfish decision to remain behind with the last unit doctor and help with the injured U.S. soldiers one day that would ultimately lead to his capture, and consequent months spent in the freezing valleys of a prisoner camp. 

First Lieutenant Ray M. “Mike” Dowe is one of the few living POW veterans of the Korean War who was captured with Kapaun by the Chinese and shared living quarters with him during the latter months of his life, becoming an actual witness to his martyrdom.

Now living in Houston, Dowe recalled Father Kapaun as “a soldier’s soldier” who always persevered in acts of faith, which over the close of the war would prove to save the lives of hundreds of American soldiers. 

Hardships of various disease and starvation were rampant, but relentless freezing temperatures (with only summer uniforms) became the common cause of death to about 40 percent of the soldiers at Pyoktong.

Kapaun would silently volunteer himself to wake before dawn and carry out and wash the corpses of the frozen dead, bless the bodies and bury them; then preserve their clothing to aid the living. 

He also picked the lice from those men “too weak to pick their own,” Dowe said. 

He would aid those in the huts and clean or warm the men unable to move, hold them and wash them like babies. 

When asked about the huts, Dowe lifted his finger to draw an area no bigger than 8 or 10 feet for about 18 men. He added that, in such a cramped space, “if one turned over, then all turned over in the night.” 

For almost six grueling months, their devoted chaplain found ways to inspire the will to live among the freezing, starving men, and renew their hope in freedom and their saving God.

Dowe said that just being witness to Father Kapaun’s sacrifice and risking of his own life for the men daily gave new hope and faith to all of the soldiers he encountered in the camps. 

He gave sermons of the suffering and Passion of Christ, as he helped men of all faiths draw strength from the mysteries of faith. This aided the men in their ability to cope and get through the day. 

The communist prison guards ultimately realized the unconquered power of Father Kapaun’s faith. 

To the Chinese, the priest was a clear and present obstacle in their manipulations. They often tried to get Father Kapaun to renounce his Christian teachings, but his spiritual vigor never wavered. 

Although they would punish him, issue harsh warnings or threaten to shoot him, they could not overtly kill him for fear of mass rebellion in the camps. 

Dowe said that knowing it was Christian values that was the POWs source of survival and strength, the communist leaders of the camp used his religion to forge the political trial and sentence against Father Kapaun. 

As conditions weakened the health and lives of so many, this inevitably took its toll on Father, too, and he became ill. The soldiers tried to conceal him, as they knew he was hated by the officers and would become a target. 

One day unannounced, the guards quickly came in to take Father Kapaun away. Several of the POWs were ordered to carry him out to the death house, as it was known to the men as the place that they were only taken to die.

The men began to protest, shoving to block him from the guards and protect their priest, but Father Kapaun calmly stopped them. 

Knowing he would be taken away to his death, Father instructed them to keep the prayer services going. He consoled Dowe, “I’m going where I’ve always wanted to go.” 

Dowe spoke of a final memory of the last service Kapaun gave around Easter time before his martyrdom. 

“As the sun shone through where the roof was missing, it shined right on Father Kapaun and he seemed to have a real halo. After service we sang ‘America the Beautiful,’ and the GIs picked it up, and it echoed across the valley ... I’ll never forget that.”

Now buried in a mass grave near Pyoktong, Father Kapaun was awarded the U.S. Medal of Honor in 2013. 

He is known as a saint by the men who saw him give his life for his faith in Christ. 

As with many who continue to pray to Father Kapaun after his death, miracles of healing and survival against the odds have continued to surface. 

A book written in 2013 called “The Miracle of Father Kapaun” chronicles the entire story. A petition for canonization for Father Kapaun is under way. For more information, visit