Father Emil Kapaun holds out a broken pipe. The plain-spoken, pipe-smoking chaplain received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroism while serving as an Army chaplain during the Korean War. (Photo courtesy of AP)
(USA TODAY) -- President Obama posthumously awarded Korean War Army chaplain Emil
Kapaun the Medal of Honor on Thursday, bestowing the highest military
honor to an officer who as a non-combatant didn't even carry a weapon.
a ceremony at the White House for Capt. Kapaun, who was a Roman
Catholic priest, Obama told the story of Kapaun braving enemy fire to
tend to injured fellow troops and comforting his fellow troops during
soul-wrenching circumstances in prison camp.
After as many as
20,000 Chinese Communist Forces made a surprise attack on Kapaun's unit
of a few thousand troops in November 1950, the young officer from Kansas
walked through intense fire to give spiritual comfort and medical aid
to the troops he ministered.
"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," Obama
After the unit was surrounded by the enemy, those able to
were ordered to evacuate, but Kapaun decided to stay behind with the
wounded and continued to tend to his injured comrades.
combat continued for his outgunned unit, he continued to make the
rounds. As enemy forces approached the American position, Kapaun
noticed an injured Chinese officer among the wounded and convinced him
to negotiate the safe surrender of the American forces.
After his capture, Kapaun pushed aside an enemy soldier preparing to execute an American comrade.
as the soldier watched, stunned, Father Kapaun carried that wounded
American away," Obama said. "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."
Kapaun's heroism didn't end there.
Kapaun carried the wounded American 4 miles as their Chinese captors
forced them on a death march. That soldier, now in his 80s, was among
the Korean War veterans who attended Thursday's ceremony at the White
At the prison camp that winter, Kapaun and the others lived
in brutal conditions - provided with a diet of millet and corn. Kapaun
would sneak away to nearby fields to forage for rice and potatoes.
Chinese captors ridiculed him for his Catholic faith, but at night, he
led his fellow prisoners in prayer. Kapaun even led an Easter service
where he used a small crucifix he made from small sticks. While guards
watched, the soldiers sang the Lord's Prayer and America the Beautiful.
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,"
Kapaun's health deteriorated, and he contracted
dysentery and pneumonia. His captors saw an opportunity to rid the
Americans of a source of inspiration and forced the chaplain to a "death
house" where he was left to die.
"Then, as was taken away, he did
something remarkable - he blessed the guards," Obama said. "'Forgive
them,' he said, 'for they know not what they do.'"
Kapaun died two days later and nearly six months after his capture. His remains haven't been recovered.
Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY