Kansas Medal of Honor POW returns home

  • Published
  • By 22d Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
  • 22d Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kansas -- A Kansas Medal of Honor POW completes his 70-year journey home Sept. 29, with a funeral mass in Park City and burial in Wichita.


Army Chaplain (Capt.) Emil J. Kapaun, of Pilsen, Kansas, died in 1951 as a prisoner of war during the Korean War. 


His remains will be flown from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii on a flight that will land Sept. 25 at Eisenhower airport in Wichita. A procession will depart from the airport and Kapaun will arrive home at St. John Nepomucene in Pilsen on Sept. 26 for a private homecoming and observance.


From Pilsen, Kapaun’s remains will be transported back to Wichita, to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, where they will stay until the rosary and vigil on Sept. 28, followed by the funeral mass and burial on Sept. 29.


The Kapaun family has decided to inter the remains of the chaplain in a crypt inside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.


According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, Kapaun began his association with the military as a volunteer, serving as an auxiliary chaplain at Herington Army Air Field, Kansas, in 1944. He signed up later that year, becoming an Army Chaplain, and served the rest of World War II in the China-Burma-India theater.


After serving in World War II, Kapaun returned to active duty in the U.S. Army and served in the Korean War with the 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. On November 2, 1950, his unit was near Unsan when they came under heavy fire from Chinese forces and received orders to withdraw. Approximately a quarter of the unit’s soldiers made their way back to friendly lines. The others, including many wounded soldiers, became trapped. Kapaun volunteered to stay with the wounded, and was soon captured and taken to a Chinese-run prison camp on the Yalu River's south bank known as Camp 5.


Even after he became gravely ill, Kapaun continued to serve as a spiritual leader for his fellow prisoners, encouraging them to faithfully await their release and regularly defying his captors to bolster the collective morale of the POWs. Due to prolonged malnutrition, he died on May 23, 1951, after which the other POWs buried him in one of the camp's cemeteries.


As part of the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement, Kapaun’s remains were among the 1,868 who were returned to U.S. custody as part of Operation Glory, but they were not able to be identified. The Army declared his remains non-recoverable in January 1956. At the end of the identification process, 848 unidentified remains, including Kapaun, were interred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, in Honolulu, Hawaii.


While Kaupan was still considered unaccounted for, he was never forgotten. In 1993, Pope John Paul II declared Kapaun a Servant of God, the first stage toward possible canonization, which is the culmination of the Roman Catholic Church’s recognition of a deceased person as a saint.


And at a White House ceremony on April 11, 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Kapaun the Medal of Honor for extraordinary heroism and selflessness.


But it would still take years to properly identify Kapaun’s remains. His remains were disinterred as part of the DPAA’s Korean War Disinterment Project on Aug. 19, 2019, and transferred to the DPAA Laboratory at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.


To identify Kapaun’s remains, DPAA scientists used dental and anthropological analysis, as well as a mitochondrial DNA analysis from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System.  DPAA announced the identification and that Kapaun was accounted for, on March 2, 2021.


Kapaun’s name is recorded on the Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, along with the others who are still missing from the Korean War. A rosette was be placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for.


According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, more than 81,900 Americans remain missing from World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War.