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Definitive new book examines Kapaun's relentless faith

Staff writer

John Stansifer’s newly published book, “No Bullet Got Me Yet”, the story of how a farm boy from Pilsen found his calling as “the cowboy priest from Kansas,” eventually earning him candidacy for sainthood, will be released March 12.

It follows the life of Emil J. Kapaun from before he was born to the present. He died as an army chaplain in a prisoner-of-war camp in North Korea.

The 350-page biography cites at least 54 sources and contains numerous footnotes. Stansifer spent 10 years researching Kapaun. He visited the Pentagon and researched war archives that pinpointed movements of U.S. military missions in which Kapaun was involved.

The book contains numerous letters and quotations from Kapaun and others who he communicated with or had met him.

One thing that stands out throughout the book is Kapaun’s desire to serve others. He was ordained June 20, 1940 at St. John Nepomucene Church in Pilsen. He did not set himself up above others but rather met them on their level. He even joined students on the playground at Pilsen’s Catholic elementary school.

He was dedicated to the Lord but not extremely pious. He smoked a pipe, offered drinks to others although he didn’t drink himself, told jokes, and laughed heartily at funny things. He made himself a commoner and often did minor things such as mowing, trimming trees, and making small repairs.

He had a firm belief that God was with him and would protect him in every circumstance.

Kapaun was an assistant priest at Pilsen for several years but felt called to minister to soldiers in the military. His calling was amplified when he became auxiliary chaplain at Herington Air Base from January 1943 to July 1944.

With his bishop’s blessing, he attended chaplain school and went through rigorous physical training, which he loved.

At Camp Wheeler in Georgia, he was dubbed, “the cowboy priest from Kansas.” He became a lieutenant and was known as a soldier priest.

His first overseas deployment was in 1945, when he served military units in China, India, and Burma. China was not yet ruled by Communists. Kapaun traveled hundreds of miles by plane or bicycle to reach troops as they fought to drive out Japanese forces. He also was missionary to indigenous people.

In letters home, Kapaun repeatedly mentioned his love for his work.

In November 1945, in a letter to the bishop of the Wichita diocese, Kapaun wrote: “I enjoy my work very much. In fact, I have been very happy ever since the day you told me you were releasing me for the Armed Forces.”

When President Franklin Roosevelt died that year, Kapaun was asked to give the invocation at a memorial service for him before 9,000 Chinese and U.S. troops.

Japan surrendered in August, and troops gradually returned home.

At the urging of his bishop, Kapaun attended Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and received a master’s degree in education. He didn’t see himself as a teacher, however.

“His advanced studies . . . seemed to convince him of the need for greater simplicity in order to expend himself for the salvation of humble souls,” his bishop said.

In April 1948, he became the priest at Timken but re-enlisted in October as the threat of Communism started to loom large and Army bases were being re-activated.

He helped to restore a chapel at Fort Bliss, Texas. He met with soldiers and visited them on a firing range.

Kapaun spent Christmas 1949 at Pilsen. He played Santa Claus at a children’s birthday party, helped with a Christmas program, and spent Christmas Day with his parents.

He arrived in Japan in February 1950. He gave a homily on Armed Forces Network, stressing a humble, simple life: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

He was assigned as a chaplain in the 1st Calvary Division, 8th Regiment. He had his own car, shipped from the U.S. His soldiers were being trained for battle against the North Korean Communists, and he traveled 875 miles on poor roads to reach them and say Mass.

“I love this knocking around in the Army,” he wrote. “My outfit is a training unit, and in case of war, we will go first. It makes me feel good to think I can go right along with them.”

By then, the Communists had taken over China. More than 150,000 North Korean troops invaded South Korea, and civilians fled. The U.S. was determined to fight for Korea’s freedom, and Kapaun expressed faith in General Douglas MacArthur’s leadership.

On July 3, he wrote: “Everything is peaceful around here.”

A week later, his regiment was on its way to Korea.

As American troops advanced, Kapaun was in the field with them, doing little things that boosted their morale. On July 24, his jeep and trailer were destroyed along with his Mass kit. He resorted to a bicycle to reach troops.

A Reuters report on July 31 stated that Kapaun was still at work in the fields. Some chaplains were being evacuated. He often preached forgiveness of the enemy.

“We betray our heritage if we take revenge on wounded enemies or prisoners,” he said.

Kapaun kept a positive attitude. He wrote his brother Eugene: “My boys and I are having a great time. I have been on the front lines with them all along.”

He watched American planes swooping down and dropping bombs.

“Those fly boys must have a lot of fun,” he wrote.

The U.S. forces were able to push the enemy back to North Korea’s original boundary at the 38th parallel. They retook Seoul, and Kapaun went into the hills to meet with soldiers.

Kapaun’s last letter was dated Oct. 12, 1950, two weeks before his capture. The letter was hidden from camp guards after his capture and was smuggled out by surviving POWs in the fall of 1953.

On Oct. 20, as they entered Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, they thought the war was over. Bob Hope performed for the soldiers Oct. 27.

As they pushed north, Chinese troops poured out in a surprise attack and overtook them.

On Nov. 1, as Chinese attacked at night, Kapaun dragged wounded men to a dugout. Many were killed.

The second night, they were trapped with no escape. The unarmed chaplain was out and about, tirelessly rendering medical aid and encouraging soldiers as enemy fire was all around.

Kapaun offered a white flag of surrender, and he and 25 wounded men who could walk became prisoners of war.

That is when Kapaun’s heroism shone. He saved one man’s life and got him back in the prisoner line. They were 20 miles from friendly lines.

Nearly 5,000 troops were taken prisoner by December. Half died in freezing temperatures.

They were marched north 50 miles to various camps and placed in abandoned houses.

Camps for enlisted men were separate from camps for officers. Kapaun, an officer, often visited the enlisted men. His friendly demeanor helped everyone feel better.

When he met a new arrival, he would shake his hand and say, “My name is Kapaun. Glad to have you share this paradise.”

He often quoted a Latin phrase that meant, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

A few wounded were released back to South Korea on Nov. 20.

One reported: “Father Kapaun is in good shape and doing an excellent job of keeping up the spirits and morale of the men.”

He was recommended to receive the Distinguished Service Cross, which he received in absentia in 1952, before anyone knew he had died.

Praying to St. Dismas, the Good Thief, Kapaun often stole food for the soldiers, including grain and salt. He gave his tobacco rations away.

The Chinese hated and feared him, sometimes punishing him by making him stand in the cold or placing him in a pit.

Harsh conditions gradually wore him down as he poured out his life for his fellow men. In May, as he was recovering from an infection, the Chinese took him away and put him in a “hospital,” where he died May 23, 1951.

Many firsthand accounts of people who knew him are in the book. Many other details of his sacrificial life in the camps are included, as well.

Listed in the book are the 19 posthumous military awards that Kapaun received, including the Medal of Honor in 2013. He was honored with Servant of God status in the Roman Catholic Church and is being considered for sainthood.

In 2020, his complete skeleton was identified. His remains were brought back to the United States on Sept. 29, 2021. After a trip to Pilsen for a special Mass, the remains were taken to Wichita, where they are buried in a crypt in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception downtown.

“‘No Bullet Got Me Yet,’” words uttered by Father Kapaun as he held a pipe that had been shot out of his mouth by sniper fire, is a compelling history that “brings joy to all who seek perfection and recognize that perfection in others,” said John Hotze, an advocate for Kapaun’s cause for sainthood.

The center of the book contains 37 color photos, Many other black and white photos are scattered throughout the book. It will be available March 12 on Amazon and in bookstores and other places.

Stansifer is planning to conduct book signings in the area.

Last modified Feb. 28, 2024

 

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