Kapaun awarded Medal of Honor

Inducted into Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon

News editor

Father Emil J. Kapaun received long-overdue recognition Thursday when President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Honor to Kapaun’s nephew, Ray Kapaun, at the White House.

Obama remarked that when the Korean War ended 60 years ago, there was one group of soldiers — prisoners of war — who returned home carrying a carved wooden cross in honor of Kapaun, who served and saved them on the battlefield and in the prison camp.

Kapaun convinced a wounded Chinese officer to take a group of soldiers as prisoners of war rather than killing them, and he carried a wounded soldier, who would have been executed, four miles to the prison camp.

While in the prison camp, Kapaun sneaked extra food for the imprisoned soldiers, convinced food hoarders to share, made pots to boil water, and even gave others the clothes off his back. And amid all of this, he continued to provide spiritual service as well.

“Just with his presence, he could turn a mud hut into a cathedral,” Obama said.

Kapaun died in the prison camp.

“As they took him away, he did something remarkable,” Obama said. “He blessed the guards.”

It was two years after Kapaun’s death before the surviving prisoners of war were freed, but they sustained themselves with Kapaun’s memory. Several of them were able to attend the presentation of the Medal of Honor.

A group of 10 Pilsen-area residents attended the ceremony at the White House and Kapaun’s induction into the Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon.

“It was beyond words. It was very inspirational,” Rose Mary Neuwirth said. “We were sitting right behind the POWs. To watch their faces as it was being given, I don’t know how to describe it. It made me want to cry, because they were so happy that it was done.”

Harriet Bina agreed that spending time with the prisoners of war who were in the prison camp with Kapaun was the best part of the trip.

“It was absolutely amazing, to be there with the prisoners of war,” Bina said.

Every time the POWs told a story about Kapaun, by the end everybody listening had tears in their eyes, she said.

Neuwirth and Bina were joined by Carole Sklenar, Bob Neuwirth, Bob and Carol Makovec, Laverne Bina, Marin and Carol Tajchman, and Diana Stanfill.

“It’s still hard to believe I was there,” Neuwirth said.

She estimated there were 200 people or more at the ceremony at the White House. She said the induction at the Pentagon was even better, because it was less formal.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the place when Raymond Kapaun finished his talk,” Neuwirth said.

At the end of his speech, Ray Kapaun told the prisoners of war who were with his uncle that if he were alive today, he would say, “Boys, I’m glad you made it home,” Bina recalled.

Bina was thrilled at the outpouring of joy from people who had heard about Kapaun. Whenever anybody found out the group was in Washington, D.C., for the Medal of Honor ceremony, they wanted to talk to them. Even when they returned home, people at Marion Healthmart asked about the ceremony while Bina printed off pictures.

“It was so wonderful to see everybody touched by a good story for a change, instead of like what just happened in Boston,” Bina said.

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