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Remains of Medal of Honor Winner Father Emil Kapaun Identified

A photo showing Kapaun holding mass. (Photo from the U.S. Army)

Story by Tom Shine, KMUW

The remains of Father Emil Kapaun, a Medal of Honor winner and a candidate for sainthood in the Catholic Church, have been identified.

Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran said Thursday night on his Twitter account that he was notified by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency of the discovery. Kapaun died in 1951 in a North Korean prisoner of war camp. He was 35.

“I'm glad that his family has finally been granted closure after Father Kapaun’s selfless service to our nation,” Moran said on Twitter.

The Catholic Diocese of Wichita said Thursday night that it was notified earlier in the day by the Kapaun family about the identification. It said Kapaun’s body was found among the unknown soldiers located at the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, informally known as the “Punchbowl.”

U.S. forces returned the remains of hundreds of unknown soldiers there immediately following the Korean War. The diocese was notified in 2013 that Kapaun's remains could be among them.

The POW/MIA Accounting Agency operates a laboratory in Hawaii in its efforts to identify soldiers.

"It was a joyful and exciting surprise for the Diocese of Wichita that Fr. Kapaun’s mortal remains were recovered after so many years," Wichita Bishop Carl Kemme said in a statement, "and we continue to look forward to his process of canonization in the future."

Kapaun was born in 1916 in Pilsen, a small farming community in Marion County. He was ordained into the priesthood in 1940 at what is now Newman University.

A mural honoring Kapaun adorns the school’s chapel.

He served as an Army chaplain in World War II before returning to Kansas to serve as a parish priest. He enlisted again and was among the first troops that landed in Korea after the outbreak of war in June 1950.

He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Unsan on Nov. 1-2, 1950.

According to his medal citation, “Chaplain Kapaun calmly walked through withering enemy fire in order to provide comfort and medical aid to his comrades and rescue friendly wounded from no-man's land.”

When American forces pulled back, Kapaun declined to retreat and stayed behind with the wounded soldiers. He later helped negotiate a safe surrender to Chinese forces, sparing the lives of the wounded.

He was initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest military decoration. But his fellow soldiers lobbied on his behalf for more than 60 years before Kapaun was awarded the highest military award, the Medal of Honor, in 2013 by President Barack Obama.

After his capture and imprisonment, Kapaun stole food to help feed his fellow POWs. He tended to the sick and washed the clothes of prisoners too weak to do so. He also provided spiritual comfort during a brutally cold winter that saw nearly half the prisoners die.

He died in May 1951 after falling ill. He was buried in a shallow, unmarked grave.

His actions in the POW camp led the Vatican to name Kapaun a Servant of God in 1993, the first step in the long process to sainthood. He would become just the fourth American-born saint if he is canonized.

A Vatican committee is now examining documents related to Kapaun’s life to determine whether to name him Venerable, the next step in the sainthood process.

The Vatican also has investigated possible medical miracles attributed to Kapaun involving two Wichita-area teens.

Chaplain Kapaun Memorial High School, now Kapaun Mount Carmel, is named in his honor. Men from the POW camp helped pay for the school’s construction in 1956.

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