The Vatican will reconsider whether war hero Father Emil Kapaun died a Christian martyr during the Korean War, the chief investigator for Kapaun’s cause says. They had dismissed this idea before.
If the Vatican decides the priest from Kansas died as a martyr it could fast-track his path to full sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church, said Father John Hotze, the Wichita Catholic priest who, for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, has investigated Kapaun’s eligibility for sainthood for decades.
The Vatican has examined Kapaun’s story, including his many heroic deeds that didn’t involve martyrdom, off and on since the 1953 end of the Korean War. Pope John Paul II declared Kapaun a “Servant of God” in 1993 — the first rung on the ladder to sainthood.
Kapaun served in the U.S. Army as a chaplain. During the early months of the Korea War he served with the 8th Cavalry regiment, which fought in many battles. His fellow soldiers said he frequently ran through machine and sniper fire to rescue wounded soldiers. And that he saved many lives in a prison camp at Pyoktong, North Korea, where they were imprisoned after the Chinese Army captured him and 3,000 other soldiers.
In the camp, soldiers said, Kapaun organized prayer meetings in prison huts and angered camp guards who tried to ban religious services. After the guards tried to brainwash starving soldiers to get them to sign propaganda documents, Kapaun told guards to their faces that they were liars, and led men to mock and dispute with propaganda lecturers.
But the Vatican in 2015 declined suggestions from Hotze and Wichita Diocese Bishop Carl Kemme that Kapaun died for his faith. They said that while Kapaun was heroic, and that Communist guards might have targeted him for death, it was unclear from available evidence whether he died for his faith or rather because he was a heroic soldier. They pointed out that hundreds of other prisoners died of starvation and disease in the same camp.
But Hotze says new evidence has come to light in the past year, when Kapaun’s newly discovered remains were brought home to Kansas. He plans to investigate further and the diocese will present all new evidence to the Vatican. The Vatican recently gave him permission to do this work, he said.
Kapaun’s fellow POWs speak
Hotze has investigated Kapaun’s sainthood candidacy since the early 1990s, and has sent thousands of documents, letters, testimonies from Kapaun’s soldier friends and much more, explaining what he did.
POW friends have said for years that they were first-hand witnesses to Kapaun’s heroics and his death. They have all said camp guards murdered Kapaun for his faith and for his resistance. They have said they can’t understand why the church doesn’t get that.
“What the church is doing now, they should have done that years ago,” said Mike Dowe, a former prisoner of war and a Kapaun prison camp friend. Dowe felt so strongly about this that he recently called to give an interview from a Houston-area hospital intensive care unit where he was recovering from a massive heart attack in October.
“We can sum the whole thing up with the fact that the Chinese were literally afraid of him, and the reason they were afraid of him was because of his faith,” Dowe said.
The guards forbade all religious services, for example, and punished violators by making them stand in the freezing cold at night, Dowe said.
But Kapaun organized prayer services all the time, often by escaping the officers’ compound (where he was kept) and slipping into the enlisted soldiers’ compound to say prayers with those prisoners. The prayer gatherings were obviously done to nurture their faith, Dowe said, but were also designed by Kapaun to defy the guards, Dowe said.
It was both religious in nature but also made the men feel like they were still good soldiers — and not helpless starving prisoners. “It got to the point where even Protestants and Jews and soldiers of other faiths would pray the Catholic Rosary with Father,” Dowe said.
Another prisoner, Robert Wood, a friend of both Kapaun and Dowe, often said the camp guards murdered Kapaun because of his faith. Wood died in 2018, but his sons, Chris and Michael, say their father told them that while the guards abused prisoners for their resistance (including their father), those abuses were far exceeded by what they did to Kapaun.
“My Dad always told me they (the guards) hated Father Kapaun, for he was unbending in his faith and that in turn gave them strength,” Michael Wood said. “Mostly through his example but also for his encouragement, to all the men in the camp to stay strong and resist. It is true that my Dad was also targeted for his defiance, but not to the extent of Father Kapaun.”
Hotze plans to weave these accounts together with new information when he writes his new report for the Vatican. Hotze said the new information came to public knowledge after military analysts and others heard the startling news that Kapaun’s remains, supposedly lost forever, were found last year.
Among the evidence Hotze is gathering comes from long-ago testimony from William Hansen, an enlisted U.S. Army soldier from New York who survived three years in the prison camp where Kapaun died. Hansen in 2005 told Hotze and others that he served many times as Kapaun’s accomplice as they stole medicine from the camp guards so sick prisoners could be treated.
“He taught me how to steal from the Chinese, to sneak out at night and get medicines…aspirins, morphine and things like that,” Hansen said in a 2004 interview with the (Gen. Douglas) MacArthur Memorial Oral History Project. “The Chinese hated him because he would take nothing from them. He would just tell them to go jump in the river.”
Hansen died in 2006.
A year after that interview, Hansen told Hotze that in May of 1951 Communist guards transferred a sick and enfeebled Kapaun from the camp’s general population and placed him in what the prisoners called the Death House, a room in a ruined former Buddhist pagoda where they laid out weak and incontinent POWs to breathe their last. Hansen, who was also sick, and staying in the nearby “Sick House,” tried twice to bring Kapaun bowls of food, but the guards took the bowls away.
Kapaun died two days later. Hotze said this testimony is important because it appears to show guards trying to hasten Kapaun’s death.
Kapaun had been seriously ill for weeks before this, with pneumonia and a blood clot — but Dowe said Kapaun was getting better as POWS fed him and POW doctors treated his ailments. The guards took him to the Death House “because he was getting better,” Dowe said.
“When he got better, they saw they were missing their chance to get rid of him — not only to get rid of him but to get rid of him in a way that would avoid a camp uprising.”
Defense Dept. analysts and historian
The other evidence Hotze will send to the Vatican includes research done by two Defense Department analysts, Phil O’Brien and Daniel Baughman, and by William Latham, a Korean War historian and author of “Cold Days in Hell: American POWs in Korea.” The Wichita Eagle recently contacted the three men.
None of this is simple or cut and dried, Latham said. In Pyoktong, the prison camp where Kapaun died, 1,400 of the 3,000 American and Allied prisoners held there, including Kapaun, died in the first winter of the war in 1950-51.
“The North Koreans killed hundreds of American POWs (and probably thousands of South Korean POWs) largely from negligence and malice,” Latham said. “The North Koreans, in particular, usually treated prisoners no better than cattle. The Chinese Army, after it took over the prison camps in early 1951, were not much better. “They readily tortured and withheld medical treatment from uncooperative prisoners (including Kapaun).
But all three men said there is some evidence, from POWs who served in the camp and from other sources, that show that the Communists running prison camps in North Korea deliberately targeted not only Kapaun but four other American Army chaplains for death — because of their faith.
It is significant that no captured American chaplains survived the Communist prison camps in North Korea, Baughman said.
“It is my opinion the Chinese found the chaplains an impediment to their attempts to find POWs who would cooperate with them,” Baughman said. “One chaplain was shot shortly after capture by the North Koreans with a group of wounded men. Four others died in captivity with the Chinese.”
Said Latham: “Kapaun’s faith was undoubtedly a major factor in his mistreatment by the Chinese. I have written about POWs who were tortured for several days until they agreed to sign confessions that implicated Kapaun.”
No one in the U.S. Defense Department did more to investigate what happened to Kapaun than O’Brien, a retired Defense Department analyst who spent 19 years (between 1995 and 2014) interviewing thousands of former POWs and compiling a thick file on what dozens of those POWS told him about Kapaun’s heroics.
To say Kapaun died for his faith “is stating the obvious,” O’Brien said. “His motivation was divine, not secular.” It was faith that prompted him to rally starving prisoners the way he did.
“Kapaun appears to have made a conscious decision to sacrifice himself,” O’Brien said. “He kept pressing the limits until he literally expended himself. The Chinese, not entirely sure of his motives, yet sensing his imminent demise (after he became enfeebled by starvation), did not interfere too directly, but found it very convenient for him simply to die.”
“But they misread him — and our appreciation of him.”
All this is key to the new investigation, Hotze said. Before, he said, the Vatican’s thought was that “yes, the guards wanted him dead, but they also wanted everybody dead.”
“But now we think we can show they not only wanted him dead but took the means to hasten his death. And we know why they did that.”