Hero Emil Kapaun, who died in a North Korean camp, is on the path to sainthood
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Aug 23, 2013
WICHITA, Kan. >> There’s a “better than even” chance that an Army chaplain being considered for sainthood is buried in an unmarked grave at Hawaii’s National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, a senior Pentagon analyst said.
The Rev. Emil Kapaun, a Kansas native, died of starvation and disease in a North Korean prison camp in May 1951, according to fellow prisoners of war.
Chinese army guards buried him in a shallow unmarked grave, the POWs reported, and the U.S. Army always assumed his remains were still there, the Wichita Eagle reports.
But Pentagon analyst Philip O’Brien, an authority on Korean War soldiers missing in action, thinks Kapaun’s remains were buried in 1954 at Punchbowl along with hundreds of others dug up and returned by the Chinese army.
“My best belief, a presumptive belief, is that we have a good chance, better than even, of having Father Kapaun in possession right now,” O’Brien said.
That statement is significant, said Korean War historian William Latham.
“When Phil says it’s true, it’s true,” Latham said.
Kapaun was awarded the Medal of Honor in April and the Catholic Church is considering him for sainthood for his work with his fellow prisoners.
“It would be great (if his remains were in Hawaii), especially as the church is moving toward canonization,” said Maj. Gen. Donald Rutherford, a Catholic priest who is the Army’s chief of chaplains.
Kapaun and other survivors of the 8th Cavalry were overrun and captured in the November 1950 battle of Unsan in North Korea. They were forced to march north to camps on the border with China.
Of the 4,000 Allied prisoners at a camp in the village of Pyoktong in late 1950 and early 1951, about 1,600 — including Kapaun — died of disease, starvation and exposure.
O’Brien had known for years about stories that said Kapaun’s body was buried in a grave near what Allied prisoners called a “death house,” but he also knew the Chinese army dug up about 560 American bodies in and around the hill where the house stood and sent them back to the United States.
O’Brien, 66, a retired Air Force captain, works for the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, based at the Pentagon. The office coordinates with civilian and military people around the world to find and return the remains of 83,000 missing Americans lost in many wars. They also collect data and stories.
“I have always felt like we owe it to those men we lost to preserve their stories,” O’Brien said.
The Rev. John Hotze, the Wichita Diocese priest in charge of the Kapaun sainthood investigation for the Vatican, said that if Kapaun’s remains are found the church would step in immediately to protect them from theft, relic hunters or any harm.
According to Gene Castagnetti, cemetery director, 810 unknowns are buried at Punchbowl from the Korean War.