Medal of Honor: Catholic Chaplains in Combat

In the early hours of a humid September day in 1967, warriors of the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 5th Marine Regiment descended on more 2,500 North Vietnamese soldiers near the village of Dong Son in Vietnam. Swiftly navigating the fray amid the sweaty, tired, battle-hardened young Marines, Fr. Vincent Capodanno tended to the souls of the wounded and dying in his care.

Fr. Vincent Capodanno

Fr. Vincent Capodanno

In just five hours of Operation Swift that early September day, twenty-six Marines were confirmed dead. The fighting grew more and more intense, hand-to-hand at times, as Fr. Capodanno courageously ran from Marine to Marine to administer Last Rites and Viaticum, the “food for the journey.” With a wounded face, several wounds to his legs, and a partially amputated right hand, Fr. Capodanno spotted a wounded Corpsman dangerously close to an enemy machinegun position. After refusing his own medical care moments ago, Fr. Capodanno ran straight for the injured Corspman without hesitation. From his Medal of Honor citation: “At that instant, only inches from his goal, he was struck down by a burst of machine gun fire.” He valiantly gave his life for his brothers and for the good of souls in his care out of his love of God.

On Holy Thursday in 1916, Fr. John Sklenar baptized the future Fr. Emil Kapaun at St John Nepomucene Church in Pilsen, Kansas. The son of simple Bohemian farmers, Fr. Kapaun would go on to join the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps and serve his first assignment as a Catholic chaplain at Camp Wheeler, Georgia in 1944 four years after being ordained a priest at Sacred Heart College in Wichita. His first homily, delivered in Bohemian nonetheless, was preached from the pulpit in the very same parish in which he was baptized.

As an Army chaplain, Fr. Kapaun served the remaining months of World War II in Burma and India sometimes traveling well over two thousand miles in a secondhand Army Jeep to celebrate Mass for the souls in his care assigned to forward areas. He was promoted to Captain in 1946 and served in Calcutta in close proximity to a holy soul we know to be Blessed Teresa of Calcutta who was then the headmistress at the Loreto convent school. That year, the very same year Blessed Teresa received her “call within a call” on a train ride, Fr. Kapaun was ordered back to the U.S. and left the service for a time to attend school on the G.I. Bill. After serving brief assignments as a parish priest, he earned a master’s degree in education from the Catholic University of America in order to teach history in his home state of Kansas.

Fr. Emil Kapaun celebrating Mass using the hood of a Jeep as his altar, Oct 7, 1950 / Col. Raymond Skeehan

However, it wasn’t long at all before Fr. Kapaun received his own “call within a call” and wrote to Bishop Carroll in 1948 requesting to return to active duty as an Army chaplain citing that his conscience told him his priestly duty was among the troops. On July 18, 1950, Chaplain Kapaun landed at Po Hong Dong, Korea, with the U.S. Army’s First Cavalry Division and began wading through the immense horrors of the Korean War. In a letter to a friend and fellow priest in October of the same year, Fr. Kapaun wrote:

“I have also been able to be at the side of the dying so far without being seriously wounded myself. I am very grateful for that. Both Catholics and non-Catholics have great respect for the Chaplain. Incidentally in this war we have to be armed. The Reds were not taking prisoners, So [sic] we resolved to fight them to the finish because we would not have a chance if we chose to surrender in any particular hopeless situation.”

“The Reds,” as Fr. Kapaun called them, apparently did begin taking prisoners shortly after his letter because the Chinese and North Koreans captured him with a number of other soldiers just a month later. His Medal of Honor citation details the events:

On November 1, as Chinese Communist Forces viciously attacked friendly elements, 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. Though the Americans successfully repelled the assault, they found themselves surrounded by the enemy. Facing annihilation, the able-bodied men were ordered to evacuate. However, Chaplain Kapaun, fully aware of his certain capture, elected to stay behind with the wounded. After the enemy succeeded in breaking through the defense in the early morning hours of November 2, Chaplain Kapaun continually made rounds, as hand-to-hand combat ensued. As Chinese Communist Forces approached the American position, Chaplain Kapaun noticed an injured Chinese officer amongst the wounded and convinced him to negotiate the safe surrender of the American Forces. Shortly after his capture, Chaplain Kapaun, with complete disregard for his personal safety and unwavering resolve, bravely pushed aside an enemy soldier preparing to execute Sergeant First Class Herbert A. Miller. Not only did Chaplain Kapaun’s gallantry save the life of Sergeant Miller, but also his unparalleled courage and leadership inspired all those present, including those who might have otherwise fled in panic, to remain and fight the enemy until captured.

In the merciless, subzero temperatures of the Korean winter, Fr. Kapaun tended to the wounded, consoled the dying, and led daily prayers for his fellow prisoners of war. He foraged for food for his fellow prisoners and even managed to produce and store clean water using skills he learned on his 160-acre family farm in Kansas. Suffering from a severe eye infection and a painful clot in his leg, Fr. Kapaun led an Easter celebration for his fellow prisoners in 1951. His wounds soon became debilitating, and his cruel captors forced him into the prison hospital, which his fellow prisoners fiercely protested as it was tantamount to a death sentence.

Army records maintain that Capt Kapaun died of pneumonia on May 6, 1951; but his fellow prisoners of war insist that Fr. Kapaun suffered a cruel and horrible death by starvation later that month. Fr. Kapaun had managed to smuggle and conceal a pyx on his person until his death. The communist captors removed and desecrated it, but his fellow captives demanded the pyx be returned before they were finally released at the end of the war.

Only three other priests have been awarded the Medal of Honor. Fr. Joseph O’Callahan bravely tended to the suffering souls aboard the fiercely attacked USS Franklin in 1945. Angelo “Charlie” Liteky was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during Vietnam; though, he later removed his collar, left the Church, married a former nun, and renounced his Medal by mailing it to President Reagan with his explanation. He was also extremely vociferous in his denouncement of the most recent Iraq War. Fr. Charles J. Waters Jersey City native and U.S. Army Airborne paratrooper chaplain earned his own Medal of Honor in 1967 during the Battle of Dak-To. However, the causes for canonization of both Fr. Emil Kapaun and Fr. Vincent Capodanno have been opened, and the Church has officially declared both “Servant(s) of God.”


Editor. ‘Valor Awards for Vincent Robert Capodanno’. Military Times, 2009: n. pag. Print.

Maher, William L. A Shepherd in Combat Boots, Chaplain Emil Kapaun of the 1st Cavalry Division. Shippensburg, PA, 1997.

Misseck, Robert. ‘Tribute Befitting A Legend (Medal Of Honor Recipient, Catholic Priest, Vietnam Veteran Remembered)’. The Newark Star Ledger 2005: n. pag. Print.

Soergel, Matt. ‘Charlie Liteky: ‘He Was Our Quarterback, And Quarterbacks Save The World”. The Florida Times-Union 2009: n. pag. Print.

Tonne, Rev. Arthur.  The Story of Chaplain Kapaun, Patriot Priest of the Korean Conflict. Emporia, KS, 1954.

Walsh, Mary Ann. ‘Chaplain Medal Of Honor Winners Highlighted On Bishops’ Blog For Veterans Day’. 2015.

image: Father Emil Kapaun celebrating Mass using the hood of a Jeep as his altar, Oct 7, 1950 / Col. Raymond Skeehan

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Jonathan Burgess holds a BA in English Language and Literature and currently studies creative nonfiction writing in Converse College’s MFA program. His work has appeared in O Dark Thirty, Blood & Thunder, and Catholic Exchange. He lives in upstate South Carolina with his wife and four children.

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