Father Emil Kapaun, a plain-spoken, pipe-smoking chaplain, is posthumously receiving the Medal of Honor for his “extraordinary heroism” while serving as an Army chaplain during the Korean War. He died in captivity in 1951. (Catholic Diocese of Wichita via AP)
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PILSEN, Kan. — A Kansas town with a population of only 40 will have some time in the spotlight after a native son’s family receives the Medal of Honor this week from President Obama.
Obama will present the nation’s highest military honor for valor Thursday to the family of the Rev. Emil Kapaun, who was credited with saving hundreds of lives while serving as a chaplain in the Korean War. The Vatican also has classified Kapaun as a Servant of God, which could lead to him someday being declared a saint.
Kapaun’s family has decided to give the medal to Pilsen, a town about an hour northeast of Wichita where residents don’t close their doors and there is no police department, The Wichita Eagle reported. There’s also no restaurant, gas station or public restroom to serve anyone who visits to learn more about Kapaun.
Kapaun became an international hero in the 1950s, when newspapers reported his battlefield valor and when fellow prisoners-of-war told stories about his courage after he died at age 35 in a prison camp in 1951.
Ray Kapaun, the eldest son of Father Kapaun’s brother, Gene, said the family decided he will present the medal to Pilsen on June 2, which is Father Kapaun Day in the town.
“Pilsen was dad’s hometown, Emil’s hometown,” he said. “Dad said he knew how much everybody in Pilsen told Emil’s story and rooted for him, to this day. Dad knew what Father Emil meant to Pilsen and to the people there.”
But the decision raises concerns about security for the medal.
“Maybe this is me being overprotective, but with the medal, I can’t see putting it up there where it can’t be protected,” said the Rev. John Hotze, the judicial vicar for the Wichita Diocese. Hotze led the Vatican’s investigation of Kapaun’s candidacy for sainthood and cares for many Kapaun documents and artifacts in Wichita.
He said the medal probably should be protected in a locked vault.
Rose Mary Neuwirth, Pilsen’s unofficial Kapaun tour guide, said town residents know they must make decisions soon about how to serve people visiting to hear more about Kapaun.
Visitors who go to Pilsen can see a large bronze statue of Kapaun helping a wounded soldier off a Korean War battlefield. And a vacant church house holds a one-room mini-“museum,” containing Kapaun’s church vestments and a few other belongings, including his green Army trunk, as well as several wooden sculptures honoring the priest. However, the house has no staff, no tenants, no air conditioning and no working bathroom.
Eventually, the Roman Catholic Church might build a Father Kapaun center in Pilsen, Hotze said, but no plans have been made yet.