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Father Emil Kapaun received the Medal of Honor posthumously in April. An expert says his remains may be buried with other unidentified servicemen in the Punchbowl in Hawaii. (AP)
WICHITA, KAN. — There’s a “better than even” chance that a Kansas native being considered for sainthood was buried in a national cemetery in Hawaii alongside hundreds of other Allied prisoners during the Korean War who were buried there in 1954, a senior Pentagon analyst said.
Father Emil Kapaun, an Army chaplain from Pilsen, Kan., died of starvation and disease in a North Korean prison camp in May 1951, according to fellow prisoners of war, The Wichita Eagle reported. Chinese Army guards buried him in a shallow unmarked grave, the POWs reported, and the Army always assumed his remains were there.
Kapaun was awarded the Medal of Honor in April, and the Catholic Church is considering him for sainthood.
“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 chief of chaplains for the Army.
Pentagon analyst Philip O’Brien, an authority on Korean War soldiers missing in action, thinks Kapaun’s remains were buried in 1954 in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, a cemetery in Hawaii known as the “Punchbowl.”
“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 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 U.S.
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.
Father John Hotze, the Wichita Diocese priest in charge of the Kapaun sainthood investigation for the Vatican, said if Kapaun’s remains are found the church would step in immediately to protect them from theft, relic hunters or any harm.