(Reuters) - A U.S. Army chaplain, who gave his food and clothing to fellow Americans in the hopes they would survive a Korean War prisoner-of-war camp in which he died, was honored on Thursday when President Barack Obama awarded him a posthumous Medal of Honor.
Standing to applaud the memory of Father Emil Kapaun at the White House ceremony were men, now in their 80s, who were held captive with him at the Pyoktong camp in the early 1950s.
Kapaun, who was 35 when he died in the North Korean POW camp in 1951, was credited with saving fellow Americans under enemy fire, arranging their safe surrender and then inspiring them to keep enough hope and faith to survive years in captivity.
His nephew, Ray Kapaun, accepted the country’s highest honor on the chaplain’s behalf from the president.
The bravery of Father Kapaun, a Kansas resident who served with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Calvary Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, came to life as Obama recalled that he negotiated the safe surrender of American troops in Unsan in 1950.
“When his commanders ordered an evacuation, he chose to stay, tending the injured,” Obama said at the ceremony.
“When the enemy broke through and the combat was hand-to-hand, he carried on comforting the injured and the dying,” he said.
Seeing an enemy soldier pointing a gun at a wounded American, “Father Kapaun marched over and pushed the enemy soldier aside and then, as the enemy soldier watched, stunned, Father Kapaun carried that wounded American away,” he said.
In the POW camp, when the Americans began hoarding food, Kapaun shared his own food and his clothing to foster a feeling of camaraderie and hope among the prisoners.
Thin, frail and sick with dysentery and pneumonia, Kapaun soon died and was buried in an unmarked grave. Kapaun’s remains were never recovered.
But two years later, the remaining American POWs were freed.
“These men held on, steeled by the moral example of the man they called ‘Father,'” said Obama.
“Father Kapaun’s life is a testimony to the human spirit,” the president said.
Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, G Crosse