Mike Dowe will bow his head this Veteran’s Day, and say a little prayer to the soul of the best soldier he ever knew.
For Dowe, a Korean War vet, this isn’t just an annual commemoration. Every day for the 66 years since Father Emil Kapaun died in that Korean War prison camp, Dowe has prayed to the former U.S. Army Chaplain, his former fellow POW. That’s more than 24,200 prayers over as many days.
And Dowe isn’t the only one.
Every day, in places all over the world, hundreds or more people pray to Kapaun—but especially in the Roman Catholic diocese of Wichita, Kansas, where he was ordained a priest in 1940. Some are old U.S. Army soldiers like Dowe, who saw Kapaun do the recklessly brave things that earned him the Medal of Honor posthumously in 2013.
But others, like the pediatric intensive-care nurse Avery Gerleman, were born decades after Kapaun died. She’s only 23. And Chase Kear, a college senior, is only 29. They pray to him every day, because they think praying to the soul of Kapaun miraculously saved their lives from seemingly impossible medical problems.
Kapaun as a chaplain didn’t shoot people, and didn’t command troops. But Dowe and other battle-hardened fighters say he was the best leader they ever knew. Hollywood is reportedly working on a movie. The Vatican is in the advanced stages of deciding whether the stories of Gerleman and Kear are miracles that will help propel Kapaun to sainthood. He has already been declared a “Servant of God,” the first rung up the canonization ladder. In coming months the Vatican will consider whether to bump him to “Venerable” status.
Those who knew him best lay out the case:
In 2001 the Rev. John Hotze, a priest from the Wichita diocese, began investigating Kapaun’s candidacy for sainthood. He flew all over the country, interviewing dozens of Kapaun childhood and Army acquaintances. Hotze’s work became the raw material of a vigorous investigation by the Vatican.
Veterans told Hotze jaw-dropping stories about Kapaun’s heroics, first on Korean War battlefields, then in the prison camp. Joe Ramirez told how the “crazy” chaplain would run through gunfire, sometimes 100 or more yards in front of besieged American lines, to drag a wounded G.I. to safety.
Herbert Miller recalled how, after enemy soldiers discovered him hiding in a ditch, his ankle mangled by grenade shrapnel, Kapaun strode up and pushed away the gun poised to execute him. The chaplain and other soldiers helped him hobble along on a forced march to the Pyoktong prison camp.
By all accounts, Kapaun is believed to have saved dozens of lives on the battlefields, and hundreds more in a prison camp where he made tin cooking pots that held off lethal cases of dysentery. Kapaun comforted and gave medical aid to countless more besieged in battle. Sometimes he landed in their foxhole with a joke. Always a smile.
The veterans told how stunning it was to watch this, and then see Kapaun later dig latrine holes alongside teenaged soldiers.
Hotze, skeptical at first, concluded that Kapaun might one day redefine sainthood. “For years and years in the church, we put saints on pedestals, thinking that none of us could ever become one,” Hotze concluded. “But he was an ordinary person who was exemplary, and he was exemplary long before he was a priest. He showed that any one of us can become a saint.”
The quiet miracles
In a corner of prisoner-of-war Camp Five in Pyoktong, North Korea, Lt. William Funchess one day saw a scarecrow of a man wearing a filthy U.S. Army uniform, bending over crude tin cooking pot.
By January 1951, Funchess had starved down to a shivering skeleton. Lt. Dowe had saved his life after a Chinese machine gunner shot Funchess in the foot. Dowe had carried and dragged Funchess along for miles, until the Chinese Army captured them. Now Dowe, Funchess and 3,000 other American and Allied prisoners were starving, and Funchess went one day for a hobbling walk. The temperature was 20 to 30 degrees below zero, and the ground was covered with dirty snow, which prisoners ate to stay hydrated. Their captors gave them no water.
The scarecrow turned toward him. “He looked like an old man, thin with a scraggly beard,” Funchess said. “And he was making a fire, which would get him beaten by guards if they saw him light it. He was boiling snow.”
“Would you like drink of hot water?” the scarecrow said.
“I have not had a drink of water in three months,” Funchess said. The man handed over the pot, and Funchess drank.
“I’m Father Emil Kapaun,” the other man said.
Funchess saw that he was not old but starved, like Funchess and the rest of the dying.
Filching food, picking lice
More than 1,500 of the 3,000 American and Allied prisoners in Pyoktong died in the winter of 1951: of starvation, dysentery and from being eaten alive by lice. But Kapaun saved hundreds more.
“He told us to steal,” Dowe said. “He told us God would forgive stealing if it was to keep us alive.” Dowe would sometimes pick a fake fight with another prisoner of war, to distract the guards, while Kapaun snuck into sheds and stole sacks of rice.
“The best thief we ever saw,” Dowe said.
Dowe and Funchess watched Kapaun sneak through barbed-wire barriers, and come back from farm fields carrying potatoes, ears of corn—and cornstalks he’d burn in forbidden fires, for boiling snow in those pots. Dowe woke up many mornings to hear Kapaun hammering stones on bombed-out roofing tin.
Men died, sometimes 40 a day. “I woke up one morning and found the man sleeping on my left to be dead,” Funchess said. “I rolled over and found the man on my right, also dead.” Bodies were stacked like cordwood inside the camp.
Kapaun picked lice off sick men, and washed trousers soiled from diarrhea.
When starving prisoners stole from the weaker among them, Kapaun one day walked into a hut and gave away his own handful of food. “Lord, we thank thee for this food that we can not only eat but share,” Kapaun said.
Supporters for sainthood
In Rome, Vatican investigators have sifted through thousands of documents, videos and affidavits signed by veterans long-dead or living. Protestants like Funchess told Hotze how Kapaun got everybody in camp praying the Catholic Rosary every day, even Protestants and Jews. They told how he infuriated guards by calling them liars when they tried to brainwash prisoners.
For Kapaun to reach to Venerable status, the Vatican must decide he was “heroic of virtue.” Hotze thinks the Vatican will soon declare him Venerable. After that, to become beatified, (the next step), a verifiable miracle must be attributed to his intercession after his death.
The Vatican investigator, Andrea Ambrosi, has studied two: Chase Kear, a community-college pole vaulter, survived what his doctors said should have been a fatal head injury, when Kear missed the mat on a practice vault and crushed his skull. Avery Gerleman survived an auto-immune disorder that devastated her internal organs. In both cases, doctors (all Protestant) told Ambrosi they were startled by the survivals, and can’t offer medical explanations. Organ scans early in Gerleman’s hospitalization showed severe damage, as though the organs had been burned. Later scans showed no damage, no scar tissue, a situation her doctors told Ambrosi is unheard of in medicine.
Kear and Gerleman say it’s easy: Their families and friends prayed day and night to Father Kapaun, even after doctors gave up.
Believers are rooting for him. Thousands converge every year on Pilsen, Kansas, where Kapaun grew up as a farm kid. Only 48 people live in Pilsen. There is no public restroom, restaurant or gas station, but visitors and schoolchildren come sometimes by busloads, from dozens of states and many foreign countries.
“We had a guy from Kazakhstan who didn’t speak much English. We’ve had ’em from everywhere,” says Rose Mary Neuwirth who, with other church ladies in their mid-70s, greet pilgrims at the St. John Nepomucene church, where Kapaun was baptized in 1916.
If these pilgrims ask politely, Rose Mary or one of the other ladies will walk to the town bank, get into the safety-deposit box, and lift out the wooden case with the Medal of Honor that President Barack Obama handed to nephew Ray Kapaun in 2013.
Funchess and Dowe made desperate attempts to save Kapaun in May 1951, when the chaplain grew weak and guards came take him to what prisoners called the camp “death house.”
Dowe broke down. “Don’t cry,” Kapaun told him. “I’m going to where I always wanted to go.”
Dowe, now 89 and living near Houston, continues to say that little prayer. “Father: I ask your intercession with our Lord, and inspiration in my daily tasks.”
This story is part of Heroes Week, a weeklong celebration of our heroes in the armed forces. Read more veterans stories here.