Tom Shine, an editor at The Wichita Eagle, first asked me to do a story profile on Chaplain/Father Emil Kapaun in early 2009.
I said no. Dead 58 years — what was left to say? “Give that rehash to a rookie reporter.” But Tom kept after me, and after six months, to make him stop, I made one single call to ask about Father. I talked with the priest in charge of Father’s story for the local diocese.
That call was a stunner: Father Hotze told me the Pentagon had recently resurrected the Medal of Honor investigation, and that the Vatican had re-started it’s sainthood investigation.
I still doubted. The Korean War ended in 1953. By now (2009) surely all his soldier friends were dead or in dementia. But then I talked to 15 of them — battle-tested warriors from mass slaughters, survivors of torture and starvation in the Korean prison camp. And all were still carrying a torch for his Medal chances. Angry that the Army and the Vatican had failed to give him the Medal of Honor and declare him a saint.
The soldiers allayed my other reason for reluctance: I was a lapsed Catholic who thought priests gave tame, predictable sermons while the rest of us suffer through worries and workdays.
But Father’s friends said he saved hundreds of soldiers’ lives, either dragging the wounded to safety through sniper fire or making cooking pots from scrap metal. They used his pots to boil water that held off dysentery in the prison camp. He picked lice off the sick and got starving men to eat when many of them were committing suicide by starvation.
He became the Indiana Jones of combat chaplains, doing dazzling feats of heroism before he was finally murdered by his guards. He persuaded men to save each other — traumatized men and boys who were refusing to follow orders from their officers. But they followed Father, who had no official authority over them.
For 10 months in Korea, and in a lifetime of only 35 years, he was a dazzling success, who still inspires thousands of people 73 years after his death. And I can tell you one other thing: What he did, and how he did it, and why it worked so well, can serve as an easy-to-learn model for all of us today.
Long before Korea, at age 25, he wrote a deceptively simple blueprint explaining how he would one day try to save the world. Anybody could follow it — all the way to sainthood. Even you and me.
I describe this successful person in contrast to the many failures of institutions we once trusted.
Our Congress has become a circus, where clowns far outnumber lions. Our military failed in Iraq, failed in Afghanistan, and before that failed in Vietnam, after which we failed our veterans. The Catholic Church has failed many people.
Our middle class has mostly disappeared, replaced by day workers who struggle even as billionaires get richer by the hour.
Television news shows are mostly bad-news breathless at the 5:30 hour and are no more than smear campaigns into the evening. The smearing is even worse on social media, and it’s you and me doing the smearing.
And in families, people disown parents and children and uncles and siblings, based on whether someone in the family supports Donald Trump.
These failures seem unsolvable. They tempt us to withdraw from civic life, from neighborhood relationships; they tempt us to Balkanize our families. Many of us have stopped contacting friends we supposedly loved for decades.
I think Father could defuse this and fix all of us sinners, if only we could meet him. I know that he defused me, a sinner. I’m a lapsed Catholic. But Father’s story prompted me to overhaul how I dealt with people. I’ve tried to be like him, to do for others, to draw the best out of others. And I’ve tried to do this with a certain amount of calculation. Like he did.
So, let me properly introduce you to the man and his blueprint.
The first thing I’ll tell is what he did. Then I’ll tell how he did it. Then I’ll tell why it worked. And that last part — why it worked — is the key to the soul of Father Kapaun — and the key to how all of us can become successful and even beloved people in everyday life.
His 8th Cavalry Regiment was the first U.S. Army unit sent into the war, shortly after North Korea invaded the south. The chaplain and his mostly teenaged or twenty-something soldiers got into horrible firefights from the beginning. And from the beginning, Father rescued wounded soldiers by running toward enemy gunners to drag wounded kids back to safety. Hundreds of soldiers saw him do this. One of them, Joe Ramirez, said later “That man was crazy.”
They fought for three months. On the march, he made himself beloved with hundreds of small acts.
He preached a little, but only if asked, and did far more with wordless actions. He made it clear that he didn’t care whether a soldier was atheist or Protestant, Jew or Muslim. He helped tired soldiers dig foxholes and latrine holes, often without saying anything about prayer. He trotted off into orchards and fields and came back with apples and corn cobs to pass out to half-starved soldiers. He helped wounded boys write their parents.
He became indispensable, that guy they wanted beside them. The guy they wanted to please.
As a result, young men did almost impossible things, though they were shell-shocked, exhausted, starving, and shivering in 40-below temperatures.
The 8th Cavalry’s 3rd battalion was shot to pieces and overrun at the battle of Unsan in November 1951. Kapaun refused to escape, and men saw him do that.
In the battle, he saved 30 wounded men from execution by running straight at Chinese soldiers, yelling at them to lower their rifles. Men saw him do this. And then on the march to the prison camp, the survivors, dead on their feet, stopped carrying their wounded comrades — who were then shot by the guards, probably to put them out of their misery. The exhausted GIs were refusing officers’ orders to carry the wounded.
But then Father began running up and down the line — and for him they picked up the wounded. They did it for him because he was that guy, who was always there for them, whether it was to dig a latrine beside them or whether it was reckless bravery on their behalf.
In the prison camp, when POWs began to steal food from each other, he gave away his own rations and urged them to feed each other. They saw him do this and stopped stealing. They saw him sneak out of the prison camp to steal food for them, from either the guards or from neighboring farms, and they heard him lamenting about how theft was a sin and that he hoped the Lord would forgive him.
They saw him repeatedly and loudly mock and denounce the camp officials when they tried to brainwash starving soldiers. When the propaganda officer threatened the soldiers one day for defying the brainwashing, Father called out “What a dumb son of a bitch” so that the soldiers heard him say it. And so, he turned hundreds of starving, shivering prisoners into United States Army combat soldiers again, with backbones like steel and hearts that burned pure.
That’s a summary of what he did. Now for how he did it:
It became clear as I talked to the old guys that Father did what he did with deliberate calculation – actions, with a minimum of preaching. Digging foxholes holes with them, with only cheerful banter and a few jokes. Racing around battlefields plugging wounds, giving Last Rights. Asking terrified youngsters how they were doing and was there anything he could do to help them.
This was deliberate, it was calculated, and I believe that he patterned this behavior on the Jesus of the Gospels. Jesus did a fair amount of preaching back in the day, but he also healed sick people and sat beside sinners with a minimum of talk. Actions over words.
Father did it in Korea — and won the hearts of terrified boys. They would do anything he asked. They knew, like Joe Ramirez, that that man was crazy; but they knew also that his heart burned pure.
And now I’ll tell why this worked. I made this discovery in 2009 in researching him. It’s the strangest thing.
It’s contained in a sermon he wrote for the farmers, and their wives and children, who attended his Masses in his tiny hometown of Pilsen, Kansas. There are only about 45 people in town, then and now, by the way. He delivered the sermon on April 16, 1941, Palm Sunday that year.
I’m going to read three paragraphs from that sermon now. It’s Father’s blueprint, for his life and yours.
And as I read, I want you to remember that this was April 1941, and the United States wasn’t even fighting World War II yet. And Father was only a 25-year-old priest, a farm kid isolated out the Kansas prairie; he had never been to war and had never traveled beyond his little farm town except to go to seminary. He’d seen the world mostly through books. He was at an age so young that many of you would consider him a child.
And yet he wrote this blueprint for leadership, in which he described exactly what he would do nine years later, when the world fell into disaster, and he rallied hundreds of starving men to help him save it.
As I read his words now, picture him running through gunfire with a soldier in his arms. See also how men see him do this. See him take dictation as he helps a wounded 19-year-old write a letter to his parents. See him give his own food away to stop the camp stealing. As you picture this, picture also all those hundreds of men watching him do these things. And then realize: He planned the whole thing when he was an unknown, powerless and insignificant young man:
“Men find it easy to follow one who has endeared himself to them,” he wrote.
“A man finds it a pleasure to serve one who has saved his life.”
“A great leader exerts a most powerful influence over the hearts and minds of his followers. Though the task of following such a leader is most arduous in itself, yet it becomes sweet and honorable, and comparatively easy in practice when the followers consider the dignity of the leader, the relation of the leader to his followers, the motives which prompt the leader, and the rewards which he offers.”
Do you see? All his heroics, all his hole-digging, and all the little battlefield hikes to grab apples and corn cobs for hungry soldiers – it was him helping others, but it was also calculated, to win the hearts of desperate men so that he could then empower them to save themselves. One of his key insights was that while he wanted very much to save the world, he knew he could not do it alone.
It’s a simple blueprint — and not even original to Father. He lifted it straight from the Gospels that describe how Jesus operated back in the day.
Think about him. Learn more about him. There are books; there are documentaries.
You might think your world is hopeless. That you are powerless. Frustration might persuade you to give up – to cut yourself off from the cruel and silly world. You can’t shut down the circus in Congress; you can’t change the media — or tame the toxins brewing in your social media feeds. You can’t persuade Uncle Zed to forego saying bat-shit crazy things at that next Thanksgiving dinner at your home.
But even when our institutions fail — as they will always fail — even when the world seems hopeless — you can do what Father did.
You can make yourself that indispensable soul who endears other people to you, one person at a time. You can make it a pleasure for people to know and trust and follow you. You can exert a most powerful influence over the hearts and minds of those around you, even the strangers, and those with bad hearts.
Institutions succeed at times, but they often hurt and ignore and marginalize people. But people many times succeed. They save and serve the world one person at a time.
You can be that person who visits the lonely. A listener for those losing a loved one. The volunteer tutoring one lost child in an after-school program, even though it’s at the end of the workday and you are tired. You can be there even for Uncle Zed.
You can do this with such quiet relentlessness that all the people watching will know that your heart burns pure.
Not all will follow your example. But some will go out relentlessly themselves — to help or console or lift someone else – just a little bit — so that like Father Kapaun, you won’t have to do it all alone.
Delivered February 20, 2023 in New York City at the New York Encounter.