Kapaun to receive Medal of Honor

Staff writer

Eugene Vinduska, 82, of Pilsen said he was grateful to know Father Emil J. Kapaun when he pastored St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church.

“He was a hero in the war,” he said. “But he wasn’t a hero here. When he was living here, he was just an ordinary one of us. I saw him in the grocery store, at the church and mowing the lawn. He served the community. I remember many times when he would sacrifice his lunch hour to chaperone us when we were playing outside. He taught me how to play soccer.”

Vinduska is one of the few remaining Marion County residents who personally remembers Father Kapaun, but is one of many who have heard the heroic tales of how he repeatedly risked his own life to save hundreds. It is due to Kapaun’s extraordinary courage, faith and leadership that President Barack Obama is going to bestow upon him the Medal of Honor on April 11 for conspicuous gallantry. The posthumous honor many say is long overdue, and goes to a man who inspired thousands to survive the hellish prisoner-of-war camps, resist the enemy indoctrination, and retain their faith in God and country.

Vinduska said he was moved to tears at the former Kapaun Days, held annually in Pilsen, when the prisoners of war came to St. John Nepomucene Church to tell stories about Kapaun, and how he saved them from being killed by Chinese communist forces during the Battle of Unsan. At that time, he was attached to the 3rd Batallion of the 8th Calvary Regiment. When communist forces moved in on the group, Kapaun fearlessly went from foxhole to foxhole, under direct enemy fire, to provide comfort to the wounded soldiers and move as many as possible back to the safety of the American lines, or dug shelters to keep them from the line of fire.

“If you weren’t able-bodied, you were executed on sight,” Vinduska said, recalling the stories he had heard about some of the struggles. “There was a man there named Herbert Miller. He was a Baptist. He had injured his ankle and each time he put weight on it, it would hemorrhage. Father Kapaun went down into the hole and carried this man out, put him on his shoulders and carried him 20 or 30 miles, until he was safe.

“Miller was shy, but he said something like, ‘Many people can’t imagine carrying someone with their weight and build, and carrying them across a football field. This man carried me for 20 miles,’” Vinduska said. “They called him ‘bulletproof.’ He could walk through machine-gun fire and not get hit. Everyone else would be dead, but he’d still be looking for people to help. The good Lord protected him.”

Kapaun, along with the other prisoners, were forced by the Chinese communists to march northward toward the POW camps. During the forced march, Kapaun refused to take a break in helping to carry the wounded on stretchers and encouraged others to do the same.

Once inside the camp, he risked his life by sneaking around in the dark, looking for food as well as caring for the wounded and encouraging his fellow soldiers to continue to keep their faith. On at least one occasion, he was punished for his disobedience and was forced to sit outside in sub-zero temperatures without any clothing.

Vinduska said when Kapaun was always willing to serve his fellow prisoners in any way he could — by encouraging them or even by doing the simplest of tasks.

“I remember a time when this one POW came in and told how a bunch of prisoners were arguing about who should clean out the latrine,” he said. “But Kapaun just went ahead and emptied it. He was always doing that, serving others.”

Before being transferred to a filthy, unheated hospital, he urged his fellow prisoners to promise to keep their faith no matter what happened. Kapaun died alone. Now, many years later, the White House is bestowing upon him a posthumous medal of honor for conspicuous gallantry, which his nephew Ray Kapaun will accept on his behalf.

“It’s a huge honor me any family to be able to accept this award,” he said in a phone interview. “Just how he led his life, it’s humbling. Everything he did was by example, his devotion to his work, his devotion to his country.”

Rose Mary Neuwirth said she believes that he should have gotten it a long time ago.

“I think Pilsen is very proud of him,” she said.

Father John Hotze, judicial vicar for the Diocese of Wichita, said sainthood for Kapaun is still pending.

Neuwirth said many of Kapaun’s possessions are at St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church in Pilsen. Anyone interested can arrange a tour of Father Kapaun’s “little museum” as well as the church itself. To arrange a tour, call (620) 382-3369.

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