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military chaplains

Early in the Korean War, US Army Chaplain Emil Kapaun wrote to his superior, “Tomorrow we go into combat.” Two months later Chaplain Kapaun entered Pyongyang with the 8th Cavalry Regiment. All Saints Day (day after Halloween) he conducted mass, dug foxholes, and in 20degree weather bivouacked with his battalion in the hills above the northern Korean town of Unsan.
Before dawn they were awakened by the Communist Chinese Army crossing the border to launch a surprise attack. Father Kapaun soon found himself a prisoner of war, being marched north. On the long trek over frozen terrain Father Kapaun carried the wounded, encouraged the defeated, and buried the dead—including a fellow US Army Chaplain, a Protestant.

In the POW camp, Chaplain Kapaun clandestinely foraged for food, relayed messages between officers and enlisted men, sang hymns with soldiers of all ranks, and led forbidden worship services. One soldier recalled the while, “the majority of us had turned into animals the good priest conducted himself as a human being.”

May 23, 1951—ten months after landing on the Korean Peninsula—Chaplain Kapaun died from starvation, dysentery and pneumonia. Buried with other POW’s in a mass grave, his internment was honored by a wooden cross, hand-carved by a Jewish POW. Chaplain Kapaun was posthumously awarded the
Congressional Medal of Honor.

Author Ronit Stahl,
Enlisting the Faith, contends the US Military constructed a new civic religious ideal, a non-denominational “moral monotheism” that would go on to influence the nation’s religious structure throughout the 20th century. This ideal was epitomized during World War 1 when a Baptist chaplain administered the Eucharist at a Catholic altar, after having preached at a Jewish service.

US Military Chaplains have accompanied American troops into battle since George Washington led the Continental Army. They are tasked with helping post-adolescents suddenly confront life’s biggest questions, often in life-and-death environments: How should I live? What is my duty to my fellow man? Where do I find courage? Can I be both violent and caring? What is death, and how do I face it? ~

Dan Nygaard