Small Kansas town of Pilsen proudly awaits Emil Kapaun's Medal of Honor

04/08/2013 10:42 AM

05/20/2014 10:42 AM

Let’s say you are a proud native of this little town, as 85-year-old Millie Vinduska is.

You know that cellphone service barely exists out here an hour northeast of Wichita in Marion County. You know that most roads are dusty rock chert, that many houses in a town with a population of 40 sit empty.

But if you are like Vinduska, you are proud of Pilsen’s heritage and how church ladies like her make Czech kolaches when visitors come to St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church.

And you know that on Thursday and Friday, President Obama, the Secretary of Defense and the Chief of Staff of the U. S. Army will mention your town approvingly as Obama gives the family of Pilsen native Emil Kapaun the nation’s highest military award for valor, the Medal of Honor.

And you might be proud that the Kapaun family members, now scattered far from Pilsen, want to give the medal to the town where people still call him “Father Emil.”

Pilsen folk are proud of their farm kid who saved hundreds of soldiers in the Korean War and died trying to save more.

But Kapaun’s life story is now presenting townspeople with interesting questions.

In Pilsen, few people lock their doors. There is no police station. There is not a public bathroom, although everyone – including members of the county road crew – knows he or she can use the bathroom in the church basement.

There is no restaurant or cafe, only a pop machine outside Vinduska’s little home and antiques store. There is no gas station or convenience store.

So what will happen now that Kapaun is a Medal of Honor winner? How will they keep the medal safe? Who in town will tell the Kapaun story to the many tourists who might show up or to kids on school trips?

As Vinduska said: “Things might get mighty interesting around here from now on.”

Korean War hero

Pilsen’s famous son first became an international hero in late 1950, when newspapers reported his battlefield valor. That included during the battle of Unsan in North Korea, where his regiment was badly shot up, and he and hundreds of survivors were marched north to captivity.

He became a bigger hero two years later, when his angry and grimly determined prisoner-of-war friends were released by North Korea. They had barely set foot in South Korea when they sought out news reporters and told stories about Kapaun’s valor and resourcefulness in the prison camps.

They said he saved hundreds of lives with practical skills and spiritual inspiration. They said the Chinese guards murdered him after Kapaun denounced their attempts to brainwash them.

Those soldiers say they already knew Kapaun was a saint while he was still alive. In 1993 the Roman Catholic Church, based on testimony from his POW friends, named him a Servant of God, the first step toward possible canonization.

Kapaun’s life story before that contained few hints of future heroism.

He was born a Kansas farmer’s son in 1916, grew up serving as an altar boy in Pilsen. He was ordained a priest in Wichita in 1940 and was assigned to his hometown church, where he often delivered sermons in the Czech language of many of his parishioners.

World War II stirred his ambition; he joined the Army in 1944 as a chaplain and served in India and Burma. He went back to Pilsen, and later Timken, as a parish priest after 1946 but rejoined the Army in 1948.

His last visit to Pilsen came in December 1949, as his new unit, the 8th Cavalry regiment, was preparing to ship out to Japan. That outfit was sent to Korea right after the North invaded South Korea in June 1950.

‘Where it needs to be’

Ray Kapaun is the family spokesman now. He is the eldest son of Father Kapaun’s brother Gene and Gene’s wife, Helen.

Gene Kapaun died several years ago. Helen, 84, lives in the Wichita area.

Obama called Helen Kapaun in December after he decided to award the medal to her brother-in-law; he asked her to come to Washington and accept the medal from him. She said yes at first but then demurred, citing her health, and asked Ray and her other children and relatives to go instead.

Obama will hand the medal to the family on Thursday at the White House, with several of Kapaun’s POW friends on hand to see it. On Friday they will all go to the Pentagon for another ceremony, this one headlined by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

Ray Kapaun said the medal will go to Pilsen even though it wasn’t his hometown. He grew up outside Colwich, near Wichita; he now lives in Atlanta and will soon move to Seattle.

The medal and the story of heroism it represents are going to Pilsen, Ray Kapaun said, “because that is where it needs to be.”

“Pilsen was Dad’s hometown, Emil’s hometown,” he said. “Dad said he knew how much everybody in Pilsen told Emil’s story and rooted for him, to this day. Dad knew what Father Emil meant to Pilsen and to the people there.

“Those people were a little like the prisoners of war who pushed so hard for Father Emil’s medal. People in town always held his name as high as they could hold it.”

But the move raises two concerns: security for a medal that might one day become a saintly relic or artifact, and how to deal with visitors.

The security concern is real.

“Maybe this is me being overprotective, but with the medal, I can’t see putting it up there where it can’t be protected,” said the Rev. John Hotze, the judicial vicar for the Wichita Diocese. Hotze led the investigation for the Vatican of Kapaun’s candidacy for sainthood; he and his diocese colleagues already house and take care of many Kapaun documents and artifacts in their offices in Wichita.

Eventually, he said, the church might build a Father Kapaun center in Pilsen, but there are no plans set yet. When the medal is taken to Pilsen, he said, it should be protected, probably in a locked vault.

Dealing with visitors

Pilsen’s heroic priest is about to join the ranks of the state’s better-known people: Dwight Eisenhower, Amelia Earhart, Robert Dole, Wild Bill Hickock.

Rose Mary Neuwirth, a farmer’s wife and Pilsen’s best-known unofficial Kapaun tour guide, said she and the residents of Pilsen know they must make decisions soon about how to help people wanting to hear the Kapaun story.

School buses, including from Derby and McPherson, have already come. Many more will come, she said.

They already have something to see, in spite of the town’s limitations.

In the yard of the church where Kapaun grew up and where he first became a priest, there is a large bronze statue of Chaplain Kapaun helping a wounded soldier limp off a Korean War battlefield.

A few steps to the east sits the vacant church house where townspeople set up a mini-“museum” in one small room. It contains Kapaun’s church vestments and a few other belongings, including the green Army trunk that got shipped home after he was declared dead. That trunk is locked because a little girl from town locked it and no one has figured out how to unlock it.

Beside it is the heavy wooden trunk that Kapaun’s father, Enos, brought with him when he emigrated from Europe; the square lettering on the trunk lid reads: “Enos Kapaun North Amerika.”

The room contains recent wooden sculptures made to honor Kapaun, including a 3-foot-long, heavy wooden crucifix carried on foot from Santa Fe, N.M., to Pilsen. The man who carried it to Pilsen in 2011, Neuwirth said, was John Moore, who since then has brought other wooden sculptures honoring Kapaun.

It’s a nice little corner inside the house, but the house has no staff, no tenants, no air conditioning, no working bathroom. Perhaps one day the Wichita Diocese, which has led the effort to get Kapaun declared a saint, will help Pilsen church members take care of all this material, Neuwirth said.

“But with them, there’s all this red tape stuff,” she said.

Ray Kapaun said he will go back home to Atlanta after meeting Obama at the medal ceremony Thursday. But on June 2, Father Kapaun Day in Pilsen, he plans to return to his parents’ hometown and hand the medal to those who will guard it – whoever they are.

Neuwirth knows Pilsen might become a tourist destination not only because of the medal but because of the Vatican’s enthusiastic pursuit of Kapaun’s candidacy for sainthood. And once the medal arrives in town in June, the townspeople will have to figure out how to protect the medal and deal with visitors.

She said she and others planned last week to meet with the Marion County sheriff to ask his advice about how to keep the medal safe.

‘Shucks’

Emil Kapaun himself would never have asked for any of this, his loved ones say.

Helen Kapaun says she did not know her husband’s brother well. But praise embarrassed him.

“He did not want any recognition,” she said.

People in town would sometimes praise the young priest to his face, she said last week. Kapaun would grin and look uncomfortable.

And then he’d say one word.

“Shucks.”

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