This year’s Veterans Day celebration at the Korean War Veterans Memorial at 119th Street and Lowell Avenue in Overland Park brought me the memories of its dedication on Sept. 30, 2006.
Like on that autumn day, the whole place was filled with Korean War veterans in their uniforms, their families and friends, spectators and several groups in their own distinctive uniforms, including three South Korean soldiers from Fort Leavenworth who accompanied Lt. Col. Kwangsoo Kim, the South Korean liaison officer to the U.S. Army at Fort Leavenworth.
Several flags, including the POW/MIA flag and the flag of South Korea, were presented in military reverence. Then Un Chong Christopher, a Korean-American adjunct professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance, sang the U.S. and South Korean national anthems.
Tom Stevens, president of the Korean War Veterans Association chapter in Overland Park, gave a brief history of the memorial and said that 1.5 million Americans served in Korea, of whom 36,516 died from combat injuries, including 415 Kansans whose names are engraved on the 75-foot-long red granite panels before us. He thanked all who made the memorial a reality, including the local South Korean community.
Kim thanked veterans for delivering freedom to his motherland when its existence was seriously threatened by North Korea. He said that South Korea’s explosive progress in the following years could not have been possible without American sacrifices and continuous support.
Brig. Gen. Victor Braden also praised South Korea for its miraculous growth to become one of the world’s 15 strongest nations, and said that South Korean troops have been loyal allies to the U.S. since the Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries was established 60 years ago. “South Korean troops fought every war we Americans fought since the Korean War — the Vietnam War, Gulf War, Iraq War, Operation Desert Storm and Afghanistan War, which still persists.”
Then followed the most important part of the ceremony: the unveiling and dedication of the new panel on which Father Emil Kapaun’s portrait and his virtues are engraved on red granite.
Abbot Gregory Polan of Conception Abbey, where Kapaun studied four years to prepare for ordination to the priesthood, talked about the “humble priest.” Polan described his courage and the Christ-like piety he showed — not only to his fellow prisoner with whom he shared a lice-infested, icy mud house along the Yalu River, but also to his Chinese captors — until his death on May 23, 1951.
“Father Kapaun spent seven long months at Camp No. 5, where the conditions were so terrible that 1,700 American soldiers died in the first six months,” Polan said. “Yet... Father Kapaun displayed perseverance through prayer and renewed dedication to his fellow man. He held outdoor prayer services during the day, directly disobeying the prison’s ban on religious expression. Although sick and in pain himself, he would sneak out each night to visit ‘his boys’ and offer them a quick prayer and some encouraging words. He volunteered for burial duty so he could remove the clothes from the deceased, wash them and give them to fellow prisoners in need. Buried in a mass grave on the bank of Yalu, he ended his life as humbly as it began.”
Polan’s compassionate voice moved a few in the audience to tears, including me. I felt I had known Father Kapaun better than anyone in the audience, not only because I had read about him in Korea as a youngster, along with the stories of generals and combat heroes, but I also visited Pilsen, Kan., his hometown in the cornfields, shortly after President Barack Obama awarded him the Medal of Honor this April. Two alleged miracles — the revival of two young people who had been thought dead — were attributed to Kapaun’s intercession.
Like most people at the ceremony, I felt privileged to witness a solemn service honoring a giant soul like Father Emil Kapaun here in Overland Park. And further, I envision the day visitors will flock to this sacred ground to pray and to seek the guidance of the “humble priest.”