Those familiar with the Holy Bible likely know the story of the crucified convict known as the Good Thief who, being crucified with Jesus Christ said “Lord, remember me when you come into Your kingdom”. Jesus replied “Assuredly I say unto you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23: 42-43). This account from the Gospels is often associated with Easter. Yet there is a Good Thief from the Twentieth Century to remember on this Veteran’s Day, a Korean War chaplain. One rarely associate the words “chaplain” and “thief” in the same thought, but in the matter of Father Emil Kapaun, he was both.
Father Kapaun served during World War Two as well as in the Korean War. Chinese forces captured Father Kapaun and the other survivors of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Calvary Regiment, 1st Calvary Division in the aftermath of the Battle of Unsan (Nov. 1-2, 1950). He volunteered to stay behind and care for the wounded, despite opportunities to withdraw to safety before the end of the battle. Marched with the other American POW’s to a brutal existence in a Chinese prison camp, Father Kapaun stole food to give to starving POW’s, thus earning the moniker “The Good Thief”. In addition, he ministered to the spiritual needs of the POW’S as well as tending to the sick. He resisted indoctrination by the enemy and suffered physical punishment for his disobedience. He further defied his captors by conducting a sunrise service on Easter morning 1951. Eventually, he began to show signs of the physical abuse he endured. Before being transferred to a primitive Chinese hospital, he urged the other POW’s to keep their faith and asked God to forgive his Chinese captors. Father Kapaun died alone on May 23, 1951.
To quote official records:
Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun repeatedly risked his own life to save the lives of hundreds of fellow Americans. His extraordinary courage, faith and leadership inspired thousands of prisoners to survive hellish conditions, resist enemy indoctrination and retain their faith in God and country. His actions reflect the utmost credit on him, the 1st Calvary Division and the United States Army.
Father Kapaun not only earned a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross, he also received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2013.
History does not record what the individual in the Holy Bible known as the Good Thief did to earn his death sentence, but we do know that Father Kapaun’s nickname was very apt. He was a Good Thief, not because he was skilled at theft. Instead he is called a Good Thief because of what he did with the purloined food. The members of the URG Chaplaincy might remind us of the words of Jesus Christ to the Apostles in Matthew 10:16 “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore, be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” This description applies well to how Father Kapaun conducted himself while a POW. Perhaps Father Kapaun meditated and gained comfort from the words Jesus spoke in Luke 23:43 as he lay dying in the enemy’s hospital. On that May day, Father Kapaun joined Jesus in paradise, just as much as the Good Thief in the Book of Luke gained paradise by believing that Jesus was who He said He was on the day of the crucifixion. I like to think that when Father Kapaun entered Heaven Jesus introduced him to the Good Thief from the Book of Luke. Two men, one a chaplain, one a convict, two different millennia, yet they both gained eternal joy in Heaven the same way: Jesus Christ. The URG Chaplians might further remind us of the words in Hebrews 13:8 “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever”. They would likely also inform us that the same salvation found by the Good Thief in Biblical days and by Father Kapaun in the 20th Century is the same salvation through Jesus Christ available to people in our modern world.
I do not believe Father Kapaun asked his fellow prisoners about their race, religion or income before he stole food and did other things to help them. He put hands and feet to the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the benefit of the POW’s. Today our active duty military personnel do not ask you about your race, religion or income before they put on their uniform each day to help secure the freedoms you enjoy daily, just as the veterans before them did not ask such question before they choose to serve our country and her citizens. Both the active duty and veterans deserve the thanks of a grateful nation for their service, be it in the cold mountains of Korea, the steamy jungles of Vietnam, or the desert heat of Iraq or the barren areas of Afghanistan. Seeing all the divisions in our country today, perhaps the example of Father Kapaun and the sacrifices of other veterans before and after his time can be an antidote to the apathy and animosity we witness in America today.
THANK YOU VETERANS! Whether you marched into battle with the latest Earthly weapons or, like so many Chaplains past, present and future, go into battle with the Whole Armor of God!
William E. Plants
Chaplaincy Program Coordinator