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LAS CRUCES - On Thursday, Sept. 19, two each of the same challenge coin, one face up and one face down, were inlaid in the base of the Korean Memorial at Veterans Memorial Park. The coins honor Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun, CPT, US Army, 8th Calvary Regiment, 1st Calvary Division, awarded the Medal of Honor for extraordinary heroism, patriotism and selfless service at the cost of his life between Nov. 1, 1950, and May 23, 1951.
In North Korea, November 1950, as overwhelming Chinese forces encircled his battalion, Kapaun moved from foxhole to foxhole under direct enemy fire to provide comfort and reassurance to outnumbered U.S. soldiers. He repeatedly crawled to wounded men and either dragged them back to the safety of U.S. lines or dug shallow trenches to shield them from enemy fire.
As Chinese forces closed in, Kapaun rejected several chances to escape and instead volunteered to stay behind and care for the wounded. After capture, Kapaun and other prisoners were marched 60 to 100 miles in freezing weather northward to a prison camp at Pyoktong. During the march, Kapaun refused to take a break from carrying the stretchers of the wounded while encouraging others to do their part. Because of his example, many soldiers lived who would have otherwise died. In one instance, Kapaun, seeing a wounded soldier about to be shot by a guard, rushed over, pushed the gun aside and picked up the wounded soldier. In disbelief at the chaplain’s bravery, the guard let the two live. Inside Pyoktong Prison Camp Nr. 5, Kapaun ignored his own ill health and nursed the sick and wounded, stole food for the hungry, picked lice off men, washed dirty clothing, and encouraged men through prayer and humor to keep fighting for life.
His Chinese captors’ attempts to scare, threaten and humiliate him failed. On at least one occasion, he was forced to sit outside in subzero weather without garments. During mandated indoctrination sessions held twice a day, his captors tried to convince the prisoners of the “evils” of capitalism and religion. As guards yelled at the prisoners, Kapaun would calmly stand and refute their claims. He openly flouted his captors by conducting a sunrise service on Easter Sunday 1951. A few weeks later, Kapaun fell ill, and the Chinese placed him in a filthy unheated death hospital where he was denied medical assistance. He died May 23, 1951. His remains were never recovered.
Even after his death, the mere memory of his words and sacrificial deeds were enough to keep the men going through two more years of torture. A plaque in Veterans Park titled the “Battle of Kunu-ri” located next to the 2nd Engineer Battalion Memorial provides an excellent perspective of the combat situation in Korea at this time.
One can reasonably be certain that Chaplain Kapaun’s actions during his Army service directly impacted the lives of New Mexicans whose names are inscribed on the rear face of the Korean War Memorial at Veterans Park. Terrazas Granite and Marble Memorials of Las Cruces and Silver City inlaid the coins into the granite base at no cost as a service to the Las Cruces veterans’ community.