Kapaun was born in Pilsen, Kansas, on April 20, 1916. He was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Wichita on June 9, 1940. Four years later, he began at the U.S. Army Chaplain School at Fort Devens (Massachusetts) and was later sent overseas to serve troops during the Korean War.
During his time in Korea, Kapaun regularly celebrated Mass, at times on the battlefield using the hood of a jeep as a makeshift altar. He brought the sacraments to troops, tended to the injured, and prayed with them in the foxholes.
In 1950, during the Battle of Unsan, Kapaun was captured along with other soldiers by communists. They were taken to a prison camp in Pyoktong, North Korea. While in the camp, Kapaun would regularly steal food for his fellow prisoners and managed to tend to their spiritual needs despite a prohibition on prayer.
Kapaun died on May 23, 1951, after months of malnutrition and pneumonia. He was named a Servant of God in 1993, his cause for canonization opened in June 2008, and he received the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama in 2013.
In March 2021, his remains were identified by investigators from the Department of Defense. It was determined that the priest’s remains were among nearly 900 unidentified soldiers buried at the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.
Kapaun’s remains returned to his hometown of Pilsen in September 2021. Their arrival marked 70 years since the American hero had died in a prisoner of war camp at the age of 35.