On Memorial Day we remember those who have given their lives in service to our country, for us and for our freedom. Highlighting a few priests who also served our country, two of these also gave their lives in service of the sacraments and the lives of the men on the battlefield to whom they ministered.
Servant of God Fr. Emil Kapaun
Fr. Emil Kapaun was born in Kansan in 1916, was ordained a priest in 1940, and entered the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps in 1944. He served in WWII, then again in the Korean War when he was taken prisoner and died in a POW Camp. He was sometimes called the Good Thief because he would steal coffee, tea, and a pot to heat them in from the guards at the POW camp and would also help smuggle dystentery drugs to the doctor.
Fr. Kapaun died of malnutrition and pneumonia in the camp in 1951 and was buried in a mass grave near the Yalu River. In 2013, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in Korea.
“When I was ordained, I was determined to ‘spend myself’ for God. I was determined to do that cheerfully, no matter in what circumstances I would be placed or how hard a life I would be asked to lead.” -Fr. Kapaun to his bishop in 1944.
More information on Fr. Kapaun can be found here.
Servant of God Fr. Vincent Capodanno
Born in Staten Island, New York in 1929, ordained a Maryknell Missionary priest in 1958, and joined the Navy Chaplain Corps being sent to the First Marine Division in Vietnam in 1966. He was given the nickname “the Grunt Padre” after spending so much time with the lonely Marines exposed to death, suffering, and sacrifice, called the “grunts”.
During Operation Swift in September 1967, Fr. Vincent went among the wounded and dying corpsmen administering Last Rites, even though he was wounded in both the hand and face. He went to help a corpsman near an enemy machine gun and was killed. Fr. Vincent’s body was recovered and is buried in his family’s plot in Staten Island. He was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1969 and declared Servant of God in 2006.
“I am just there with them – I walk with them and sit with them; I eat with them and sleep in the holes with them – and I talk with them – but only when they are ready to talk. It takes time, but I never rush them.” – Fr. Vincent Capodanno to his division chaplain.
More information on Fr. Capodanno can be found here.
Fr. Tim Vakoc
Born in 1960 in Minnesota, ordained in 1992, and joined the Army Chaplain Corp. in 1996, and was sent to Iraq in 2003. He always ventured to celebrate mass for the soldiers he was stationed with in Mosul, sometimes in remote locations and sometimes for only two or three soldiers at a time, but that never stopped him. Fr. Tim was injured on May 29, 2004, the twelth anniversary of his ordination, when his Humvee struck an IED. He sustained a brain injury and has lived in hospitals or nursing homes for the rest of his life.
He died on June 20, 2009 at his nursing home in Minnesota. He once wrote to his sister:
“The safest place for me to be is in the center of God’s will, and if that is in the line of fire, that is where I will be.”
More info on Fr. Vakoc can be found here.
Fr. Joseph O’Callahan, S.J.
Born in 1905 in Boston, Massachusettes, he joined the Jesuits in 1922, and was ordained a priest in 1934. Fr. Joe joined the Navy Chaplain Corps in 1940 and reported on board the USS Franklin on March 2, 1945, just 17 days before it was severely attacked.
Fr. Joseph was injured in the attack on the ship but still moved around the deck administering Last Rites, comforting the dying and wouned, and led officers and crewmen through the flames to jetison hot bombs and shells. He also personally arranged a damage control party and led it to wet down a main ammunitions magazine to prevent it from exploding. He was awarded a Navy Cross for this effort but he refused it. Later, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. He died in 1964 in Boston.
“Many who think that they are taking life seriously are actually only taking themselves seriously. Who takes himself seriously is over conscious of his rights; who takes life seriously is fully conscious of his obligations.”
More information on Fr. O’Callahan can be found here.
Military chaplains may be the most unsung of our heroes- the ones who serve the ones who serve. God bless our priests! God bless our troops! God bless America!