Guest Book Review: “No Bullet Got Me Yet: The Relentless Faith of Father Kapaun”

Need to read something inspiring and meaningful?  If so, today’s, post is for you.  Lawfire® contributor Bill Knightly reviews a new book, John Stansifer’s “No Bullet Got Me Yet: The Relentless Faith of Father Kapaun” about an authentic hero, Army Captain (Chaplain) Emil Kapaun. 

Stansifer tells the story of how Father Kapaun became the U.S. military’s “most decorated” chaplain, and focuses on the Catholic priest’s receipt of the Medal of Honor which is the Nation’s highest award for military valor in action.

The citation for Father Kapaun’s Medal of Honor describes some of the highlights of his “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty,” but Stansifer’s volume has far more detail about Fr. Kapaun’s selfless acts of courage — they are simply eye-watering. 

Bill gives us a great intro into a wonderful story about the kind of truly exceptional person the world sees too rarely today. As he puts it in his review:

John Stansifer has written a modest book about an unheralded man who embodied what it meant to live in the selfless service of others. In a time when American society celebrates showboating athletes, self-aggrandizing social media personalities and embraces inflated celebrity egos it’s refreshing to read about such a well lived and purposeful life.

Here’s Bill’s report:

No Bullet Got Me Yet: The Relentless Faith of Father Kapaun, by John Stansifer

Reviewed by Bill Knightly

The Korean War is often called the “Forgotten War.” The brutal conflict of the early 1950s lingers in the shadows World War II, Vietnam and even the conflicts in the Mid-East. It’s the war everyone’s heard about but can’t quite place.  It’s akin to Uncle Bob who shows up at Thanksgiving dinner—everybody knows his name but nobody really knows much about him. 

Author John Stansifer’s new book shines a laser beam on the Korean War. He has chosen to focus on the remarkable story of an heroic military chaplain.  His book No Bullet Got Me Yet: The Relentless Faith of Father Kapaun, pays tribute to Catholic priest and Army Captain (Chaplain) Emil Kapaun.

It’s a story of humility, raw courage and selfless service set against the backdrop of the desperate fighting in the early months of the Korean War.  For his heroic actions ,Chaplain Emil Kapaun became one of only nine chaplains to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

After reading the account of his life, even the Medal of Honor seems a woefully inadequate recognition for his remarkable service.      

Stansifer tells the story through Emil Kapaun’s personal letters and the gripping sometimes emotional testimony of those soldiers who knew him personally. To say he was respected and beloved by everyone who knew him would be an enormous understatement.

The picture on the front cover of the book shows a smiling Chaplain Kapaun holding his damaged pipe. It had recently been shot out of his mouth by a North Korean sniper. It’s this incident that inspired the book’s title.

The first third of the book details the unremarkable story of a young farm boy, son of Bohemian immigrants, who grows up in small town Kansas. Emil decided in 1936, at age twenty, to enter the seminary and study for the Roman Catholic priesthood. He was ordained a priest in June of 1940 and soon after assumed the routine of a parish priest in his hometown church in Pilsen, Kansas.

In 1944 Father Kapaun received permission to serve as an Army chaplain. His service eventually took him to the Burma-India theater during World War II. He was released from active service in 1946, returning to the United States for additional education.

In 1948 Captain Emil Kapaun returned to active duty as a chaplain eventually being assigned to occupied Japan with duty in the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division.  

It’s the remaining two thirds of the Stansifer’s book that will capture the reader’s undivided attention. This section constitutes a gripping and very personal account of war, cruelty, chaos and bravery under the most trying circumstances.

Shortly after the outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula in July of 1950, the 1st Cavalry Division landed in South Korea. Chaplain Kapaun accompanied his regiment in some of the most desperate fighting of the war. Tactical advances and retreats were everyday occurrences.

During one of the local retreats made by his unit Kapaun learned of a wounded soldier stranded by enemy fire beyond the reach of his fellow soldiers. Kapaun and his chaplain’s assistant knowing no litter bearers were available, braved intense enemy fire and saved the man’s life. For this he was awarded the Bronze Star for valor. Incredibly, this type of heroic action would become an everyday affair for Father Kapaun.

Fr. Kapaun (r) and a doctor carry a Soldier off a battlefield in Korea/

As the American and United Nations forces pushed the North Koreans back beyond the 38th parallel, they eventually found themselves on the Yalu River and the border of China. It was here that China entered the war with staggering numbers that overwhelmed U.S. and allied forces. Chaplain Kapaun’s 8th Cavalry Regiment was surrounded and decimated. The situation was hopeless. Those soldiers still able to fight made a desperate attempt to break out.

Chaplain Kapaun decided that he would stay behind to care for the wounded and face certain capture by the attacking Chinese.

Immediately during and after capture by the Chinese, Chaplain Kapaun saved many lives.  He personally intervened to stop the Chinese execution of wounded Americans. During the many forced marches to the various prisoner of war (POW) camps Kapaun carried, dragged and cajoled wounded men in order to keep them from certain execution if they fell behind.

Chaplain Kapaun’s actions in the POW camps are perhaps the most memorable parts of Stansifer’s book. His atheist Chinese captors held special antipathy toward chaplains. Accordingly, they were singled out for harsh treatment. Everyday life in the camps was a brutal struggle for survival.

Putrid water, a starvation diet, freezing cold and relentless brutality characterized POW life. In spite of this Chaplain Kapaun bravely took care of “his boys “as he called the soldiers to whom he ministered.  

This included not only Catholic soldiers but Protestant, Jewish and even Turkish Muslim soldiers. In spite of the fact that the Chinese separated the enlisted and officers into separate camps, Chaplin Kapaun regularly risked his life sneaking into the enlisted camps to administer baptisms, the last rites to dying soldiers and general prayer services for the troops. He never let “his boys” down.

Chaplain Kapaun was remembered by fellow POWs not only for his significant acts of courage but for his small acts of kindness.  In a place when there was little hope, kindness was a special commodity. He would regularly melt snow, making a small fire with twigs, then offer a hot tin of water to emaciated soldiers. One soldier said it was “the best drink he ever had.” Captive soldiers remembered these small acts of kindness as essential to their morale and their survival.

One of the most unique acts of fellowship in the POW camp occurred when an American Jewish officer carved a beautiful crucifix for Chaplin Kapaun. This superb piece of inspirational Christian art was smuggled out of the camp at the end of the war and is now on display in Emil Kapaun’s former Kansas High School.

Chaplain Kapaun’s last days were extremely difficult. He had an infected leg which hindered his mobility and had lost the sight in one eye due to a splinter injury. Nonetheless he fashioned an eyepatch and dragged himself about the camps ministering to all in need, never hesitating nor complaining about his own suffering.

Captain Chaplain Emil Kapaun died in captivity after slowly succumbing to a combination of dysentery, pneumonia, infections, and the effects of starvation. His captors knowing his critical condition removed him, in spite of protests by his fellow soldiers, to a dirt hut in order to die.  His dying words were for others to continue to pray and keep faith while in captivity.

The Chinese, always fearful of his influence, ordered that his POW compatriots bury him in a mass grave. In a stunning act of defiance American soldiers fooled the Chinese and honored Chaplain Kapaun by burying him alone.

In a remarkable turn of event, one might say a miracle, Emil Kapaun’s remains were identified in 2020, using advanced DNA technology. His remains were returned to the United States. He was honored with a public funeral in Wichita, Kansas in 2021 which drew over 2,000 attendees. He was interred in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Wichita.

Emil Kapaun is also being honored in quite a different way. The Roman Catholic church has begun the long and detailed process of naming him a saint.

Actually, the church might have to catch up with the soldiers who knew him. They have already proclaimed him a saint. One Jewish soldier stated: “His self -sacrifice, his love of his fellow man, and even his love of his enemy marked him more saint than man… he represented saintliness in its purest form,”

Another soldier who shared the same POW hut with Chaplain Kapaun described the experience by recalling that he “spent several months sleeping beside a saint.” If any man deserves to be called saint it’s hard to find a more deserving candidate that Chaplain Emil Kapaun.

When President Barrack Obama presented the Medal of Honor Emil Kapaun’s family in 2013 he gave the following emotional remarks capturing the essence of this remarkable man:

Pres. Obama at the MoH ceremony for Fr. Kapaun

“They came for him and over the protests and tears of the men who loved him the guards sent him to a death house—a hellhole with no food or water—to be left to die and yet even then his faith held firm. “I’m going to where I’ve always wanted to go” he told his brothers. “And when I get there, I’ll say a prayer for all of you.” And then he did something remarkable—he blessed the guards. “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” Two days later in that house of death he breathed his last breath.”

John Stansifer has written a modest book about an unheralded man who embodied what it meant to live in the selfless service of others. In a time when American society celebrates showboating athletes, self-aggrandizing social media personalities and embraces inflated celebrity egos it’s refreshing to read about such a well lived and purposeful life.

For those wishing for an inspiring and meaningful read this summer, No Bullet Got Me Yet should be on your list.

Update: Based on a helpful note from a reader, the author updated the post to show that Fr. Kapaun was the most decorated chaplain, but not the only one to win the Medal of Honor.  (There are nine, see here).

About the Reviewer

Bill Knightly retired from the U.S. Army after a career of 30 years. His service world-wide spanned 23 different countries including multiple tours with units assigned to NATO. Among these assignments was a three-year stint as chief of the war plans division for the U.S. Army V Corps in Frankfurt, Germany during the height of the Cold War.  Bill is a graduate of the U.S Army Command and General Staff College, The U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies and the U.S. Army War College Advanced Operational Fellowship Program.

After retiring from the Army as a Colonel, Bill worked as a civilian for the United States Southern Command (Miami, FL), where his duties took him throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean basin.   He has also worked in private industry and has run his own small business. He now lives in Delaware where he lectures, writes and delivers podcasts on the history of northern Delaware and the surrounding region during the American Revolution.


The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect my views or those of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.  See also here.

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