AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
More than 60 years ago, the United States was engaged in a very real war on the Korean peninsula. At the White House today, President Obama presented the military's highest honor to an Army chaplain who died in that war. Father Emil Kapaun was remembered as a shepherd in combat boots.
NPR's Scott Horsley has his story.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Emil Kapaun was known as a chaplain who was never far from the front lines, dashing from foxhole to foxhole, ministering to his fellow soldiers. In a posthumous Medal of Honor ceremony today, President Obama recalled how Kapaun's battalion was surrounded near Unsan, Korea, in the winter of 1950. When the order came to withdraw, Kapaun stayed behind, braving enemy fire to care for the wounded.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is the valor we honor today, an American soldier who didn't fire a gun but who wielded the mightiest weapon of all: a love for his brothers so pure that he was willing to die so that they might live.
HORSLEY: Herbert Miller, an Army sergeant, was among those wounded that day. Had it not been for the chaplain's intervention, he might have been executed. The aging veteran told how Kapaun saved his life in a video for the Army magazine, Soldiers.
HERBERT MILLER: I was laying in a ditch, wounded. This soldier come down through and he stood over me, he was going to shoot me, had the gun pointed at my head. I looked and this American come across the road. He pushed the man aside. Why that soldier never shot him, I'll never know.
HORSLEY: Miller and other Korean War veterans were in the White House East Room for the medal presentation this afternoon. So was Kapaun's nephew, Ray. He promised to dedicate the award to his uncle's hometown of Pilsen, Kansas.
RAY KAPAUN: It was the people of Pilsen who would not let the story of a hometown hero fade into the background. This is why so many others will know the Father Emil story. It is a symbol of humble beginnings and how necessity does not dictate your destiny.
HORSLEY: Obama says Kapaun's heroism continued even after he was taken prisoner. He scavenged food and boiled water for his fellow POWs. He even managed to lead a church service for the men on Easter Sunday.
OBAMA: And as the guards watched, Father Kapaun and all those prisoners - men of different faith, perhaps some men of no faith - sang the Lord's Prayer and "America the Beautiful." They sang so loud that other prisoners across the camp not only heard them, they joined in, too, filling that valley with song and with prayer.
HORSLEY: POWs say the chaplain could turn a mud hut into a cathedral and that his devotion helped keep them alive.
Kapaun himself did not survive. He suffered a blood clot and then pneumonia, and died in the prison camp at the age of 35. When the American POWs were finally released two years later, they carried a wooden crucifix they'd crafted in the chaplain's honor.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.