Medal of Honor recipient gave POWs "desire to live"

(CBS News) In the East Room of the White House Thursday, President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously to Korean War veteran Father Emil Kapaun, a priest, a chaplain and a hero.

Father Emil Kapaun sacrificed to save his fellow soldiers over and over again. To Mike Dowe, Kapaun's courage was almost other-worldly.

Mike Dowe
Mike Dowe
CBS News

"I'm telling you -- the whole atmosphere would change, just when he would walk in," Dowe says. "I've known a lot of priests, but I've never known one like that."

"And to see somebody like that -- it's unbelievable, almost," says Herbert Miller, whose unit was overrun by Chinese and North Korean troops. He was wounded and at the mercy of an enemy soldier.

"He stood over me with a gun pointing between my eyes," Miller recalls. "He was going to shoot me."

Then Kapaun performed one of his battlefield miracles.

"He pushed his rifle aside, and why that man never shot him I'll never know," Miller says.

Like so many American soldiers in that cruel winter, both men were marched to a prison camp.

Herbert Miller
Herbert Miller
CBS News

Posthumous Medal of Honor awarded to Korean War POW
Ex-POW: Medal of Honor recipient "was a selfless man"

"If he hadn't carried me, I probably would have been dead," Miller says. "I'd have never made it, 'cause I couldn't walk, and anybody who couldn't walk was shot."

Held in a North Korean valley, Kapaun helped the POWs survive subzero temperatures and subhuman conditions.

"The death rate in that camp was about one-tenth of what it was in two like valleys, and the only thing to attribute that to is Chaplain Kapaun," says Dowe, who adds Kapaun gave the POWs "a desire to live and the self-respect that enables a person under those conditions to sustain that desire."

Watch: President Obama awards Medal of Honor to "shepherd in combat boots," below.

"He'd keep building you up," Miller says. "He'd say, 'Hang in there, boys. We're going to get out of here.'"

Miller says Kapaun must have been as miserable as the other prisoners but says the chaplain "was a selfless man."

"Everybody else came first, rather than himself," he says.

When Kapaun came down with pneumonia, his captors let him die.

"They were afraid he would recover, and they just couldn't stand the spirit of a free man," Dowe says.

Those who receive the Medal of Honor will tell you they were just doing what they'd been taught in training. When it comes to Emil Kapaun, you have to believe it was more than his training -- it was his calling.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.

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