Medal of Honor for US Army chaplain Father Kapaun

media captionUS Army chaplain Emil Kapaun gets Medal of Honor

An Army chaplain who saved the lives of fellow US soldiers before perishing in a North Korean prison camp has been awarded a posthumous US Medal of Honor.

On Thursday, President Obama presented the highest US military decoration to the nephew of Emil Kapaun, a Catholic priest who died in the Korean War.

Kapaun, an Army captain, was renowned for his bravery and caring.

The Kansas-born priest has also been named Servant of God by the Vatican, a step toward sainthood.

"This is the valour we honour today," President Barack Obama said at a White House ceremony attended by elderly former prisoners of war and several members of Kapaun's family, "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."

Kapaun's actions, Mr Obama said, "remind us of the good we can do each and every day, regardless of the most difficult of circumstances".

Stopping an execution

In the official Medal of Honor citation, Kapaun is hailed for staying behind at the battle of Unsan to tend to wounded comrades when Chinese soldiers overran the American position.

"Chaplain Kapaun, fully aware of his certain capture, elected to stay behind with the wounded. As hand-to-hand combat ensued, he continued to make rounds," the citation reads.

As the Chinese soldiers began lobbing grenades into the dugout where the wounded men were caught, Kapaun negotiated a safe surrender.

"Father Kapaun had several chances to get out," Warrant Officer John Funston later told a Catholic priest who collected accounts of Kapaun's actions in Korea, "but he wouldn't take them."

The citation continues: "Shortly after his capture, Chaplain Kapaun bravely pushed aside an enemy soldier preparing to execute a comrade, thus saving a life and inspiring all those present to remain and fight the enemy until captured."

After their capture, Kapaun and wounded soldiers able to walk were marched to a prison camp near Pyoktong, just south of the Yalu River in North Korea.

During the march and his time at the camp, Kapaun helped carry wounded men, bathed them and washed their clothes, stole food for his fellow prisoners and held secret prayer services in defiance of the Communist camp officials.

He contracted dysentery and pneumonia, and after months in near-freezing and starving conditions, Kapaun died in late May 1951 at the age of 35.

Some of the soldiers helped by Kapaun attended the White House ceremony on Thursday.

In recent years, members of Kansas's congressional delegation urged their colleagues to waive the Medal of Honor time limit - three years since the action honoured - for Kapaun.

The exemption was signed into law in December 2011, and in January 2012, the six congressmen and senators asked Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to recommend that President Barack Obama award the medal.

More on this story