After the war ended, a group of POWs emerged with a wooden crucifix nearly 4 feet tall.
"They had spent months on it, secretly collecting firewood, carving it -- the cross and the body -- using radio wire for a crown of thorns," said Obama. "It was a tribute to their friend, their chaplain, their fellow prisoner who had touched their souls and saved their lives, Father Emil Kapaun."
Kapaun was born and raised in Pilsen, Kansas. After high school, he attended Conception Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Missouri.
After the abbey, he studied for the priesthood at Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis. Kapaun was ordained in 1940 and that same year became a U.S. Army chaplain.
After serving at several posts in the United States and India, he left the Army and went to the Catholic University of America in Washington to earn a master's degree in education. After getting the degree in 1948, he returned to the Army.
The Vatican named Kapaun a servant of God in 1993, an early step that could lead to canonization.
For now, his nephew said, the family just wants his remains returned from North Korea.
Obama told the White House audience that Kapaun provided an example for people in uniform and not.
"Father Kapaun's life, I think, is a testimony to his human spirit, the power of faith, and reminds us of the good that we can do each and every day regardless of the most difficult of circumstances," said the president.