He should be dead. Instead he's singing karaoke. Sometime after midnight, he grabs the microphone in the smoky back room of Terri's Place, a honky-tonk bar with a concrete floor and blinking beer signs on the main drag of Colwich, Kansas (population 1,400). The furnishings are purely functional: a pool table, folding chairs, walls covered with Nascar and Budweiser posters. Sunburned guys with tattoos stare unapologetically at a handful of girls in low-cut tops, their cleavage enveloped in clouds of perfume.

Truth be told, Chase Kear looks a little ragged. Two years ago, he was what the waitresses in the local diner like to call a "sweetheart," a kid who graduated Andale High with state-championship rings in three sports. Now his Abercrombie & Fitch frame has gone schlubby. He once dreamed of becoming a fireman, but at age 20, he finds himself rethinking his goals. Molasses tan from long days of landscaping, he wears a puka-shell necklace, a baby-blue T-shirt, board shorts, and sandals. His dusty Miller Lite ball cap is tugged over the shaggy brown hair that covers the crown of scars on his head. One by one, the locals approach to pay homage. Curvy women lean in close and whisper that they have prayed for him. Burly guys buy him beers and shots, bumming cigarettes just to linger beside him.

Kear never asked for all this attention, but he takes full advantage of it. He's well on his way to surpassing his 10-beer limit when "Sweet Home Alabama" hits the speakers. A group of girls in tight T-shirts rush to join him as backup singers, their bodies rubbing up against him as they sway to the music. He flashes a smile. It's like that now. "A lot of people want to touch me, give a hug, put a hand on my shoulder," he says. "They want to touch a miracle."

For the last half-century, in their times of need, folks in Colwich have turned to the memory of a long-dead priest. Born 80 miles to the north in Pilsen in 1916, Emil Kapaun grew up dirt poor, raising chickens for spare change and trapping skunks in the woods for fun. He was always adventurous: As a boy, he backed his father's new car out of the garage to take his playmates for a ride.

To Kapaun, the priesthood was not simply a calling but also a means for exploration. He wanted to see the world as a missionary. After enlisting in the service near the end of World War II, he toured India and Burma. He re-upped in September 1948 because he felt compelled to help the troops. By mid-1950, he had landed in North Korea as the pipe-smoking chaplain of the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the First Cavalry Division. The relentless slog of infantry suited him. "You know—walking and marching!!" he wrote to his brother. "I love it."

As the sun set on November 1, 1950—All Saints' Day—Kapaun's mettle was put to the test. His unit was pinned down under heavy machine-gun fire for more than 36 hours in the North Korean farming outpost of Unsan. While many of his colleagues retreated, he stayed behind to tend to the wounded, an act that earned him a Distinguished Service Cross for heroism. After Kapaun was captured, he refused to cooperate, brushing aside Chinese soldiers to lift and carry bleeding American soldiers during a two-week, 100-mile death march to Prison Camp No. 5 in Pyoktong, a warren of bombed-out, lice-infested cabins along the banks of the Yalu River. About a thousand men were held there, and fewer than half would survive the brutal winter. Kapaun did what he could to comfort them, teaching them how to fold scrap metal into tins that could be used to heat snow for water. He harvested ice from the river to wash their soiled undergarments. After praying to St. Dismas, known also as the "Good Thief," he'd steal provisions from his captors' stockpiles. He became a sort of gruff guardian angel, one who cussed and joked that when God said we should love our enemies, he'd clearly forgotten about the Communists. When a guard proclaimed that it was Mao Tse-tung who now provided the daily bread, a fellow POW reports, Kapaun scoffed: "Well, [Mao] is a terrible baker."