In a ceremony at the White House, the president noted it has been 60 years since a truce ended the fighting in Korea and U.S. prisoners of war were able to come home.
"And among the homecomings, one stood out," he said, describing a wooden crucifix nearly 4 feet tall that POWs had created as a tribute to "their friend, their chaplain, their fellow prisoner who had touched their souls and saved their lives -- Father Emil Kapaun."
Kapaun -- who has been called "a shepherd in combat boots" -- was 35 when he died in a POW camp.
"His fellow soldiers who felt his grace and his mercy called him a saint, a blessing from God," Obama said Thursday. "Today, we bestow another title on him -- recipient of our nation's highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor."
Kapaun was honored for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty" for walking through enemy fire "to provide comfort and medical aid to his comrades and rescue friendly wounded from no-man's land" in Korea.
When U.S. forces he was serving with were surrounded, able-bodied soldiers were ordered to evacuate but Kapaun stayed with the wounded and worked with a Chinese military officer to negotiate a safe surrender.
At one point after he was captured, Kapaun "bravely pushed aside an enemy soldier preparing to execute Sgt. 1st Class Herbert A. Miller," the Medal of Honor citation read.
"Not only did Chaplain Kapaun's gallantry save the life of Sergeant Miller, but also his unparalleled courage and leadership inspired all those present, including those who might have otherwise fled in panic to remain and fight the enemy until captured."