This United States Navy Catholic Chaplain was well known and deeply admired and loved by his Marines in Vietnam. You will understand why when you look at this video done by the Maryknoll Missionary order that he joined at their seminary in Ossining, New York, in 1949.
Fr. Capodanno was ordained into the priesthood on June 14, 1958, as a Maryknoll missionary. His first assignment was in Taiwan. After his mother died in 1961, he was moved to a mission parish in Hong Kong. While there, aware of the war in Vietnam, he petitioned his order and the Navy to become a Navy Chaplain to minister to the needs of the Marines and Corpsmen in the units he would be assigned to in Vietnam.
He was allowed by his order to enter the United States Navy Chaplains Corps, and, in April of 1966, he arrived in Da Nang, Vietnam, and was stationed with 1st Bn. 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division. Over the course of the next 9 months, he gained a respected reputation among his Marines, because he always volunteered to go out into the field with them. He always wanted to be with them when and where they needed him the most. His infantry, “grunt” Marines, as Marines are want to do, gave him a nickname; they started calling him the “Grunt Padre,” because he was seen as one of them.
Military Chaplains are trained to meet the spiritual needs of all faiths, not just exclusively their own. Fr. Capodanno was loved by all of his Marines, Catholic and otherwise because he listened; he made himself available to them just to talk, or to hear confession, or when they just needed some encouragement. He always made them feel as though they were heard. He was trusted explicitly by all of his men. He was often heard saying that he “needed to be where my Marines need me the most.”
Chaplain Capodanno chose to extend his first tour and was assigned to the 3rd Bn. 5th Marines, where he was the only Catholic Chaplain in the unit. On September 4, 1967, he was with his unit in Operation Swift when they were hit by a regimental-sized force of 2,500 NVA. The battle was fierce, and, in the first hour, 26 Marines were KIA and many more wounded. Fr. Capodanno was constantly moving through fields of fire to help with the wounded and giving the Last Rites to the dying.
At one point, Fr. Capodanno gave his gas mask to one of the wounded Marines, saying, “You need it more than I do right now.” About mid-afternoon, the battle was raging on, and Fr. Capodanno was hit by shrapnel, which took off two of his fingers and tore through part of his arm, but he continued to move, as always, to the wounded, helping the Corpsmen care for them physically and also spiritually.
As the fierce battle continued, Fr. Capodanno saw a Marine get hit, then saw a Corpsman who had gone to his aid get hit as well. Fr. Capodanno ran to them and placed his own body in front of both wounded men and, as a result, absorbed 26 machine gun rounds, dying instantly. His action saved the lives of those two men. By the end of the battle, 53 Marines were KIA, including the Catholic Chaplain, the “Grunt Padre” Fr. Capodanno, and 104 were WIA.
Fr. Capodanno was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in service to his Marines over the long course of that battle on September 4, 1969. He is buried in his family’s plot at St. Peter’s Cemetery on Staten Island, New York.
A cause was opened on his behalf for sainthood in the Catholic Church in 2003. The necessary documentation is in, and the inquiries are in process at this time.
The Marines and Corpsmen of the 1/7 and 3/5 Marines who knew Fr. Capodanno in Vietnam remember him with a fondness and an admiration that can only come from having been through the reality of war together. To them, he was their “Grunt Padre,” which says it all.
Fr. Vincent Capodanno was a Chaplain who loved and served his men with a selfless love that went far beyond the call of duty. His love, courage, and dedication to duty, to his calling as a Chaplain to his Marines, is recognized in his Medal of Honor. It is also being recognized by the Catholic Church he served so well. One thing is certain; he will never be forgotten by those Marines and Corpsmen he served within Vietnam.Whizzco