Father Vincent Capodanno

The following is a repost of the story of Father Vincent Capodanno that I originally wrote in 2007. Today is the 50th anniversary of his death and I felt it was fitting to retell his story. On Memorial Day 2017 the Archdiocesan phase of the Cause of Canonization of Father Capodanno was closed by Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the United States’ Archdiocese for Military Services. The cause now goes to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

There are currently seven chapels around the world named for Fr. Capodanno, including the one on Hill 51 in the Que Son valley that he himself helped build out of thatched palms and bamboo.

 

“So far Unsung Glory has been dedicated solely to heroes from The Long War since their stories have largely been ignored. But recently I came across a story of heroism from Vietnam that needed to be told.

Last Sunday at Mass a visiting priest (whom I believe was his self a vet) beautifully wove the Gospel reading into the service of veterans. He spoke eloquently of service to causes greater than ones self, commitment, duty, sacrifice; words which seek to define the ideals that so many vets have dedicated their lives to.

Then he had all of the veterans attending the mass stand to be recognized. After such an eloquent homily, there was a bit of hesitation, and quite a few elbows nudged into quite a few ribs (including Bangie Things into mine), but eventually we all rose. So there I stood with a dozen or so vets while the congregation applauded us. It was a humbling and moving experience and I was actually somewhat embarrassed by the accolades. After mass I made it a point to thank the priest, and as I shook his hand he reminded of my old Battalion Chaplain from 3rd Bn. 8th Marines, Father Dennis Rocheford.

In 1968 Fr. Rocheford was Lance Corporal Rocheford with Company A, 1st Bn. 1st Marines fighting in Hue City, Republic of Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. He was wounded twice in Vietnam, one bullet passing clean through his torso with out hitting any vital organs. The wound was scrubbed with surgical soap and bandaged, and L/Cpl Rocheford continued the march. During Tet Father Rocheford was the radio operator for Capt. Ray L. Smith, A Company commander. Capt. Smith had earned the nick name of “E-tool Smith” for killing three (some say five) NVA soldiers in hand to hand combat with an entrenching tool at Hue. Capt. “E-tool” Smith later became Col. “E-tool” Smith and was the regimental commander of the 8th Marines. When we pestered Father Rocheford about the veracity of our CO’s nick name, he just smiled and confirmed the details, elevating the Colonel to mythical status in our young eyes.

It was a status Father Rocheford shared as well. He was constantly in the field with us, joining us on every hump. Anytime there was a break, as we sat on our packs and nursed sore shoulders and even sorer feet, there was the ubiquitous Father Rocheford walking up and down our ranks, handing out candy from his cargo packets, bucking up our spirits, easing the pain of the welts left by 80 pound packs. His long suffering chaplains assistant (personal body guard is a better term, since he was armed whilst the priest wasn’t) kept pace, longing to join us sitting on the side of the road, resting our aching brogans. Despite the exhaustion on his face, he kept pace with the indefatigable Father. Although he was at least 20 years our senior, he routinely out marched us. We held him in awe, not only because he was a Vietnam vet and former infantryman, nor because of his physical endurance and stamina, or even because of the solemnity with which he ministered to our spiritual needs. We were in awe because he was one of us when he didn’t need to be. He could have stayed at Battalion HQ and no one would have thought any less of him. But instead he chose to be in the field with us grunts. He left the service in the early 90’s after The Gulf War. He rejoined on September 12th 2001 and is currently deployed in Iraq, his third war.

All of these memories of one of the finest men I have ever known came flooding back to me after that mornings mass and as I surfed the net that night I came across the story of Father Vincent Capodanno, Lt. USNR Chaplain Corps, and Vietnam Medal of Honor recipient. The coincidence was to much, and Father Capodanno’s story to compelling to ignore.

 

Only seven chaplains have ever been awarded the Medal of Honor. Father Capodanno earned his on Sept. 4th 1967 while serving as the battalion chaplain for 3rd Bn. 5th Marines during Operation Swift in Quang Tin province Vietnam.

Vincent Capodanno was born on February 13, 1929 in Richmond County NY, and grew up in a large Italian-American family on Staten Island. Graduating from Fordham University in 1949 he joined the Maryknoll Seminary in May of that year and was ordained a priest in June of 1948. He was a missionary in Taiwan and Hong Kong until 1965 when he saw the Vietnam War heating up. Realizing the need for chaplains he joined the Navy and was commissioned a Lieutenant in the US Navy Reserves on December 28, 1965, arriving in Vietnam in April of 1966.

He was assigned to the 7th Marines for his first tour, but when it was over he extended another 6 months and was assigned as the Battalion Chaplain for 3/5. During his tour Father Capodanno quickly earned a reputation as an infantryman’s chaplain. He was always in the field and would learn from the battalion intelligence officers which unit was likely to see the heaviest contact and make sure he was with them, often times incurring the wrath of the Battalion HQ staff who were very protective of him. There were after all only two chaplains in the entire Regiment. His ministry was non-denominational and open to Marines of all faiths, not just Catholics. Byron Hill, a Marine with Company M 3/5 recalled; “It was interesting. He never asked if I was Catholic, which at the time I was not. He did regularly offer me communion and his blessings, and believe me I welcomed the comfort he provided me. Father Capodanno was always there when he was needed, and I never knew a Marine in 3/5 who didn’t say how much they loved him…”

Father Capodanno regularly would share his salary, cigarettes, and rations and could always be counted on for a cold soda. He ensured that Marines who were forgotten when Christmas rolled around always received a gift through a relentless campaign he waged through friends back in the world. And when the hippie peace movement began to take a toll on the Marines morale, he reminded them of the nobility of their cause and of the evilness of the communist aggression they were fighting against. It was not long before Father Capodanno’s tireless efforts on behalf of his Marines earned him the nick name “The Grunt Padre”. On the night of September 3rd “The Grunt Padre” told Pete Morales, a Marine with H&S 3/5 that he was getting short, but that he intended on extending another 6 months. He said he loved his Marines and wanted stay where he was needed so much.

On September 4th 1967 the 3rd Battalion became heavily engaged with NVA forces outside the hamlet of Chau Lam. M Company was loading up on the choppers and everyone knew that there was a heavy fight going on. Ducking the Battalion HQ staff, Father Vincent grabbed his gear and rushed towards the waiting CH46’s. Doc Dave Magnenat, a corpsman with 3/5, saw him and for some reason he never understood asked him if he had forgotten a bible he had promised him. The priest said that he had indeed forgotten, ran back to his hooch and retrieved one for him. The doc tucked the bible away and wished the Father luck as he ran off to catch the last of the choppers heading into a Labor Day fight that would kill 15 Marines and wound 31 others that day alone.

3/5 soon became engaged with 2500 NVA soldiers, outnumbered 5 to 1. Every Marine that was there said that SWIFT was one of the toughest operations they had ever been in. It was in the middle of this fight that Father Vincent Capodanno would prove his love and devotion to his flock.

With the battle at it’s height Father Capodanno was constantly on the front line, tending to the wounded and ministering to the dying. When reports came in that the 2nd Platoon was about to be overrun, he left the relative safety of the company command post and ran across an open area raked with enemy fire to get to the beleaguered platoon. Disregarding the heavy enemy machine gun, automatic weapon and mortar fire he moved about the field administering the last rites and providing first aid to the wounded. When his right hand was partially severed by an enemy round he refused to be removed from the field. Moving from wounded to dead to wounded, he used his left hand to support his shattered right as he gave absolution to the wounded and dying.

Chaplains are easily identifiable on the battlefield, but mortar rounds are indiscriminate in their destruction. When a round landed close by, his arms and legs were peppered with painful shrapnel. He still refused medevac and instead with calm vigor he directed corpsmen to wounded men and continued ministering to his Marines, providing encouragement through his own valiant example.

Then he saw Doc Leal, a corpsmen who was treating a wounded Marine, go down. Despite his own wounds, he moved quickly, placing his self between the wounded corpsman and the line of enemy fire. Father Capodanno administered the Sacrament of the Sick to the wounded Marine while Doc Leal worked to save his life.

Fifteen yards away the same NVA gunner who had felled the corpsman lined his sights on Father Capodanno’s back. At fifteen yards he could not miss.

27 rounds tore through Father Vincent’s back, neck and head. The Grunt Padre fell dead along side the corpsman who was killed in the same burst of fire. They were both killed together, Father Capodanno giving the last rites to the wounded Marine, while Doc Leal worked to patch him up.

Jim Hamfeldt, a Marine there that day, says he wishes he could have taken those bullets instead. “But I would have had to stand in line for the chance because so many guys would have done the same thing”.

“I judge every one I know by this guy” Hamfeldt says. “He’s the most influential person in my life and that’s saying a lot.”

Jim Hamfeldt is not alone in that assessment. Father Daniel Mode, a chaplain who has served in Afghanistan, and who wrote the book “The Grunt Padre” chronicling Father Capodanno’s life and it’s aftermath, says that “Every month I get another story about some miracle that has occurred from knowing Father Capodanno.”

Father Vincent’s glory lies not just in his valiant and selfless acts that day, but in the way he lived every day, in the hundreds of souls he touched, and continues to touch, by his utter and complete devotion to God and to his fellow man. And there are plenty who believe he continues to watch over, bless, and protect them even today.

Father Vincent Capodanno, Lt., USNR CHC, was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously on January 7th 1969. On May 21, 2006 the Vatican declared him a Servant of God, the first step towards canonization as a Saint.

Doc Magnenat still has the bible Father Vincent gave him before he boarded the chopper that bore him to his death. “I’ve used it a lot over the years. For the remainder of my military service it was the last thing into my sea bag and the first thing out. Wherever I went it had a place of honor and has always been available for anyone to read who desired to do so.”

Father Capodanno is buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery, Staten Island, New York.”

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2 comments

  1. 1
    FrJim, Imperial Chaplain growls and barks:

    A legendary military chaplain who “got it.”

    -Jim+

  2. 2
    Retired Spook growls and barks:

    Reminds me of Fr. Donnelly. He was the only chaplain at NKP that acknowledged a bunch of wild-assed spooks. Didn’t matter when the mission went out, he would be there. And it didn’t matter when the mission recovered, he would be there And if you did your debrief in the hospital, he would be there.. He didn’t care what church you attended, the iced down beer was there for everyone. (It’s really amazing what a chaplain with a CO2 fire extinguisher can accomplish! That was the coldest beer in the history of the world!) He’s the reason that I’m not a practicing alcoholic. And the reason I’m not a practicing Catholic. ( I told him that I wanted to convert, and he advised that I wait until I was out of a combat zone before I did that.)