He didn’t have to be there, not in that place and at that time. But there he was. He could have been back at the base in Da Nang, waiting for the soldiers to return, and no one would have given it a second thought. But he chose to be with the men.
In actuality, he didn’t even have to be in Vietnam at all. His tour of duty had ended months before, and so he could have been home in America. But he asked for, and was granted, an extension. How could he not be with the young men he had come to know and love as brothers? And, so, when the Marines, his Marines, went into the countryside to seek out and confront the enemy, there was no way he could not be there. They would need him, and he would not let them down. He never did.
He did not carry a weapon, although he could have. Instead, he carried the love of Christ to everyone he encountered. And if all hell broke loose, and men were wounded, he would ignore the bullets and mortars and give first aid and comfort, and, if necessary, he would give them the Last Rites of the Church. For he was a Catholic chaplain, and fifty years ago, he gave his life readily, just as Christ had.
His name was Vincent Capodanno. Born in 1929 on Staten Island, he was one of nine children. For the Capodannos, life revolved around the local Catholic church. It was a time when priests were excellent examples of devotion and manhood, and there was no shortage of vocations. Masses were always well-attended, and during Christmas and Easter, there was standing room only.
When Vincent was in high school, he thought he might want to become a doctor. After graduation in 1947, he worked for an insurance company during the day and took classes at Fordham University at night. He attended 8:00 a.m. Mass each morning and before his college classes started, he would attend Benediction.
In 1949, during a retreat, he began to consider the priesthood. After a few months of discernment, he decided to become a Maryknoll missionary. He was ordained in 1958, and his first assignment was in Taiwan. After six years, he was transferred to Hong Kong.
In 1965, he suddenly felt a call to be a chaplain with the United States Marines in Vietnam. The war was expanding, and the suffering of civilians and soldiers was rising exponentially. Vincent believed that, as a priest, he could be of great service, especially to U.S. military personnel. Maryknoll agreed, and after a few months of “chaplain school” and field medical training, Chaplain Vincent Capodanno arrived in Da Nang.
Soon Vincent became a favorite of the Marines. He was easy to talk to, and he had an uncanny ability to make everyone feel important. Hardened Marines would open their hearts to him and appreciated his warm smile and comforting words. As a confessor, he exuded compassion and mercy. He loved them, and they knew it.
In order to properly serve the Marines, he chose to be in the field with them. And so, while men slogged through rice paddies or hunkered down in fox holes, he was right along side. Sure, the danger was real, but so was his love.
On September 4, 1967, a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) force of over two thousand men ambushed Marine Company D, which was quickly surrounded. Vincent was with Company M, who were ordered to reinforce the imperiled soldiers.
As they approached the battle scene, NVA forces opened fire. The Marines dove for cover behind a small crater. Amidst the rifle fire and mortar explosions, Vincent could hear the screams of wounded soldiers and their agonizing cries for help. He saw the radio operator for Company D trying desperately to contact base operations for immediate help: “We can’t hold out here. We are being wiped out! There are wounded and dying all around.” The operator was crawling to get to higher ground but enemy fire kept halting his advance.
Suddenly Vincent jumped up and ran toward the man, despite the hail of bullets all around him. He grabbed the operator and helped him get to the top of the hill. Vincent then ran down the hill to give the Last Rites to a dying Marine. One Marine recalled the scene:
This is when I first spotted Father Capodanno. He was carrying a wounded Marine. After he brought him into the relative safety of our perimeter, he continued to go back and forth giving Last Rites to dying men and bringing in wounded Marines. He made many trips, telling us to “stay cool; don’t panic.”
An enemy mortar landed nearby, almost severing Vincent’s right hand, but he continued to go from Marine to Marine to do what he could. He was oblivious to the threat to his own life. Men shouted for him to get down, but he would not be deterred.
A machine gun nest was wreaking havoc on the American troops. A Marine was assigned to throw a hand grenade to end the threat, but he was hit by fire and lay helpless on the ground. Instantly Vincent was next him, saying, “Stay quiet, Marine. You will be OK. Someone will be here to help you soon. God is with us all this day.”
As a medic approached, he, too, was shot. Vincent rushed to him and cradled the man in his arms. At that moment, a bullet from a machine gun entered the back of Vincent’s head, killing him instantly.
When his body was eventually retrieved and returned to Da Nang, the doctors found 27 bullet wounds in his body, and he was missing fingers on his right hand. Most of the bullets had entered his back, because he was busy tending to the men who needed him.
In January of 1969, in Washington, D.C., Chaplain Vincent Capodanno was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty . . . “
Such an honor is indeed impressive. But the words of a fellow Marine are a greater tribute:
He gave his life. No one can do any more than that – – that’s what Christ did . . . The only way I can justify it, is that he did it because that is what he had to do, and if he is going to be a priest and a Christian there really can’t be any other way. I know that but it still kills me . . . Of all the deaths I saw and did, the greatest was his.
On May 21, 2006, Vincent Capodanno was publicly declared “Servant of God,” the first step toward canonization. What a blessing it would be today if the Church had more priests like him.
(The information and quotations for this article are taken from the book The Grunt Padre: The Service & Sacrifice of Father Vincent Capodanno, Vietnam 1966-1967, Servant of God, by Fr. Daniel L Mode. CMJ Marian Publishing, Oaklawn, Illinois, 2000.))