By Cdr Ernest Passero - Originally Published October 1985
The chaplain . . . was a man of peace, but he chose to go to war. He was a Marine, sloshing knee-deep in mud . . . yet there was no doubt that he was a man of God.
On 4 September 1967, 30 miles south of Da Nang, in Quang Tri Province, Vietnam, Father Vincent R. Capodanno, chaplain of the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines, found himself in the middle of a major combat action. That morning Company M was being transported by helicopter to participate in OPERATION SWIFT when heavy enemy ground fire forced them to land far short of their destination. Chaplain Capodanno had gone along, attempting to reach a particular, hastily assembled, medical aid station. It was now dusk. The Marines were making it the rest of the way by foot, wading through rice paddies that were completely flanked with heavy jungle.
As 1st Platoon reached the base of one hill, it began to receive sporadic sniper fire from an opposite hill. 2d Platoon took note and immediately moved toward a supporting position along the brow of the hill. While all this was going on Chaplain Capodanno was with the command post (CP) located behind the 1st Platoon. As the operation continued, 2d Platoon proceeded to advance cautiously to the base of the hill of the enemy snipers.
All was fine until 2d Platoon had reached the flats between the two hills. Suddenly all hell broke loose and the platoon was inundated with a heavy barrage of mortar and automatic weapons fire. The attack was sudden and lethal. There was nowhere to turn. Their ranks were being decimated. Back at the CP, Chaplain Capodanno could hear the frantic radioman informing the CP of the gruesome reality of the 2d Platoon's unfortunate position: "We can't hold out here. We are being wiped out! There are wounded and dying all around!"
There was no way that Chaplain Capodanno would remain uninvolved in the semisecure area of the CP. Those were his men out there in that cauldron of live fire, and he was not about to leave them without their chaplain. As if by reflex action the chaplain began scurrying down the hill in an attempt to join the 2d Platoon. In the meantime, because of the unprotected situation, the decision was made and passed to the platoon leaders to form a new line of defense further up the hill. As the chaplain was descending, 2d Platoon had started its climb back up the hill.
Because of the weight of the radio he was carrying, LCpl Lovejoy was unable to proceed as quickly as the other Marines and consequently had to hit the dirt again to avoid being killed from a burst of fire by a North Vietnamese (NVA) machinegunner. As he lay in the dirt radioman Lovejoy could feel the adrenalin pumping rapidly through his body and his mind narrowed onto the one focal thought: "I have to get out of here and up the hill with this heavy radio . . . but how?" Every second was precious and the longer he was pinned down by the sniper fire the situation worsened.
Suddenly he could see the form of another Marine scrambling down the hill. As the sniper fire continued he watched the lanky form jump into the dirt beside him. It was Father Capodanno. What a feeling of relief to know that you were no longer so isolated. The chaplain knew that time was critical so words were not necessary. The two men lay face down in the dirt waiting for the proper instant to make the risky but calculated move. As soon as there was a cessation of automatic weapons fire Father Capodanno grabbed hold of one strap of the heavy field radio, and LCpl Lovejoy hung onto the second strap. Together the two men lunged, groped, and lurched forward up the steep slope. Twice the process was interrupted because the two men had to dive for cover as automatic weapon fire sought them out. This was the type of work for which Marines were prepared; something had to be done; they were prepared to do it. The options were minimal, but with courage and inner strength the two men reached their goal with the heavy radio. LCpl Lovejoy later reflected upon the incident and concluded, "I would never had made it up the hill alive without the chaplain's aid."
Most of the Marines were now inside the new perimeter, but there were many wounded and dying among them. Father Capodanno immediately began anointing the dying and those men who were severely wounded. At least five or six men were close to the Father, and he began with LCpl Connell. While he was in the process of anointing the lance corporal, fumes from tear gas began reaching their position, and were blowing over them. One of the Marines had left his gas mask at the bottom of the hill in his haste to get to the new perimeter. Father Capodanno noticed this and immediately took off his own mask and handed it to the young Marine. "You need it for fighting. I'm all right." The winds kept shifting and the gas was constantly covering the area where Father Capodanno was anointing the men.
Other Marines kept offering Father their masks, but he kept refusing, calmly going about his priestly duties as if nothing could or would disturb him from God's work. Some Marines wanted to at least share their masks by alternatingly breathing with him. But he refused even this for he felt he had to act fast and with great steadiness to reach as many of the wounded as humanly possible.
The 'grunt padre' finally ministered to all those in the immediate area and proceeded to move to a more exposed section of territory where a Sgt Peters lay dying, a man of the Russian Orthodox faith. While Father Capodanno was running the gamut to be at the sergeant's side, a mortar shell had exploded. Marines reported that Father Capodanno was holding his right arm stiffly at his side. There were spots of blood over his whole right arm and hand. But this did not stop him. After administering to Sgt Peters, Father Capodanno moved to other injured Marines. Meanwhile, bullets continued to impact around him as he bandaged wounds and continually consoled with the words, "Jesus said, 'Have faith'."
They were in the thick of battle-there was confusion, men were pinned down, weapons jammed, the situation was changing rapidly, and casualties seemed to be everywhere. Just about the time that Father Capodanno was free enough to search out others, Sgt Manfra was caught in the crossfire of two NVA machineguns on an exposed knoll forward on the hill on which the Father was standing. The sergeant, hit and wounded several times, badly dazed, was moving aimlessly around not realizing where he was.
Suddenly, Father Capodanno arrived on the scene, ran through the continuous barrage of fire, grabbed the sergeant, and carried him into the depression. Once in the security of the hole Father was able to calm him down and give him aid.
The battle continued in full force, and the NVA charged directly toward the front of the new Marine perimeter. Navy Corpsman Leal had been hit in the thigh and groin. LCpl Tanke went to Leal's side and tried to control the blood flowing from an open artery. But hardly 15 yards from Leal and Tanke an NVA machinegunner set up his weapon. Tanke turned and faced the NVA gunner, readied his weapon, and tried to fire. But his M16 jammed. LCpl Tanke scurried for cover. Father Capodanno saw the tragic scene and heard the sickening blast of the machinegun. He ran to the bleeding corpsman, gathered him in his arms, and began to bandage his leg. Meanwhile, Father deliberately placed his own body between corpsman Leal and the enemy machinegunner. Without any scruples, the NVA machinegunner opened fire directly into the back of Father Vincent. Twenty-seven lethal bullets ripped into the back, neck, and skull of the compassionate priest. The padre of the 'grunts' died immediately. For this action Father Capodanno was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the first naval reservist so honored since World War II.
Five Marines attempted to recover the body of their beloved priest from where he had fallen. A PFC Julio Rodriguez of Company M wrote a letter to the Capodanno family on 7 February 1968 explaining the situation after Father was killed. In it he said:
Five of us went to get Father; three Marines were hit while trying to bring in his body. We had to leave him because of the intense fire which had pinned us down. That night we succeeded in bringing in Father's body.
When we found him he had his right hand over his left breast pocket. It seemed as if he was holding his bible. He had a smile on his face, and his eyelids were closed as if asleep or in prayer.
Every Marine in 2nd Platoon liked and respected Father. He refused to carry a weapon, and we were all concerned for his safety. His courage and example inspired us and helped us over many rough spots. I will never forget Father Capodanno and his love and concern for us Marines.
Many more Marines would have been killed if Father Capodanno had not been there. 2d Platoon members were in agreement that before the chaplain had come on the scene it was somewhat chaotic. The men had buried themselves in their holes afraid of being hit. But after witnessing Father calmly and unperturbedly going about his business in the midst of enemy fire, they were inspired and soon organized an effective defense. Their example sparked others to follow suit. A base of fire was laid down, and leadership became evident again. To the very last moment of his life Father Capodanno preached a silent sermon.
Father Vincent R. Capodanno, who as a member of the Maryknoll Missionary Society had served in Taiwan Nationalist China 6½ years, entered the United States Navy Chaplain Corps on 2 January 1966. He attended an eight-week naval orientation course at the Chaplain School in Newport, RI, and then reported for duty with the Marine Corps. Father Capodanno's simple explanation for the change of pastoral fields was: "I joined the Chaplain Corps when the Vietnam War broke out because I think I was needed here as are many more chaplains. I'm glad to help in the way I can."
Father Capodanno arrived in Vietnam in April 1966 and was scheduled for rotation back to the states a year later. But as the time approached for his return he could not accept separation from his calling to those men in Vietnam for whom he risked his life daily. Father reluctantly took leave during May to the United States so he could extend in Vietnam.
He was always known as somewhat introspective and extremely quiet, but the inner desires to return to his men made this silence even more pronounced during this stateside interim. He returned to Vietnam and was rescheduled to return home permanently in November or early December. But once again he felt his place was with the 'grunts'. He wrote a pleading letter to his regimental commander that read in part:
I am due to go home in late November or early December. I humbly request that I stay over Christmas and New Year's with my men. I am willing to relinquish my 30 days leave.
It is always difficult for a chaplain to hold a memorial service for young healthy Marines who are killed at the prime of their lives. This was especially true during the Vietnam conflict. The following excerpt from a memorial service he gave as chaplain of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines shows how Father Capodanno coped with that problem.
We are assembled to pay homage to men we knew and admired....God loved them or they would not have been born. God called them when they were most prepared to go. Do not let their names become empty memories. Recall to mind all their good points, the many things we admired in them. Imitate them. In that way their lives will be perpetuated among us. Our monument to them will not be of bronze or marble, but the living monument of all the good we saw in them.
Although a Navy chaplain serving with the Marines, Father Vincent Capodanno was not outside this circle. He totally identified with those he came to serve, and a special closeness developed between the men and "Father C." He went wherever the troops went, and the Marines wanted him around. Some of the flavor of this was captured by Kenneth Armstrong, who interviewed Father Capodanno for a short newspaper article and tried to joke about Father's lack of faith because he wore a flak jacket. The interview went like this:
"Father, that's not a very good advertisement for your faith. . . that flak jacket."
"I know it, but it's protective coloration so I blend in with the men. In addition, I understand their trials better if I accept the same burdens they do, such as wearing the jacket and carrying a pack."
"Do you go on operations, Father?"
"I make all battalion-size operations. . . ."
"Have you ever been ambushed?"
"No, just exposed to general fire. And believe me, I was frightened. You have no idea where it's coming from or who it's aimed at. And like everybody else, I dread the possibility of stepping on a booby trap."
In recommending a Bronze Star for Lt Capodanno on 26 May 1967, Maj E. F. Fitzgerald wrote the following concerning the chaplain's attitude and actions:
Few men have seen more combat action than their chaplain. Invariably he sought out that unit which was most likely to encounter the heaviest contact. He would then go out with that unit and continually circulate along the route of march. During breaks, never resting, he moved among the men.
Father Capodanno was a contradiction of opposites. He was a man of peace, but he chose to go to war. He appeared gaunt and ascetical, but he was physically strong and capable of outwalking the youngest Marines. He was a man of few words, but when he spoke he said all that had to be said. His deep-set sad brown eyes were distant but kind, almost as if he saw directly into the soul. The chaplain was a man of self-control and discipline, and yet he was a constant chain smoker. He was a Marine in the field, sloshing knee-deep in mud, eating canned rations, walking everywhere, carrying whatever he needed on his back, and yet there was no doubt that he was a man of God.
Shortly after Chaplain Capodanno's death, friends, colleagues, and family members established a memorial scholarship in his honor. The fund is administered by the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, Inc. Over the past 14 years, 49 new scholarships have been awarded and thousands of dollars In financial aid given to needy, deserving college students. During the 1984-85 annual appeal U.S. Navy chaplains and friends throughout the world donated over $17,500 to this living memorial. New scholarships are awarded each year, and the Foundation pursues the policy of continuing to provide assistance to those previously selected for a Capodanno award and still attending college. Contributions and inquiries about Father Vincent R. Capodanno Memorial Scholarships should be sent to:
Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, Inc.
James Forrestal Campus
P. O. Box 3008
Princeton, NJ 08540