Father Vincent Capodanno and the Meaning of “Sacrifice”

If you have never visited Semper Fidelis Memorial Chapel on the grounds of the National Museum of the Marine Corps, you have missed visiting a truly inspirational place. It is a breathtakingly beautiful building, an edifice of stone, rich wood and soaring glass that derives much of its beauty from the surrounding landscape. It is also breathtakingly simple. Nestled in the woods, it was designed to pay homage to the improvised chapels found in the field, attended by those who bear the burden of war.

Last Wednesday was nothing short of a glorious spring day in Virginia. The skies were crystal clear, without a cloud, and vibrant blue. A warm breeze stirred the air. Springtime had brought the grounds surrounding the chapel to life. I was struck by how green the trees were, and by the sound of birds singing. And on this glorious spring day, several people had gathered for a private ceremony to dedicate the “Sacrifice” window in memory of Navy chaplain, and Medal of Honor recipient, Father Vincent Capodanno.

As a former theology student, and a Marine Corps historian, I have long had an interest in those chaplains who have chosen to serve with the Fleet Marine Force. Of particular interest to me were those who served in Vietnam. It was many years ago that I first heard of the “Grunt Padre,” Father Capodanno.

The son of an Italian immigrant, Vincent Capodanno was the youngest of ten children. He attended night classes at Fordham University and in 1949, confided to a close friend that he had felt a calling to the priesthood. He had read The Field Afar, a magazine published by the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, also known as the Maryknolls. Their training was different…in addition to traditional seminary courses of study, a Maryknoll’s training also included emergency medical care, basic sanitation and agrarian methods and survival tactics. Capodanno relished the challenges of the Maryknoll education and was ordained on 7 June 1957.

After serving in Taiwan and Hong Kong, Father Capodanno requested permission to join the Navy Chaplain Corps and serve the growing number of Marines arriving in Vietnam. Commissioned a lieutenant on 28 December 1965, Capodanno arrived in country in April 1966, assigned to 1st Battalion, 7th Marines.  Asked by a reporter why he had chosen to volunteer for service in Vietnam, Capodanno simply said, “I think I am needed here as are many more chaplains. I’m glad to help in any way I can.”

The Reverend Daniel Lawrence Mode, author of The Grunt Padre described this most extraordinary man of God and his service to the Marines in his spiritual care: “Known for a remarkable courage and tenacity, the grunts could hardly be prepared for the horrible realities of war they routinely saw each day-deaths, brutal woundings, endless loneliness and depression, temptation to despair. To combat the darkness of the combatant, the light of Christ needed to be lit and carried. Such was the job of the Christian chaplain in a war zone….Father Capodanno chose to be more than just a priest assigned to minister to the tragedies of war. He became a spiritual comrade by removing all distinctions and obstacles between his grunts and himself in the way he had learned in his Maryknoll training and ministry. He lived, ate, and slept as the men did…Grunts recall in  vivid detail their padre keeping company with them through an entire night, isolated in distant and dangerous jungle outposts. Others recall the Grunt Padre leaping out of a helicopter in the midst of battle, blessing the troops, serving the Eucharist to the Catholics, and then leaping into a chopper heading off to another corner of active conflict….He remained at the side of the dying, present until the end, rather than let any man die alone, and then he sought to offer solid grounding and hope to the buddies who grieved at the loss of friends.”

While serving as the battalion chaplain with the 1st Medical Battalion, Father Capodanno requested an extension to his tour of duty. That extension granted, he continued to work tirelessly in his new assignment with the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines.

In September 1967, the 2d NVA Division moved into the Que Son Basin, south of Da Nang, in a planned effort to disrupt elections in the area. Operation Swift began when elements of the 5th Marines were attacked in the early morning hours of 4 September, southwest of Thang Binh. Father Capodanno had been travelling with the command post of Company M, 3d Battalion, 5th Marines. First Platoon came under heavy enemy fire. Second Platoon was ordered to assist. While crossing a small knoll they came under withering fire and radioed they were in danger of being overrun. Father Capodanno left the relative safety of the command post and as his Medal of Honor citation describes, “ran through an open area raked with fire, directly to the beleaguered platoon. Disregarding the intense enemy small-arms, automatic weapons, and mortar fire, he moved about the battlefield administering last-rites to the dying and giving medical aid to the wounded. When an exploding mortar round inflicted painful multiple wounds to his arms and legs, and severed a portion of his right hand, he steadfastly refused all medical aid.”

Father Capodanno moved to the side of Sergeant Lawrence Peters. He recited the Lord’s Prayer with him. After Peters had died, he moved to comfort Corporal Ray Harton. He cradled the young corporal’s head, blessed the wounded Marine with his left hand, saying, “God is here with us, Marine, and help is on the way.”

As the fighting raged, Father Capodanno saw a young lance corporal giving aid to a wounded corpsman who was in danger of bleeding to death from a thigh wound. As the priest moved toward the wounded man, an enemy machine gunner set up his weapon no further than 15 meters away. Father Capodanno gathered the corpsman in his arms, and used his own body to shield the wounded man from enemy fire. He was struck and killed instantly, 27 bullets piercing his body.  He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

The day after his death, a letter written by Father Capodanno was delivered to the regimental commander. In the letter, the fallen priest had written, “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 thirty days leave….”

Forty-four years later, we sat in Semper Fidelis Memorial Chapel, reflecting on the service of this extraordinary Servant of God, a title bestowed upon him by the Catholic Church. We contemplated the meaning of “sacrifice,” and pondered both his life and his death. Said one Marine, “He radiated the love of God. He was, in fact, the presence of God in our midst….He was an oasis in the midst of a very difficult situation. He was always willing to take on our burdens, to share in our sufferings and anxieties. Whenever I heard him speak I had a feeling of peace. If we were worried and anxious, he took our fears and burdens.”

In the closing moments of the dedication ceremony, Lieutenant General Ron Christmas reminded those gathered that we were in the Semper Fidelis Memorial Chapel- “Always Faithful.” “Have faith,” he said, “in those young men and women who wear the uniform. Have faith in your God, have faith in this great country, and have faith in our Corps.”

And let us remember the sacrifices of so many, and the sacrifice of Father Vincent Capodanno.

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