BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D. 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. In my six plus decades on this planet I have visited many beautiful chapels. The Semper Fidelis Chapel holds its own with the best of them. It is simple, nestled in the woods, it’s there to keep us mindful of the many improvised chapels found in the battlefield, and the men like Father Capodanno who served the Lord and the men and women far from home who bore the burden of war, and in many cases made the ultimate sacrifice.
Born in Staten Island, New York, in 1929. Capodanno graduated from Curtis High School, Staten Island, and attended Fordham University for a year before entering the Maryknoll Missionary Seminary in Ossining, New York. He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in June 1957.
Father Capodanno’s first assignment as a missionary was with aboriginal Taiwanese in the mountains of Taiwan where he served in a parish and later in a school. After seven years, Father Capodanno returned to the United States for leave and then was assigned to a Maryknoll school in Hong Kong.
This is where the story gets interesting. 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. After spending time in Honolulu preparing to receive his commission, Father Capodanno was commissioned a lieutenant in the Navy Chaplain Corps on 28 December 1965. During his time in Honolulu, Father Capodanno assisted at the Annunciation Parish, Waimea. There is a note in the baptismal records of that parish showing that Father Capodanno celebrated a baptism on Christmas Day 1965. I wonder if the person baptized on that Christmas day is aware that the Priest who performed the baptism would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and has been put on track to become a Saint.
The Catholic Church in Hawaii can be rightly proud of the fact that two Priests with Hawaiian connections have received this nation’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor, and are being put forward for Sainthood.
Capodanno arrived in Vietnam in April 1966 the same month and year that began my first tour. As I was doing the research for this article I couldn’t help but wonder if I attended a mass that Father Capodanno conducted as we travelled the same path for a short period, 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.”
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….”
Medal of Honor Citation
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Chaplain of the 3d Battalion, in connection with operations against enemy forces. In response to reports that the 2d Platoon of M Company was in danger of being overrun by a massed enemy assaulting force, Lt. Capodanno left the relative safety of the company command post and 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. Instead, he directed the corpsmen to help their wounded comrades and, with calm vigor, continued to move about the battlefield as he provided encouragement by voice and example to the valiant Marines. Upon encountering a wounded corpsman in the direct line of fire of an enemy machine gunner positioned approximately 15 yards away, Lt. Capodanno rushed a daring attempt to aid and assist the mortally wounded corpsman. At that instant, only inches from his goal, he was struck down by a burst of machine gun fire. By his heroic conduct on the battlefield, and his inspiring example, Lt. Capodanno upheld the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the cause of freedom.
|Father Vincent Capodanno is buried in a family plot at Saint Peters Cemetery, West New Brighton, Staten Island, New York.|
Much of the information in this article was gleaned from the excellent book The Grunt Padre, by The Reverend Daniel Lawrence Mode. For anyone wanting to learn about character and courage this book should be a must read.
The information in this article was sourced from a variety of sources both internal and external. Every effort was made to ensure that the information is current and correct. These articles are presented to honor the heroes they are written about.