‘Where They Need Me’
9/1/2017by Roy Wenzl
Fifty years ago, Father Vincent R. Capodanno valiantly sacrificed his life while ministering on the battlefield in Vietnam
Maryknoll Father Vincent R. Capodanno began the day of his death, Sept. 4, 1967, by disregarding repeated orders from Marine Corps sergeants to stay off the helicopters and away from combat.
He told them, “I need to be with my Marines,” and eventually jumped on a chopper after receiving reluctant consent from the battalion commander.
A 38-year-old Navy chaplain on his second tour of duty in Vietnam, Father Capodanno refused to use a weapon but had a habit of running through gunfire — as he did during this battle in the Que Son Valley, some 30 miles southwest of Da Nang. Several hundred Marines were trapped on a bare knoll while thousands of North Vietnamese Army regulars, hidden in the tree lines, shot them one by one.
Capodanno arrived in the afternoon with the already outnumbered reinforcements. He grabbed wounded Marines by their armored jackets, dragged them to safety and bandaged them up. And he continued to do so after receiving wounds from an exploding mortar round.
“This battle was by far the worst I’d ever seen,” said Cpl. George Phillips, who was a 20-year-old weapons squad leader that day.
“Father kept running up and down that knoll for at least two hours,” recalled Phillips, 70, president of the Father Vincent Capodanno Guild and a member of Potomac Council 433 in Washington, D.C. “He pulled Marines to safety, prayed with them and anointed the wounded. He had this thing he’d say: ‘You’re not alone. God is with you. You’ll be all right.’”
Father Capodanno was killed in a hail of machine gun fire later that evening while rushing to the aid of several dying Marines and a corpsman. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1969, and the archdiocesan phase of his cause for canonization was completed this past May, nearly 50 years after his death.
MISSIONARY AND CHAPLAIN
The 10th child of Italian immigrants, Vincent Capodanno was born Feb. 13, 1929, in Staten Island, N.Y. He grew up in a Catholic home grounded in faith, patriotism and hard work. On his 10th birthday, Capodanno’s father, Vincent Sr., died while at work in the shipyards. Three of his brothers later served in World War II. After high school, he took night courses at Fordham University while working as a Wall Street clerk by day to support the family.
A daily communicant, Capodanno was drawn to the priesthood from an early age. The faith-filled stories published by the Catholic Foreign Mission Society, the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, kindled his desire to evangelize. One of his heroes was Brooklyn-born Bishop Francis Xavier Ford, who arrived in China in 1918 with the first Maryknoll missionaries there.
At age 20, Capodanno applied to become a Maryknoller, and after nine years of formation he was ordained in 1958. That year he was sent to the island of Formosa (present-day Taiwan).
During a home visit after six years of missionary service in parishes and as a teacher, Father Capodanno received an unexpected transfer to Hong Kong. There he discerned a new call to service — as a chaplain to the increasing number of U.S. troops in Vietnam. With permission from his superiors, he joined the Navy Chaplain Corps, and in 1966, Father Capodanno shipped out to Vietnam to join the 7th Marines.
According Father Daniel L. Mode, a military chaplain and priest of the Arlington Diocese who initially served as the postulator for Capodanno’s cause for canonization, the missionary priest arrived with a plan.
“As a Maryknoll missionary in Taiwan, he learned how to literally live peoples’ lives with them,” said Father Mode, who is a member of St. John’s Council 11806 in McLean, Va. “When he got to Vietnam after that, he didn’t just go on patrols with Marines. When they carried 40-pound backpacks, he carried 40 pounds. When they marched in rain, he marched with them. If the guys he was with had to stay up all night at a forward listening post, he stayed up all night with them.”
That’s how Father Capodanno earned the moniker the “Grunt Padre,” which became a name of honor.
“‘Grunt Marine’ is a term that by rights should only be used by enlisted infantry Marines … usually 18 or 19 years old and just out of high school,” Father Mode explained in his book The Grunt Padre: Father Vincent Robert Capodanno, Vietnam, 1966-1967. “What set Father Vincent apart was the way he lived his ministry … as a Grunt Marine. Wherever they went, he went. Whatever burdens they had to carry, he shared the load. No problem was too large or too small to take to Father Vincent — he was available to them day and night.”
Father Capodanno also visited outlying company bases and hospitals to offer prayer for those soldiers whom he had joined in combat, while most of his spare hours were spent writing letters of condolence and information to parents of wounded and dead Marines. So engaged was Father Capodanno that during his 16 months of military service, he became the most recognizable and most sought-after chaplain serving the Marine Corps.
MARINES REMEMBER THEIR PADRE
Father Capodanno’s ministry included both heroic dedication and small acts of kindness. One such act has stayed for decades in the memory of Thomas E. Byrne, 81, a member of Holy Trinity Council 3413 in Severna Park, Md.
“These four or five Marines come walking into Mass,” recounted Byrne, who was a 30-year-old Marine Corps captain at the time. “They were bedraggled-looking, their clothes dirty, so they’d obviously worked all night on some operation.
“Father turns from the altar and says, ‘Where you been?’ The Marines said they’d just come out of the field. So, he said, ‘I won’t start Mass for these other guys here until you leave. The good Lord wants you in bed, so that’s where you’re going.’”
The Marines obeyed.
Tony Grimm, 80, a member of John Paul I Council 7165 in Woodbridge, Va., who also served as a Marine Corps captain in Vietnam, remembered Father Capodanno as “a Pied Piper.”
“Everyone would come to Mass, regardless of religion,” Grimm recalled. “He’d say, ‘There is this constant need for prayer because we are all stretched to the limit out here. The only way we will get by is by asking for help. And do we all know that help is available to us, just for the asking?’”
Grimm’s relationship with Capodanno got prickly at times, as he was assigned the duty of keeping the chaplain alive.
“Father got me thoroughly chewed out many times,” Grimm said. “If a patrol went out of the compound, he’d hide away and wait until the tail end of the column went past. Then he’d take off running and fall in with them.”
In a similar way, Father Capodanno raced to administer the sacraments to the exposed Marines trapped on the knoll in Que Son Valley.
One of the very last men to see Father Capodanno alive was 18-year-old Lance Cpl. Frederick W. Tancke, who had been shot in the hand.
“We had so little to hide behind and he kept running from one wounded guy to another, out in the wide open,” recalled Tancke, 68. “That’s part of why what Father did that day was so courageous.”
Tancke’s M16 rifle jammed repeatedly that day. When he encountered a North Vietnamese machine gunner hunched over a Chinese machine gun just yards away, he was unable to shoot. He tried to fish a grenade from his pouch, but his wounded hand made that impossible. All he could do was sprint a few yards and fall into a shell hole to find cover.
The next thing Tancke saw was Father Capodanno running to the aid of Marines who had been shot — and straight for the machine gun. Frantic, Tancke stood up four feet from Capodanno and yelled, “Watch out for the gunner!”
Tancke saw “a look of incredible intensity” on the chaplain’s face just before the gunner fired a burst into Father Capodanno’s back.
EVEN AFTER DEATH
It was no surprise to the men who served with him that Father Capodanno was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, along with the Navy Bronze Star medal, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star and the Purple Heart Medal. Nor is it surprising that a Navy ship, the USS Capodanno, was named in his honor together with a number of military buildings, chapels and scores of other memorials across the country. Nearly 20 Knights of Columbus councils and assemblies also proudly bear his name.
It is similarly not a surprise that the Catholic Church, with Father Mode doing much of the research, has compiled thousands of documents as part of the investigation into his cause for sainthood. According to Father Mode, many people have returned to the Church because of Father Capodanno’s witness, and he is also credited with vocations to military chaplaincy.
In life, and after death, his spirit moved ordinary people to do exceptional things, said Father Mode, who attributes this to the deliberate emphasis on charity that marked Father Capodanno’s every action.
In The Grunt Padre, Father Mode wrote, “Father Vincent went to Vietnam expressly to be with the troops, to learn and to live the full meaning of Maryknoll Bishop Ford’s motto to suffer with, and by doing so save souls and give glory to God.”
Father Capodanno’s spirit of generosity and compassion is also summed up in an official citation from Maj. Edward Fitzgerald recommending Father Capodanno for the Bronze Star:
“Invariably, he sought out that unit which was most likely to encounter the heaviest contact. … His bravery, his humor, his right word at the right time contributed to the success of the unit. … He was particularly adept in observing a Marine who was troubled by the press of events and/or personal problems and who needed help and encouragement. … At Christmas he gathered gifts from friends and organizations all over the world to ensure that no man in the battalion was forgotten.”
Tony Grimm, the Marine captain who was tasked with keeping Father Capodanno out of peril, remembered the conflict between his own duty and Father Capodanno’s dedication to accompanying the troops no matter the danger.
“We’d argue, and I’d ask him, ‘Why do you keep doing this?’” Grimm recounted.
“Father replied, ‘I need to be where they need me.’”
For more about Father Capodanno, visit capodannoguild.org.
ROY WENZL is a journalist based in Wichita, Kan., and the author of The Miracle of Father Kapaun: Priest, Soldier and Korean War Hero (Ignatius, 2013).