It was Labor Day in the United States on Sept. 4, 1967. People were running about the beaches and enjoying the last summer barbecues before school began. But a whole other world away in Vietnam, war raged.
On that Labor Day, Father Vincent Capodanno, a Maryknoll priest and military chaplain, found himself 50 miles to the southwest of Da Nang with the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines. Early that morning a platoon of men of that battalion was on a typical search and destroy mission when they encountered a regiment of 2,500 North Vietnamese in a major offensive. The platoon was quickly overrun and the 3rd battalion 5th Marines began pouring units into the battle that would be known as Operation Swift.
Father Capodanno was with M company when it was ordered to go to a battalion aid station quickly being set up for the wounded and the dying. While Father Capodanno didn’t have to go, he hopped aboard a helicopter with some of the M company Marines. They didn’t make it. Their chopper was shot down in the midst of rice fields close to the battlefield. Father Capodanno and his men evacuated the chopper and set up a command post on a small knoll, the other side of which raged the battle. He could hear the gunfire and he heard another M company radio operator calling back to the command post: “We’ve been overrun. We can’t hold out.”
Father Capodanno had been in Vietnam for 16 months. He had served in eight major battle campaigns and earned a Bronze Star. He knew where his men needed him most, and he knew where his sacraments were needed most. It wasn’t on the safety side of that knoll.
He dashed over the hill, found that radio operator, grabbed him by the shoulder and brought him back to relative safety. Time and again throughout that late morning and early afternoon Father Capodanno would do the same thing with the wounded and dying. His first wound of the day was a shot through his right hand disabling his fingers. He was bandaged but refused to leave the battlefield on the next medevac. “I need to be where my Marines need me most,” he said. Choking in the midst of tear gas deployed to make the North Vietnamese disperse, Father Capodanno—who had given his gas mask to a young Marine without one—got his second wound from a mortar shell, disabling his whole right arm and shoulder. Again he was bandaged up and again refused to leave the battlefield.
A short time later, Father Capodanno ran to aid a wounded Marine named Lawrence David Peters, who was dying but had propped himself up against a tree stump, exposed to enemy fire, so he could point out where the machine guns were on the adjacent ridge. No one dared go near Sergeant Peters—except Father Capodanno, who ran to the dying man’s side despite the bullets, despite his own wounds, to pray with the Marine and to care for him in his last hours of life. Sergeant Peters would receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroism that day.
The last moments of Father Capodanno’s own life took place near an enemy machine gun nest that three Marines were trying to take out. All three men were cut down, two killed instantly and a third, Ray Harton, was shot through his left shoulder. A corpsman went to Harton’s aid but was quickly shot through both legs. As both men lay bleeding on the battlefield, Father Capodanno ran to them. First he went to Harton, who had served the priest’s Mass the day before, anointed him and said, “Stay calm, Marine, God is with us all today and you’re going to be OK.”
Then he ran to the side of the corpsman, or medic, with his legs shot up—who was also a Catholic—and prayed over him. As he prayed, Father Capodanno was shot 27 times in the back.
In many ways, obviously, that was the last heroic act of Father Capodanno, yet in all ways it is how God uses a person like Father Capodanno, not just in a heroic act, but throughout his life and even into his death.
Born on Feb. 13, 1929, Father Capodanno grew up in a typical Italian-American family in Staten Island, N.Y., the youngest of 10 children. He went to Fordham University in the Bronx and was debating his future, maybe a doctor, maybe a businessman. Riding the Staten Island Ferry every morning to go to school, he would read The Field Afar, now Maryknoll magazine. He had read all the stories of Catholic priests and bishops in places like China and Korea and Japan and how they were ministering to people in far-flung places that needed Christ. His heart was moved and he became a Maryknoll missionary, and was assigned to Taiwan after his ordination in 1958.
He was sent to the most rugged mountains of Taiwan to an aboriginal people and not only learned Chinese but the local language. For six years he ministered in those mountains, after which Maryknoll moved him to a private boys school in Hong Kong. He didn’t like that. It wasn’t the rugged life; it wasn’t a challenge for him. The Vietnam War was escalating, and he asked his Maryknoll superiors to let him become a military chaplain. Ultimately, he was sent to Vietnam and served with the 7th Marines and then with the 3rd battalion 5th Marines before that fateful Sept. 4.
The Marines whom Father Capodanno served in Vietnam considered him one of them. When they had to hike, he hiked with them; when they carried 40 pounds on their back, he carried 40 pounds on his back; when they sweated in the heat, he sweated in the heat; and when they had to stay up at night on a listening post, he stayed up at night. They dubbed him “the Grunt Padre,” a grunt being an affectionate term for Marines in the trenches.
A humble man who cared for his Marines unto his own death, Father Capodanno was a hero of the faith way before he ever was a hero on the last day of his life. Chaplains in Vietnam usually served a year. After his 12 months, Father Capodanno requested an extension and got another six months. Then he requested yet another extension, at least through Thanksgiving and Christmas, and was awaiting a reply. The letter denying his additional extension arrived after his death.
The death of Father Capodanno, who was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1969, immediately affected the folks in New York where he grew up. One man, who taught school with Father Capodanno when the priest was still a seminarian, was overwhelmed by his death. This fellow hadn’t been to Mass in years yet he was so moved by the priest’s heroic faith he walked into a church and asked the priest there to hear his confession. When the priest asked the man why he was coming back, he told the story of Father Capodanno. Then the man said these words: “I guess a missionary doesn’t stop working even after he dies, does he?”
In writing Father Capodanno’s biography, my master’s thesis, I realized that the story was not just about this one man. It was about the hurt and the healing of the Vietnam War. I was not only touching one man’s life but many lives and it was sacred.
I received my degree, and I went on with my life in a parish in Arlington, Va., but every week I would get a letter or two asking for a copy of that thesis. Sometimes I was asked to talk to a parish. I was amazed at how many people wanted to hear about Father Capodanno. Over the course of four years, I sent out 250 photocopies. Then Mother Angelica invited me to her show on EWTN to tell the Father Capodanno story. I went, and the phone lines lit up like a Christmas tree with people wanting to know more.
That’s when I met Ray Harton, the last man alive to hear Father Capodanno’s words. He contacted me and drove 12 hours from Georgia to meet me the next day. He hadn’t told a soul his story, not even his wife. He had flashbacks; he had survivor’s guilt; he had tried to commit suicide and spent a year in a hospital recovering from that attempt and other emotional wounds. He finally got the courage to reach out to me and told me the story of the battlefield. Today Ray is back in the Catholic Church and offering witness and testimony to veterans that there is hope.
I’ve met so many veterans who never knew Father Capodanno but were touched by his story and helped through their alcoholism or depression and kept from committing suicide.
Obviously, some of the more incredible ways Father Capodanno has touched people’s lives have been a number of purported miracles, which will be investigated in the process of his cause for sainthood. For example, a Vietnamese religious sister who worked with orphans in rural Vietnam was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer, yet witnessed her cancer disappear after she prayed for the intercession of Father Capodanno.
I was the postulator for the cause for canonization of Father Capodanno, who was declared a Servant of God in 2006. In May the archdiocesan phase closed, and we sent the cause to the Vatican to begin the Roman phase.
I’ve had the privilege to stand on the battlefield in Vietnam where Father Capodanno died and offer Mass there. And to this day the bishop at Da Nang, Vietnam, has an annual Mass to honor Father Capodanno. Imagine that! In a communist country that is still hurting from that war a half a century ago, thousands of people gather in the cathedral of Da Nang to honor an American who was a Vietnam veteran and a Catholic priest.
A missionary does not stop working even after his death, does he?
Feature Image: A memorial to Father Vincent Capodanno stands at Fort Wadsworth, a park on Staten Island, the New York City borough where the Maryknoll priest grew up.
This article was adapted from a talk given by Father Daniel Mode, who is the author of The Grunt Padre: The Service and Sacrifice of Father Vincent Robert Capodanno (CMJ Marian Publishers, 2000). He currently serves at the Pentagon in the Office of the Chief of Chaplains of the Navy as the Director for Plans and Operations.