Valor Friday

| September 25, 2020

Chaplain (LT) Vincent Capodanno – To the relief of our enemies, the man was armed in combat with only this steely gaze

I’m going to start a new series about valorous chaplains. My first subject is a name known to many, in particular US Marines. The Grunt Padre himself, Father (Lieutenant) Vincent Capodanno.

Capodanno was born in 1929 in Staten Island, NY. He’d go on to graduate high school there and attended college and seminary before becoming a Roman Catholic Priest in 1958. He was first sent as a missionary to the aboriginal Thai mountain people in Thailand, then to Hong Kong. In 1965 he requested to be posted with the US military in Vietnam, troop levels increasing at the time.

Capodanno was commissioned into the US Navy at the end of 1965. He requested, and was granted, to minister to the troops as part of the Fleet Marine Force. The Navy provides certain services for the Marine Corps. The Marines do not have any of their own medical or ministerial personnel, relying on the Navy to provide doctors, nurses, medical corpsmen, and chaplains.

In April 1966 he was in Vietnam and assigned to the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, part of the 1st Marine Division. The 1/7 Marines were the unit that John Basilone was with at Guadalcanal when he earned the Medal of Honor. They were commanded at the time by a lieutenant colonel who would go on to become a Marine Corps legend, Lewis “Chesty” Puller. During Korea, the battalion landed at Inchon and again distinguished itself repeatedly through the valor of the men assigned there. Vietnam would be no different. They received four Presidential Unit Citations and three Meritorious Unit Commendations.

Capodanno ministering to the troops

Capodanno would only be with 1/7 Marines until the end of the year, when he was reassigned to the 1st Medical Battalion, 1st Marine Division. He was with the medical battalion until June 1967. In his time there, the battalion earned a Presidential Unit Citation (PUC). The PUC is considered the unit-level equivalent of the Navy Cross, the country’s second highest award for combat bravery.

Capodanno took a month of leave and upon his return, volunteered to extend his stay in Vietnam a further six months. Initially put with 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, he was soon moved to the Headquarters and Service Company of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines.

The Grunt Padre (Center)

Among the men he ministered to, Capodanno earned the nickname “The Grunt Padre.” As an officer and even more so a chaplain, the line Marines would not begrudge the man for partaking in the relative comforts afforded those with advanced rank and positions. Not the Father.

Capodanno would live, eat, and sleep in the same conditions as the men. He collected gifts and organized outreach to the locals. He would spend hours ministering to the men who became weary and disillusioned with the war. He’d hear confessions and hand out Saint Christopher medals.

He shared in the hardships of the lowliest private. In doing so he was well respected by his flock. At age 38, he would have filled the role of a literal father figure for these young men sent off to the jungle war. His hair, greying at the sides, would stand in stark contrast to his Marines, most just barely old enough to be called men.

And so it was, on 4 September, 1967, when Capodanno heard of elements of Company M 3/5 Marines were involved in a heavy firefight, he volunteered to go with them, where he was needed.

About 0430 hours that morning Operation Swift started with a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) ambush of Company D 1/5 Marines. Swift was an operation planned to sweep up remaining NVA forces in the Que Son Valley. Unfortunately, the enemy did not cooperate with the plan. They caught the Company D Marines in a defensive night position and attacked with a numerically superior force.

The 1st Battalion commander sent the only available company he had, Company B to reinforce his embattled men. This wasn’t enough against the 2,500 or so NVA soldiers, the best trained and equipped of the enemy forces our troops faced during the war. By 0914 hours, 26 Marines already lie dead.

By early afternoon, both companies were pinned down and separated. Companies K and M from the adjacent 3/5 Marines were sent in to assist. The NVA assault was well planned and executed. They proceeded very aggressively and the enemy extracted a heavy toll on the ambushed Marines.

While in the relative safety of the command post Capodanno learned that 2nd Platoon, Company M was about to be overrun. He immediately left his position of safety and across the battlefield, in the open, enemy rounds zinging by to run full tilt straight to the beleaguered men.

With no regard for his own mortal safety, the Chaplain ran from man to man, administering Last Rites to those dying. To those he could help, he rendered medical aid. Moving from position to position, Lieutenant Capodanno seemed undeterred by the mass of enemy small arms, machine gun, and mortar fire.

An enemy mortar struck near the Chaplain. Blasted with bomb fragments, he was peppered with painful shrapnel in his arms and legs. The enemy round severed a part of the Father’s right hand. He steadfastly refused medical attention for his own wounds. Instead, Capodanno directed the medical corpsmen in the treatment of the wounded. His “calm vigor” after his grievous wounding inspired the Marines and sailors as he continued to move from position to position, inspiring the men through both words and actions.

As he moved through the line of battle Capodanno came upon a severely wounded Navy corpsman. The man was lying in the open not 15 yards from an enemy machine gun that was taking the man under its sights.

Without hesitation, Capodanno ran to rescue the corpsman. The audacious and daring plan to rescue his wounded comrade single-handedly was the final tempt of fate for Father Capodanno. Just inches from his goal of aiding the sailor he was mowed down by a burst of fire from the enemy machine gun.

While Capodanno’s war was over and he could meet St Peter with his head held high that he’d done more than earn his place at the right hand of the lord, the battle would continue. It wasn’t until the following morning, 5 September, that the battle finally turned in favor of US forces.

The larger Operation Swift would continue for another ten days after that. For their performance at Que Son, the 3/5 Marines earned a Presidential Unit Citation. A sweep of the battlefield found 130 NVA bodies, with Marine casualties being 54 killed in action and 104 wounded.

Capodanno would posthumously receive the Medal of Honor for heroism under fire that day. He’d already received a Bronze Star Medal w/ “V”. He was also awarded the South Vietnamese Gallantry Cross w/ Silver Star, indicating a citation at the divisional level. The Gallantry Cross was awarded for deeds of valor or heroic conduct when engaged in combat with the enemy.

Capodanno has received the appellation “Servant of God” from the Roman Catholic Church. This is the first of four steps in the canonization process. In other words, he is on the path to becoming a saint.

The case for Capodanno’s Canonization was opened in 2002. In 2006 he received the Servant of God title. In 2013 there was a formal opening of the Case for Beatification. That is the second step in the process to sainthood. The case remains open with the Vatican.

The Navy commissioned the USS Capodanno (FF-1093) in 1973 in his honor. This would become the first American warship to Papal Blessing, from Pope John Paul II in 1981. There are numerous other memorials and shrines in his honor, including a street named for him in his native New York City.

Category: Historical, Marine Corps, Marines, Medal of Honor, Navy, Valor, We Remember

Comments (5)

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  1. TopGoz says:

    If you’re interested in learning more about Medal of Honor recipient Fr. Vincent Capodanno, I highly recommend the book “The Grunt Padre” by Fr. Daniel L. Mode.

  2. ninja says:

    Wow.

    Just Wow.

    Now we want to read the book that TopGoz mentioned.

    THANK YOU for sharing, Mason..

    Mikey Weinstein should be required to read “The Grunt Padre”.

    John 15:13

    “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

  3. Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH B Woodman says:

    Damned dusty here.
    Onion fairy.
    Allergies.

    I’m not Catholic, but I would have been proud to take Sunday services and sacrament from the Father.

  4. AW1Ed says:

    Hand Salute. Ready, Two!

    Thanks again, Mason.

    uss capo patch

  5. KoB says:

    Guess I better change them air filters again…or something.

    Battery Gun Salute….PREPARE!!!!…FIRE!!!

    Thanks Mason.