On this day in 1967, a Navy chaplain makes the ultimate sacrifice as he ministers to his Marines during the Vietnam War. Father Vincent Capodanno would receive a Medal of Honor for his selfless actions on this day so long ago.
Father Capodanno has since been declared a “Servant of God” by the Catholic Church, and he is now being considered for sainthood.
Capodanno was no ordinary military chaplain. In fact, he was affectionately dubbed “The Grunt Padre” by his men because of his insistence upon sharing their burdens and duties—however dangerous they might be.
“He was not a religious leader who did his job and then returned to the comfort of his own circle,” Capodanno’s biographer writes. “He lived 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.”
That approach would cost Capodanno his life during Operation Swift, a Vietnam War operation during the fall of 1967. On September 4, a portion of Capodanno’s battalion was ambushed. The conflict turned into an all-out battle.
As a chaplain, Capodanno could easily have remained at the company command post. All things considered, it was a much safer place to be. But it also went against the grain for Capodanno to stay in a place of relative safety when his men were suffering. He wanted to be with them.
He “ran through an open area raked with fire, directly to the beleaguered platoon,” his Medal citation reports. “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.”
During the course of his ministrations, Capodanno was seriously wounded in his arms and legs. His right hand was partially severed. And yet he continued on.
Capodanno was at the side of Sergeant Lawrence Peters when Peters passed away. The Sergeant had acted so heroically during the battle that he would receive his own Medal of Honor.
Peters did not have to die alone because of Capodanno.
Another Marine, Corporal Ray Harton, was wounded that day. Father Capodanno found him as he lay bleeding there on the battlefield. “As I closed my eyes, someone touched me,” Harton later reported. “When I opened my eyes, he looked directly at me. It was Father Capodanno. Everything got still: no noise, no firing, no screaming. A peace came over me that is unexplainable to this day. In a quiet, calm voice, he cupped the back of my head and said, ‘Stay quiet Marine. You will be okay. Someone will be here to help you soon. God is with us all this day.’”
The end came when Capodanno noticed a corpsman struggling with a wound to his leg. An enemy machine gun was still trained on the young Marine. “Fr. C. ran out to him and positioned himself between the injured boy and the automatic weapon,” Lieutenant Joseph E. Pilon later related. “Suddenly, the weapon opened up again and this time riddled Fr. C. from the back of his head to the base of his spine—and with his third Purple Heart of the day—Fr. C. went Home.”
When Father Capodanno’s body was recovered, it had 27 bullet wounds in it.
On this Labor Day weekend, perhaps it is appropriate to remember a man who labored so diligently for his God, his family of Marines, and his country.