Remembering the ‘Grunt Padre’

Tuesday night, I and another VVMF staffer attended the memorial Mass for Father Vincent Robert Capodanno at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

The Mass was in honor of the anniversary of Capodanno’s death in Vietnam on Sept. 4, 1967. Hundreds filled the Crypt Church at the Basilica to honor the “Grunt Padre” for his actions on that day, including members of the Knights of Columbus, U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen, flag officers, friends and family. Archbishop of the Archdiocese for the Military Services Timothy Broglio presided over the Mass that was also attended by Walter Marm, a Medal of Honor recipient from the Vietnam War. Many had traveled from Capodanno’s home state of New York and also Pennsylvania, where one of the many Knights of Columbus councils named for him is located. At the end of the Mass, the sailor we’d been sitting next to played taps. In that solemn chapel, it was one of the saddest, and yet most beautiful things I have ever heard.

Capodanno joined the Navy Chaplain Corps in the mid-1960s and in 1966, he reported to the 7th Marines in Vietnam. In addition ministering, he established libraries, gathered and distributed gifts and organized outreach programs for local villagers, according to the Archdiocese. He requested an extension to stay with the Marines and on Sept. 4, 1967, he was seriously injured during an ambush of North Vietnamese fighters. He saw a wounded corpsman pinned down by an enemy machine gunner. Capodanno went to the Marine, tended to his wounds and ministered to the wounded Marine. Capodanno was unarmed, but the enemy fired anyway. He died of 27 bullet wounds and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1969. He also received the Navy Bronze Star, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star and the Purple Heart Medal.

This is his 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.

Archbishop Broglio said this during his homily that night:

“When we live authentically, we spread the Gospel. I selected a votive Mass for the preservation of peace and justice,
because those intentions well up in the hearts of the men and women who are served by this global Archdiocese. While many remain unaware, so many still suffer the effects of the longest war in our history. As we remember and pray for the eternal repose of Father Capodanno, we cannot forget those he served and how he served.”