Father Capodanno: Beyond the Call of Duty

By John Horvat   
Fr. Vincent Capodanno
Fr. Vincent Capodanno

Americans love heroes. Something about them grips the American soul. Perhaps the attraction lies precisely in going against the zeitgeist of this hedonistic age. Heroes are outside the box.

They do not fare well in a culture where real living has been reduced to pre-packaged experiences and media-generated events. They get lost in consumer mazes where they are constantly told to enjoy life. Heroes do not sign multi-million dollar sports or advertising contracts.

Heroes rise above mass-markets and mass media and quench the thirst of postmodern man by speaking of honor, courage and sacrifice.

Above all, heroes, especially those in combat, rise above complacency, self-interest and comfort. They completely mobilize all their resources, with the highest degree of dedication for a determined ideal. And that is why they are held in awe.

Documentary: Fr. Capodanno from Mission Capodanno on Vimeo.


A Catholic Hero

While American heroes somehow still sprout from the sterile soil of a hostile culture, it is not often that one finds a Catholic hero. That is why the recently-published book The Grunt Padre is a pleasant surprise. It is the thrilling narrative of American Catholic heroism without Hollywood embellishment or sentimentality.

The story could not be more American. Vincent Capodanno grew up in the thirties and forties in a large Italian-American family on Staten Island. His was a typical education of an ordinary American of his time. He responded to the call of his vocation and joined the Maryknoll missionary order. Upon ordination in 1958, he served in Taiwan and later Hong Kong.

His life might well have ended in the quiet dedication required of missionary life in faraway lands. However, in the mid-60's, the direction of his life abruptly changed when he volunteered to serve as a Naval/Marine Corps chaplain in Vietnam. While studying history at Mount Saint Mary's Seminary in the nineties, author Fr. Daniel Mode unexpectedly uncovered the deeds of the remarkable Fr. Vincent R. Capodanno.

The Grunt Padre

 

 

Fr. Vincent Capodanno
Fr. Capodanno (left) stands outside his makeshift
chapel in Vietnam.

In his new assignment as a Navy/Marine Chaplain, Father Capodanno found a parish among the "needy." He sought the lonely Marines, the "grunts" who were exposed to death, suffering and sacrifice. He felt a compelling desire to be with these forgotten parishioners in their greatest hours of need.

On April 30, 1966 Father Capodanno began a sixteen-month tour with the 7th and 5th Marine Regiments where he became "the best known and sought after chaplain in the Marine Corps.”

"What set Father Vincent apart was the way he lived his ministry with the Marines," writes Father Mode. "He was not a religious leader who did his job and then returned to the comfort of his own circle. 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."

The soldiers responded to his devotion and soon he became affectionately known to his Marines as "the Grunt Padre."

Beyond the Call of Duty

Thus began an active life of dedication and service that went beyond the call of duty. He became a true father to young boys on the front lines. He was "out there" with his men where he lived, ate, and slept as they did. To the young recruits thrust into the terrifying reality of battle, he was always available in his tent where anyone could drop in for comfort and guidance.

He shared his salary, rations and cigarettes with anyone in need. He could always be counted upon for a cold soda or a book from his reading library. When Christmas came around and soldiers felt forgotten, Father Vincent saw to it that no Marine was without gifts which he obtained through a relentless campaign from friends and organizations all over the world.

More importantly, he heard confessions for hours on end, instructed converts, and administered the sacraments. His granting of General Absolution before battle unburdened the consciences of the Marines and instilled in them the courage to fight. His mere presence in a unit was enough to lift the morale of all on patrol.

When men died, he was at their side so they would not die alone. He gave them Last Rites encouraging them to repent and persevere. In addition, he wrote countless letters of personal condolence to parents of wounded and dead Marines and offered solid grounding and hope to fellow Marines who lost friends.

When the pseudo-peace movement began to oppose the war, Fr. Vincent raised the spirits of demoralized soldiers in the field. He encouraged his men to oppose that same brutal communist system, which still oppresses Vietnam today.

Battle Missions

However, it was in battle where Father Capodanno excelled and inspired. He would find out from friends in military intelligence which unit was most likely to encounter the heaviest contact and volunteer for those assignments.

Fr. Capodanno in the field
The Grunt Padre leads his men in a battlefield prayer.
Fr. Capodanno went into the jaws of danger to be with his
men, anointing the dying and caring for the wounded.

Marines would find him walking dangerous perimeters and keeping company with them in distant jungle outposts. The Grunt Padre could be seen leaping out of a helicopter in the midst of battle. He would care for the wounded, bless troops, and give Communion to Catholics, before taking off for another battle zone.

When his tour of duty came to an end, he obtained an extension. Despite the prosaic conditions of battle and an ecumenical chaplain corps, nothing could turn him away from his burning desire to give everything in the service of God, the Church and his men.

Faithful to the End

On September 4, 1967, the helicopter carrying him to the site of battle crashed during a large-scale offensive named Operation Swift. The 5th Marines found themselves in dire straights, outnumbered 5-to-1 by 2,500 North Vietnamese regular troops.

Although wounded three times in the course of the battle, Fr. Capodanno refused to be medi-vacked. Like a ray of hope in the midst of the storm, he went up and down the line caring for the wounded and anointing the dying.

During the fierce fighting, the chaplain spotted a wounded corpsman hit by a burst of automatic fire and unable to move. Fr. Capodanno ran to his aid and began to care for his wounds. A Viet Cong machine gunner opened fire. With 27 bullet wounds in his spine, neck, and head, the Grunt Padre fell in battle, serving his men to the end.

All over Vietnam, the Marines mourned their Padre.

Beyond Death

Fr. Vincent Capodanno

The memory of Father Capodanno's sacrifice went beyond his death. His actions on the field of battle that day won him the nation's highest honor, The Congressional Medal of Honor.

Despite the pacifist objections of 73 Maryknoll priests, brothers and seminarians, the Navy commissioned a destroyer escort in 1973: the U.S.S. Capodanno. Numerous other memorials and statues have gone up in his memory.

The book, The Grunt Padre has served to inspire many Catholics who hunger for stories of Catholic heroism. His memory pierces through the cynical protests of the sixties and seventies that together with defeatist politicians consigned Vietnam to its present fate.

Above all, the story of Father Capodanno is a striking reminder that the time of the Catholic hero is not over. When imbued with total dedication, each and every Catholic can have an enormous value in the life of the Church. Modest though they may be, men like Father Capodanno can obtain the fire, integrity, dedication and conviction whereby they want their ideal, want it entirely, seek nothing else but their ideal and do everything to obtain it. Men like these move history. They strike that deep chord that awakens admiration and awe.

Those are the souls that have always characterized the Church. They reserve nothing for themselves, and give everything to God.

On May 21, 2006 Fr. Capodanno was declared Servant of God and his cause for canonization is currently under way.



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The Grunt Padre
by Fr. Daniel L. Mode
Paperback - 212 pages (2000)
CMJ Marian Publishers;
ISBN: 1891280082
$15.95

 

Comments  

 
+31 # JoAnn Maples 2011-09-13 11:42
Has effort been made to have a cause for sainthood for him? Very inspiring! The U.S. should have a patron saint of military personnel. I think he fits the bill.
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+3 # Christine 2012-10-16 16:46
The happy answer to your question is "Yes"!

http://www.vincentcapodanno.org/cause/tribunal/#

EWTN periodically shows his story.
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+21 # Eileen Murray 2011-09-13 11:50
I am totaly overwhelmed and so thankful to have learned of this brave and selfless priest.

Thanks you for sharing this story. I plan to post on Facebook.
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+19 # patricia cohoon 2011-09-13 11:51
He sounds like our Chaplains that served in WWII, a true American hero and a true shepherd to his flock.
We honored our heroes then and we think we should now. I am happy that he received our highest Medal of Honor.
Patsy
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+21 # Jack Cat 2011-09-13 11:56
As the father of a dedicated Marine, this is truly inspirational. I pray for Father Vincent's quick canonization, as there is no doubt in my mind that he is now enjoying the Beatific Vision of Heaven.
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+15 # patricia cohoon 2011-09-13 11:57
He follows in the saintly line of brave American Chaplains. I am joyful that Congress awarded his bravery with the Medal of Honor. I'm sure he is still watching over his flock from Heaven.
Patsy
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+15 # Cynthia Lopez 2011-09-13 12:03
That's exactly what I was thinking. He surely is a saint in every way.
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+22 # William M. Freudiger 2011-09-13 12:29
This reminds me of another Priest that won this honor. Father Kenny Lynch, won the medal of honor during ww2. He was the most decorated Priest ever. These men of Christ should be long remembered. Father Kenny survived the war and became pastor of Immaculata Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. That is where I met him and became one of his servers at Mass. He even taught me how to do a handstand in the school yard. I will never forget him.
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+20 # clara schoppe 2011-09-13 12:46
I remember that time in the 60's of one where my own brothers were leaving to fight against the evil of Communism in Viet Nam, while others their age were going to college to become propagandized by domestic Communists into an "anti-war/pro-abortion" kind of "peace" mentality. Father Vincent, pray for us all.
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+20 # leslie cannon 2011-09-13 13:36
Father Copadanno has a window in the USMC Chapel at their National Museum in Triangle -- a fitting tribute, above the window the solitary word Sacrifice. Read more http://catholickey.blogspot.com/2011/05/marine-corps-chapel-window-dedicated-to.html
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+19 # Robert L. Oerther 2011-09-13 20:23
Thanks for this wonderful account of a real Priest and Spiritual Father of men in their greatest time of need.

I am a wounded Vietnam veteran and know how it is to be up against overwhelming odds of making it out alive. One never gives up and one never stops praying, and yes God has His chosen ones that will outshine most of us men and those are His Saints. I think Fr. Capodanno is surely one of them.

Blessings, Robert L. Oerther
Wounded July 12, 1969 on Black Virgin Mountain.
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+12 # Juliet Fernandes 2011-09-14 02:32
How i wish this msg. could be delivered to all the heroes of hollywood n bollywood of the world - these r the real HEROES n not like us indian heroes who run behind trees, singing n dancing and all sorts of nonsense that goes on that it is disgusting to watch them let alone appreciate their heroism ( is there a word like this - no idea) then they will kill some dacoits, goondas, some bad/evil person in the film, thereby rescuing the lady of the film n then becomes a hero - msgs. like the above on Father Capodanno and many more should be on the front pages of newspapers / hoardings,etc. where everyone will be able to read, esp. here in INDIA - thanks n bye - take care - Juliet Fernandes
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+11 # Mother henrie Marie 2011-09-14 11:09
It is such a joy to read about our saints and to be a part of seeing them being able to be Cananized. There is another, Servant of God, he was a Chaplain in the US Army. He was from Kansas. He too, did an heroic job of serving others before he died in Korea. His name is Emil Kaupan.
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+7 # trefoil 2012-10-16 14:13
Quoting Mother henrie Marie:
There is another, Servant of God, he was a Chaplain in the US Army. He was from Kansas. He too, did an heroic job of serving others before he died in Korea. His name is Emil Kaupan.



I've heard of him! I read his bio, "A Shepherd in Combat Boots." I recommend it. The accounts of his heroism in the face of torture when he was captured by the Communists would take your breath away. God grant us many more hardy Catholic souls like these men!
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+11 # Dolores Kingery 2011-09-14 16:21
My husband and I were lucky enough to be at EWTN some 15 years ago, when Father Daniel Mode was the guest on Mother Angelica Live. That was the first time I heard of The Grunt Padre. My cousin died in Viet Nam in 1967 and I often wonder if he had ever met Fr. Vincent. Do you by chance have any prayer cards that we could pray to Father Vincent Copadonno? About two years ago, my husband and I were at a Cardinal Mindzenty Conference in Oak Brook and Father Dan Mode was there speaking again on Father Vincent, but I do not recall him saying that he has been named Servant of God and probably needs a miracle of two to be declared Saint. God Bless you for bringing this story to our attention. Thank You.
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+2 # Christine 2012-10-16 16:49
The website for Fr. Capodanno's cause offers prayer cards.

http://www.vincentcapodanno.org/resources/holy_cards/
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-3 # GK 2011-09-14 21:37
This article is keen to point out the "pacifist" objections of the Maryknoll order in honoring Father Capodanno. It fails to mention that Father Capodanno was a member of this order which is often critical of War and US foreign policy especially when it negatively impacts poor people in the world. Without the right wing slant of this article, see how the Maryknoll order really feels about this heroic man. http://www.maryknollsociety.org/index.php/articles/2-articles/739-chaplain-capodanno-receives-medal-of-honor-
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+12 # Shelah Hockman 2011-09-15 06:52
He reminds me of the priest, Fr. Kelly, a Columban serving in Manila before and during wwII and the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines. He tirelessly worked among the people as well as among the Allied Prisoners in Santo Tomas Internment Camp where my family was captured until 1945. He baptized me and ministered against the Japanese ban on priests in the camp. Shortly before the Liberation, he and other priests were executed by the Japanese.
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+10 # Michael L. Gunter 2011-09-16 11:18
God held the door open for servant of Christ, when he entered Heaven. What a
role model for any christian.
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+11 # Ken Muschiano 2011-09-18 16:13
Father Capo sounds like a real hero to me. It is people like him that make others want to do there very best.
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+8 # Bob Chester 2011-09-20 03:59
Soli Deo Gloria.
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+7 # Bob March 2011-09-22 14:24
@GK: I followed the link you provided, and am glad to see that a more balanced attitude toward military service now characterizes the Maryknolls -- or at least, this single undated article reflects such an attitude. It does nothing, however, to excuse the shamefully selective pacifism shown by Maryknolls in the '60's and '70's, as they opposed American military efforts in Southeast Asia and helped consign Vietnam and Cambodia to decades of violent (and anti-Catholic) tyranny.
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-5 # trefoil 2012-10-16 14:23
Hi there Bob March, not being an American I don't know enough about the wars in question to proffer a definitive opinion, but isn't it possible that the real motivation of the openly non-Christian U.S. government was not the defence of the Catholic Church against socialist ideals with which America was already very comfortable at home? Every government needs a bogie man, especially if your country is based on a military economy, but just because your bogieman happens to be an evil Communist regime doesn't automatically make you any better, does it? (Not talking about "you" personally ... haha!)
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+6 # Ken 2011-10-13 14:00
Amen.

Russia causes the wars. Remember what Our Lady of Fatima messages in 1917.
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+7 # Kit Sober 2012-10-16 11:20
Thanks. Wonderful article you wrote about about a precious warrior for the Lord. I will get the book, too. Thanks, again.
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+6 # Rosemary 2012-10-16 12:05
What a beautiful tribute, to a very holy
man. There are so many negative stories out there today, it is too bad this will not be seen by those who could benefit from it. Today, it is not politically correct to speak of our Catholic faith. Keep sending this on to everyone you know.
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+6 # Helen 2012-10-16 12:16
I have a prayer card to obtain a favor through the intercession of Father Capodanno, MM. For prayer cards and info about his cause contact: The Archdiocese for the Military Services, P.O. Box 4469, Washington, DC 20017

I feel he is a powerful intercessor, and I pray his canonization come soon.
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+7 # Richard Clifford 2012-10-16 12:28
That was a very fascinating story about one man's selflessness in the field of battle.
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+6 # Marilyn Hammersley 2012-10-16 13:19
We are also praying for the beatification of Servant of God Chaplain Father Emil Kapaun who was martyred during the Korean War. His cause is now being investigated in Rome for miracles attributed to him. For his story: www.frkapaun.org or Father Kapaun Guild 424 N. Broadway, Wichita, KS 67202.
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+7 # Joe Barrese 2012-10-16 13:34
Archbishop Fulton Sheen Knights of Columbus Assembly has joined the cause to revive the Volunteer Chapter of the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge where the Metal of Honor Grove is located. In the Metal of Honor Grove are 52 one-acre sites for each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Located at each of these 52 sites are plaques identifying every Metal of Honor recipient from the Civil War to present. Within the Metal of Honor Grove, which is the only location in the United States honoring Metal of Honor recipients, is a Chaplain's Memorial currently honoring four Catholic priests Metal recipients. The Volunteer Chapter intends to add 3 more recipients bringing the total clergy Metal of Honor recipients to 7: Rev John Whitehead, Civil War 1862; Rev Francis Hall, Civil War 1863; Rev Emil Kapuan, Korea, 1952; Rev Joseph O'Callahan, WWII 1945; Rev Vincent Capadanno, Vietnam 1967; Rev Charles Watters, Vietnam 1967; Rev Angelo Litely, Vietnam 1967.
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+3 # trefoil 2012-10-16 14:34
This priest sounds like a real hero. And I agree that generally you do not hear about men like this in our modernist culture. But let's not forget that God can and does actually raise up heroes from every walk of life.

You said that "[h]eroes do not sign multi-million dollar sports or advertising contracts." But there are still a few people out there in the sports and entertainment industries who do stand up bravely for Christian ideals. What about Tim Tebow (football star)? Eduardo Verastegui (actor)? Sean Astin (everyone's favourite Sam Gangee)?
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+3 # Deborah 2012-10-16 15:43
"The Grunt Padre" would be a good gift for our Pastors. They may not be on a military battle field, but they fight daily spiritual battles for our souls. Perhaps this would be an encouragement for them along with our constant prayers for our priests.
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0 # Stephen Shek 2012-10-18 21:46
This would be a good movie for all to see.
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+1 # n ho 2012-10-22 15:58
...also a non-smiler, Nikko!

My best. In Christ, RAB
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0 # Wayne Doering 2013-03-23 13:30
I was assigned to the 309th S.O.S. as Flight Engineer on C-123K out of Phan Rang Air Base Viet Nam. I had many missions to this area on Medi-Vac with KIA/Wounded Marines including their Dogs.
I will order this book for sure.
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+1 # rnpjr 2013-09-04 15:56
I had the honor of serving with Father when were both with 7th marines. A man's man, a marine's marine. A great individual. Truly an honor to serve with such a man. I am here today in DC to attend a Mass for him. 9/04/13.
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0 # joe dipaola 2014-02-09 12:22
It is so often that we find it is individuals, the one from the many who make a difference in the lives of others. Fr. Vincent Robert Capodanno, M.M., Chaplin, in the USNR's mission was the ministry of serving U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1966-1967. Grant unto him eternal rest and may perpetual light shine upon him through the mercy of God, amen. 2/09/14
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