April 04, 2021

Father Capodanno

Today is Easter, and as is tradition around here, it's time to take a look at the actions of a military chaplain. This year's is Lieutenant Vincent Capodanno, USNR, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in Vietnam.

Capodanno was ordained a priest in 1958, and chose to join the Maryknoll Society, a Catholic missionary society known for going into rough areas and living alongside the natives. His first assignment was to Taiwan, where he spent six years as a teacher and missionary. After a brief trip back to the US, he volunteered as a Chaplain in support of the growing US presence in Vietnam, and was quickly commissioned into the Navy.1 In April 1966, he was assigned to 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, and quickly gained a reputation for his focus on the "grunts", the junior enlisteds on the front lines. He ate and slept with them, and despite orders from his commander, he often slipped off on patrols with them. When asked why he was wearing a flack jacket, which didn't seem like "a good advertisment for his faith", he replied “I know it, but it’s protective coloration so I blend in with the men. In addition, I understand their trials better if I accept the same burdens they do. I want to be available in the event anything serious occurs; to learn firsthand the problems of the men, and to give them moral support, to comfort them with my presence. In addition, I feel I must personally witness how they react under fire—and experience it myself—to understand the fear they feel.”2

As the only Catholic Chaplain with the 7th Marines, he made it a habit to rotate between the various battalions, conducting Mass and counseling the living, tending the wounded and comforting the dying. His practice during mission briefings was to ask which unit was likely to sustain the highest casualties, and then join them for the duration of the operation, a practice which resulted in his winning the Bronze Star for evacuating a wounded Marine in November 1967. He wrote letters by hand to the families of the fallen, and held cigarettes for those who couldn't, and as a result, he was adopted by the Marines as one of their own.

Even after his year of duty was up, Capodanno still felt he was needed in Vietnam, and volunteered for a six-month extension, this time with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, who were also surprised to see a Chaplain so dedicated to staying on the front lines. Capodanno continued to fight for a further extension, and when that was denied, requested that he be allowed to give up his 30-day holiday leave to remain in Vietnam.

On September 4th, 1967, the Marines of D Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines were attacked by a large Viet Cong unit. More Marines from both the 1st and 3rd Battalions were quickly drawn into the action, and when Capodanno heard that Company M from 3rd Battalion was taking casualties, he hurried to the front lines, running through an open area raked by heavy enemy fire to grab the radioman who had made the call and pull him to safety. He moved among the Marines undaunted by the heavy enemy fire and encouraging the young men fighting for their lives. When the Marines came under gas attack, he gave his gas mask to a Marine who had lost his. Capodanno repeatedly went out to rescue wounded men who lay exposed to enemy fire, as well as giving them first aid. He also administered last rights to the dying, most notably Sgt. Lawrence Peters, who would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that day. While he was doing so, a mortar round fell nearby, wounding Capodanno, but he refused medical attention for both this and later fragment wounds, directing the Corpsman to attend to others.

Capodanno saw a wounded Corpsman and the Marine he had gone to tend, and went to help them, even though they were only yards from an enemy machine gunner. The Chaplain reached the Marine, and told him "Stay quiet, Marine. You will be OK. Someone will be here to help you soon. God is with us all this day." before turning to help the Corpsman, sheltering the wounded man with his body. The gunner opened fire, killing Capodanno and the Corpsman instantly. The Marines attempted to retrieve his body, but the first attempt was abandoned after three of the five involved were wounded, and it wasn't until later that evening that they were successful. His loss was mourned by all who knew him, particularly by those he had served in Vietnam. Perhaps the best evaluation of the man comes from the fitness report filed on him by his commander while with the 7th Marines:

"Chaplain Capodanno relentlessly provided the battalion with the solace, comfort, spiritual leadership and moral guidance so essential to an effective infantry battalion. He never spared himself. His dedication to duty will stand as a hallmark to Naval Chaplains everywhere. He exhibited those rare qualities of humanity, selflessness, and humility that are seldom achieved, even by Chaplains. He possessed those intangible qualities which all members of the battalion, officer and enlisted, regardless of religious affiliation, respected. He earned this respect not only as a chaplain, but as a unique human being. He had an uncommon understanding of people and an intimate knowledge of the social and religious customs of Vietnam."

"In truth, he was the ‘Padre.’ This was not a perfunctory title, but rather a reflection of the significant respect all hands had for him. This respect was earned by his total and complete willingness to share at all times the risks and privations of all members of the command. He suffered when the men suffered. He was their ‘Rock of Ages.’ Of his own volition, on operations, he deployed with the assault companies because knew his services would be most needed by them. Within the TAOR [Tactical Area of Responsibility], he spent more days and night at company combat bases than within the battalion CP. No problem was too small for him. All hands sought actively his sage counsel. He did not proselytize; he served God, Corps, and mankind in an uncommon, courageous and inspiring way. His name will be legendary to those members who served with him in the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines. He was as vital to the operations of the battalion as is close air support and artillery. No Marine could know Chaplain Capodanno and not be an infinitely better human being for it.”

The "Grunt Padre"'s family received his Medal of Honor only four months later. The Knox class frigate USS Capodanno was commissioned in 1971, the fourth USN ship to be named for a Chaplain. She served until 1993, becoming the first (and so far only) American warship to be blessed by the Pope in 1981. In 1993, Capodanno was decommissioned and sold to Turkey, in whose navy she remained under the name Muavenet until 2012. Vincent Capodanno himself was declared a Servant of God in 2012, the first step in the Catholic path to being declared a saint. A fitting title for a man who dedicated his life to serving God and serving others.

1 For historical reasons, several types of support, including medical personnel and Chaplains, are provided to the Marine Corps by the Navy.

2 For some reason, the best information on Capodanno's time in Vietnam is to be found on the DANFS page for the USS Capodanno. The researcher(s) for the recent DANFS revisions have done a spectacular job.


  1. April 07, 2021Blackshoe said...

    Bonus note! Capodanno was transferred to the Turkish Navy to replace/pay for the previous TCG Muavenet, which was the ship that Sorry SARA sparrow'd.

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