Father Vincent R. Capodanno, M.M.— the Staten Island native who was killed in combat in Vietnam and whose cause for sainthood is currently under consideration—had a way of drawing his comrades into his spiritual sphere with his compassionate, captivating eyes.
Retired Marine Capt. George Phillips, 70, chairman of the Father Vincent Capodanno Guild who served with Father Capodanno, recalled hearing about the chaplain before he met him.
“We started hearing about this ‘Grunt Padre’ (the chaplain’s nickname) who would go out on patrols and jump on helicopters and always be outside the wire with his Marines. Eventually it got into ‘Stars and Stripes,’” the American military newspaper, Phillips explained. “Many of us, especially the Catholics, knew about Father Capodanno. In late July ’67, when he joined the unit, I made it a point to go see him.”
The native New Yorkers connected on their childhood roots. Phillips was raised in St. Thérèse of Lisieux parish in Brooklyn. Father Capodanno was raised in the Staten Island parishes of St. Michael and Our Lady of Good Counsel.
“The most amazing thing was, that when you stood within two or three feet of Father Capodanno and you were talking to him, just one-on-one, it was like the rest of the world had gone away, all the shooting had stopped. You were just so peaceful talking with him. Everybody will tell you about the kindness and the softness and the caring that you would see in his eyes. It was just remarkable.
“There are a thousand stories about people with the one-on-one encounters with Father Capodanno—just never anything like it before and nothing like it since.”
The chaplain celebrated Mass and heard confessions and generally made himself available at all hours. He never carried a weapon, Phillips said.
“He used to sit up in his tent at night, if we were in the rear, and put a light outside his tent so people would know that he was there, up until 2 o’clock in the morning, and people would come by. It was very important to a lot of Marines, myself included, to talk to somebody who was not in the chain of command…
“He used to tell everybody, even when he was ministering to the wounded and dying on the battlefield, ‘Fear not, God is with us all this day.’ I heard him say that probably 20, 30, 40 times,” Phillips said.
Father Capodanno, a heavy smoker, was known to dole out cigarettes and St. Christopher medals. “If a Marine needed a cigarette, he knew he could go find Father Capodanno and get a free pack. That usually brought out a little bit of this and a little bit of that.” Shortly before Father Capodanno was killed, a soldier asked the chaplain for a St. Christopher medal. Father Capodanno’s supply had been depleted so he gave him his own, Phillips recalled.
Father Capodanno died Sept. 4, 1967, while rushing to administer the sacraments to Marines under enemy ambush in Vietnam’s Que Son Valley in the Thang Binh district during Operation Swift. He was felled by 27 bullets in the back.
Posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1969, Father Capodanno was also the recipient of the Purple Heart, the Navy Bronze Star and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star.
Father Capodanno’s Medal of Honor citation reads: “…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 multiple painful wounds to his arms and legs, and severed a portion of his right hand, he steadfastly refused all medical aid…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…”
He was scheduled to return to the U.S. in October, but instead Father Capodanno’s body was recovered and returned home. He is interred in his family’s plot in St. Peter’s Cemetery on Staten Island.
A Memorial Mass will be offered Sunday, Sept. 3, at 9:30 a.m. at the Father Capodanno Memorial Chapel at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island. The principal celebrant and homilist will be Father Daniel L. Mode, author of “The Grunt Padre: The Service and Sacrifice of Father Vincent Robert Capodanno, Vietnam, 1966-1967.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 5, at 6:30 p.m., Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, will celebrate the annual Mass for Father Capodanno in the Crypt Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
Vincent Capodanno was the 10th child of Italian immigrant parents Vincent and Rachel. He was baptized, made his first Holy Communion and was confirmed at St. Michael’s parish. A devout Catholic, he went to daily Mass on a regular basis, even in his youth. His father died on his 10th birthday, and his mother died six years before her son was killed in Vietnam.
“I can’t believe it’s 50 years because I remember the day that the phone rang and my mom answered it and she threw it down and started screaming,” said Al Lambert, 71, a cousin of Father Capodanno who grew up in Our Lady Help of Christians parish on Staten Island. “It was bedlam.
“I can remember it as vividly as if it were yesterday when we got the call that he was killed in Vietnam.”
Lambert was 21, 17 years younger than his priest cousin, who died at age 38.
“His charisma was like John F. Kennedy,” Lambert added. “When Father Capodanno walked in the room, you knew it. Everybody wanted to be near him, everybody wanted a piece of him. This was a man who had a mission in life, he knew his mission, and he fulfilled his mission.”
He graduated from Public School 44 and Curtis High School and then attended Fordham University for one year as a history major. While working as an underwriting clerk in Manhattan, young Vincent decided to enter the Maryknoll Society Seminary. He entered at the Venard in Clarks Summit, Pa., in 1949 and made final profession in 1957. He was ordained a Maryknoll missioner in 1958 at Maryknoll in Ossining by Cardinal Francis Spellman.
He earned bachelor’s degrees in sacred theology and religious instruction and a master’s of religious education at Maryknoll.
Father Capodanno’s first mission assignment was in the county of Miaoli in Formosa, present day Taiwan. He served in a mountain parish and school. Seven years later, he was transferred to the Maryknoll school in Hong Kong. He asked to return to Taiwan. After several requests were denied, he asked his superiors, in August 1965, for permission to serve as a U.S. Navy chaplain in Vietnam. Navy chaplains also serve the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Coast Guard.
When permission was granted, Father Capodanno volunteered immediately for duty. On Dec. 28, he received his commission as a lieutenant and requested to serve with the Fleet Marine Force in Vietnam. After his one-year tour was completed, Father Capodanno extended his tour of duty in South Vietnam.
Father Capodanno’s Cause for Canonization officially opened in 2002. In 2006, he was declared a Servant of God by the Holy See’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the request of then-Archbishop for the Military Services, Archbishop (now Cardinal) Edwin F. O’Brien, a native New Yorker, clearing the way for his cause to go forward. The formal renewal of the opening of the Cause for Beatification of Father Capodanno occurred in 2013 with the Father Vincent Capodanno Guild serving as the Petitioner of the Cause.
In May, Archbishop Broglio announced that the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services completed its nearly four-year inquiry into Father Capodanno’s life. The findings have been submitted to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome.