The Story of Fr. Vincent Capodanno

A Servant at War

The Story of Fr. Vincent Capodanno

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Burning napalm. Fleeing refugees. Soldiers slogging through rice paddies and jungle trails.

Booby traps, snipers, ambushes, bloody firefights. The anguished faces of the wounded and dying, desperate for compassion and comfort. When we think of the Vietnam War, these are the images we see.

What these searing images don’t reveal is that Jesus, too, was present in Vietnam. Alive in his followers—both the American and the Vietnamese Christians caught up in the conflict—he brought light and grace into a situation of horrible suffering. One person who reflected him in an extraordinary way was Fr. Vincent R. Capodanno. During his short stint as a Marine Corps chaplain, Capodanno gained an almost legendary reputation for selfless love and dedication.

“I know and swear that there are living chapels in Vince’s name,” another chaplain said of Capodanno’s transforming impact on his fellow Marines. “Those ‘grunts’ saw Christ when they saw Vince.”

A Close, Loving World. Born in Staten Island, New York, in 1929, Capodanno received an example of humble self-sacrifice from his parents, Italian-American immigrants who never stopped giving for their nine children. His father worked two jobs, getting up at three a.m. to stock his grocery store, then going to work at a ship-caulking company. His mother tended the store and the kids.

It was a “close, healthy, loving world,” said Capodanno’s brother James. The family always did things together, and the dinner table was the center of family life. “We never started eating until everyone was there—including the dog.” The children played musical chairs in the living room, miniature golf in the back yard, and rode wagons made with skates, two-by-fours, and apple boxes.

James characterized his brother as “pretty normal” with regard to his faith. Vince didn’t spend long hours in prayer, but like his parents and eight older siblings, he was close to the Church and devout. He was also very reserved. In 1949, during a retreat following his first year at Fordham University, he confided to his best friend that he wanted to be a priest and not a doctor, as he had originally thought.

“To Suffer With.” That same year, Capodanno entered the Maryknoll missionaries. Like many others who joined, he was attracted by the order’s commitment to spreading the gospel to remote lands.

Two men in particular exemplified the Maryknoll spirit that Capodanno and his classmates admired. Bishop Francis Xavier Ford, who died in 1950 as a result of imprisonment by the Chinese Communists, took for his motto the words, “to suffer with.” Then there was also Bishop Patrick Byrne, who was captured by the North Korean Communists. He told his fellow priests as he was dying that he was glad to have “suffered together” with them.

Capodanno undoubtedly took these words to heart. Ordained in 1958, he was sent to the Hakka people of western Taiwan. For a meticulous person who loved cleanliness, this first assignment was a big adjustment; missionary life was often unstructured and chaotic, and conditions primitive. However, Capodanno took to all his duties with zeal. Fr. Dan Dolan, who worked with him for six months, said he put great care and effort into everything he did, from saying Mass, to making Christmas decorations, to doing catechesis and outreach in local villages.

After seven years in Taiwan, Capodanno was transferred to the order’s high school in Hong Kong. He was not happy about the change—normally, a Maryknoll missionary stayed in the original country to which he was assigned. But as it turned out, the interruption was providential.

Unable to return to Taiwan, Capodanno asked to serve as a Marine chaplain in Vietnam. Permission was granted in August 1965. Five months later, he reported to the Navy Chaplain’s School in Newport, Rhode Island.

Capodanno’s request surprised everyone, for his “spic-and-span” personality did not seem to fit the life of a Marine “grunt.” One possible explanation is that he knew other chaplains and was concerned about the welfare of American troops in Vietnam. Probably, too, he was simply following God’s call to go deeper, to give even more of himself to others. What he had learned in Taiwan was only the beginning.

According to his biographer, Fr. Dan Mode, it is likely that Capodanno followed the spirituality of a book called Radiating Christ. In it, Fr. Raoul Plus, a World War I military chaplain, exhorts the believer to become another Christ who is totally at the disposal of others. “All the time, and with all my soul—that is the motto of the apostle.”

Given Capodanno’s reticence to speak about his spiritual life, it is impossible to explain his request more fully. But his record in Vietnam speaks for him.

The “Grunt” Padre. Capodanno arrived in Vietnam during Holy Week of 1966. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, south of Da Nang, a city in eastern South Vietnam. The only Catholic chaplain in the region, he had an enormous task. But as one who desired to empty himself and take on the likeness of Christ, he took it in stride, making himself as available as possible.

The Marines quickly nicknamed Capodanno “the ‘grunt’ padre,” because he shared so much of their life. Whenever they needed him, he seemed to be there—praying with the wounded, comforting the dying, and encouraging those going into battle. But though the soldiers often thought of Capodanno as one of them, he was different. He never carried a weapon, except when obliged to do so: His weapons were spiritual.

Fr. Capodanno accompanied the regiment on six combat operations and often risked his life for the men. Once, during a grenade attack, he held a flashlight for a corpsman who was tending the wounded. On another occasion, he ran seventy-five yards through heavy fire to reach a fallen Marine and carry him to safety. During battles, he moved among the wounded, saying a quick prayer or offering words of consolation. He never seemed worried about his own safety, though he once admitted that he was afraid, “like everybody else.”

Capodanno never seemed to slow down either. He said Mass at least once a day, heard confessions, and was always available for counsel. When on patrol, he walked around and listened to the men instead of taking breaks. He worked late nights, always living out the ideal he described in one of his homilies:

“Belief in Christ brings with it a deeply rooted sense in the primacy and urgency of now. Not last year or next year, but now. Each of us has been given talents and ability by almighty God. We should ask ourselves if we are using these to the best of our ability. If we don’t use them here, chances are we’ll not use them elsewhere either. There will always be an excuse.”

It was not so much Fr. Capodanno’s words as his very presence that drew men to him—and to Christ. Corporal Ray Harton remembers one of his first encounters with the priest, while he was preparing for a combat operation. “He just slid under the tent flap and there he was. When he walked in you had to pay attention.” There was something in his eyes that “softened you up,” says Harton.

Light in the Battle. Harton was to meet the chaplain again. On the morning of September 4, 1967, Fr. Capodanno volunteered to go out with Marine units that were being flown in to relieve a battalion in the hotly contested Que Son Valley. Knowing that an attack was imminent, he had spent most of the night praying for those who would lose their lives.

Soon after landing, Capodanno’s unit was hit hard by a force of nearly two thousand North Vietnamese. As the Marines came over the crest of a hill, they were bombarded with mortar shells and automatic weapons fire. “We’re being wiped out!” one platoon radioed back. “There are wounded and dying all around.”

Hearing the message, the chaplain ran to their aid. He went back and forth, bringing in wounded men and giving Last Rites to the dying. Even though hit twice—once in the face and also in the right hand—he continued to look for wounded, telling them, “Jesus said, ‘Have faith. Jesus is the truth and the life.’”

One of the men he helped was Ray Harton, who was bleeding heavily and feared that he was going to die. Then he looked up and saw Capodanno. “I can’t explain it, but when he touched me and I heard his voice, I had a calming feeling that I have never had before or since.”

Capodanno reassured Harton that “God is with us all this day,” and blessed him with his still intact left hand. Then a wounded corpsman screamed in pain, and Capodanno ran to help. As he knelt there, a burst of machine-gun fire killed both men instantly. One of the soldiers who brought in Capodanno’s body hours later said, “He had a smile on his face, and his eyelids were closed as if asleep or in prayer.”

Fr. Vince Capodanno was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery that day.

A Missionary Never Stops Working. News of Capodanno’s death stunned Marines all over South Vietnam. In just a short time, the chaplain had affected their lives in a remarkable way. Said one Marine years later, “He gave his life. No one can do any more than that—that’s what Christ did. I came back to the Church because of Fr. Capodanno. In my life he is a saint.”

But the story really didn’t end with his death. As Fr. Mode likes to say about Capodanno, “A missionary never stops working, even after he’s dead.” Thanks to Mode’s biography, The Grunt Padre, many more have been touched by Capodanno’s life.

Mode tells how Ernest, a Vietnam vet who was going to commit suicide, pulled out his wallet and saw a note from his mother about Fr. Mode’s book. He wrote a suicide note to Fr. Mode, who prayed for Capodanno’s intercession. Ernest is still alive today. Another incident involved a man named Vincent, whose infant son (also named Vincent) was dying from a rare blood disease. The father took his son to Capodanno’s grave on Staten Island, laid him on it, and prayed. His doctor declared the boy healed.

In death, as in life, Vincent Capodanno continues to reveal Christ. And he calls us to become, in turn, humble servants through whom the Lord can work to bring his peace to a troubled world. n

Bob French lives in Alexandria, Va. Material for this article was taken from The Grunt Padre, by Fr. Daniel L. Mode, and from personal interviews. See also the Capodanno Foundation Web site at