Tim Staples

For our December Carolina Catholic show, Father Patrick Keane, Pastor of St. Mark Catholic Church, shared the story of a Naval Chaplain to the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, Servant of God Vincent R. Capodanno, a Maryknoll missionary. Father Capodanno died serving the men he loved, the "grunts" of the Marine Corps. Known as the "Grunt Padre" to the men he served, this holy man gave his life while trying to protect the life of a corpsman. His heroic service and death earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor, a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and the love and admiration of the Marine Corps. A book on his life, The Grunt Padre, is a beautiful testimony to his courage, humility, and love that those who served with him witnessed first-hand.

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Show Notes

Video: Father Capodanno Mass - September 4, 2014 The 2014 Mass took place on September 4 in the Crypt Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. The Father Capodanno Mass is held annually for the repose of his soul on the anniversary of his death. Father Capodanno died giving physical and spiritual assistance to wounded and dying Marines of the 1st Marine Division during battle with the North Vietnamese Army. Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA was the principal celebrant.

Cause for Canonization
Capodanno Guild
Homily by Archbishop Timothy Broglio

Brief Bio

  • Born on Staten Island, New York on February 13, 1929; baptized April 28, 1929
  • Parents were Vincent and Rachel nee Basile.
  • Father was from Gaeta, Italy and Mom was from Sorrento
  • Parents from Brooklyn but moved to Staten Island.
  • Youngest of seven children (and one baby who died at birth)
  • Grew up in an Italian American family on Staten Island (10 children)
  • Five sisters: Mary, Pauline, Elinor, Dorothy and Gloria
  • Three brothers: James, Philip and Albert
  • One died at birth
  • Devout Catholic family; St. Michael in Mariners Harbor
  • Archdiocese of NY was first seat of military vicar of the armed forces (1917).
  • Also home to Catholic Foreign Missionary Society in America (Maryknoll)
  • Dad (53) died when Vincent was 10 (February 13, 1939 on Fr. V’s birthday)
  • Public grammar school (PS 44). Voted best looking/dressed; 1943
  • Favorite song: The Star Spangled Banner (hero MacArthur)
  • Graduated from Curtis High School, Staten Island/ daily Mass
  • Worked in insurance for a year after high school and attended Fordham University at night
  • Met William Richter; daily Mass; made retreat together; felt calling
  • Entered the Maryknoll Missionary Seminary in Ossining, NY in May 1949
  • MM Junior Seminary Latin School in Clarks Summit PA (The Vénard)
  • Maryknoll College in Glenn Ellyn, Illinois (first/third years)
  • MM Junior College in Lakewood, NJ (sophomore)
  • BA in Philosophy in 1953; novitiate year 1954
  • Seminary at Maryknoll in Ossining
  • Ordained a Roman Catholic priest in June 14, 1958 by Cardinal Spellman
  • Father Capodanno's first assignment as a missionary was with aboriginal Taiwanese in the mountains of Taiwan (Formosa) where he served in a parish and later in a school.
    • 1958: Sent to Taiwan to work with Hakka-Chinese in Miaoli (Hakka means guests); Bishop Ford had lived among the Hakka. 
    • 1959: Sent to Tunglo Parish. Called “shen fu” (spiritual father).
    • 1960: Assigned to Ching An (mountain village) youth hostel for boys
    • Mom died in 1961.
    • 1961: Acting pastor of Holy Rosary Parish, No. Miaoli.
    • 1962: Pastor in Tunglo.
    • 1963: Pastor at Ch’ng An.
    • 1964: Six month furlough after six years: Holy Land
  • After seven years, Father Capodanno returned to the United States for leave and then was assigned to a Maryknoll school in Hong Kong.
    • 1965: Sent to Hong Kong (Cantonese). Upset. Began series of letters to join the Navy Chaplains to serve Marines in Vietnam. Refused four times.
    • Compelled by two factors: 1. Go where he is needed; 2. Go deeper as a priest and missionary. (Note: Marine Corps relies upon Navy for chaplains and medical personnel.)
    • Trained in Hawaii.
  •  Military service
    • In November 1965, Father Capodanno received his commission as a lieutenant in the Navy Chaplain Corps. Sworn in LT December ’65.
    • Went to Newport RI January 1966 for Naval Chaplains School (2 mos.).
    • He was assigned to the First Marine Division in Vietnam in April 1966.
    • Arrival in Vietnam: Holy Week 1966 at zenith of Vietnam War
    • Anti-war feeling in USA was common.
    • First stop: Da Nang, HQ for 3rd Marine Division: waited for assignment.
    • Assigned to regimental HQ for 7th Marines in Chu Lai (50 miles south)
    • Three battalions were the 1/7, 2/7, and 3/7 (batt # 1st/reg #)
    • Battalions /into companies: 1/7 A, B, C, D; 2/7 E, F, G, H; 3/7 I, K, L, M.
    • Assigned to 1st Battalion, 7th Marines/ had to serve all as only priest.
    • Wanted to be one of the grunts. Grunt Marine: should only be used by enlisted infantry Marines (18 and 19 year olds), but Fr. V wanted honor to be with them as their “Grunt Padre.”
    • Spent 16 months as the Grunt Padre in Vietnam and was loved by all.
    • 12-1966: 1st Medical Battalion, Chu Lai. Stabilize wounded. Wanted out.
    • January 1967: 1st extension granted. June 1967: visited family last time.
    • June 1967: Chaplain for the 1st Battalion/5th Marines in the Que Son Valley.
    • Marines fighting NVA (not the Viet Cong or VC). Fierce battles.
    • Marines in 1/5 saw Father as one of them, a Marine. Served all 5th Marines.
    • July 1967: 2nd extension requested: denied. Two mos. Extension: denied.
    • August 1967: Assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines; 3/5 doing search 7 destroy sweeps.
    • Pistol story: forced to carry; rusted; cleaned it for his men.
    • Did bunker duty with his men. Celebrated 3 Masses on Sunday, 9-3. Last Mass was at bottom of Hill 327.
    • September 4, 1967: Father stayed with unit all night/prayed into a.m.
      • 4:30 am: Operation Swift* (routine maneuver at first) in the Thang Binh District of the Que Son Valley, elements of the 1st Battalion 5th Marines encountered a large NVA unit of approximately 6,000 men near the village of Dong Son. The outnumbered and disorganized Company D was in need of reinforcements.
      • 6:55 am: Company B committed to the battle; arrived 8:20 a.m.
      • 9:14 a.m.: 26 Marines were dead; Father got word of seriousness of situation. Went to 3/5.
      • 9:25 a.m.: Companies M & K committed; Father to go with them for aid.
      • 12 noon: M & K hiked to Dong Son. Father gave absolution/Communion.
      • 2:45 p.m.: 1st Platoon, M company were attacked by NVA; 2nd Platoon arrived. Battle became a slaughter. Radio operator begged for aid.
      • Father ran up to aid radio operator; radio was heavy; ran through hail of bullets. Tear gas dropped, but Father gave mask away. Rendered aid and sacraments to wounded/dying Marines.
      • Aided Sgt. Peters, squad leader w/died. Fr. V. hit with shrapnel/R. shoulder.
      • Aided 5 more Marines. Rescued Sgt. Manfra who survived. Saved his life.
      • Fr. V wounded 2nd time: shrapnel in arms, hands, and legs.
      • 6:30 PM: desperate situation: last heroic act: Corporal Tancke’s account:
      • Wounded in the face and hand (fingers missing), he went to help a wounded corpsman (Armando Leal) only 15 meters from a VC enemy machine gun and was killed. Jumped from cover, ran 20 feet to Leal. Jumped in front of machine gun. Father and Leal were killed instantly. 27 bullet holes in spine, neck, back. Had his right hand over breast pocket/like holding Bible/smiling.
      • “3/5: Number 21 is KIA” 21 is code for chaplain.
      • Marines openly wept. Whole Corps seemed to mourn his loss.
      • Criticism: Martyr’s complex? NO, it was an act of love for his grunts/faith.
      • Father V. was 38 years old when he died on 9-4-67.

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