Chaplain Vincent Capodanno, MoH Recipient
“The American involvement in World War II impacted Vincent personally with three of his brothers serving in the military and fostered in him a profound patriotism and overt faith. Often before classes at Curtis High School, Vincent attended daily Mass at his home parish, a practice he continued after graduation and during his undergraduate years at Fordham University. While on a spiritual retreat in 1949 he confided to a close friend and fellow student his vocational desire.
“Like many young adults of that era, Vincent was familiar with the missionary work of the Catholic Foreign Mission Society, the Maryknolls, through their magazine, The Field Afar. In following his call to share his faith by responding to peoples’ needs in Foreign Service, he applied to Maryknoll and received acceptance in 1949.
“After nine years of intensive preparation in theology, academics, and basic survival tactics to fulfill the order’s mission to ‘Go and Teach All Nations,’ Vincent completed his seminary training and was ordained in 1958 by Francis Cardinal Spellman, Archbishop of New York. Accompanied by the tolling of the seminary’s bell, an annual tradition of the departure service, Father Capodanno learned his destination: Taiwan. He arrived on the island in 1959, and immediately began studying the difficult language and acclimating to the culture of his future parishioners, the Hakka-Chinese. While serving that community, Father Capodanno administered the sacraments, taught native catechists, and distributed food and medicine. Although he struggled while trying to fully understand their language, he developed a subsequent ability to attentively listen in responding to his parishioners.
“In the fall of 1960, he became the director of a youth hostel for young Chinese men preparing for the national college entrance exam. Besides overseeing their scholastic training, Father Capodanno was responsible for their spiritual and emotional needs, a significant challenge as the intense competition for college acceptance promoted depression and temptation of suicide. Several other short assignments occurred within six years followed by a six-month furlough and home visit. After returning to Taiwan, his superiors transferred Father Capodanno to Hong Kong, a decision he did not expect nor desire but which elicited a new response to God’s call of service.” (1)
“By acknowledging a totally different vocational ministry, he sought permission to join the Navy Chaplain Corps intending to serve the increasing number of Marine troops in Vietnam. Eventually Maryknoll granted this request, and after finishing Officer Candidate School, during Holy Week of 1966, Father Capodanno reported to the 7th Marines in Vietnam. As the chaplain for the battalion, his immediate focus was the young enlisted troops or “Grunts.” Later transferred to a medical unit, Father Capodanno was more than a priest ministering within the horrific arena of war.
“He became a constant companion to the Marines: living, eating, and sleeping in the same conditions of the men. He established libraries, gathered and distributed gifts and organized outreach programs for the local villagers. He spent hours reassuring the weary and disillusioned, consoling the grieving, hearing confessions, instructing converts, and distributing St. Christopher medals. Such work “energized” him, and he requested an extension to remain with the Marines. It was during his second tour on September 4, 1967, with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines that Father Vincent Capodanno made the ultimate sacrifice.” (2)
“Amidst the flying bullets, explosions and chaos of an ambush, a chaplain hurries from one wounded Marine to the next.
“Wounded and refusing medical evacuation, he seeks to locate, comfort, minister and provide any aid he can to injured troops. Sighting a corpsman wounded in the leg and unable to move, the unarmed chaplain hurries to help. Machine gun fire cuts through the air and hits the chaplain with more than 25 bullets as he reaches the corpsman.
“Navy Lt. Vincent Capodanno, gave his life providing support to his service members. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his gallantry and heroic conduct while serving with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in Vietnam, September 4, 1967…
“…’The story of Chaplain Capodanno is a story of real courage. It was who he was called to be to those Marines.’ [He] was a constant companion to his Marines. He became known as the “Grunt Padre” because he lived, ate and slept in the same conditions as the Marines.
“[According to Lt. Christopher Earley, Chapalin of The Marine Corps Basic School at Quantico, VA,] ‘Father Capodanno felt adamantly called to serve the Marines in Vietnam as a Navy chaplain…After his tour, he was granted a six-month extension…Close to the end of that extension he requested an additional two month extension in order to provide services for his Marines during the upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.’
“ ‘In an interview [in 2013], Capt. Eli Takesian, the eighth Chaplain of the Marine Corps, who knew Chaplain Capodanno very well reflected on the impact of Chaplain C’s sacrificial death…’He said, “I remember one Marine immediately after hearing the news of Chaplain Capodanno’s death was so choked up and asking how Chaplain Capodanno could allow his own life to be taken when he loved life so much.” Eli Takesian answered, “It was precisely because he loved life the lives of others, that he freely gave his own.” ‘ “(3)
Honors & Memorials
“Posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1969, Lieutenant Capodanno was also the recipient of the Navy Bronze Star medal, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star and the Purple Heart Medal. Soon after his death, the first chapel bearing his name was dedicated on Hill 51 in Que Son Valley, Vietnam; Chaplain Capodanno had helped build this simple place of prayer and peace that was constructed of thatched palms and bamboo. On February 1968, within five months of his death, the chapel at the Navy Chaplains School at Newport, RI, was dedicated the Capodanno Memorial Chapel. Other military chapels and commemorations are located in Oakland, CA, Camp Pendleton, CA, Fort Wadsworth, NY, Iwakuni, Japan, and Thiankou, Taiwan, the last of which honors the missionary who began his work in that country.” (4)