He died thousands of miles from his family’s home. Sixteen months after his death, he was awarded the United States’ highest honor, the Presidential Medal of Honor. Now, he is on track to become an American saint.
Meet Fr. Vincent Capodanno, known to his comrades in arms as the ‘Grunt Padre’ or ‘Father Vince.’ As Larry McShane wrote in New York’s Daily News, Fr. Vince “was a man of peace in a country at war, not quite 40, yet still an old man to the kid Marines in the surrounding foxholes.”
The tenth son of Italian immigrants, he was born on February 13, 1929 on Staten Island in New York. As a youth, he attended daily Mass and served his parish as an altar boy. Following studies at Curtis High School, Fordham University, and the Maryknoll Missionary Seminary in Ossining, New York, he was ordained to the priesthood on June 14, 1958. His first assignment as a Maryknoll was in the mountains of Taiwan. Later, he worked at a school in Hong Kong.
In December of 1965, he received a commission as a lieutenant in the Navy Chaplain Corps. He was assigned to the First Marine Division in Vietnam in April 1966. Quickly, he earned the admiration of the young soldiers with whom he served. As Larry McShane records, “Cpl. Bill Kuffrey remembered Capodanno boarding a helicopter, headed for a dangerous strip of real estate just days before his death. ‘I am not a Catholic, but this man of God meant more to me than I ever could have imagined,’ wrote Kuffrey. ‘He inspired me in so many ways, in my times of need.’”
It was during those days in Vietnam that Fr. Vince’s story of heroic saintliness took a dramatic turn.
Early in the morning of September 4, 1967, American soldiers were engaged in Operation Swift in the Thang Binh district of the Que Son Valley, located in the Quang Tin province, a region of Vietnam that saw heavy fighting during the war – a kind of Death Valley. The objective of the mission was to rescue two Marine companies that had been ambushed by the People’s Army of Vietnam.
Around 4:30 in the morning, the men of the 1st Battalion 5th Marines came across some 2,500 North Vietnamese fighters. The American soldiers were easily outnumbered. Although they stood their ground, before 9:30am there were more than twenty confirmed fatalities. They demanded reinforcements.
Fr. Vince was one of the men who answered that call. Fully cognizant of the risks involved, he insisted on going to the battle field in order to be with the wounded and dying and to administer to them the last rites. Even while a mortar exploded nearby and he took bullets going among his band of brothers, he told the men, ‘God is here with us, Marine. And, help is on the way.” He was killed just forty-five feet from an enemy machine gun as he tried to help a comrade. When his body was recovered, it was riddled with twenty-seven gunshot wounds.
He entered eternal life at the age of 38 on September 4, 1967. Posthumously, he received a Bronze Star, three Purple Hearts, and the Medal of Freedom. The Secretary of the Navy himself, Paul Griffiths, notified the surviving members of his family of the honor. Today, he is buried in the Saint Peter’s Cemetery in West New Brighton on Staten Island.
Since his death, Fr. Vince has been commemorated by landmarks and other memorials in the United States, Vietnam, Italy, Japan, and Iraq. A Knox-class frigate was named after him on November 17, 1973. Pope St. John Paul II blessed that ship on September 4, 1981. The city of New York declared July 3, 1976 “Father Capodanno Day,” celebrating the event with a Mass and a parade replete with military honors. And at Fort Wadsworth every September, Catholics and others remember the ‘Grunt Padre’ at the Father Vincent Capodanno Chapel. A book entitled “The Grunt Padre: Father Vincent Robert Capodanno, Vietnam. 1966-1967” is now in its third printing.
In May of 2002, Fr. Capodanno began his journey toward sainthood. The US Archdiocese for the Military declared him a Servant of God on May 21, 2006. Then in October of 2013, Archbishop Timothy Broglio formally opened his cause for beatification. During Pope Francis’ Apostolic Voyage to the United States, Fr. Vince’s name surfaced in discussions about American heroes of the faith. Now, the ‘Grunt Padre’s’ cause is heading to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints at the Vatican.
If the young priest from Staten Island turned Vietnam War veteran and American hero should make it to the altar of sainthood, he will become the first member of the US military to be so honored.
Want to read more stories like this? Check out CV’s daily reader of fascinating American Catholics: The American Catholic Almanac by Brian Burch and Emily Stimpson.