The Dramatic Story of the Priest Who Died on a Vietnam Battlefield
by Brian O'Neel
Labor Day, September 4, 1967, in the United States was just like so many other Labor Days before: the last day before the start of school, a federal holiday, banks and stores closed, and people preparing to join friends and family for backyard barbeques.
But some 8,000 miles away in South Vietnam it marked the start of an epic 11 day battle known as Operation SWIFT. Today it is primarily remembered by military history buffs, as well as those who honor the memory of a Navy chaplain who lost his life after 30 minutes of battle, Fr. Vincent Capodanno, MM.
But what Father did during those 30 minutes not only earned him the Medal of Honor, it has propelled his beatification cause.
From Staten Island to South Vietnam
Born February 13, 1929, Capodanno grew up on Staten Island, New York, the youngest of nine children born to a Brooklyn-born mother of Italian ancestry and a father who immigrated to New York from Gaeta, Italy. According to his last surviving sister Gloria Holman, the home was a happy one, and “Vin” or “Junior” “was serious, his personality, more so than not, you know?”
His cousin Al Lambert remembers Junior, like his mother, had a fantastic sense of humor, and when he laughed, his whole body shook. He also says he was very fastidious.Maryknoll Father Vincent R. Capodanno, a Navy chaplain who was killed while serving with the Marines in Vietnam, is pictured in an undated photo. (CNS file photo)
Capodanno heard his calling to the priesthood at age 18 and entered the Maryknoll Missionary Seminary at 20. On June 14, 1958, he received holy orders at the hands of New York’s Francis Cardinal Spellman.
His superiors first posted him amongst the aboriginal tribesman in Taiwan’s mountains. Then they stationed him at the order’s school in Hong Kong. The new assignment did not thrill him, but he went without protest.
By this time the Vietnam War had begun, and so Capodanno asked for and received permission to enter the Navy chaplaincy corps.
His cousin Al says he did this because “he always went to the need,” and he perceived the front lines is where there was the greatest need.
He received his commission as a chaplain on December 28, 1965, and was attached to the 1/7 (1st Battalion, 7th Marines) in April 1966.
Chaplains simply did not go out with troops on missions. They were told – and most were content – to stay in the rear where there was no fight.
Not Father. “Wherever the Marines were, Father Capodanno was there, in theater or in the mud up to his knees, said a Marine who knew him.
Lt. RJ Marnell remembers, “Fr. Capodanno was … told several times it was not his job to go on patrols, fire sweeps, etc. Yet you had to watch him like a hawk as it was not uncommon to see a group of Marines running to get on a helicopter to go into battle, and all of a sudden this figure comes out of nowhere, no rifle, just his priest gear, and jumping in the helicopter before anybody could catch him. He wanted to be with his Marines and didn’t feel his job was simply to say Mass on Sundays.”
Eight months after his arrival, he transferred to the 1st Medical Battalion at the Marines’ hospital in Da Nang. Toward the end of his first tour of 11 months, he applied for and was granted a second. In August 1967, his superiors attached him to Mike Company of the 3/5. (Each Company is known by a letter of the alphabet and is called not “A” Company, for instance, but Alpha Company, Bravo Company, Charlie Company, etc.)
Thus Father had only been with his new unit about three weeks when the fateful battle started. Knowing his second tour was drawing to a close, “He voluntarily extended here for another six months. He was just refused another extension and was due to go home in November.”1
Former Lance Corporal Steve Lovejoy recalls, “Over the years I always believed Fr. Capodanno had spent at least three months with Mike Co., if not longer. In actuality, it was no more than four weeks!! He had that kind of impact. He treated us as if he was one of us, and that is how we related to him. Of course we had respect and understood his position, but the men accepted him as one of their own.”
Retired Col. Joaquin Gracida, then a staff officer with 3/5, relates, “One day while having our afternoon meal, one of the Lieutenants rushed into the tent, and when he reached our table said, ‘What kind of @#$% soup do we have today?’
The others seated there knew that Chaplain Capodanno was sitting at our table so we all, without saying a word, sat up straight and looked in the direction of Fr. Capodanno. Father, without missing a beat continued eating his meal, then looked at the rest of us and said, ‘If that’s the kind of soup he wants, let him have it.’”
‘Fear not: God is with us all this day.’
Talk with anyone who knew him in the service, and they will describe how his eyes would pull someone in.
Additionally, George Phillips of 1st Platoon says he “had an innate ability to know when Marines needed to talk about something. And he would sit and wait in silence until the Marine was ready to talk [and] never move on until he saw the Marine had received some comfort…. But when you … were talking with him, it was like the two of you were in a cocoon. And nothing else was going on around you. You know, rockets, bullets, whatever, guys walking by. He kept his attention focused on one person at a time. Five or six guys sitting around, talking, and he joins them. He’d listen intently to the guy who’s talking, but ignore the other four. And when you were one-on-one with him, it was almost a mystical experience.”2
One Marine recalled, “Sometimes he would just put his hand on your shoulder, and he’d make you feel great.”
Father simply put himself where he knew others would be. He would relax with other officers smoking his Camel cigarettes and, when allowed this, drinking the ration of two cans of beer. He would walk around where the enlisted men billeted. He got friends back home to send him candy, cigarettes, and St. Christopher medals, and retired Col. Joaquin Gracida says he would stuff his pockets full of these for the men.
Sometimes he would sit somewhere in the open, pull out his rosary, and start praying. Guys would sort of just gravitate toward him and join in. His Masses and prayers services were well attended (he “had no problems drawing a crowd on short notice,” says Col. Hill), and his sermons were concise but meaty, “on target,” and “comforting to Marines of any faith or … no faith at all.”
Phillips says Capodanno repeated one such message over and over: “‘Fear not: God is with us all this day.’”
September 3 was Election Day in South Vietnam. Because over 80 percent of South Vietnam’s electorate opposed the communists and voted against so-called “peace candidates,” the Viet Cong (guerillas with little or no training) and the NVA (aka, PAVN, North Vietnamese regulars, who were well trained and respected by the Americans) would attempt to disrupt voting.
As such GIs and their South Vietnamese allies would guard polling stations around the country.
This is what found the Marines of Company D, 1/5 at Dong Son village, eight miles southwest of Thang Binh along Route 534 in the famous Quế Sơn Valley (an area the size of the Shawnee National Forest). After polls closed, they dug in for the night and set up a perimeter to guard the Company (a Company typically consists of 150-180 men).
Around 4:30 a.m., Delta’s perimeter came under heavy attack by the NVA 2nd Division. The communists had between 2,500-6,500 soldiers in the area. To aid Delta, the regimental commander sent in Bravo Company, but soon both outfits were pinned down under heavy fire in separate areas. By 8:30 a.m., with 29 Marines dead, Delta was under threat of being overrun.
At 9:37 a.m., the 5th Marine Regiment ordered the 3/5 to aid Bravo and Delta. Though he had only Kilo and Mike Companies available, battalion commander Lt. Col. C.B. Webster told the Company commanders to prepare for a helicopter lift to the area of Dong Son.
While there is some disagreement about this, some assert Capodanno actually had permission to join the Marines in combat this day. Regardless, he hopped onto a helo with Mike’s 3rd Platoon, and the helicopters left between 11:30 a.m. and noon.
The ride took roughly 30 minutes. Upon arrival, the helicopter pilot told Mike’s commander JD Murray the original LZ near Bravo and Delta was “too hot,” meaning there was too much enemy fire to risk a landing. The alternate LZ was to have been the one used by Kilo, about 1,000 meters away from the original landing site, but that, too, was unsafe. So the helicopters ultimately discharged Mike at an LZ in some dried up rice paddies roughly 2,500 meters away from Bravo and Delta.
The day was hot, humid, and clear as Murray prepared his men to head out in a wedge formation. In other words, 1st Platoon would lead the way in a spaced out, single file line, 2nd Platoon would fall into the same configuration some distance back on the right side, and the 3rd Platoon would be even further back holding the left.
The march through lightly wooded terrain was relatively peaceful. Then just before they entered an expanse of dry rice paddies, 1st Platoon’s Lt. Ed Combs later recounted that a little after 2:30, Bill Vandegriff, squad leader for the 1st Squad, shouted to him that a tree “in the tree line just got up and moved.” Combs “told him if it moved again to shoot the son of a b—-.”
The tree moved, and Vandegriff shot.
Then proverbial hell broke loose. Combs says, “When he fired his rifle, it was like the 4th of July coming in on us. The NVA opened up on us with everything they had, machine guns, small arms, mortars and rockets.” Unbeknownst to the Marines, five NVA battalions had been lying in ambush for them, each battalion holding 400-600 men. Every witness agrees: Had Vandegriff not shot when he did, the NVA would have slaughtered the Americans as they entered the rice paddies.
Murray sent 2nd Platoon to aid 1st Platoon.
Just before the battle commenced, 2nd had passed some deep holes resembling bomb craters on their way over the top of a small knoll. As soon as the Marines came over the hill, they came upon another group of entrenched North Vietnamese soldiers who were hidden in a bamboo tree line. These PAVN dropped one mortar on the Marines, causing them to pause. As they got moving again, more mortars dropped on them.
The 2nd had trouble reaching 1st because this is when the NVA opened up on them. A book about SWIFT, Road of 10,000 Pains, says the heavily camouflaged enemy came at the Marines “in a flood, like water from a burst dam.” Lovejoy describes it like the sound of Niagara Falls. Another 2nd Platoon soldier Fred Tancke recalls, “There was such thunderous, thunderous fire from that north tree line.” Marine John Lobur remembers, “There were so many bullets in the air, you could trim your fingernails just by sticking your hands up.”
Lovejoy was pinned down with Lance Cpl. Al Santos of Fall River, Mass., to whom he gave his M16 because Santos’ had jammed. Then after firing one round, Lovejoy’s weapon jammed, as well. Indeed, according to Lovejoy, “JD Murray attributes 50 percent of our casualties to the fact that our M16s failed. We probably had 40 if not 60 percent failure that day.”
By this time, at most ten minutes had elapsed. Sgt. Larry Peters yelled for everyone to take cover back over the top of the hill. Tancke recalls that, “The Marines on the line quickly began to pull back and pivot back up the hill from the north to the south.”3
Lovejoy, a radio operator, was trying to stay low out of the line of fire and lug his heavy equipment up the knoll with him at the same time. Lovejoy says “rounds were flying everywhere.”
Braving fire, blessing the fallen
All of a sudden, out of nowhere appeared Fr. Capodanno. He dragged Lovejoy to safety in a bomb crater. In addition to having saved Lovejoy, Father braved enemy fire to do the same with Sgt. Howard Manfra of Philadelphia. Tancke recalls being aware of Capodanno rushing around the battlefield exposing himself to unrelenting enemy fire to bless and comfort the fallen.
“I remember the cool look about him,” recalls the Lovejoy, “as though he was saying, ‘Do not worry, all will be OK.’ We had dropped some [tear] gas on the enemy, but it drifted over our position. I offered him my gas mask as I was down in a bomb crater and was not affected. He said, ‘No, you need it more than I do.’ We nodded to each other, and he left.”
Suddenly an enemy machine gunner appeared to the northwest and opened fire where Corpsman Armando Leal of San Antonio had gotten near Tancke. Like Father, Leal had been heroically going giving aid to the wounded. As he approached Tancke, who was kneeling down and firing at “enemy soldiers in the rice paddy,”4 a bullet went through his leg, cutting his femoral artery. Tancke attempted to drag Leal up the knoll and into a crater, putting one finger in the wound to staunch the bleeding, and trying to fire at the enemy with the other.
Meanwhile a Huey gunship appeared above the fracas, the pilot firing rockets into the tree line and the gunner unloading bullets on the enemy with his machine gun until the ammunition ran out.
As Tancke struggled with Leal, Lance Cpl. Steve Cornell came down the knoll, stood over the pair and asked “if I needed help… I told him to get down.”5 That was when a bullet pierced Cornell’s chest. Another Marine was also shot nearby. As they were pulled back over the knoll, Fr. Capodanno rushed to give them last rites.
At that moment, Tancke says, “a loud almost thunderous barrage of small arms fire came from the north tree line.”6 Around this time, he and Leal neared the knoll’s crest.
Fifteen to twenty feet away, Tancke saw an NVA machine gunner grinning madly. The Marine momentarily left Leal, crawled a few feet, and aimed his rifle at the man. Click! His M16 double fed, causing it to jam, and he couldn’t clear the chamber. Tancke then reached for a grenade but couldn’t liberate it from his pouch because of his injured right hand. The Vietnamese soldier had a clear shot at Tancke but for some reason didn’t shoot. Tancke saw the Corpsman had bled out and died, however. Tanke turned to the east, took three or four steps, and then the gunner unloaded on Tancke, who quickly jumped into the shelter of a hole.
To the gunner’s west was the Platoon’s other Corpsman, David Phelps of Williamstown, NY, his body slumped over a Marine’s. He had jumped out of a crater to aid his comrade and received a mortal wound to the head.
Father Capodanno’s heroic death
Roughly 30 minutes into the battle, Tancke saw something out of his eye. Coming from his rear (the south) but heading to the west and then stopping to look north before heading in that direction was Fr. Capodanno. Tancke says he yelled at Father, “Watch out for the gunner!” and as Capodanno made his way north, presumably to aid a downed Marine, Tancke heard the machine gun’s loud BRAP! He estimates four to seven bullets pierced Father from the head down to his torso. The Padre fell where he was hit, and Tancke, who was at most six feet away, says he saw no signs of life in the fallen hero. Not long after this, a Marine crawled toward the machine gunner and took him out.
Several rumors surround Father’s death. One says he died of 27 bullet wounds. Another claims those wounds came from .50 caliber bullets. A normal machine gun bullet (e.g., a .30 cal) is about the size of a cigarette and will do significant damage. A .50 cal is about the size of a decent cigar. It can punch a hole through a railroad tie. If someone died from being shot 27 times with a .50 cal, not much of them would be left, yet Father’s body was recovered intact.
What Tancke believes happened is this.
After several hours, there was a lull. At some point 2nd Platoon Sergeant James Marbury spoke of not seeing the enemy and wondered where they were.
“Just then an NVA soldier popped his head up behind the bush where Fr. Capodanno lay dead (6 to 8 feet away). My rifle was still jammed so I managed to get a grenade out of my pouch and with my left hand I lobbed it over the bush on top of the enemy soldier and Fr. Capodanno.”7
This killed the soldier, but it might also explain the 27 wounds—not bullet holes—that were discovered on Father postmortem.
In addition to Father and the two Corpsmen, 14 other Mike Company Marines perished that day. Of the 165-178 men who went into battle, only 63-68 were physically unscathed the next day. By its end on September 15, SWIFT resulted in 123 Americans killed, including 51 from Father’s battalion.
But whether Marines lived, were wounded, or died, by all accounts, Father’s presence was a comforting one.
Lance Cpl. Jim Carter of Kingsport, Tenn. almost cried when he heard Capodanno had died. Other men openly wept. Battalion chaplain Eli Takesian, who gave the eulogy following Father’s funeral Mass, recalled that upon hearing of Capodanno’s passing, “It was as if a shroud had covered us all.”
He added, “We used to joke that troops shot in the back were often running away. It certainly was not so with Chaplain Capodanno, a courageous man, whose sacrificial act truly emulated Jesus Christ.”8
“Somehow he just seemed to act the way a man of God should act,” said Ross Nutera, a 20-year-old corporal from Buffalo, NY. “I can’t believe he’s gone.”
“He saved my soul”
On the day of his death, Fr. Capodanno didn’t just save lives, he saved souls.
Critically wounded on the battlefield, Lt. Combs thought he would die. He asked George Phillips to baptize him. “Into the Catholic faith?” Yes, said Combs. “Of course Combs and Capodanno were friends.”
Byron Hill relates, “During my tour in Vietnam, I had been married for four years, but we did not have children. Father was curious about my family life, and we discussed having children. He once said to me, ‘When you get home, have babies. That is why God put you and your wife together.’
After returning home, he and his wife discussed in which church they would raise their daughter. That is when, having been “so inspired [by] Father Capodanno, that I realized I wanted to become Catholic.”
Fr. Capodanno’s chaplain’s assistant Henry Hernandez, Jr., recently said, “Not only did he save my life, but most important he saved my soul. He brought me back to the Church.”
Not only on the day he died but in all his time serving men in battle, Fr. Capodanno had an incredible ability to do the one thing that most of us could never do: Completely ignore the human person’s basic instinct for survival. He cared more about serving and saving others than he did about himself. In this he completely emulated Jesus Christ, Who taught us, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
This is why even if it takes 300 years for the Vatican to recognize Father’s sanctity, many believe there is no doubt that this icon of Our Lord and Savior is one of the saintliest men of modern times.
Today nine chapels and several streets and buildings are named after him. Several statues and memorials also stand in his honor.
In one of his last letter’s home, he wrote to an aunt, stating, “Aunt Annie, pray a lot yourself, because unless we pray, we really can’t be anything worthwhile at all.”The gravesite of Maryknoll Father Vincent R. Capodanno and his parents is seen at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Staten Island, N.Y., April 27. Father Capodanno, a U.S. Navy chaplain was killed while ministering to dying and wounded Marines in Vietnam. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8uYC6O0cCA and author’s interview with George Phillips.
3 Deposition given by Fred Tancke to the tribunal investigating Fr. Capodanno’s cause for the Archdiocese of Military Services.
8 Interview with Eli Takesian, December 13, 2002 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database accessed at http://randall3.uncw.edu/ascod/?p=digitallibrary/digitalcontent&id=635
This item 11746 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org