Vincent Capodanno was the youngest of ten children born into an Italian Catholic family. His heroic life is told cradle to grave in The Grunt Padre: The Service & Sacrifice of Father Vincent Robert Capodanno, Vietnam, 1966-1967 (CMJ Publishers, 202 pp., $15.95, paper) by Daniel L. Mode.
Father Mode, a chaplain in the Navy Reserves, traces the life of Capodanno, a Navy Chaplain and Medal of Honor recipient, from his birth on Staten Island in New York, through his time at the Maryknoll Seminary in Ossining, New York, to a mission in Taiwan, and finally to his Marine Chaplaincy in South Vietnam. That’s where the “Grunt Padre” said his last Mass, on Hill 327 near the village of Dong Son, in September of 1967.
Vince Capodanno was born on February, 13 , 1929, and “grew up during the most patriotic time in American history,” Mode writes, “with Victory Gardens, War Bonds, and blood drives. The World War 2 armistice was signed just before young Vince decided he would enter the Marknoll Seminary.”
Fr. Capodanno was ordained in June of 1958. He soon set sail for Taiwan, his first missionary assignment, where he enjoyed the teaching despite his difficulty learning the local dialect. But the language barrier had a positive effect—making him a better listener. Later in Vietnam, Mode writes, “he would attract the confidence of young Marines partly because of his unique capacity to hear what they said and what they didn’t say.”
Nineteen-sixty-five was a watershed year for Fr. Capodanno. His six-year term in Taiwan ended and he wrote to the Navy Chief of Chaplains in Washington about joining the Chaplain Corps, asking to serve with the Marines in Vietnam.
In November, 1965 Fr. Vince became Lt. Capodanno at the Naval Chaplain School in Newport, Rhode Island. After completing a three-week course at the Field Medical Service School at Camp Pendleton, he went to Vietnam during Holy Week in 1966 when American casualties averaged 400 a month.
Why did Fr. Capodanno leave the relative safety of mission work for wartime ministry? “In October, 1966 a reporter in Vietnam asked him why he became a chaplain and he answered, ‘I joined the Chaplain Corps when the Vietnam War broke out because I think I’m needed here as are many more Chaplains.'” He was “drawn to the cutting edge where he would not just be a Catholic priest, not just a military Chaplain; but a Marine,” Mode adds.
He was assigned to the 7th Marine Battalion headquarters at Chu Lai. Eight months later he was transferred to the 1st Medical Battalion. In January 1967 he extended his Vietnam tour by six months, which put Fr. Capodanno on a path for that final Mass on September 3. The next day, during Operation Swift, Fr. Capodanno was killed in action while ministering to wounded Marines.
The details of that fatal afternoon that resulted in Fr. Capodanno receiving the Medal of Honor are presented by the author in this thoroughly researched account. Reading these and the testimonials bring the reader as close as possible to the firefight without being there.