On April 11, the nation witnessed an extraordinary event in the East Room of the White House. President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration, to the nephew of a deceased Catholic priest, U.S. Army chaplain Father Emil Kapaun, for his uncle’s heroic service and death in the Korean War.
Next week, the Archdiocese for the Military Services will honor another Catholic priest who has earned the Medal of Honor. Vietnam War hero and U.S. Navy chaplain and Maryknoll Father Vincent Capodanno will be remembered in a Sept. 4 Mass for the repose of his soul at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
Like Father Kapaun, Father Capodanno lived and died as a martyr serving those who serve in front-line combat. Both braved enemy gunfire — unarmed — coming to the rescue of the wounded and dying. Father Kapaun died in a POW camp. Father Capodanno died in the heat of battle. Both are now candidates for sainthood.
As public affairs director of the Archdiocese for the Military Services and the promoter of the cause for Father Capodanno’s beatification, I have a direct personal connection. When my 25-year-old daughter Emily was stricken with brain cancer, I joined hands with Msgr. Thomas Olszyk, the promoter of justice for the cause, in prayer for Father Capodanno’s intercession. It was not the will of God, in his infinite mercy and wisdom, for Emily to survive her illness, but she left this world in peace, free of pain, on the feast of the Ascension. I have no doubt she is with God now. And since her death, I have had the grace to learn more about the chaplain and speak with many men who have offered firsthand accounts of Father Capodano’s heroic love for the troops he served.
The upcoming Mass is scheduled 46 years to the day since Father Capodanno, a missionary from Staten Island, N.Y., perished as a result of no fewer than 27 bullet wounds on a bloody hillside in Vietnam’s Que Son Valley, where outnumbered U.S. Marines fought for their lives, pinned down under ambush by North Vietnamese regulars in “fixed bayonet” combat.
In his book The Grunt Padre, Father Daniel Mode paints a vivid scene of the attack, quoting survivor accounts of Father Capodanno moving fearlessly around the battlefield, consoling and anointing those in agony and hauling the suffering to safety.
Pfc. Julio Rodriguez recalls the moment he first spotted the chaplain. “He was carrying a wounded Marine,” Rodriguez says. “After he brought him to the relative safety of our perimeter, he continued to go back and forth, giving last rites to dying men and bringing in wounded Marines. He made many trips, telling us to ‘Stay cool; don’t panic.’”
Cpl. Keith Rounseville says Father Capodanno “was jumping over my [fox] hole, all the while exposing himself to enemy machine-gun fire to try and give aid to a wounded Marine. Chaplain Capodanno looked and acted cool and calm, as if there wasn’t an enemy in sight. As he reached the wounded Marine, Chaplain Capodanno lay down beside him and gave him aid and verbal encouragement and telling him medical help was on the way.”
Cpl. Ray Harton remembers how he lay wounded and bleeding from a gunshot wound to his left arm.
“As I closed my eyes, someone touched me,” he says. “When I opened my eyes, he looked directly at me. It was Father Capodanno. Everything got still: no noise, no firing, no screaming.
“A peace came over me that is unexplainable to this day. In a quiet, calm voice, he cupped the back of my head and said, ‘Stay quiet Marine. You will be okay. Someone will be here to help you soon. God is with us all this day.’”
According to Cpl. David Brooks, “The chaplain’s example of action gave courage to everyone who observed him and sparked others to action. Quite a few more people would have died if not for him.” Brooks recalls Father Capodanno suffered his first wound in the right shoulder from mortar shrapnel as he rushed to aid a dying squad leader. Holding his right arm, the priest reached the squad leader’s side, where the two joined in the Lord’s Prayer. Brooks says the chaplain stayed at the man’s side for about five minutes until he died.
Many of the Marines who fought alongside Father Capodanno that day in 1967 — a day so hot they recall the rice paddies were like baked concrete — will attend the 6:30pm Memorial Mass on Sept. 4 at the basilica in Washington.
Tom Slattery, who was a 20-year-old private barely out of high school when he served with the priest, says “Father Capodanno’s memory has been with me for 46 years now, and I ask him every morning and night to join me in prayer.”
Capt. Tom Byrne says he will attend “because I knew him, and I feel I have a personal stake in honoring him and what he did.”
Cpl. George Phillips says “it’s an honor to his memory. He was important to me at a difficult time.”
Phillips says the current generation could learn a lot from Father Capodanno’s life example of self-sacrifice.
“They only care about themselves,” he says of many young people. “They don’t think they have to earn anything. Father Capodanno was not about Father Capodanno. He was about the people he served.”
Dr. Donald DiDelius, a medical officer, echoes that sentiment: “He was a man of integrity. Unflinching.”
Capt. Tony Grimm says that, off the battlefield, Father Capodanno “was like the pied piper. He attracted everybody,” Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
“When he said Mass,” Byrne says, “there would always be a lot of Vietnamese who would come to the Mass. He was a priest for everybody.”
His eyes “were not sad eyes, but a little somber, reflective,” Phillips says. “If he was talking to you, that’s where he was focused. There was always in his eyes a calmness about him. It was almost supernatural.”
Even in death, Father Capodanno inspires courage and hope, drawing supplications from those in need. Some have claimed to experience miracle cures upon seeking the intercession of the hero chaplain. They include a Vietnamese nun whose recovery from advanced cancer came without apparent medical explanation.
Some of these accounts are under investigation by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints as the Church considers Father Capodanno’s cause for canonization. He has already been declared a “Servant of God,” formally initiating the process.
While those with whom he served don’t doubt his cause, they remember Father Capodanno more for his common touch — as a lieutenant who readily preferred the company of the enlisted “grunts” to that of his fellow officers, earning him the nickname “grunt padre.”
“He was not a guy who walked around with a halo,” Grimm says.
Still, the grunt padre’s brothers in arms welcome the prospect of his beatification.
“The Marine Corps could use a saint,” Byrne says, adding, “I hope to go to Rome when he is canonized.”
Taylor Henry is the director of public affairs and media relations
with the Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services based in Washington.
All five of the U.S. military chaplains who have earned the
Medal of Honor since the Civil War were Catholic priests.
EWTN will air a documentary on Father Capodano, The Grunt Padre in Vietnam, on Sept. 4, 2:00 p.m. (ET)