It's been more than three decades since his friend died on a hilltop battlefield in Vietnam, but hardly a day passes that he doesn't think about the Catholic chaplain he left behind.

Frederick K. Smith, founder and chief executive officer of Federal Express Corp., becomes emotional when he talks about Father Vincent Capodanno, a Maryknoll priest who paid the ultimate price for which Congress awarded the Medal of Honor.

“Words can't adequately describe my feelings about Father Capodanno,” Smith told the Register. “He was a great man and a lot of people owe their lives to him. I loved Father Capodanno.”

The Catholic chaplain, who died in 1967, is the subject of a biography titled The Grunt Padre. Smith helped fund the book's research.

“He was a model of everything you'd ever want to find in a military chaplain,” explained Smith, who himself was a “grunt.” Smith was a Marine platoon leader in the area when his priest friend was killed by Viet Cong gunfire as he ministered to a dying U.S. Marine.

Smith, an Episcopalian now in his 60s, described Father Capodanno as “a model for anything good and religious. … He was a good guy and he was my friend.”

The multimillionaire, a pioneer of airfreight delivery, said he could recall only two vices that Father Capodanno had.

“He loved to smoke cigarettes and he liked to play poker,” Smith said. “Father Vincent used to go out at night in the area to take a smoke — something we were absolutely forbidden by the military to do because of the presence of the enemy.

“So, I showed him how to poke a couple holes in a C ration cardboard box, light his cigarette and then slip his head into the box under his poncho and smoke to his heart's content and nobody could see the glow of the cigarette in the dark and make themselves an easy target for an enemy bullet.”

Smith continued: “Father Vincent was a heck of a gambler and be used to lift a lot of money off people in poker games — but he always gave it away to someone in need.

“Father was a tremendous guy and we saw a lot of each other even though I was a platoon leader on one side of a hill and he was on the other side. He was one great guy and I think about him a lot.”

For his bravery and enormous contributions, Capodanno was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, making him only the second chaplain to ever receive the award and the first Naval officer to receive it for service in Vietnam.

Said Smith, “They didn't have any medals big or ornate enough for his brand of man.”

— Robert Holton