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By James Kubalewski, a parishioner at St. Jude Parish, Joliet | November 2020

Honoring the Memory of Father Capodanno, the Navy Chaplain Killed during the Vietnam War

On Sept. 4, 1967, the green and lush area of the Thang Binh District of the Que Son Valley in Vietnam was highly contested territory. Around 2,500 North Vietnamese Army troops had surprised and surrounded the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment. After 26 Marines from the 1st Battalion had been killed, they called for help. The 3rd Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment was called to reinforce the decimated 1st Battalion.

Lieutenant Father Vincent Capodanno, a member of the 3rd Battalion, was a long way from Staten Island, NY, where he had been born on Feb. 13, 1929. The 38-year-old Maryknoll missionary priest was a Navy chaplain and had been serving in the Marines for the past 17 months in Vietnam.

He had voluntarily requested a second tour of duty and was hoping for a third. He loved his Marines and was following a special call from God to serve them. Staten Island was nothing like the Que Son Valley. People were going about their daily business in safety in his hometown. Father Capodanno was about to walk into the jaws of hell.

He could have stayed back at battalion headquarters out of immediate harm’s way, but he decided to go with his Marines into the battle. It was his choice. No one expected him to do this, but that is what Father Capodanno had always done. As Pope Francis has asked his priests to smell like their sheep, Father Capodanno smelled like a Marine.

Despite heavy small arms, machine gun and mortar fire, Father Capodanno ran into the battle to serve M Company. These were his boys being chopped up and overrun by the enemy. He carried no rifle or pistol. He carried only the sacramental power of the priesthood, and that is exactly what was needed that day. He searched out the wounded and comforted the dying, giving them Last Rites.

In doing so, he was hit by shrapnel from exploding mortars. Wounded in the arms and legs, he was then hit again and lost part of his right hand that had been anointed on June 13, 1958, on his ordination day. He was told to seek medical attention for his wounds, but he placed the needs of his Marines first and continued to bring comfort to the wounded and dying.

In another part of the battlefield that day, he saw that one of the medics who was attempting to treat the wounded was hit by machine gun fire. He saw that the wounded medic was in the line of fire and went to help him. As he reached him, Father Capodanno was hit by machine gun fire and was killed.

The body of Father Capodanno, the youngest of the 10 Capodanno children, was dressed in the dress blues of a Navy officer with great care and dignity, placed in an aluminum casket and sent home to his grieving mother. His body was interred with other deceased members of his loving family in St. Peter's Cemetery in Staten Island.

Fourteen months later, Father Capodanno's mother received a phone call from the Secretary of the Navy. He notified her that her youngest child would posthumously be awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor on the field of battle. President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded the medal to her and the family on Jan. 7, 1969.

In May of 2004, Father Capodanno's cause for canonization was officially initiated. Two years later, he was designated Servant of God status by Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien of the Archdiocese for the Military Services. His cause for canonization is now before Rome.

In mid-September 2020, there was a Mass in honor of Father Capodanno at St. Jude Church in Joliet, with the support of Father Michael Lane, the church’s pastor; the Knights of Columbus of St. Jude Council 10637; and Fishers of Men, an organization that promotes the spiritual growth of men in the Diocese of Joliet.

Father Ron Neitzke, administrator of St. Margaret Mary Parish in Herscher, who is also a captain and chaplain in the United States Navy, celebrated the memorial Mass for Father Capodanno. Two diocesan priests, Father Keith Wolfe and Father Benedict Zele, also concelebrated.

Two members of the Marine Corps' Company E 4th Recon Battalion from Joliet – Sergeants John Thomas and Mark Burgos – volunteered to carry the American flag and the Marine Corps’ colors into the church prior to Mass, in order to honor their "fallen brother." Michael Serra, who served in the Navy and is a member of St. Francis Xavier Church in Joliet, carried the Navy colors.

In this confused culture of ours, men are too frequently portrayed by the media as narcissistic, violent, and/or stupid. The world indeed has always encouraged men to be selfish and pleasure centered. It is imperative that we raise up men like Father Capodanno. He is a model for all of us. Father Capodanno lived a life that showed what is best in men. Please pray that he will soon be raised up by the Church as a model of valor, self-sacrifice and love.