Saturday, June 15, 2013

Remembering Chaplain Vincent Capodanno: R.S.V.P. September 14, 1967

Moynihan Letters No. 74
June 14, 2013, Friday -- Remembering Father Capodanno

"Stay quiet marine. You will be ok. God is with us all this day." Father Vincent Capodanno, last words, speaking to a wounded marine on a battlefield in Vietnam 46 years ago in 1967. A few seconds later, Capodanno was shot and killed. Today in Vietnam, not far from the spot where he died, a Mass was celebrated in his memory. (See note on these words at the end of the story below)

Today, June 14, something extraordinary happend in Vietnam.

A Mass was celebrated by a Vietnamese bishop in memory of an American Marine chaplain, Father Vince Capodanno (photo), who was killed in Vietnam on September 4, 1967, at the age of 38. Capodanno was ordained a priest on June 14, 1957, so this Mass today was celebrated in commemoration of the 56th anniversary of his ordination.

And so, in a sense, the Mass, attended by Americans and Vietnamese Catholics, was a sign of peace, and perhaps also of healing, nearly a half century after the end of the Vietnam War.

The Mass was largely the result of an effort by an old friend, Captain Edward "Ted" Bronson, a career Navy officer, now retired, who believes Capodanno was a holy man who died a holy death, administering the last rites to wounded soldiers on the battlefield, and so ought to be canonized by the Church as a saint.

(This photo shows Navy Captain Edward "Ted" Bronson and EWTN journalist Joan Lewis flanking Bishop Tri, with the choir that sang at the Father Capodanno Commemorative Mass in Vietnam)

Here are excerpts from an email Bronson just sent to me:

From: efbronson
To: moynihanreport
Sent: Fri, Jun 14, 2013 6:37 pm
Subject: Re: capodanno mass da nang 14 jun


All went well. As magnificent and spiritual a Mass as you could pray for. About 500 attended. The bishop sat on the side, after opening remarks re Father Vincent Capodanno. Then came the procession of 15 celebrants. A high school choir of 38 "rang out" with English hymns.

(A view of the church where the Mass today was celebrated; Photo by Joan Lewis)

I did the first reading.

(Photo of those attending the Mass, by Joan Lewis)

A reception followed for all, a Vietnamese food feast.

Among the 500 were two bus loads of Que Chau villagers from two hours south. We had a special Mass in a home there on Wednesday for 83. They exude pure, intense, single focus faith. It seems as if, were they asked to give up their faith, instead they would join the earlier "martyrs of Vietnam."

This village Mass site was 2 km from the Que Son valley battlefield where Father Capodanno died with his fellow marines on the opening day of "Operation Swift" on 4 september 1967. It was the worst casualty day for our Marines in the war, as they were outnumbered 500 to 2000.

Father Capodanno's death occurred 15 seconds after telling a wounded marine,  "Stay calm marine. Some one will be with you shortly. God is with us this day."

He then went to the side of a corpsman who cried out for help and both were machine gunned to death.

Father Capodanno was a true "Grunt Padre."

Danang Bishop Joseph Tri told us afterwards, he will make this an annual 14 June Mass for the repose of the soul of Father Capodanno. The date is the anniversary of his ordination to the Maryknolls by Cardinal Spellman 55 years ago today.

'Twas magic, Bob, and it was all your challenge at dinner after the Mass at Santa Susanna, Rome 21 May, 2012. I started with a blank piece of paper and went from there... with a measure of help from my guardian angel and Bishop Tri. Delighted to have participated.

Now in Saigon; fly out at 5 am; into DAC at 5:45 pm. Thank you for your friendship and 'till we meet again, very best. Ted


Note on Father Capodanno's last words

I received the following note about Father Capodanno's last words, which are reproduced above in two different forms.


Thank you for covering this historic Mass. Several Marines heard these words from Fr. Capodanno, though versions vary slightly with each telling. From the biography, the quote reads:

"Stay quiet, Marine. You will be OK. Someone will be here to help you soon.  God is with us all this day." The reference is found on page 133 of The Grunt Padre by Fr. Daniel Mode, as recalled by Operation Swift veteran Corporal Ray Harton.

Thank you for all you do to make known Fr. Capodanno. It is an important and timely Cause to be sure.

God bless,

Judy L. McCloskey
Mission Capodanno



Also present at the Mass was another old friend, the Rome correspondent for EWTN Catholic television, Joan Lewis. She flew to Vietnam specifically to attend this historic Mass, and wrote a report today on her blog, "Joan's Rome." Here are excerpts:

Friday, June 14, 2013

By Joan Lewis

As I write these words, it is 9 am on a hot Friday morning in DaNang and I am in the courtyard of Sacred Heart Cathedral where the gates have been opened to welcome the bus loads of pilgrims from nearby and from far villages who have come today for Mass at 10 that Bishop Joseph Tri has organized to celebrate Servant of God Fr. Vincent Capodanno.

June 14th was the day, 55 years ago, that Vincent Capodanno was ordained to the priesthood in the Maryknoll order, a missionary order that sent him abroad during his short life as a priest. Eventually he became a chaplain and died giving the last rites to solders in Vietnam, not far from DaNang.

The courtyard is huge but I know it will soon be filled by scores of motorbikes and bicycles in addition to the buses -- probably not a single car! I am sitting on a stone bench next to a lovely sculpture of the Holy Family, listening to the hustle and bustle and horns of DaNang traffic outside the complex that comprises the cathedral, bishop’s residence, school rooms, church halls and the convent.

I have just been joined by a young priest – the brother of our driver these past days. He is from the DaNang diocese and is also a scout leader. We are having a good conversation about many things involving the Church in Vietnam – as well as scouting – but now have to go into the church to prepare for Mass. I will video the Mass and take photos and Father is one of the concelebrants.

More later…..

It is much later now and I am writing from Ho Chi Minh City, from one of the most famous hotels in this part of the world, the Rex Hotel. I am luxuriating in an amazing room in the new wing of the Rex and enjoying, as the expression goes, “champagne tastes on a beer budget.” The Rex opened in 1961 and its first guests were 400 U.S. Army soldiers. They stayed here a week as their tents were being set up in Saigon and Quy Nhon.

During the Vietnam War (called the American War in some guidebooks), the Rex became especially famous for hosting the daily military press conference which the journalists who resided in the Rex cynically called “The Five O’Clock Follies.”

(photos of the Mass)

Following Mass, the cathedral offered a buffet lunch for about 400-500 people. It was astonishing hospitality and prepared by a group of women in the parish!! It was a ton of fun and I could have stayed and spoken to the people for hours, especially the wonderful, joyful, enthusiastic young people! I wanted to charter a plane and bring them to Rome!

(In this photo, Joan Lewis dines with some of the vibrant young Vietnamese Catholics who attended the Father Capodanno Mass today in Vietnam)

Once again, as always happens on these trips, it is late and I am overdue for dinner so will close this chronicle of June 14, 2013, a celebration of the life of Servant of God Fr. Vincent Capodanno. The bishops spoke about him this morning but it was all naturally in Vietnamese and the only words I understood were Vincent Capodanno!

To get a feel for the day’s events and people, go to my many Youtube videos of this occasion. I know my Vietnamese friends in Rome and the U.S. will enjoy hearing Mass in their language – though the youth choir sang in English for the occasion and they were superb!

God sit on your shoulders, dear friends in DaNang.

Before I close, I wish America and Americans Happy Flag Day!

Write to Joan at:


Semper Fi

The example of Father Capodanno, in his life and in his death, shows us the meaning of the Marine Corps motto, "Semper Fi" ("Semper Fidelis," Always Faithful.) Here is an article written two years ago which well describes Capodanno's life and death:

Father Vincent Capodanno and the Meaning of “Sacrifice”

May 16, 2011

By Beth Crumley
If you have never visited Semper Fidelis Memorial Chapel on the grounds of the National Museum of the Marine Corps, you have missed visiting a truly inspirational place. It is a breathtakingly beautiful building, an edifice of stone, rich wood and soaring glass that derives much of its beauty from the surrounding landscape. It is also breathtakingly simple. Nestled in the woods, it was designed to pay homage to the improvised chapels found in the field, attended by those who bear the burden of war.

Last Wednesday was nothing short of a glorious spring day in Virginia. The skies were crystal clear, without a cloud, and vibrant blue. A warm breeze stirred the air. Springtime had brought the grounds surrounding the chapel to life. I was struck by how green the trees were, and by the sound of birds singing. And on this glorious spring day, several people had gathered for a private ceremony to dedicate the “Sacrifice” window in memory of Navy chaplain, and Medal of Honor recipient, Father Vincent Capodanno.

As a former theology student, and a Marine Corps historian, I have long had an interest in those chaplains who have chosen to serve with the Fleet Marine Force. Of particular interest to me were those who served in Vietnam. It was many years ago that I first heard of the “Grunt Padre,” Father Capodanno.

The son of an Italian immigrant, Vincent Capodanno was the youngest of ten children. He attended night classes at Fordham University and in 1949, confided to a close friend that he had felt a calling to the priesthood. He had read The Field Afar, a magazine published by the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, also known as the Maryknolls. Their training was different… in addition to traditional seminary courses of study, a Maryknoll’s training also included emergency medical care, basic sanitation and agrarian methods and survival tactics. Capodanno relished the challenges of the Maryknoll education and was ordained on 7 June 1957.

After serving in Taiwan and Hong Kong, Father Capodanno requested permission to join the Navy Chaplain Corps and serve the growing number of Marines arriving in Vietnam. Commissioned a lieutenant on 28 December 1965, Capodanno arrived in country in April 1966, assigned to 1st Battalion, 7th Marines.  Asked by a reporter why he had chosen to volunteer for service in Vietnam, Capodanno simply said, “I think I am needed here as are many more chaplains. I’m glad to help in any way I can.”

The Reverend Daniel Lawrence Mode, author of The Grunt Padre described this most extraordinary man of God and his service to the Marines in his spiritual care: “Known for a remarkable courage and tenacity, the grunts could hardly be prepared for the horrible realities of war they routinely saw each day -- deaths, brutal woundings, endless loneliness and depression, temptation to despair. To combat the darkness of the combatant, the light of Christ needed to be lit and carried. Such was the job of the Christian chaplain in a war zone… Father Capodanno chose to be more than just a priest assigned to minister to the tragedies of war. He became a spiritual comrade by removing all distinctions and obstacles between his grunts and himself in the way he had learned in his Maryknoll training and ministry. He lived, ate, and slept as the men did… Grunts recall in  vivid detail their padre keeping company with them through an entire night, isolated in distant and dangerous jungle outposts. Others recall the Grunt Padre leaping out of a helicopter in the midst of battle, blessing the troops, serving the Eucharist to the Catholics, and then leaping into a chopper heading off to another corner of active conflict… He remained at the side of the dying, present until the end, rather than let any man die alone, and then he sought to offer solid grounding and hope to the buddies who grieved at the loss of friends.”

While serving as the battalion chaplain with the 1st Medical Battalion, Father Capodanno requested an extension to his tour of duty. That extension granted, he continued to work tirelessly in his new assignment with the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines.

In September 1967, the 2d NVA Division moved into the Que Son Basin, south of Da Nang, in a planned effort to disrupt elections in the area. Operation Swift began when elements of the 5th Marines were attacked in the early morning hours of 4 September, southwest of Thang Binh. Father Capodanno had been travelling with the command post of Company M, 3d Battalion, 5th Marines. First Platoon came under heavy enemy fire. Second Platoon was ordered to assist. While crossing a small knoll they came under withering fire and radioed they were in danger of being overrun.
Father Capodanno left the relative safety of the command post and as his Medal of Honor citation describes, “ran through an open area raked with fire, directly to the beleaguered platoon. Disregarding the intense enemy small-arms, automatic weapons, and mortar fire, he moved about the battlefield administering last-rites to the dying and giving medical aid to the wounded. When an exploding mortar round inflicted painful multiple wounds to his arms and legs, and severed a portion of his right hand, he steadfastly refused all medical aid.”

Father Capodanno moved to the side of Sergeant Lawrence Peters. He recited the Lord’s Prayer with him. After Peters had died, he moved to comfort Corporal Ray Harton. He cradled the young corporal’s head, blessed the wounded Marine with his left hand, saying, “God is here with us, Marine, and help is on the way.”

As the fighting raged, Father Capodanno saw a young lance corporal giving aid to a wounded corpsman who was in danger of bleeding to death from a thigh wound. As the priest moved toward the wounded man, an enemy machine gunner set up his weapon no further than 15 meters away. Father Capodanno gathered the corpsman in his arms, and used his own body to shield the wounded man from enemy fire. He was struck and killed instantly, 27 bullets piercing his body.  He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

The day after his death, a letter written by Father Capodanno was delivered to the regimental commander. In the letter, the fallen priest had written, “I am due to go home in late November or early December. I humbly request that I stay over Christmas and New Year’s with my men. I am willing to relinquish my thirty days leave….”

Forty-four years later, we sat in Semper Fidelis Memorial Chapel, reflecting on the service of this extraordinary Servant of God, a title bestowed upon him by the Catholic Church. We contemplated the meaning of “sacrifice,” and pondered both his life and his death. Said one Marine, “He radiated the love of God. He was, in fact, the presence of God in our midst… He was an oasis in the midst of a very difficult situation. He was always willing to take on our burdens, to share in our sufferings and anxieties. Whenever I heard him speak I had a feeling of peace. If we were worried and anxious, he took our fears and burdens.”

In the closing moments of the dedication ceremony, Lieutenant General Ron Christmas reminded those gathered that we were in the Semper Fidelis Memorial Chapel -- “Always Faithful.”
“Have faith,” he said, “in those young men and women who wear the uniform. Have faith in your God, have faith in this great country, and have faith in our Corps.”

And let us remember the sacrifices of so many, and the sacrifice of Father Vincent Capodanno.

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