Remembering the ‘Grunt Padre’
June 6, 2012 - The sounds of Operation Swift left an indelible mark on the marines who survived that day—one of the bloodier in the Vietnam war.
It began when 200 U.S. marines were surrounded and ambushed by 2,500 North Vietnamese Army soldiers. It was nearly impossible to tell where enemy fire was coming from. One soldier likened the disorienting noise of the weapons being unleashed on them from all sides to Niagara Falls. It was a relentless rain of bullets and mortar attacks. To add to the chaos, over half the Marines’ M-16s failed that day. Father Vincent Capodanno, affectionately called “the grunt padre” by his Marines because he was always with them in the worst of conditions, ran into that rain of death to minister to them. He always did.
It wasn’t enough for Father Capodanno to celebrate Mass for Marines in the safety of the barracks. He wanted to bring Christ to them wherever they were.
“He was told several times that it was not his job to go on patrols ... yet you had to watch him like a hawk as it was not uncommon to see a group of Marines running to get on a helicopter to go to a battle and all of a sudden this figure comes out of nowhere, no rifle, just his priest gear, and jumping in the helicopter before anybody could catch him,” recalled1st Lt. R.J. Marnell.
Captain Lewis Dale will never forget seeing two Marines walking on the dykes to their base in the evening, being fired on by snipers. “What idiots are coming here at this hour?” he thought. When he saw who it was he asked the obvious, “What are you doing?!” Father Capodanno’s reply was simple: “I need to be with the men. I need to say Mass with them.”
Given this track record, it probably came as no surprise to his Marines when they saw the priest on the battlefield of Operation Swift.
In addition to bringing the sacraments, Father Capodanno saved several lives that day. Among them was Steven Lovejoy, a rifleman and radio operator. Under heavy enemy fire, “he literally grabbed me by my pack straps and threw me into a bomb crater!” Lovejoy said. “When we came under gas attack, I offered Father Capodanno my gas mask but he said, ‘No, you need it more than I do.’ He had a very calm look about him, which gave me a sense that I would survive. Had Father Capodanno not been there I would have surely perished since everyone else nearby was either wounded or killed in action. Had I not survived, my two children and three grandsons would not be here today.”
The priest’s heroic actions were infused with a supernatural calm that he brought to everyone he encountered. Corporal Ray Harton had been hit with shrapnel and was laying alone, terrified and convinced that he was going to die. When the priest knelt at his side the deafening noise of the battlefield instantly fell silent. All he heard was Father Capodanno’s voice: “God is with us all this day. Someone will be here soon to help you.” Harton made it out that day.
Father Capodanno sustained one injury after another on the battlefield but he continued his mission without regard for his own life. His right hand shattered by a bullet, and later his right arm left in shreds by a mortar attack, he refused numerous offers for a medevac. Instead he continued his rounds on the battlefield, using his left arm to move his right as he gave last rites to dying Marines.
Father Capodanno was among the 127 U.S. Marines who gave their lives that day. He was cut down by a burst of machine gunfire as he ran to minister to a medic who had been shot.
The Grunt Padre didn’t only die for a political cause, but as many in our military have, “laying down his life for his friends” (compare Jn 15:13), thus shining the light of charity with a laser clarity into the fog of war.
Father Capodanno posthumously received the Medal of Honor, along with several other medals. The USS Capodanno was named after him. He has been declared “servant of God,” the first step in the cause for canonization. No doubt, countless others who have risen to heroic charity in the chaos of war would be worthy of the same honors, though for many of them, their heroism is only recorded on the other side of eternity.
Father Capodanno’s name is listed with 58,272 others on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The only way to see it is to kneel.
Speaker and author Christopher Stefanick is director of youth outreach for YDisciple. Visit him at www.RealLifeCatholic.com. Stefanick’s column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Denver Archdiocese.