An ex-Marine recounts inspiration of Maryknoll priest killed in Vietnam War
In the midst of the mortal maelstrom that is war, amid the terror of battle, the deafening din of mortar fire, the incessant bursts of rifles, machine guns and grenade launchers, and the roar of helicopter rotors, a Maryknoll priest was able to transcend the chaos to hear the cries and moaning of wounded soldiers during the Vietnam War and share with them the mercy of God.
On his last day of mission, after hours of intense battle in the Que Son Valley that Sept. 4, 1967, Father Vincent R. Capodanno was seriously wounded. When a mortar explosion severed part of his hand and inflicted multiple wounds to his arms and legs—according to the official citation of his posthumously awarded Congressional Medal of Honor—Father Capodanno refused medical help.
Instead, Father Capodanno, who as a military chaplain assigned to the U.S. Marines carried no firearm, continued moving through the battlefield, giving medical aid to the injured and anointing the dying. When he saw a wounded Marine lying directly in the line of enemy fire, the priest rushed to help him, only to be cut down by a North Vietnamese machine gunner, ending the life of the 38-year-old missioner.
Almost 50 years after the death of Father Capodanno, one of the Marines present at the battle that claimed the Maryknoll priest’s life joined some 800 supporters of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers for Mass and a recognition luncheon at the Maryknoll campus for the donors who make the mission society’s work possible. James Hamfeldt, a real estate agent from Morristown, N.J., still recalls that battle and the courage of Father Capodanno, crediting the missioner with later inspiring a renewal of the veteran’s Catholic faith.
“I’m a Maryknoll benefactor because I knew Father Vincent Capodanno,” Hamfeldt says.
“He was our shepherd, I guess you could say. … Spiritually just having him there was a great relief,” continues Hamfeldt, who was a 20-year-old Marine when he met the Maryknoll missioner. “He was a father figure besides being a priest, and he understood things about us that maybe we didn’t even understand.”
Father Capodanno “seemed fearless” and repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire as he sought to help the wounded, Hamfeldt says. “He had the kind of courage you can only get if you have God on your side.”
Many of his fellow Marines felt the same about the Maryknoll missioner, Hamfeldt says. “Everybody loved him,” he says of Father Capodanno. “One thing he would always tell everybody is try not to lose our humanity.”
Hamfeldt, who after the trauma of the war grew away from the Church for many years, says the memory of Father Capodanno stayed with him and eventually led him to refocus his life and rediscover his faith.
The veteran, who says he is almost 70, talks in generalities about the horrors of war and falls silent to avoid the harshest details. More than 1.3 million people lost their lives in the conflict, including 58,000 members of the U.S. armed forces. Many of the now aging Vietnam veterans continue to suffer the physical and psychological scars of the war.
Those who served with Father Capodanno are not the only ones to pay tribute to the heroism with which the Maryknoll priest shared the love and compassion of God in the middle of war. The Archdiocese for the Military Services, U.S.A. officially opened the process for the cause for canonization of Father Capodanno on May 19, 2002, and in 2013 a Catholic non-profit association, the Father Vincent Capodanno Guild, inaugurated a website (www.capodannoguild.org) to share the details of the missioner’s heroic life and death. He was declared a Servant of God, the first step toward canonization, in 2006.
The guild gives this brief summary of Father Capodanno’s service and final hours: “During Holy Week of 1966, Father Capodanno reported to the 7th Marines in Vietnam as the chaplain for the battalion. Later transferred to a medical unit, Father Capodanno was more than a priest, ministering within the horrific arena of war. He became a constant companion to the Marines: living, eating, and sleeping in the same conditions of the men. He spent hours reassuring the weary and disillusioned, consoling the grieving, hearing confessions, instructing converts, and distributing St. Christopher medals.
“It was during his second tour on September 4, 1967, with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines that Father Vincent Capodanno made the ultimate sacrifice. After hours of heavy fighting from a North Vietnamese ambush, Father Capodanno, himself seriously injured, sighted a wounded corpsman pinned down by an enemy machine gunner. He ran to the Marine and administered medical and spiritual attention. Despite that Father Capodanno was unarmed, the enemy opened fire and he became the victim of 27 bullet wounds. He died faithfully performing his final act as a good and faithful servant of God.”
Father Raymond Finch, Maryknoll superior general, says: “Mission is giving ourselves freely to the people whom we serve. As a chaplain, Father Capodanno gave his life for the men he served. He is an example for all of us and a true Maryknoll missioner.”
Father Capodanno, who was born on Staten Island, N.Y., was ordained to the priesthood as a Maryknoll missionary in 1958. His mission assignments took him first to Taiwan and later to Hong Kong. During the escalating Vietnam War, Father Capodanno requested and received permission to enlist in the Navy Chaplain Corps and was assigned to serve with the Marines. He is one of only five military chaplains to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, the country’s highest military honor, and the only one of those assigned to the Marines.
Hamfeldt says Father Capodanno’s heroism and compassion continue saving the spiritual lives of many people and the Maryknoll priest is a guide on the road to the reign of God. The canonization process to sainthood could take decades, but for Hamfeldt and many others, Father Capodanno is already a saint.
“I want to see Father Vincent later,” Hamfeldt says. “I know where he is, and that’s where I want to be.”
Featured Image: Father Vincent Capodanno leads a prayer service for his Marine battalion. (Maryknoll Mission Archives)