Just before reaching the imposing, stainless steel structure of the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Virginia, one finds a simple stone and glass building situated on a nearby hill. It is the Semper Fidelis Memorial Chapel: a place of grace. Each of the ten large glass panes that form the actual walls of the chapel commemorates an animating principle, an imperative, of the Marine Corps spirit. Some of these panes bear the words “courage,” “commitment,” and “integrity.” The plain glass window etched with the word “sacrifice” is dedicated to Father Vincent Capodanno, a United States Navy chaplain who served with the Marines in Vietnam and who died there on September 4, 1967. He was born 83 years ago this month, on February 13, 1929. For his heroism in Vietnam, he won the Congressional Medal of Honor which was awarded posthumously, as it so often is. An effort for his canonization by the Catholic Church is underway.
Fr. Capodanno lived a life of humble service to his Marines and his church. As his biographer, Fr. Daniel L. Mode, notes that “he lived as a Grunt Marine. Wherever they went, he went. Whatever burdens they had to carry he shared the load. In a short time, the Grunt Marines recognized Father Vincent’s determination to be with them and one of them. They respectfully and affectionately dubbed him, ‘The Grunt Padre’.”
A Maryknoll missionary priest, Father Capodanno served in Taiwan and Hong Kong before entering the Chaplain Corps. Commissioned as a Lieutenant, he served his first tour in Vietnam in 1966 with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division. In January of 1967, he realized his tour would be over in April of that year. According to Fr. Mode, upon completion of their Vietnam tour, chaplains normally returned to the United States for their next assignment. As he states, “Few chaplains ever applied to extend and even fewer had their request approved.” But Fr. Capodanno asked for an extension in order to remain in Vietnam with his Marines. Again, Fr. Mode remarks on the priest’s dedication and courage:
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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This chaplain did not recoil from danger. As his Marines assembled for combat operations, he would be there. He crowded into any available helicopter space and flew into the “hot landing zones” to be available to Marines facing combat…. During firefights, all the infantrymen watched over him, because they knew Father Vincent would otherwise move forward with complete disregard for his own life to render aid to any wounded or dying Marine.
Such willing and selfless service would have remained largely anonymous except for his heroic death on September 4th, 1967. During a battle in the Thang Binh District of the Que Son Valley, brutal fighting ensued between members of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines and the North Vietnamese. The Americans were greatly outnumbered and casualties were high. When reinforcements were sent in, Fr. Capodanno asked to accompany them.
In the midst of this deadly conflict and consistent with his own reputation for always being there for his Marines, he comforted and ministered to the wounded and dying. The citation for the Medal of Honor, awarded on January 7, 1969, reads in part:
In response to reports that the 2d Platoon of M Company was in danger of being overrun by a massed enemy assaulting force, Lt. Capodanno left the relative safety of the company command post and 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… Upon encountering a wounded corpsman in the direct line of fire of an enemy machine gunner positioned approximately 15 yards away, Lt. Capodanno rushed a daring attempt to aid and assist the mortally wounded corpsman. At that instant, only inches from his goal, he was struck down by a burst of machine gun fire.
The poet Keats once observed that “A man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory.” In the life of Fr. Vincent Capodanno, we can see a clear allegory for the two themes in St. Augustine’s writings: free will and divine grace. In his On the Free Choice of Will, St. Augustine cautions his readers about the folly of those “who defend the grace of God in such a way that they deny human free choice, or who hold that free choice is denied when grace is defended.” He confirms that God gave us free will, but reminds us of God’s grace, “without which we can do nothing well.” Fr. Capodanno did, indeed, do many things well, as can be witnessed by his extraordinary life. And while free will guided his choices of priesthood and military service, surely grace had its role too.
Fr. Capodanno freely chose and fulfilled the imperatives of the Marine Corps and of the priesthood. He is an eloquent example of how both will and grace can work in lives of exemplary dignity and service. Indeed, he represents how—in a life of great worth—will and grace can be so perfectly reconciled. It was by his own free will that Fr. Capodanno entered the priesthood and then the Chaplain Corps. Of his own free choice, he went to Vietnam and served gallantly there. But perhaps it was grace that moved him to remain when he might have left, grace that enabled him to offer great comfort to the injured and dying even under fire and grace that inspired him to offer his life for another.
Remembrance is yet another imperative of the military. It is fitting, then, that we remember the willing sacrifice of a hero who would have turned 83 this month but, instead, died at 38. It is fitting that we remember a beloved chaplain who is honored on an unadorned window in the humble glass chapel next to the Marine Corps Museum’s looming spire.