Next time you drive over the Verrazano Bridge heading out of Brooklyn and into Staten Island, get into the right lane and follow the big sign for “Father Capodanno Boulevard” where you will find his grave. Father Vincent Capodanno was a Maryknoll priest and a lieutenant in the United States Marines Corp. Father Capodanno served in Vietnam and gave his life as a martyr at 38 years of age at 4:30 AM on September 4, 1967. I was thinking of him last week which marked 52 years ago when he threw his body over another Marine in South Vietnam and was riddled with 27 fatal bullets in his back. I know his family. He is an American hero. He is soon to become the first member of the US military to become a saint.
He came from Staten Island and made his way eventually to the battle fields of Vietnam by way of the priesthood. His was the pilgrimage of a saint. To the end of his life he faithfully held to the truth of Christ that “greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends.” Lieutenant Capodanno did this as he died a martyr for a soldier of D company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines in Que Son Valley, South Vietnam.
You will note that a priest always blesses with his right hand, but in those final minutes, Father Capodanno’s right hand had been blown apart, and so he had to bless and absolve the dying marine with his left hand. An eyewitness tells “we counted 27 gunshot wounds…saw the shrapnel embedded in his shoulder…and some fingers missing from his hand. The shot that killed Father entered his head from the back of his neck. Most of the gunshot wounds were in his back. Usually we looked down upon anyone with a wound in his back because it was a sign he was running away…but Father Capodanno was running deliberately to shield another Marine with his own body.”
One of the young Marines who were there that day said: “Of all the deaths I saw in Vietnam, the greatest was his. I don’t know if he knew the tremendous impact he had on me. I returned to my faith because of him. In my life he is a saint.”
One man who knew Father Capodanno recalled a young corpsman brought to the hospital with severe burns. The corpsman’s body was burned to the nerves. He knew he was about to die, and so he asked to see a Catholic priest and go to Confession before his death. Father Capodanno heard the young man’s Confession and asked him if there was anything he wanted. “One thing” he responded. “A beer.” Father Capodanno immediately went to the officer’s club and got a beer for him, then stayed with him and held him until he died. For the Catholic, the presence of the priest at death is a consolation beyond price.
Sergeant Lawrence Peters, Corporal Ray Harton, Lance Corporal John Scafidid. They all attest to the truth that, in the jungles of Vietnam, Father Capodanno wanted “to help us pass from this life to the next, to give us comfort and consolation in a place where death was everywhere.”
After Father Capodanno’s death, the new priest chaplain went to the mortuary. He had to identify and bless the body of his brother Marine and priest. He recollects that the mortuary was a long Quonset hut containing “uncountable bloated and grotesque bodies.” The Army Master Sergeant, a devout Catholic, took the new priest to bless Father Capodanno’s body. It was not disfigured like all the other bodies. It was miraculously preserved. At his funeral a young Marine asked the new priest “If his life meant so much to him, why did Father Capodanno allow his own life to be taken?” The priest replied “it was precisely because Father Capdanno loved the lives of others more than his own that he so freely gave his own life.”
Father Capodanno eventually was awarded the Medal of Honor, the Bronze Star and 3 Purple Hearts. He has had streets, hospitals, chapels and Navy ships named after him throughout the world. But the most important thing to him was that he was a priest and chaplain. The word “chaplain” derives from the Latin word for “cloak.” It was the cloak of the early Christian Saint Martin of Tours which became the symbol of brotherly love manifested by the many men who would serve selflessly as chaplains throughout the world. Like Father Capodanno, Saint Martin of Tours began his life as a soldier, but ended his life as a soldier for Christ.