Vincent Robert Capodanno, born on February 13, 1929, in Staten Island, New York, was the tenth child of Italian immigrants, Vincent Robert Capodanno, Sr. and Rachel Basile Capodanno. Through the example of his parents, Vincent Jr. experienced the dignity of hard work, pride of family, strength of ethnic solidarity and most especially, love of their Catholic faith.
These values sustained the family during the Great Depression and following the sudden loss of their patriarch on young Vincent’s tenth birthday.
The American involvement in World War II impacted Vincent personally with three of his brothers serving in the military and fostered in him a profound patriotism and overt faith. Often before classes at Curtis High School, Vincent attended daily Mass at his home parish, a practice he continued after graduation and during his undergraduate years at Fordham University. While on a spiritual retreat in 1949 he confided to a close friend and fellow student his vocational desire.
Like many young adults of that era, Vincent was familiar with the missionary work of the Catholic Foreign Mission Society, the Maryknolls, through their magazine, The Field Afar. In following his call to share his faith by responding to peoples’ needs in Foreign Service, he applied to Maryknoll and received acceptance in 1949.
After nine years of intensive preparation in theology, academics, and basic survival tactics to fulfill the order’s mission to “Go and Teach All Nations,” Vincent completed his seminary training and was ordained in 1958 by Francis Cardinal Spellman, Archbishop of New York. Accompanied by the tolling of the seminary’s bell, an annual tradition of the departure service, Father Capodanno learned his destination: Taiwan. He arrived on the island in 1959, and immediately began studying the difficult language and acclimating to the culture of his future parishioners, the Hakka-Chinese. While serving that community, Father Capodanno administered the sacraments, taught native catechists, and distributed food and medicine. Although he struggled while trying to fully understand their language, he developed a subsequent ability to attentively listen in responding to his parishioners.
In the fall of 1960, he became the director of a youth hostel for young Chinese men preparing for the national college entrance exam. Besides overseeing their scholastic training, Father Capodanno was responsible for their spiritual and emotional needs, a significant challenge as the intense competition for college acceptance promoted depression and temptation of suicide. Several other short assignments occurred within six years followed by a six-month furlough and home visit. After returning to Taiwan, his superiors transferred Father Capodanno to Hong Kong, a decision he did not expect nor desire but which elicited a new response to God’s call of service.
By acknowledging a totally different vocational ministry, he sought permission to join the Navy Chaplain Corps intending to serve the increasing number of Marine troops in Vietnam. Eventually Maryknoll granted this request, and after finishing Officer Candidate School, during Holy Week of 1966, Father Capodanno reported to the 7th Marines in Vietnam. As the chaplain for the battalion, his immediate focus was the young enlisted troops or “Grunts.” 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 established libraries, gathered and distributed gifts and organized outreach programs for the local villagers. He spent hours reassuring the weary and disillusioned, consoling the grieving, hearing confessions, instructing converts, and distributing St. Christopher medals. Such work “energized” him, and he requested an extension to remain with the Marines. 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 and ran to the assistance of a wounded corpsman and the Marine he was assisting who were pinned down by an enemy machine gunner where he administered medical and spiritual attention. Despite being unarmed, the enemy opened fire and Father Capodanno, the victim of 27 bullet wounds, died faithfully performing his final act as a good and faithful servant of God.
Posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1969, Lieutenant Capodanno was also the recipient of the Navy Bronze Star medal, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star and the Purple Heart Medal. Soon after his death, the first chapel bearing his name was dedicated on Hill 51 in Que Son Valley, Vietnam; Chaplain Capodanno had helped build this simple place of prayer and peace that was constructed of thatched palms and bamboo. On February 1968, within five months of his death, the chapel at the Navy Chaplains School at Newport, RI, was dedicated the Capodanno Memorial Chapel. Other military chapels and commemorations are located in Oakland, CA, Camp Pendleton, CA, Fort Wadsworth, NY, Iwakuni, Japan, and Thiankou, Taiwan, the last of which honors the missionary who began his work in that country.
A significantly prestigious memorial was the naming of the USS Cappodanno, a ship whose motto “Duty with Honor” exemplified the chaplain service of Father Capodanno. During its 20 years of operational service, it was further distinguished as the first ship in the US Fleet to receive a Papal Blessing while docked in Naples. Further military buildings bearing his name include the Vincent Robert Capodanno Naval Clinic in Gaeta, Italy, Capodanno Hall, a bachelor officers’ quarters at the San Francisco Bay Naval Shipyard and the Capodanno Research Facility at the Navy personnel offices in Millington, TN. Other tributes, geographic reminders preserving his name are: Capodanno Boulevard in Staten Island, NY, and Capodanno Street at the Naval Base, Newport, RI. Father Capodanno’s name appears on many other veteran memorials throughout the United States honoring individual servicemen and certain designated groups such as the Freedom Foundation in Valley, Forge, PA; the Catholic Chaplains Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery; the Veterans Memorial, in Kokomo, IN; and the Vietnam Memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC, as well as the Chaplain Vincent R. Capodanno Shelter for Homeless Veterans, in Boston, MA.
Two artists have chosen to commemorate Father Capodanno’s heroic final moments: an oil painting by Douglas Rosa is displayed at the Chaplain School in Newport, RI, and a bronze statue by Antonio Pierotti stands at Ft. Wadsworth, Staten Island. The painting depicts the priest’s struggle to rescue the dying corpsman while the sculpture reveals a calm and prayerful chaplain administering to the Marine. Another dramatic representation of the priest, a modern sculpture, is situated in Gaeta, Italy’s town square which is also named for Father Capodanno. More recently Lewis Williams, an iconographer, reveals the priest in his military uniform holding a prayer book, a premonition of his total sacrifice for God and country.
Annual awards and scholarships continue to honor Father Capodanno. Since 1971, the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation designates a recipient among children of Marine Corps members. In 2002 the former Chaplain of the Year Award was renamed the Father Vincent Capodanno Chaplain of the Year Award. Sixteen Knights of Columbus assemblies and councils throughout the United States have chosen Father Capodanno for their patron; similarly the Veterans of Foreign Wars have honored the chaplain by naming several posts after him.
The continuation of these acknowledgments demonstrates the enduring love and respect that Father Capodanno inspires. Since his death in 1967 people wishing to honor his memory have chosen specific and eloquent ways to honor the holiness that this man of God radiated in his lifetime and afterward.