Labor Day, September 4, 1967, in the United States was just like so many other Labor Days before: the last day before the start of school, a federal holiday, banks and stores closed, and people preparing to join friends and family for backyard barbeques.
But some 8,000 miles away in South Vietnam it marked the start of an epic 11 day battle known as Operation SWIFT. Today it is primarily remembered by military history buffs, as well as those who honor the memory of a Navy chaplain who lost his life after 30 minutes of battle, Fr. Vincent Capodanno, MM.
But what Father did during those 30 minutes not only earned him the Medal of Honor, it has propelled his beatification cause.
From Staten Island to South Vietnam
Born February 13, 1929, Capodanno grew up on Staten Island, New York, the youngest of nine children born to a Brooklyn-born mother of Italian ancestry and a father who immigrated to New York from Gaeta, Italy. According to his last surviving sister Gloria Holman, the home was a happy one, and “Vin” or “Junior” “was serious, his personality, more so than not, you know?”
His cousin Al Lambert remembers Junior, like his mother, had a fantastic sense of humor, and when he laughed, his whole body shook. He also says he was very fastidious.
Capodanno heard his calling to the priesthood at age 18 and entered the Maryknoll Missionary Seminary at 20. On June 14, 1958, he received holy orders at the hands of New York’s Francis Cardinal Spellman.
His superiors first posted him amongst the aboriginal tribesman in Taiwan’s mountains. Then they stationed him at the order’s school in Hong Kong. The new assignment did not thrill him, but he went without protest.
By this time the Vietnam War had begun, and so Capodanno asked for and received permission to enter the Navy chaplaincy corps.
His cousin Al says he did this because “he always went to the need,” and he perceived the front lines is where there was the greatest need.
He received his commission as a chaplain on December 28, 1965, and was attached to the 1/7 (1st Battalion, 7th Marines) in April 1966.
Chaplains simply did not go out with troops on missions. They were told – and most were content – to stay in the rear where there was no fight.
Not Father. “Wherever the Marines were, Father Capodanno was there, in theater or in the mud up to his knees, said a Marine who knew him.
Lt. RJ Marnell remembers, “Fr. Capodanno was … told several times it was not his job to go on patrols, fire sweeps, etc. 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 into 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. He wanted to be with his Marines and didn’t feel his job was simply to say Mass on Sundays.”
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