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A Grunt Padre links old enemies as friends

DANANG (SE): Billed as a prayer of reconciliation and peace between two nations, Bishop Joseph Tri presided at a Mass on June 14 in his cathedral in DaNang, Vietnam, in honour of a chaplain from the United States of America (US) Marine Corps, Father Vince Capodanno, who died on 4 September 1967 on the battlefields of nearby Que Son Valley during what is known as Operation Swift.

It was the worst day for causalities for the US troops of the whole Vietnam War and eye witnesses testify that Father Capodanno, better known to the men as Padre Grunt, died just 15 seconds after telling one dying marine, “Stay quiet marine. You will be okay. God is with us this day.”

He then rushed to another corpsman crying out for help and, as he used his own body to shield the wounded man, both were cut down in a hail of machine gun fire.

The cause of Padre Grunt has been put forward for canonisation, but Bishop Tri chose to celebrate the Mass in his memory on June 14, the 55th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood for the Maryknoll Mission Society by Francis Cardinal Spellman in New York.

A Mass had been celebrated in the village of Que Chau, near the Que Son battlefield, two days previously, but still busloads of people made the journey to the cathedral from the village to be present at the Mass of reconciliation.

Bishop Tri told a former captain from the US Navy, Ted Bronson, that he intends to make the Mass an annual event. He described it as a sign of peace between the American and Vietnamese people, who attended the celebration of Padre Grunt’s life in roughly equal numbers, nearly half a century after the end of the Vietnam War.

Bronson was primarily responsible for organising the Mass and is also a strong protagonist for the Marine chaplain’s canonisation. He believes that he was a holy man who died a holy death in the service of God’s children.

Joan Lewis, a correspondent for EWTN Catholic Television, flew to Vietnam for the occasion. She described the most touching part of the day as looking into the faces of the Vietnamese people gathered in the cathedral.

She described the people as “exuding pure, intense, single focus faith. It seems as if, were they asked to give up their faith, they would instead join the Martyrs of Vietnam.”

Lewis said that one of the most telling displays of dedication to the memory of Father Capodanno was a sit down lunch for around 600 people hosted by the women of the DaNang cathedral parish after the Mass. “It was a Vietnamese food feast,” she said.

“It was astonishing hospitality… It was a ton of fun and I could have stayed and spoken to people for hours, especially the wonderful, joyful, enthusiastic young people. I wanted to charter a plane and bring them to Rome,” Lewis enthused.

She also described part of the hospitality as linking the language barrier between the two peoples with English hymns during the Mass, courtesy of the young people present for the occasion.

She explained that the Mass was an initiative arising from a conversation after a Mass celebrated at Santa Susanna church in Rome on May 21 last year to launch the cause for Father Capodanno’s canonisation.

Marine historian, Beth Crumley, describes Father Capodanno as a missionary to the very core. The youngest of 10 children, he joined Maryknoll after graduation from Fordham University in 1949.

He worked in Taiwan and Hong Kong prior to being commissioned in the Marines on 28 December 1965. He arrived in Vietnam in April 1966, telling a reporter he had volunteered because, “I think I am needed here, as are many more chaplains. I’m glad to help in any way I can.”

Reverend Daniel Lawrence Mode, author of The Grunt Padre, described him in this way. “Known for a remarkable courage and tenacity, the grunts could hardly be prepared for the horrible realities of war they routinely saw every day—to combat the darkness of the combatant, the light of Christ needed to be lit and carried… Father Capodanno chose to be more than just a priest assigned to minister to the tragedies of war.”

Mode continues, “He became a spiritual comrade by removing all distinctions and obstacles between his grunts and himself in the way he had learned in his Maryknoll training and ministry.”

Mode says that he ate and slept as his men did… to combat the darkness of the combatant, as the light of Christ needed to be lit and carried.

The citation on his Medal of Honour reads, “Disregarding the intense enemy… fire… he moved about the battlefield administering the last rites to the dying and giving medical aid to the wounded.

“When an exploding mortar inflicted painful multiple wounds to his arms and legs, and severed a portion of his right hand, he blessed the wounded Marine with his left hand, uttering what are now remembered as his last words.”


Whatever Father Capodanno achieved in life is well documented, but in death he has become a much loved symbol of a new relationship between two previously warring peoples

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