September 4, 1967, Hill 63, near Chu Lai, South Vietnam
Although he never signed up for combat, Father Vincent Capodanno boarded the chopper with the last group of Marines of Mike Company, headed to the Operation Swift battlefield in the Que Son Valley. Priests did not accompany men going into battle, but Capodanno knew he was needed; the Marines of Bravo and Delta companies of the 1/5 were in trouble, vastly outnumbered.
At 38, Capodanno was older than the other Marines, including the commanding officers. Tall and good-looking, he had already served one tour in Vietnam and had requested an extension. In his short time with the 3/5, he had already made a strong impression. It wasn’t just the words in his sermons. It was the way he lived his life, demonstrating his faith in his every act of concern for his fellow Marines. He spent more time with the troops than with the other officers and lived, ate and slept in the same quarters as the enlisted men, often keeping watch with them in their posts, sharing his rations with them, and hearing their confessions—whether or not they were Catholic.
Mike Company came under fire as they made their way toward the battle zone. The NVA had been waiting, knowing that reinforcements would be coming. Hearing cries for help, Father Capodanno kept low and headed in their direction. He came upon a scene littered with wounded Marines. He moved among the men, giving encouragement, praying, and consoling the dying. Seeing a young Marine knocked down in a hail of bullets, Capodanno rushed to his aid only to be riddled with bullets himself, ultimately succumbing to NVA bayonets as the enemy charged forward. He made the ultimate sacrifice while acting as a 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.
Based on 50 interviews of survivors and relatives of the men who were there, the story of Father Capodanno is told in my book ‘Swift Sword: The true story of the Marines of MIKE 3/5 in Vietnam, 4 September 1967.