WASHINGTON, D.C. – From the weathered row houses of Staten Island, N.Y., to a ghostly quiet hillside in Vietnam, a roving documentary film camera will take television viewers on the incredible life journey of Vietnam War hero and U.S. Navy Chaplain Father Vincent R. Capodanno, M.M., Servant of God. The hour-long film, jointly underwritten by the Father Vincent Capodanno Guildand Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), is being produced by award-winning filmmaker James C. Kelty. The documentary is set to air on EWTN sometime next year. Proceeds from the sale of DVDs will help defray expenses for the Guild. “It is a major undertaking for us,” said Guild Chairman George Phillips, USMC (Ret), who explained the purpose of the Guild—and the film—is “to secure funds to pay for expenses associated with the Cause for canonization of Father Capodanno, and to spread the news” about the priest hero.
Father Capodanno, a Maryknoll missionary from Staten Island, died Sept. 4, 1967, suffering more than two dozen bullet wounds on a bloody hillside in Vietnam’s Que Son Valley where outnumbered U.S. Marines fought for their lives, pinned down under ambush by North Vietnamese regulars in “fixed bayonet combat.” By the time of the ambush, which came during a Marine offensive called “Operation Swift,” Father Capodanno had been serving in theNavy Chaplain Corps for nearly two years, and he had gained a reputation for his exceptional pastoral concern for the Marine enlistees, or “grunts,” who did the heavy lifting of war. In his book, The Grunt Padre (CMJ Marian), FatherDaniel L. Mode paints a vivid scene of the Que Son Valley bloodbath, quoting survivor accounts of Father Capodanno moving fearlessly around the battlefield, consoling and anointing those in agony and hauling the suffering to safety. Then-Private First Class Julio Rodriguez recalls the moment he first spotted the chaplain. “He was carrying a wounded Marine,” Mr. Rodriguez says. “After he brought him to the relative safety of our perimeter, he continued to go back and forth giving Last Rites to dying men and bringing in wounded Marines. He made many trips, telling us to ‘stay cool; don’t panic.’” Another Marine survivor, Mr. Keith J. Rounseville, then a corporal, says Father Capodanno “was jumping over my (fox) hole, all the while exposing himself to enemy machine gun fire to try and give aid to a wounded Marine. Chaplain Capodanno looked and acted cool and calm, as if there wasn’t an enemy in sight. As he reached the wounded Marine, Chaplain Capodanno lay down beside him and gave him aid and verbal encouragement and telling him medical help was on the way.” Mr. David Brooks, also a Marine corporal at the time of the firefight, says “the chaplain’s example of action gave courage to everyone who observed him and sparked others to action. Quite a few more people would have died if not for him.” Mr. Brooks recalls Father Capodanno suffered his first wound in the right shoulder from mortar shrapnel as he rushed to aid a dying squad leader. Holding his right arm, the priest reached the squad leader’s side, Mr. Brooks says, where the two joined in the Lord’s Prayer. Mr. Brooks says the chaplain stayed at the man’s side for about five minutes until he died.
For his uncommon valor, Father Capodanno in 1969 was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration.
According to various accounts, even in death, Father Capodanno has continued to inspire courage and hope, drawing supplications from those in need. Some have claimed to experience extraordinary favors upon seeking the intercession of the hero chaplain. They include a Vietnamese nun whose recovery from advanced cancer came without apparent medical explanation. Some of these accounts are under investigation by the Holy See’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints as the Church considers Father Capodanno’s Cause for canonization, a process that began in May 2006 when the Church declared the exemplary priest a “Servant of God.”
In the ongoing film production, Mr. Kelty is tracing the Servant of God’s story through his boyhood on Staten Island, his years at the Maryknoll Seminary in upstate New York, his time as a missionary in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and his ultimate service and sacrifice as a Navy chaplain. Mr. Kelty is in the process of interviewing family members and many of those with whom Father Capodanno served during his remarkable ministry. “I want to capture through the memories of those who knew him the essence of Father Capodanno’s humanity, how he seemed to inhabit the world of the sacred and the world of the profane with equal poise, dignity and courage.” The production schedule includes a planned visit to Vietnam on the Sept. 4th anniversary of Father Capodanno’s death. There, Mr. Kelty will accompany Father Mode and some who served with Father Capodanno to the Que Son Valley hillside where the “grunt padre” gave his all for God, Country, and fellow defenders of liberty. “The Vietnam trip is a chance to get location visuals,” Mr. Kelty said, “to walk alongside the pilgrims as they think, remember, and rekindle their memories in the place where it happened 49 years ago to the day.”
Mr. Kelty is no novice to Catholic filmmaking. His 2015 filmKateri, about the life of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the 17th Century Algonquin “Lily of the Mohawks,” has just been named winner of the Capax Dei Foundation Award. Mr. Kelty accepted the award on Thursday in Rome at the Mirabile Dictu International Catholic film festival, promoted by the Holy See’s Pontifical Council for Culture. Mr. Kelty’s other film credits include the 2013 television mini-seriesSerra: Ever Forward Never Back, about the life of 18th Century Franciscan missionary St. Junípero Serra y Ferrer, who was canonized by Pope Francis during his September 2015 visit to Washington, D.C.