Fred Tancke recalls the death-filled day of September 4, 1967 when the Grunt Padre, Father Vincent Capodanno, USN Chaplain Corps was killed as he heroically ministered to the wounded and dying. For his action above and beyond the call of duty, Chaplain Capodonna received the Medal of Honor. Marine Fred Francke wrote the recommendation for the Grunt Padre to receive the MOH award.
This is written on 15Feb08 in Arizona:
On August 3rd 1966 I went to boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina. After graduation from boot camp I was assigned an MOS of 0311 (infantry). I went to basic and advanced infantry training at Camp Geiger, North Carolina. At the completion of infantry training I was assigned to the 6th Marines in Camp Lejuene. Because I was still 17 years old I could not be sent to Vietnam until I turned 18. On Nov.7th I turned 18 and soon after I received orders to Vietnam. In December after leave I arrived in Camp Pendleton for indoctrination and training for Vietnam. We took a ship from San Diego Calif. in the first week of Jan, arriving in Vietnam on Jan 26th. We landed in Danang and flew down to Chu Lai on a C 130. I was assigned to Mike Co 3/5 and joined with them on hill 69.
Soon after my arrival we started operation De Soto. We went to the south to help out the 7th Marines. During the operation we conducted numerous search and destroy missions. In late April we were deployed on operation Union I and stayed on that operation until May 16th. In the beginning of June we were on operation Union II. Both operations Union I and II were in the Que Son Province. Mike Co 3/5 had already suffered many casualties fighting the NVA Divisions which had a strong foothold in the Que Son province. We conducted other operations from June 16th which was the end of Union II.
The first time I saw Father Capodanno was on Sept. 4th when our Company was preparing to go on Operation Swift. We were going back to Que Son to help two companies from 1/5 who were under attack by the 2nd NVA Division. We were waiting for the helicopters to arrive and had towels wrapped around our M-16s to prevent them from getting dirt in the chambers. Were having problems with rifles jamming, actually they were double feeding because the spent cartridge was not being extracted and ejected causing a new round to be fed behind the spent cartridge. To clear the weapon the new round was removed and the old one was punched out of the chamber with a cleaning rod, Similar to using a musket. Anyway Mike Company and Kilo company who was staging at another area were waiting to load helicopters. Chaplain Capodanno was walking amongst the Marines talking with them, giving them encouragement, helping them to feel more at ease. Lt Col. Webster the BN commander was also there telling us we were going to help 1/5 out and we were going against the 2nd NVA Division, which consisted of approximately 2000 soldiers. When asked by me in a shy voice if any other companies were going with us, he replied something like you will make the Marine Corps proud today. At that point I had a bad feeling. Years later it was determined by direct interview with an NVA Colonel that was there, that there were 6000 soldiers waiting for us.
We loaded the helicopters at approximately 1130 hours and landed in the landing zone at approximately 1230 hours. We landed about a mile from the original LZ because it was considered too hot to land at the original LZ Kilo Company was now about a mile away from us. After landing we hiked to knoll covered with small shrubs which also had bomb craters. We were deployed in a company wedge which is a triangle formation. !st platoon was at the top point of the triangle while 2nd platoon was on the bottom right and 3rd was at the left bottom went to the right and 1st Platoon was out front. It was like a triangle. 1st Platoon engaged in heavy fire at the tree line below the crest of the hill. Sgt Peters ordered the first and second squads to get on line to attack the tree line and village to relieve the pressure that 1st platoon was getting from the NVA. While attempting to organize and get all of the Marines on line we received a barrage of mortar fire, fire from machine guns and small arms fire from the main tree line and now from our right flank. The NVA were attacking from the right. I could see hundreds of NVA soldiers running from our front to the right of our position. The NVA pulled a left envelopment n our platoon, basically almost surrounding 2nd platoon and cutting us off from the 1st and 3rd platoons. We were getting heavy casualties at the time. Sgt. Peters was wounded but he continued to give direction and leadership to the marines on the downward slope. Sgt. Peters would be awarded the MOH posthumously. Then the NVA came around our right side and came sweeping up the hill on us and as we were backing up the hill and firing at them I came across Corpsman Armando Leal. He was shot in his right thigh and bleeding out from the femur artery. He told me to put my fingers inside his leg to pinch off the artery, which I did. I began dragging him up the hill. While crawling up the hill my helmet fell off my head. As I picked up my helmet and was putting it back on my head, an NVA soldier shot the helmet out of my right hand taking part of my ring finger off. A fragment of the bullet also wounded Leal. He told me that he was hit but I didnít know where. I continued to drag him up the hill scooting on our butts. Four Marines came up behind me and tried to help me but they were standing upright and one or two were shot. One of the Marines shot was Steven Cornell he was shot in the upper right chest. I yelled for the others to back up the hill and get down. They got Steven back up the hill, However I learned that he died later that night. I was still trying to get Leal up the hill. As I got almost to the crest of the hill, I turned to the left and I saw an NVA machine gunner about five meters away, he appeared to be on some type of drug, possibly hopped up on morphine. He was laughing at me while he just crouched down looking at me. I moved about four to six feet away from Leal to the left so I could focus in on the machine gunner and help conceal Leal from him. I was sure that I was going to take him out and aimed in on him. I pulled the trigger but my rifle wouldn't fire, it was jammed. Then I went to try to get a grenade and I couldnít unsnap my grenade pouch with my right hand. I became anxious and turned to Leal. I told him that we had to go. He looked at me as if he new he was dying and said you go. I said no we have to go the gunner is going to fire. I looked back at the gunner at which time he stopped smiling and was putting his finger on the trigger. I turned away from him as to expect to be shot and leaped to my feet and took two steps as he fired. I heard bullets going by my head and dove into a crater a few feet away where there were other marines. I dove across the lap of a Marine who was shot in the shoulder by the gunner as I fell across him. Prior to this gunshot wound he had already been shot in the other shoulder. As I dove in the crater my helmet came down and broke my nose. The Marine who was now wounded in both shoulders asked me if I had been hit. I said no that I didn't think so and scrambled to look back over my shoulder to the gunner and where Leal was. I didnít see any movement. Suddenly I saw Chaplain Capodanno running from the left side and I yelled to Capodanno "watch for the machine gunner" and he just kept running across the hill between me and the gunner. It was like he was on a mission. He appeared to have been previously wounded. I could see blood on his upper body. I couldn't fire my weapon, so I yelled again to get the gunner. The gunner opened up and Capodanno who fell in the area where Leal was. As the chaplain fell, he was hit with several rounds. Another Marine threw a grenade at the gunner disposing of him. Bert Watkins a Machine gunner came up and fired where the NVA gunner had been and where we were now fighting off another attack from the direction of the village. Suddenly there were other NVA soldiers just five or six feet in front of us popping up behind bushes between our crater and where the Chaplain and Leal lay. At this time I or another marine, I believe it was another, opened my grenade pouch. I rolled a grenade under the bush where the NVA were. They disappeared from that location. Another NVA charged the crater with a grenade but was killed, I canít remember who shot him but he fell next to the hole but the grenade didn't go off. Here was this dead NVA soldier lying next to the hole with a half smile on his face and a dud grenade in his hand. As far as I know he stayed there until the next day.
3rd squad came up to give us much needed added fire power. For the next couple of hours we continued to fight off the NVA attack but due to the M-16s not operating properly we still didnít have enough fire power. John Lober and myself were helping each other out punching out the rifle barrels to clear weapons to fire. two hours later the 3rd Platoon came up and we were able to hold our positions. Later that night after a jet took out a 50 cal position in the village all firing from the NVA stopped. I donít know what happened but all the action from the NVA stopped with the exception of the NVA collecting their wounded.
We fought for several hours on the outskirts of the hill before pulling back in other craters to tighten the perimeter. All of our wounded were placed further inside the perimeter until medevacs could be arranged later that night.
During the night I was in a crater with John Lober, Steve Lovejoy and periodically Ron Pizana. Ron was sent by Sgt. Marburry on a listening post during the night.
That was the fiercest battle I was ever involved in or heard of. We lost a lot of Marines that day and a lot of them were seriously wounded. Had it not been for air support that day I fear that all of us would have been killed. However, this does not diminish the heroics, courage and down right guts of all who fought on that knoll that entire day and night.
It should be noted that we had numerous problems with the M-16s malfunctioning. The problems existed for several months since receiving them in April of 1967. Due to Corpsman Leal have the wounds that he had (severed femur artery) I donít know if Leal could have been saved but if I had an operational rifle I would have disposed of the NVA gunner and most likely Chaplain Capodanno would not have been killed at that moment.
On the 5th I was sent to a hospital in Chu Lai and stayed there 10 days. When I returned back to my outfit, I asked if anyone had written the chaplain up for any medals, so I wrote up Father Capodanno for the Medal of Honor. I was interviewed by the BN commander and the BN. Executive officer. They wanted to make sure that what I wrote was actually what I saw. I also wrote up Sgt Peter for the Navy Cross. However, I was proud to learn that he also received the MOH.
Judy McCloskey asked what made me think of writing Capodanno up for the MOH.
First of all, it was his efforts to help all the Marines and everyone out there. Normally, chaplains donít come on operations. They usually stay in the rear in more secure areas. Father Capodanno might have had information revealing that our mission was extremely dangerous that day and he felt that he was needed more in the field than in the rear. It was Father Capodannoís compassion, and his desire to give last rites and comfort those in need on the battlefield. Obviously, his compassion outweighed any sense of pain from injuries he had. I could see the compassion in his face as he ran across the field to the Corpsman.
The NVA were all around us and were very organized. We must have met with at least 500 maybe a lot more. They had 50 caliber machine guns trying to take down our planes. They surrounded our platoon and our company. They certainly had better intelligence that we did and used it strategically. As I said our air power saved us and gave my unborn children a father that day.
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