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VFW Magazine September 2017 : Page 31

manding officer of 1/5, Lt. Col. Pete “Highpockets” Hilgartner, of their situation, along with a request for an emergency mede-vac for their casualties. Hilgartner ordered Capt. Thomas Reese’s Bravo Company, 1/5 into the fight. Bravo Company was operating about 5 kilometers from Delta Company on the other side of the Ly Ly River. ‘The Grunt Padre’ When the war in Vietnam broke out, Vincent Capodanno, a Catholic priest, wrote to his bishop requesting permission to join the Navy so that he might serve with Marines in Vietnam. He was sworn in on Dec. 28, 1965, and by April 1966, he was in Vietnam with the 1st Bn., 7th Marines, 1st Marine Div. When a reporter asked him why he was in Vietnam, Capodanno replied, “I think I’m needed here, as are many chaplains.” CONTROLLED CRASHES Meanwhile, back at the Delta Company perimeter, a medevac chopper piloted by Capt. Don Engle and Lt. Jack Warner came in under intense fire to evacuate casualties. One of the enemy’s rounds cut the tail rotor control cable, and the bird made a hard landing inside the perimeter. The pilots dragged their two wounded crew members to safety. Then they dismounted their M60 machine guns and carried them to the perimeter where they could be used against the enemy. Maj. David Ross was overhead in a Huey gunship making runs against the enemy when his aircraft, too, was badly damaged by enemy fire, and he made a controlled crash within the perimeter. He also lent his M60 to defense of the perimeter, then moved to the command post and took command. Until it was over, he constantly stood exposed to enemy fire, as he called in napalm strikes against the enemy, vaporizing them in orange flame and black smoke, Halloween colors at their scariest. In The Grunt Padre by Daniel Mode, Capodanno’s sister, Pauline, said that while her brother was obviously not pro-war, he was “very concerned about the American troops over there.” In Vietnam, the 37-year-old New York native became a friend and confidante to the Marines he served. He performed Mass and administered last rites. He prayed over the dying and com-forted the wounded. An Oct. 19, 1966, a Marine Corps press release aptly described Capodanno: “There always seems to be a place reserved beside a wounded Marine — a place reserved for Father Capodanno, who always seems to appear at the stricken Marine’s side to speak or pray at the moment it is most needed.” In 1967, Capodanno left Vietnam and traveled to Manila in the Philippines, Taiwan and Honolulu before going home for a visit. But on June 6, he received orders to report back to Vietnam with the 1st Bn., 5th Marines, 1st Marine Div., though he served all Marines of the 5th Regiment. On Sept. 4, Capodanno was with Leathernecks of Kilo and Mike companies when they landed about four kilometers northeast of Dong Son, where a slaughter awaited them. The chaplain was expected to wait at the command post. But, when he heard the cries of the wounded and dying, he ran through a shower of bullets to administer last rites and offer solace where he could. When he wasn’t doing that, Marines say he was carrying the wounded to safety. “He made many trips, telling us to ‘stay cool, don’t panic,’” Pfc. Julio Rodriguez remembered. While trying to get to one Marine, Capodanno was hit in the arm with shrapnel, but continued. Later in the day, he was wounded a second time, but still refused treatment as he con-tinued his duty. A HOT LZ Bravo Company struggled to get across the Ly Ly River only to run into another large force of NVA. They experienced some hard fighting before they finally broke through to Delta Company several hours later. As the situation developed at Dong Son, Col. Stanley Davis, commanding officer of the 5th Marine Regiment, ordered Hilgartner’s 1/5 command group into the fight and reinforced him with Kilo and Mike companies, 3/5 (K/3/5 and M/3/5). Hilgartner’s command group and Kilo Company went first and set up not far from Dong Son. When the helicopters returned for Mike Company, the pilot told its commanding officer, Lt. J.D. Murray, that the designated landing zone (LZ) was hot, and he was going to set them down in an alternate LZ. Murray had not been briefed on a secondary LZ and was not sure where he was being taken. Once on the ground, he quickly determined his location and began moving toward Dong Son, several kilometers away. Unbeknownst to Murray, the chap-lain, Father Vincent Capodanno (see sidebar), had boarded the chopper with the last group. A HURRICANE OF VIOLENCE Mike Company quickly moved toward the fight as fast as tactical security would allow. The Marines moved in a wedge with Lt. Ed Combs’ platoon in the lead. Murray received word that Kilo Company was in contact with the enemy, and he urged his men to pick up the pace. Pfc. Jack “Swannie” Swan was the point man and did not like being rushed, but he moved a little faster. As he moved down the far side of a small knoll, he told his squad leader, Cpl. Bill Vandergriff, that he saw something move. Vandergriff said, “If you see it again, shoot it.” When it moved again, Swannie fired an M79 grenade at it. When the priest ran to help a wounded corpsman in the early evening, he was killed by a North Vietnamese machine gun. He had 27 bullet wounds in his spine, neck and head. In all, 54 Marines were killed in action and 104 wounded in action at Dong Son. For his bravery, Capodanno was posthu-mously awarded the Medal of Honor. SEPTEMBER 2017   • WWW.VFW.ORG • 31

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