Marine Sgt. Lawrence D. Peters’ actions on Sept. 4, 1967, were nothing short of superhuman and resulted in a Medal of Honor. His company was under attack in the Que Son Valley in northern South Vietnam when Peters was wounded in the leg while leading a squad in an attempt to take an enemy-infested knoll. Rallying his men after the squad was pinned down, he was hit in the face and neck but continued his assault and stood up fully exposed to return fire, forcing the camouflaged enemy troops to reveal their positions. Peters fell gravely wounded.
An American officer ignored the rain of bullets and mortar fire and ran to him. Shrapnel from a mortar round ripped into the officer’s shoulder, rendering his right arm useless, but he struggled on to reach the dying sergeant. As Peters breathed his last, the officer lay next to him, still under fire, uttering prayers and giving comfort, then finally administering last rites with his left hand. When Peters was dead, the man the Marines called “The Grunt Padre” went back into the field of fire on his way to other wounded and dying Marines.
The Rev. Vincent R. Capodanno, at age 38, was a father figure as well as a priest to young Marines during two tours in Vietnam. Capodanno, born in New York City, was ordained a Catholic priest in the Maryknoll foreign missionary society in June 1958. He ministered in Taiwan and Hong Kong before transferring to the Navy as a chaplain. Capodanno received his commission in December 1965 and volunteered for duty in Vietnam. Assigned to the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, he arrived in South Vietnam in April 1966.
For eight months Capodanno went with Marines on combat missions. In November he received a Bronze Star with a “V” device for valor after rescuing wounded men under fire near Chu Lai. In December Capodanno was transferred to the 1st Medical Battalion at Da Nang but caught rides on supply helicopters to be with Marines in the field. He requested a six-month extension of his tour and, after a 30-day leave to visit his family, went to the 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.
In the pre-dawn darkness of Sept. 4, 1967, Company D, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, was hit hard by the North Vietnamese Army near Dong Son village. Company B was deployed to secure the east side of Dong Son, and soon eight Marines were killed. K and M companies, from the regiment’s 3rd Battalion, were marshaled to relieve the beleaguered forces in a battle that would kill 55 men in the 5th Marines during a single day.
Company M, including Capodanno, landed 4 miles from the entrenched enemy and ran directly into NVA positions. Peters’ squad in Company M’s lead platoon angled off to flank the enemy when it came under heavy fire.
From the company command post at the rear, Capodanno could hear the cries of the wounded and left his relatively safe position to enter the fray. Despite the intense fire he moved among the wounded, rendering first aid when he could, giving comfort and last rites to those he could not save. When a radioman fell, Capodanno raced through enemy fire and dragged him to safety. After leaving the body of Peters, the chaplain heard a Marine shout that his weapon was jammed. He went back to get Peters’ rifle for the still-fighting Marine.
Nearby, Navy corpsman Armando Leal braved enemy fire to treat the wounded until he was mortally wounded. As the corpsman, who would be awarded the Navy Cross, lay exposed to machine gun fire only 15 yards away, Capodanno rushed toward him. But just moments later, the priest fell with bullet wounds in his back.
Capodanno was one of 16 chaplains killed in Vietnam and one of three awarded the Medal of Honor, which was presented to his family by Navy Secretary Paul R. Ignatius on Jan. 7, 1969.
Doug Sterner, an Army veteran who served two tours in Vietnam, is curator of the Military Times Hall of Valor, the largest database of U.S. military valor awards.
This article appeared in Vietnam magazine’s April 2020 issue.