An Irishman’s Diary

By Brian McGinn  

Today is Memorial Day, when America honours its war dead. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., a tricoloured wreath will be laid, and Irish flags placed, in memory of the seventeen Irish soldiers known to have died with US forces in Vietnam.  

The privately funded Memorial, the second most visited monument in the US capital, was built by Vietnam veterans determined that the sacrifices of their friends would not be forgotten. The old Irish saying, “to be named is to exist,” surely finds one of its most perfect and palpable expressions in the Wall of 58,220 names on Washington’s Mall.  

The Vietnam War has also inspired virtual memorials, electronic Walls whose cathartic capacity is no less potent than the black granite panels of their concrete counterpart. Visitors to TheWall-USA for example, can search for the name of a family member or childhood friend. But unlike the real Wall, where the daily offerings of letters and mementos are removed each night to a museum storehouse, tributes and photographs posted on the Web form an easily accessible public record.  

Marines as Family

Six of the Irish dead were volunteers in the US Marines, the elite Corps of seaborne infantry who live--and die--by the motto Semper Fidelis. Always faithful. In Vietnam, Marine units drew many of the toughest and bloodiest assignments, suffering casualty rates higher than in the Corp’s legendary World War II campaigns against the Japanese. 

Bernard ‘Brian Óg’ Freyne from Ballaghadareen joined the Corps in 1966, following in the footsteps of his Irish cousin Roderick O’Connell. In a moving tribute on TheWall-USA, Roderick recalls how he left Bernard in Vietnam after he himself was wounded and evacuated back the States. Although separated, the cousins kept in touch. O’Connell still recalls how Bernard’s last letter reached him a week after the news that he had been killed in action. Freyne died in Quang Nam Province on 10 March 1967, aged 21.

Patrick Gallagher from Mayo also followed an Irish-American relative, Gerald Moylan, into the Marine Corps. After Patrick’s death in Vietnam, Staff Sergeant Moylan escorted his remains back to Ballyhaunis and presented the Gallagher family with Patrick’s Navy Cross, the Marine Corps’ highest award for battlefield bravery.  

Back in Quang Nam Province, Patrick’s loss was also keenly felt by fellow Marine Frank G Erwin, who was right beside the Mayoman when he was killed in combat on 30 March 1967, aged 23. “His death,” Erwin later wrote from his home in Florida, “was a profound loss to our entire company, as everyone looked to Patrick for courage in battle.”  

When he visits the US capital, Frank Erwin always stops at the Wall. “Panel 17 E is where they all are”, he says, referring to Patrick and the rest of his Marine squad who perished in Danang that March morning. Erwin also honours the Mayo-born Marine in a more personal manner. To ensure a constant reminder of Corporal Gallagher’s great courage and love for his adoptive country, Erwin named one of his sons Patrick.

Baby from Belfast

More than three decades on, Robert Louis Park still grieves the death in Vietnam of his Belfast-born buddy Philip Sean Bancroft. “Not even time has healed the loss,” wrote the former Marine from West Virginia in his October 1999 message on TheWall-USA.   

A faded 1968 photograph posted by Park reveals the child whose parents left Belfast’s Grosvenor Road for Pittsburgh in the early 1950s as a self-confident soldier in combat fatigues. In Vietnam, Park--a lanky West Virginian who claims Irish lineage through a grandfather named Pattison--made an unlikely partner for the shorter and slightly-built Irishman who had enlisted in the Marines at 18, right out of high school.

Recalling their first meeting in Vietnam, Park, who had himself just turned 20, remembers “thinking to myself that I was young--but this kid was just a baby.” One tough baby, as it turned out. “Pound for pound”, Bob Park recalled in a recent interview, “Phil was the best damn Marine I ever served with, and one of the few I trusted to watch my back. I walked a lot of point (lead man on patrols) and Phil was my cover man.”

Their friendship, forged in combat and leavened by a common appreciation for wry humour and practical jokes, developed with Park playing the protective role of an older brother. On the September 1968 night when Phil was mortally wounded in a mortar and rocket attack, Bob was stationed some distance away, out of earshot. His commanding officer, convinced that Park would likely die too as he tried to reach his buddy in darkness and under fire, gave orders that he not be informed till daylight.  

By then, Bancroft had been medevaced for treatment. Later, Park’s lieutenant took him aside and broke the news. “I’d seen a lot of men wounded”, Park said of his Vietnam tour, “and a lot of men die. But I wasn’t prepared for what happened to me next. I cried. I guess I knew that I had just lost the best friend I had--or ever will have.”  

Survivor’s Guilt

By any measure, Bill Nee did his bit, serving four years in the U.S. Air Force during the war in Vietnam. Years later, on a 1982 visit to the Vietnam Memorial, the Irish-American veteran from Delaware spotted the name of Peter Mary Nee, a US Marine killed in Vietnam on 31 March 1969. In December 1999, still unaware that his namesake was born in Ireland, Bill posted an open letter to Peter on TheWall-USA.

“You went to Nam,” he lamented, “and I went to Puerto Rico. We never got to cross paths with our common bonds: Irish, Roman Catholics, veterans and surnames—Nee. I found you many years ago on a long black wall and cried unashamedly in front of so many people who walked past. My tears that day were for you and the promise that was never to be and the self-imposed guilt that I never went there and did my part.”

Learning that Peter was a Galwayman strengthens Bill’s suspicion that they could be distant cousins. Nee, he notes, is not a common name. According to family lore, the American Nees have Irish roots in Galway. A brother has already visited there. Some day Bill plans to bicycle around Ireland. As he pedals through Connemara, perhaps the Irish-American airman can come to terms with his personal Vietnam.  

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Irish on the Wall

Irish in the Korean War

The Irish in WWII

Irish in Other Wars and Armies