The moon hangs heavy in the night's sky over the Marines of First Platoon, Hotel Company, Second Battalion, First Marine Regiment. One squad mans the old French bunker on the west side of the Phong Le bridge; the other two squads and the platoon CP are on the east, or Da Nang side, of the bridge.
The platoon commander, a corpsman, and platoon radioman make up the command post, and are quartered in one of the three wooden hooches on the Danang side. Concertina wire defines the perimeter, separating the company's Marines from a small Vietnamese ville. The villagers keep to themselves and, aside from the occasional Medcap, the Marines leave them alone.
Two men walk sentry duty on the bridge; one man is on guard on top of the bunker (where his comrades sleep every night); and four more man two positions on the C.P. side of the river. The Bridge is considered easy duty, a "skate." Bridge duty is their reward for spending weeks at a time in the Bush. Regimental headquarters is not too far away, and the rest of the company is divided between one platoon at the Island and the other platoon in reserve at Regiment.
What the Grunts of First Platoon do not know, or were not told, is that the next day national elections are to be held in South Vietnam. If they do not know it, the North Vietnamese do. In the late-night, early morning hours of 29-30 August, 1967, sappers, the highly trained demolitions experts from the north country, slide into the south and, to intimidate the villagers, assault and destroy almost every bridge held by Americans in I, II and III Corps, MACV.
In the firefight that rages that morning at the Phong Le bridge, Hotel 2/1 has their bridge blown out from under them. The 1st Platoon, Hotel Company, 42 men and their lieutenant, suffer serious casualties, some dead and many wounded. Among the dead is Hospital Mate Third Class (HM3) George Francis Gallagher, from Barre, Vermont. Known simply as Doc, Gallagher was 21 years old.
Slightly built, all of 120 pounds on a slight frame, a perpetual grin on his face and a shock of blonde hair on his head, Gallagher was almost fearless in a firefight. His first duty was always to the men of the rifle platoon to which he was assigned. He planned, although barely into his tour of duty in Vietnam, to extend that tour of duty another six months. He had, he told his platoon commander, found a home with the Navy and Hotel Company.
The summer of 1967 found the Marines of Hotel 2/1 in constant combat with the local VC and only occasionally with soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army. Patrols, ambushes, and firefights took their toll of the rifle squads working The Badlands, as the area south and west of Da Nang was known. Death lurked behind every tree line, around every curve of the East-West Trail, and in every rice paddy.
The mine is tripped by the point man and knocks him down. Another man goes down with him. The platoon goes to ground and faces outboard, ready to engage the enemy if the mine is the trigger of an ambush. Many things happen at once. Squad leaders move among their people, laying out possible fields of fire. The platoon commander, deadly calm, calls the radioman to him, tells him to call for a medevac. The platoon sergeant directs the men at the rear of the column to keep their eyeballs fixed firmly outboard.
Grunts lay flat on the deck, watching the treelines on their flanks. One Grunt hears running footsteps, coming up fast behind him. He sees Doc Gallagher running toward the source of the explosion and, without thinking, swings his M-16 in a wide swath, knocking Gallagher to the deck.
Gallagher scrambles to his feet, his forward momentum barely slowed. Shit!, thinks the Grunt, scrambling to his feet, running after Gallagher, prepared to cover his corpsman. Gallagher reaches the men injured by the blast.
What he sees is bad. Judging by the damage to the two men and the hole in the ground, a mortar round was used as the mine. The point man is badly hurt, but the second man, the platoon's other corpsman, is grievously wounded. Gallagher sees his legs are ripped open to the groin. Through his immense pain, Doc Cochran sees Gallagher. Cochran's pallor is sickly-white, and he is desperately trying to fight off the shock trying to take control of his system.
I am, he tells Gallagher, all fucked up. My legs are gone, Cochran says to Gallagher. I am all fucked up.
Easy, man, says Gallagher. I got you.
The Grunts of Hotel Company's First Platoon fan out, and a perimeter is quickly established. The platoon commander has called for a medevac; the radioman, a friend to both corpsmen, is talking to the chopper pilot, now airborne.
As Grunts tend to the point man, Gallagher ties off the wounds to Cochran's legs. Cochran is right in his initial assessment: His legs are all fucked up. Gallagher works quickly, efficiently, his entire being centered on Cochran's life.
You're going to have to take my legs, Doc, says Cochran to Gallagher.
I got you, man, says Gallagher. I got you.
You don't take 'em, I die.
I got you, man, says Gallagher. I got you.
Oh, fuck, says Cochran. I hurt so fucken bad.
I got you, man, says Gallagher. I got you. Gallagher works furiously. Using safety pins pulled from ammo bandoliers, Doc pins together Cochran's wounds. He packs them, ever mindful of the shock to Cochran's system.
I got you, man, says Gallagher, steadily, insistently. I got you.
On me, says the radioman, quietly, urgently. On me. Popping smoke now. Say again. Popping smoke now. Medevac now. Say again. Medevac now.
Roger that, says the chopper pilot. See your smoke See your smoke. Coming in now. Say again. Coming in now.
The chopper, a lumbering UH-34, swings in low, the door gunner locked and loaded. Marines gather their wounded and rush them, load them gently onto the medevac. The chopper pulls away. Gallagher stares after them, clearly worried about Cochran.
The point man will live, although he loses a leg to the mine. Cochran will also live, but will endure years of medical operations, rehabilitation and endless pain.
The platoon, having swept the surrounding countryside and ensured it is clear of bad guys, continues its patrol. Days, weeks later, the Word comes from Company: First Platoon is pulled from the Bush and reassigned to bridge duty: The Phong Le bridge. When the bridge is blown, Doc Gallagher is dead.
The Grunts of Hotel Company mourn their losses. They pay tribute to the man, the one above all others, who meant so much to them. They take up a collection and arrange to have flowers sent to the family of Doc Gallagher.
Hotel 2/1 left Vietnam three and a half years later, after service in the Hai Lang Forest, The Badlands, Con Thien and Yankee Station, after the DMZ and Tet, after Go Noi Island and The Mudflats, after the endless battles and fights for possession of nameless hills and forests. Doc Gallagher lives on. In the hearts and souls of the men who knew him, he lives on. Of the many Navy Corpsmen who served with Hotel Company's Marines: Johnson, Cochran, Stewart, Ross and the rest, the very best that ever served with Marines, Doc Gallagher was the model.
The story ended here, in 1967. In 1984, a survivor of Hotel's service, himself badly wounded and missing a leg, called to invite me to a reunion; Hotel Company's First Platoon was meeting in Washington, DC, he said, in time for the dedication of the statue of the Three Fighting Men. Hughes, I said. Remember that little corpsman we had, the summer of '67? The blonde-haired kid? Gallagher? What was his name? His first name? Hughes paused, then said, Gallagher. His name was George Gallagher. George Gallagher...
I attend the November, 1984, reunion of Hotel Company's now-old Grunts. We swap lies and war stories about our days in The Nam. We drink beer by the case. We mourn our losses and miss the guys we know who have gone on ahead. Tomorrow, we know, is the dedication was of the statue.
Don't need no fucken statue, says one of us, turning to the rest. Who's been to the Wall, besides me?, he asks. We look around at each other. No one.
You'll see, he says. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, we go to the Wall. You'll see. Don't need no fucken statue. We got the Wall, he says. The Wall.
We attend the dedication ceremony of the statue, the Three Fighting Men. We watch enthralled, shivers running up and down our spines, as a flight of Hueys passes over us. Damn, we think. Damn.
Okay, says Hughes to the 10 or 15 men present. Time to go pay our respects. We begin our journey, coming at the Wall from the East. We approach slowly, cautiously, for we have heard the stories of what happens to guys like us who come face to face with our people, those we lost so long ago. My God, I think. I had no idea this thing was do damn big. Jesus God; all those names. I need help; never find all my people fumbling around like this.
A kid, a young woman approaches me, Excuse me, sir. Do you need some help? I fumble for the words. I had no idea... Yeah, I say. I'm looking for a friend of mine. Panel 25E, Line 62.
I am here. I cannot believe I am here, when so many are not; when he is not. I stare at the name for what seems like forever. My hand comes up of its own volition. The black granite is warm in my hand. Gently, I trace the name of the man who meant so much to so many people...
I trace the name with the tips of my fingers. I feel the edges of each letter of his name. I
overwhelmed by his presence, and the presence of so many others, some of whom I can put faces
to, others I can
only remember by nickname.
Tears begin to well in my eyes. I have to step back. I need some space between me and this thing, this Wall.
I back up, cross the rope the national Park Service has put up to keep us in some semblance of order. I retreat up the slight knoll and sit, hunker down. I light a cigarette. What was it about Gallagher? He was no braver than any other Corpsman I ever knew, yet he was the bravest man I ever knew. He was a kid, wanting only to do his job, and he did the best job of anyone I ever knew...
Malaria pills, you guys. Everybody gotta take 'em. Come one; come on. Aw,man, Doc!
Nope. Nope. Everybody takes 'em. Come on; you guys know the drill.
Do I mythologize him, this Navy corpsman from back East, somewhere? He saved my life; he saved the lives of countless Marines. He touched my life.
Gallagher carried an aid bag as if it was a part of him. He carried a sidearm, a .45 pistol so rusted it was frozen shut. Grunts from the First Platoon took turns cleaning the damn thing for him.
Jesus, Doc. Suppose you gotta fire your weapon, man? That's what I got you guys for, he'd say. Then he'd hold up his aid bag. This is my job; this is what I do.
Do others remember him? I did not know.
I returned to the Wall, year after year, with the men of Hotel Company. The first reunion, originally intended for Hotel's First Platoon, had now grown to include the entire battalion: 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines (Vietnam). Although loosely organized, we were now an association.
Some months after one of those reunions, I received a package from Bob Hughes, the founder of the association. A typewritten manuscript, written by Marian Faye Novak, was enclosed. The title was Gallagher's Grave. Marian Faye, wife of my platoon commander, Dave Novak, would see her manuscript printed, with the original title, in Yankee Magazine's May 1989 issue. Her story tells of their search for Doc Gallagher's grave.
Someone else has not forgotten.
"Gallagher patched me up when I got shot," Mr. Novak recounts in Marian Faye's story, "And he sent me off on a medevac. I didn't want to go. I didn't feel all that bad. We were on a sweep, and I thought I should finish things up first, but Gallagher said, Please, sir, and it was the way he said, I knew I had to go. I had seen it in his eyes when he told me to go. He knew what he was doing."
The Novaks find Gallagher's grave in St. Monica's Cemetery, Barre, Vermont. He is, according to Barre's newspaper, that small town's second war death. Marian's story ends: "Dave stands motionless. His head is bowed over Gallagher's grave, and I can see drops of sweat on the skull below his thin hair. And then I hear him -- it is almost a whisper, but in the silence all around us I can hear him clearly. 'Semper Fi, kid,' he says. When he looks up, I am beside him. He reaches out and takes my hand, and we walk back to the car."
Someone else has not forgotten.
In March, 1995, I joined a listserv discussion list on the Internet. Owned by Dr. Lydia Fish, as part of her Vietnam Oral History Project at SUNY, the VWAR-L list serves as a vehicle for Vietnam veterans, academics, and whoever else wants to jump in and discuss the war in Vietnam. I lurked for a couple of months, then gradually joined in the general discussion. In August, on the anniversary of Gallagher's death, I posted a simple note to the list:
George Francis "Doc" Gallagher
KIA, 29 August 1967
Corpsman to United States Marines
Buried in St. Monica's Cemetery, Barre, Vermont.
In response, listmember Michele (Mish) Shea posted: Remembered. In his own Green Mountains.
When I answered I liked knowing that, Mish then asked if I "... would you like a photograph of the area in Barre where "Doc" rests???? My friend Amy [Abare] is from Barre, goes often, and has offered to get that for you if you would like it?! You MUST visit Vermont someday...the best kept secret anywhere...we love it here."
I told Mish I would love photographs of Gallagher's grave. I already had a photograph of Doc in his Marine Corps winter greens, sent to me by Marian Faye; having copies of grave would definitely be good.
Mish then wrote to say that Amy had photographed the site and that "... Amy was very happy to take them, and she was floored by the fact that this young man died at 20 years of age. Amy is 27, and of course, cannot remember what we do, so this has been a learning experience. "Do you want me to send them to the Texas VVA news address??"
I said, Yes, please send them to the address below; and thank Amy for me--please. Tell her I owe her one (no; I owe her several).
I continued my note to Mish: George Gallagher's death hastened his father's demise, and his mother followed not long after. His sister still lives up there somewhere. Marian Faye Novak, my former platoon commander's wife, wrote a piece for Yankee Magazine in 1989 titled, "Gallagher's Grave," which told of Mr. Novak's search for George's grave.
The article is beautifully written; his life touched everyone who knew him. He continues to live on, in our hearts. He will always be 20 years old. Forever young. I have Marian's article on a floppy disk somewhere in my office; I'll look for it and send it along. I'd like Amy to read it, too. Thank you both again... very much.
But Mish and Amy can't wait for me to find Marian Faye's article. Mish has dozens of YANKEE Magazine back issues in her basement. They run through them, locating all the 1989 copies, then looked for the one that has Marian Faye's story. They read it, Amy looking over Mish's shoulder.
"What memorial?," asked Amy, when she read the dedication that begins Marian Faye's story. Barre's War Memorial sits in the center of town; she had never seen it, had no idea where it was. She drove back to Barre, determined to stop and find the memorial. When she did find it, she couldn't believe it. It had been here, all these years; she had never seen it.
Now, Amy thought, I know what it means. Now, I know...
I then received a note from Amy:I have gotten more pictures back of Gallagher's grave, and have a couple more I would like to send you. I will get them out to you next week. It turns out that my friend's mother knew him, and she praised him highly. It's possible, said Amy, my aunt and uncle knew him as well. Barre is a small town and my family has been there all their lives. I hope you get to come see it someday.
I wrote to Amy: I'll accept any photographs you have of Gallagher's grave, and thank you for continuing to care. I am thrilled, and grateful, that Doc was -is- so well thought of in his hometown; he continues to live on in the hearts of those who knew him. Doc was killed, as you know, having read Marian Faye's story in Yankee Magazine, at the Phong Le bridge; I helped recover his body. I had been in-country almost a year by then, but that was the day I truly came to hate that war...
I sent a note to Mish, telling her I think Amy is a good kid.
Mish writes: Mike, yes...Amy IS a good kid. She is a feeling person and she can see quality and goodness where it is!! It was really moving for me to see how she got more pride in Barre from knowing that not only Gallagher, but many young people from the area died in VN. She said: "As I looked through the microfiche for Gallagher's services, I saw that there were more from the area who had been killed, at least one a month."
You know, I wrote Mish, for 28 years I have wondered what good came out of that damned war. Nothing, I thought. But if Gallagher had to die, if any of us had to die, maybe the purpose -- just -- was to bring realization to the next generation of America's Children that we, too, were America's Children. ... And then I reread Mish's note: What microfiche? Is the story not yet over?
Mish wrote, You ask: "What microfiche?" Amy wanted to know more about Gallagher, so when she went to Barre to take the pictures, she also went to the library and looked through the microforms of the local paper. She [Amy] found his obituary, complete with picture... and synopsis of the funeral. He had been a graduate of the local Catholic high school, which is why he was not in the public school yearbook.
As Amy looked through the files she saw so many more young (and not so young) who had died in Vietnam. She has acquired a depth of feeling...a connection, with her community's past and its loss. She didn't send you the obituary/services summary, did she? Maybe not because we talked about it, and we weren't sure how much you wanted, or how much we should send. Let us know if you would want that material.
I'd love to have this information, I wrote Mish. I'd like to be able to include it in the story I've decided to write about Gallagher (which I plan to bring full circle with you and Amy), and I want to send it off the Dave and Marian Novak for inclusion in Volume Two of WE REMEMBER, the oral history of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines.
And then Amy sent a note. Reading it, I knew George Francis "Doc" Gallagher will never be
I want to share this story with you, she wrote. Considering how all of this has unfolded, I know you'll understand. I went to the library to look up Gallagher's obituary that Marian had written about in her story. I wanted to know more about him, and I wanted to also see a picture of him, I guess to bring him closer to me, in a sense. Marian had mentioned that he had gone to Marion High School in Barre, which is where I attended catechism classes. Naturally this brought all the memories of that school to the forefront of my mind.
One particular picture that kept flashing in my mind was the gym, although I couldn't understand why because I didn't have much to do with that area of the school, but it kept appearing strongly, as if I had spent a lot of time in the gym. I found the article about his death, and as I was reading I discovered he had been, I believe, captain of the basketball team. I then understood why I kept seeing the gym in my mind, and why I felt it so strongly. His picture was there, but by that point I knew I didn't need it to bring him closer to me. There has only been one other experience like that in my life, and I don't doubt either of them.
I had told Michele I wasn't sure if I should assume that you wanted a copy of the obituary. I'm glad though, that you do. I will send you a copy. It really is difficult to describe what I've learned in the past month. I wish I could. There aren't many people I can talk about it with, so I don't. It helps to talk with someone who feels it, like Mish and yourself, so I thank you.
Amy and her friend, Cindy Vize, on Veterans Day, visited St. Monica's Cemetery where, together, they placed flowers on his grave. It was, said Mish, the only grave decorated with flowers.
Until August, they knew nothing, or almost nothing, about Vietnam beyond whatever is in the history books these days. They did not know Doc, nor did they know that other young men from Barre had died in Vietnam. Doc has new friends.
I like knowing that. I have the photographs that Amy and Cindy, so thoughtfully took for me. Doc is in a good place. St. Monica's Cemetery is surrounded by trees in what looks like a small valley. A small stone, set flat in the ground, marks Doc's resting place.
I like knowing that, too.
(Author's note: My thanks and appreciation go to Michele Shea, Amy Abare and Cindy Vize for helping to bring Doc closer to me; and to Marian Faye Novak, for writing "Gallagher's Grave," which appeared in YANKEE magazine's May 1989 issue. YANKEE graciously allowed "Texas VVA News" to reprint the story two years ago. Marian Faye Novak is the author of the biography, Lonely Girls With Burning Eyes, her account of waiting for her husband to return from Vietnam.)