Encounters with the Irish on The Wall 
By Brian McGinn

© The Irish Echo, 1999 & used with their kind permission.

One. That was the official count of Irish-born casualties when Vickie Curtin, coordinator of the Washington, D.C. branch of the Coalition of Irish Immigrant Centers, set out to lay a wreath at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But surely, among the more than 58,000 names etched in the black granite panels of The Wall—as the Memorial is popularly known--1st Lieutenant John Cecil Driver of Dublin could not be the sole Irishman? 

    In Dublin, unknown to Vickie, Declan Hughes was already lengthening the list. With his interest sparked through work with Vietnamese refugees in Ireland, the Dubliner had begun tracking down rumors, scouring graveyards, and contacting family members. His efforts, three decades after the Irish deaths occurred, touched a sympathetic nerve. After a 1998 appearance on the Pat Kenny radio show, Declan’s phone started ringing.  John Driver’s uncounted compatriots were now revealing themselves through sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, nephews, cousins and classmates. In one case, a daughter.

   On Memorial Day 1999, I watch from the audience as the research partnership formed by Declan and Vickie blossoms at The Wall. The tricolored wreath Vickie now waits to present has sixteen names attached. Declan, just in from California with a contingent of veterans on motorbikes, misses no opportunity to advance his quest. “WANTED”, reads the logo on the back of his T-shirt, “Information on Irish Vietnam Veterans.” 

   Thirty years after my own tour, I still approach The Wall with caution. But not, like the haunted men in camouflage and sunglasses who hesitate in a nearby tree grove, because I dread the release of long-repressed emotions. The truth is, I don’t think I know any of the men--or the eight women—on The Wall. Like four of every five U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, I was not in combat. The Memorial, I feel, belongs to those who suffered.

   My wariness has another source. As an intelligence specialist studying the organization of enemy units, I spent my tour in the company of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese defectors, deserters and prisoners. I experienced the war through their eyes. When combat veterans talk about Vietnam, the pictures in my head form a collage of reverse images. My most vivid memories are the recollections and revelations of their opponents.

   Army habits die hard. Now, I find myself analyzing the information so painstakingly assembled by Declan and Vickie. Although I’m searching for patterns, it’s the poignant exceptions that first grab my attention. Like Sean Timothy Doran, an Army corporal from Dublin who died, aged 20, just fifteen days after arriving. Or Philip Sean Bancroft, a Marine Corporal from Belfast who died at 19, 36 days short of completing a year in Vietnam. In a war where the average age of combat soldiers was nineteen, he is the only teenage Irish casualty.

    Gradually, patterns emerge from the mosaic of names and statistics. All the Irish dead were Catholics. Their birthplaces link all four provinces in a litany of sorrow: Belfast and Cork, Galway and Dublin. Between the urbanized compass points, more rural origins are represented in Cavan, Roscommon, Tipperary and Mayo.

   Four are married. Five are mature men, aged 29 through 32, career officers and NCOs with 32 years of military experience between them. They include Sergeant First Class Edward Howell from Dublin and Captain Edmond Landers from Tipperary. The enlisted Irishmen are more mature than their U.S. counterparts: their average age at death is 21.

   The causes of death run the predictable and painful gamut of modern warfare. But one cuts to the quick. Accidental self-destruction. A poignant reminder that, in a war with no front lines, there was no safe rear, either. As 10,798 deaths due to accidents, disease and other non-hostile causes attest. One was 21-year-old SP4 Timothy Daly from Limerick.

   Most, I’d expected, would be draftees, recent immigrants who faced the wrenching choice of abandoning American dreams or risking life and limb in a cause perhaps poorly understood. To my surprise, more than two-thirds were volunteers. Men who, more likely than not, were there by choice. And who believed. Many of their compatriots opposed the War on principle. But the anti-war movement had no monopoly on idealism.

   Who could credibly claim that idealism did not burn as brightly in the hearts of young men schooled in the anti-Communist verities of 1950s Ireland--immigrants responding to the call of a charismatic Irish American president to bear any burden, pay any price?

   Six were Marines. Among them Corporal Patrick Gallagher from Mayo, who on July 18, 1966 saved the lives of three comrades by kicking an enemy grenade to safety before it exploded. When a second grenade landed inside his position, Gallagher flung himself on it to absorb the blast. The grenade didn’t go off. But for his act of selfless heroism, the Mayoman was awarded the Navy Cross. Vietnam, however, was not a war with happy endings. Eight months later, Corporal Gallagher was killed on patrol.

   For Irish-born soldiers, the most dangerous year was 1967, when eight of the 16 died. And the most perilous posting was Quang Nam Province, where all six Marines died. In this bitterly contested battleground, U.S. forces dominated the lowlands surrounding Danang and its famous China Beach. The mountains were enemy territory, occupied by a unit I knew well: the battle-hardened 141st NVA regiment. The North Vietnamese had come down the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1965, the same year the first U.S. Marines arrived.

   After the wreath laying, a Cavanman named Liam Coyle seeks out Declan Hughes. Liam, himself a Vietnam-era veteran, offers the name of another Irish casualty. Liam has good reason to recall John Coyle’s death. Because of the similarity in names, some of Liam’s friends thought he had been killed. Back in Ireland, Declan locates Patsy Coyle, John’s elderly uncle in Kilcogy, Co. Cavan. John, relates Patsy, was born to Irish parents in Birmingham, England. When he was five, the Coyles moved to the States. In 1967, SP4 John Coyle died in Vietnam, aged 21, while serving with the 4th Infantry Division.

   As dusk falls over The Wall, Vickie Curtin returns to check on the wreath. A pencil rubbing under Panel 42 West catches her attention. Someone has reproduced the name of the teenage Marine on Line 45, Philip Sean Bancroft. Under the name, she finds an Irish-style date, 31/5/99, and the handwritten note:  

Not forgotten in Belfast!

God Bless you, Philip

Jim Walsh  

   A fellow Marine? A schoolmate from home? The visitor left no further clues. Another riddle for Declan and Vickie. But two things seemed sure. Their dedication would uncover other Irish names on The Wall. And help surviving Irish veterans find the strength to face the ghosts of Vietnam in The Wall’s reflective panels.

 

Brian McGinn is a writer based in Alexandria, Virginia. Born in New York, he was raised in Ireland and drafted after his return to the U.S. He spent his Vietnam tour, 1969 to 1970, with the U.S. Army’s 525th Military Intelligence Group.

"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 . . ."

 

MEET THE IRISH ON THE WALL

WHO'S ELIGIBLE FOR IRISH ON THE WALL?

Anyone whose name is on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and who under Irish law (see below) is considered an Irish Citizen by Birth, is eligible for inclusion.

Irish Citizenship by Birth is automatically conferred on the following:

Please note that an Irish citizen may at the same time be a citizen of the United States, and does not lose his or her Irish citizenship by acquiring another citizenship.

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