Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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On 12 March 2018, New York Senator Chuck E Schumer announced that the U.S. Navy will name one of its next destroyers, the Arleigh Burk-class DDG-127, after Marine Corporal Patrick ‘Bob’ Gallagher (1944-1967). This follows on from a remarkable campaign to have the Mayo-born Vietnam hero honoured. This is Bob Gallagher’s story.

Somewhere amid the jungles of central Vietnam on 28 January 1967, Marine Corporal Patrick ‘Bob’ Gallagher found a moment to write to his parents in Ballyhaunis, County Mayo. It had been nearly a year since the 23-year-old had visited Ireland. At the time, he had told his parents of his ambition to join the United States Marine Corps. When they expressed alarm that he might be drafted in to fight in the Vietnam War, he assured them that he would be spending the ensuing year training in San Francisco and that the war would surely be over by then.

However, the truth was that Bob Gallagher had already joined the Marines before he made that final visit to Ireland. And he had received his orders to make his way to Vietnam almost as soon as he returned to the USA from Mayo.

So now he must have grimaced as he wrote. ‘I hope you won't be too mad at me for the news I got for you,’ he commenced. ‘I have been in Vietnam since last April, and I will be leaving here in 60 days. Now don't get worried. Everything is going just fine here and I am enjoying it very much.’

Gallagher felt obliged to confess to his parents because he had lately been singled out for the Navy Cross, the US Navy’s highest medal of valor.[i] It was to be awarded to him for an act of extraordinary heroism he performed during the summer of 1966.

He correctly anticipated that the awards ceremony would attract attention from the Irish media and so his letter home was to forestall the shock his parents would feel about his having secretly been fighting in Vietnam for the past ten months. He assured them of his plans to visit them, complete with Navy Cross, following the completion of his tour of duty in April 1967.

The people of Ballyhaunis were elated by the news that one of their own had been awarded such a prestigious medal. Plans were put in motion to celebrate Corporal Gallagher’s homecoming with a street party on April 14. However, when the day came, the streets of Ballyhaunis were deathly silent. Bob Gallagher returned home, as promised, but he came home in a coffin having been killed in an ambush two weeks earlier.

Patrick Gallagher’s story came back into the spotlight on 12 March 2018 when Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York) officially called for the Pentagon to name a United States Navy destroyer after Corporal Gallagher. Schumer, accompanied by family and friends of Corporal Gallagher, made his call at the USS Intrepid on the West Side of Manhattan. This follows on from a major campaign to have a warship named in his honour.

Gallagher was born on 1 February 1944, the second of nine children - and the eldest son - of Peter and Mary Gallagher. He grew up on the family farm at Derrintogher, three miles from Ballyhaunis.[ii] The nickname ‘Bob’ was bestowed upon him by his older sister Margaret who couldn’t pronounce his name ‘Patrick’ when she was small. His grandfather Patrick, for whom he was named, had been a schoolteacher. The younger Patrick also showed much promise at school and was educated by the Franciscans at Granlahan Monastery on the Roscommon-Mayo border. As well as being a fine footballer, he developed an interest in carpentry and cabinet-making, studying at the vocational school in Ballyhaunis.[iii]

In 1962, the second year of JFK’s Presidency, the 18-year-old flew from Shannon to New York and moved in with an aunt, Mrs May Burns, on Long Island. He found a job in real estate and started at law school. However, with the escalation of the conflict in Vietnam, he found himself drawn to the Marines, one of the world’s premier fighting forces, enlisting in late 1965.

The Vietnam War officially lasted from 1955 to the fall of Saigon in 1975. It is estimated that over 3 million people lost their lives in the war, mostly civilians.

The Irish involvement in the war was a much neglected subject until 1998 when Declan Hughes (www.irishveterans.org) began the identificaton of the Irish who lost their lives in that war, at a time when few believed any Irish had been there.

As Declan put it in an email to me in March 2015: 'In 1999, I brought the Vietnam Memorial (replica) to Ireland, where it toured the 4 historic provinces, with 3-day stops in each of the following: Collins Barracks Cork, Dublin Castle, Queens University Belfast, NUI-Galway and Adare Manor. The Irish Defence Forces rendered military honours in Cork, Dublin, Galway and Adare. An Garda Siochana escorted The Wall around the country, and the then-RUC escorted north of the border. President McAleese paid her respects to those Irish who died when The Wall was in Queens University Belfast, along with Secretary of State for NI, Mo Mowlam. The Taoiseach laid a wreath on behalf of the Irish people when The Wall was in Adare Manor. I continued (and continue) to identify Irish dead from the conflict.'

In 2008 Gaul House Press in County Kildare published James Durney’s acclaimed book ‘Vietnam – The Irish Experience’ in 2008. As Durney observed, at least 2,500 of the men and women who served during the Vietnam War were Irish.[iv] Untold numbers were of Irish descent; Tim Pat Coogan recalled coming across a ‘Shamrock Squadron’ of 22 Irish-American piloted helicopters in Vietnam.

Irish soldiers were in the action from the moment US troops began arriving in droves after the Gulf of Tonkin incident led to a considerable escalation of the conflict in 1964. Among them was Michael Coyne, now living in Jenkinstown, Co Meath, who was injured five times during his 16 months in Vietnam. Coyne received five Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars.

The war also accounted for the deaths of 28 Irishmen and one Irishwoman who were killed in action, or died in accidents or perished of natural causes.[v]

Among the most vocal supporters of the war was Cardinal Francis Spellman, arguably the most powerful man in 1960s New York, whose father was a shoemaker from Clonmel, County Tipperary.[vi]

On the other hand, Ireland’s fight for independence from Britain had been one of the sparks that compelled a young Paris-based Vietnamese Marxist called Ho Chí Minh to lead Vietnam’s fight for independence from France. Interested in the Easter Rising, Ho was particularly impressed by Terence MacSwiney’s death from hunger strike, remarking ‘A nation that has such citizens will never surrender’. He also studied Tom Barry’s book, ‘Guerrilla Days in Ireland,’ which he would put to good use himself when he led North Vietnam during its wars against the French and the USA.[vii]

In February 1966 Bob Gallagher returned to Ireland on a surprise trip that lasted three weeks. It seems likely he had already completed his three months of training by this time. Pat Nee, a fellow Marine from Galway, likened the experience to ‘12 weeks of pure hell’. However, Gallagher did not tell his family that he had joined the Marines. ‘I was afraid you might worry too much,’ he wrote to them in January 1967, ‘so I made my aunt and sisters in New York promise they would not tell you I was there.’

By the time Ireland was commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in April 1966, Gallagher was serving as a Lance-Corporal in the jungles of south-east Asia. Three months later, while stationed in Quang Tri Province in north central Vietnam, he performed the act that was to win him the Navy Cross.

On 18 July Gallagher and three other Marines were quietly manning a defensive, riverside post near the border at Cam Lo when a party of Viet Cong guerrilla fighters ambushed them with grenades. Gallagher managed to kick the first grenade out of the post before it exploded. A second grenade then landed on the ground between two of his comrades.

The citation for his Navy Cross explains what happened next. ‘Without hesitation, in a valiant act of self-sacrifice, Corporal Gallagher threw himself upon the deadly grenade in order to absorb the explosion and save the lives of his comrades.’

Remarkably, none of the Marines were wounded, despite the fact two more grenades landed in the post and exploded. The grenade upon which Gallagher was lying had still not exploded either. His squad leader ordered him to roll over and hurl the grenade into the river. Gallagher did just that; the grenade exploded on impact with the water.

Gallagher was rightly applauded for saving his comrades ‘from probable injury and possible loss of life’. His action also rang loudly with the Marine’s code of ‘Semper Fi’ (Always Faithful).

‘It is a pleasure to pin this on your breast,’ said General William Westmoreland, deputy commander of the US in Vietnam, when he awarded Gallagher his Navy Cross. Frank Erwin, one of his fellow Marines wrote: ‘I remember Patrick Gallagher, the bravest Marine that ever wore the uniform. He was so proud the day General Westmoreland presented him with the Navy Cross. We had our picture taken together.’[viii]

At the ceremony, Gallagher was apparently told that he would have been ‘a shoe-in’ for the Congressional Medal of Honour, the USA's highest military honour, if the grenade had exploded and killed him.

Gallagher was almost bashful when he told his parents the news in his letter of January 27. ‘It was not much, but they made a big thing of it … I had planned on not telling you myself until I got back to the US.’

When word of his award reached Ireland, there was considerable excitement. RTÉ News dispatched Seán Duignan to interview his family while Ballyhaunis Junior Chamber of Commerce began gearing up to light up the town for Gallagher’s planned home-coming on April 14.

However, glum news reached the parish. Four Irish soldiers were killed in Vietnam in March 1967.[ix] The last of the four was Corporal Gallagher who was killed on the morning of 30 March, just over eight weeks after he wrote to his parents. He was part of a squad on patrol at Dai Loc, near the coastal city of Dà Nang when ambushed by the Viet Cong. Bob Gallagher was one of eight Marines who died in the attack. Frank G. Erwin, who was beside Gallagher, later recalled finding his friend dead. ‘I crawled to him, rolled him over and saw that horrible stare of death on his face.’ [x] Erwin described his death as ‘a profound loss to our entire company, as everyone looked to Patrick for courage in battle.’ Erwin would later name one of his sons Patrick in honour of his Irish friend.

The news was wired to the American embassy in Dublin who made contact with Father Rushe, parish priest in Ballyhaunis. Following the Mass on Sunday, Fr. Rushe informed Bob Gallagher’s parents of the sad news. Gallagher’s younger sister Teresa Keegan, now Dublin City Councillor for Cabra-Finglas, was in her early teens when Bob died and clearly remembers seeing her mum’s desolate face when she learned the news.

On a day that had once been marked to celebrate his homecoming, Bob's casket was escorted to Ballyhaunis by his cousin Staff Sergeant Gerard Moylan. The Western People wrote: ‘The funeral to the new cemetery was one of the largest ever to pass through the town of Ballyhaunis.’ Among those who attended the funeral were the parents of Christy Nevin of Claremorris, who had been killed in Vietnam a year earlier, and Mary Freyne of Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon, whose 21-year-old son Bernard was one of the other four Irishmen killed in March 1967.

Staff Sergeant Moylan laid a wreath on the grave on behalf of the US forces before presenting the American flag, which draped the coffin, along with the Navy Cross insignia and the citation to Mrs Gallagher. Bob was buried in a tomb in Ballyhaunis constructed by his old school friends. His name is recalled on the USA Memorial in Castlebar, as well as on Panel 17 East of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington.

The Gallaghers also received a letter from Bobby Kennedy who wrote: ‘Winston Churchill said, ‘Courage is rightly esteemed as the first of all human qualities because it is the one that guarantees all others’. This courage, Corporal Gallagher gave to us all. To him and to his family are due the thanks of a humbly grateful nation.’

The United States Secretary of the Navy is entrusted with the naming of each ship. In March 2018, it was confirmed that one of the US's new Destroyers will be named the USS Patrick Gallagher. The ship is to be built at General Dynamics' Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine.


By the 50th anniversary of Bob's death on 30 March 2017, over 7000 people had signed the petition in favour of his name. Anyone who would like to sign up to the campaign should visit www.patrickgallagherusmc.info


This is based on an article that was originally published in the Irish Daily Mail in January 2015.

With thanks to Teresa Keegan and James Durney.

[i] The award is second only to the nation's highest award, The Congressional Medal of Honor, recognizing combat valour.

[ii] The Gallagher’s appear on the 1911 census at http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/pages/1911/Mayo/Course/Derrintogher/725211/

[iii] One of his brothers was also a carpenter. Patrick also won first prize for a vegetable plot at the vocational school.

[iv] They served variously in the army personnel of the US, Australia or New Zealand forces. Most of the five million who died were Vietnamese; the US lost 58,000 men while Australia, one of its main allies, lost 496.

[v] Sgt Patrick Nevin from Claremorris, Co Mayo, was killed in February 1966 after coming across hostile gunfire.

Dubliner Paul Maher was 20 when he died in an explosion set up by the Viet Cong in March 1966.

John Collopy of Limerick was killed a week before his 21st birthday in July 1967.

Pamela Donovan was the only known Irish woman to have lost her life. The 26-year-old, who was born in Liverpool to parents from Dublin, was deployed in the US Army Nurses Corp and died from what was recorded as "illness/injury" less than three months after arriving in Vietnam.

See http://www.independent.ie/lifestyle/a-war-in-the-jungle-the-forgotten-irish-who-fought-in-vietnam-29312196.html for plagiarism.

[vi] According to Tim Pat Coogan, Spellman “ruled New York from 1939 to 1968”. His support impressed Lyndon B Johnson greatly and Spellman had much clout in Washington. (Coogan, Tim Pat, Wherever Green is Worn, p. 302).

[vii] Berresford Ellis, Peter (1996). A History of the Irish Working Class (new ed.). London: Pluto Press. p. 254. ISBN 0-7453-1103-2.) In 1923, H? Chí Minh met Sean MacBride, the IRA veteran, in Paris.

[viii] ‘Vietnam: Our Story - One on One’, Gary D. Gullickson (V V Publishing, Minnesota, 1992), p. 49.

[ix] Eight Irish-born soldiers died in 1967. March 1967 was the single worst month for the Irish soldiers serving in Vietnam when four men died. The four men were Bernard ‘Brian Og’ Freyne from Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon, Mike Smith of Ballyconnell, Co Cavan, John Coyle of Birmingham (whose parents were from Cavan) and Corporal Patrick Gallagher of Ballyhaunis.

[x] ‘Vietnam: Our Story - One on One’, Gary D. Gullickson (V V Publishing, Minnesota, 1992), p. 49. Mr Erwin included a rather gruesome detail which I have opted to leave out of this piece as the request of Bob’s family.