Thursday, July 5, 2007

Forty Years Later

By: Chris Trollinger – Sister of William Kildare

Forty years ago, on September 28th, 1967, my family received the news that our Bill had been killed in action in Vietnam.
Standing at the distance of time and space, one still muses as to the truth of the whole affair.
Especially given all the secrecy over the deaths they sustained that day of September 21,1967- in Operation Kingfisher.

It seemed like a bad dream at the time, but it was oh so very real. The Marines coming to my parent’s house, and informing them of the death. The official telegram, all neatly delivered according to protocol.

Shortly thereafter, another Marine assigned to burial detail, arrived to help the family through the funeral according to protocol. To the Corp. It was just another day in the life of the Marine Corps. Burying their dead. Dispatching an ordinary Marine to his eternal reward. Directing our family on all the details, they planned the funeral with precision and little emotion…after all, Bill was just another KIA Marine. His funeral would be the 13,500th the various branches of the Military had presided over in the Vietnam War. Before the War in Vietnam would end, that scene would be repeated many times more.

The first thing my father of course did, was to inform them that my younger brother Mike had been reported wounded on August 21st. We still had not received any confirmation as to his condition or whereabouts. The Marine, got on the horn, and got some lowly clerk somewhere, who reported back, rather matter of factly, that Mike had died of his wounds.

And then the cadence of protocol began to un-ravel. My father immediately got on the horn and called his old Marine buddy, from WWII, Brigadier General Louis Wilson, who was legislative assistant to the Commandant of the Marine Corp.
Louis immediately set to work, to locate Mike and found him in a hospital in Okinawa, Japan. As my father suspected, the clerk mixed up our brother’s names and relayed Mike as KIA, without bothering to check further. Arrangements were quickly set in motion to send Mike home for the funeral. He had been burned in the explosion, which hit the convoy he was in, but the burns were almost healed. He was scheduled for R & R.

This was not the first time we had dealt with this. The previous February, the Marines had sent a telegram to my parents, informing us Mike had been wounded. Then within days, the Marines arrived on our doorstep to inform us Mike had died. Somehow they were having trouble locating the body though. Dad had called Louis then also, and within a day’s time, Mike called to inform us he had been slightly wounded and was fine. He would be reporting back to duty shortly. That was the day, my brother Bill, determined he would re-join the Marines as soon as he finished the semester at Texas A & M. His intention was to have Mike ask for duty out of the combat zone, using the Sullivan Rule, which allows a family to request that only one son, serve in the combat zone at a time. Mike of course did not agree. Bill then decided that he would stand and fight with Mike. He wanted to watch out for Mike somehow, just as he had always done when we were children.

With Mike located and on the way home, the normal protocol was back in orbit…or so the Marines thought. But, my Mother would now throw a problem in their lap, which would unravel the neat protocol once again. My Mother wanted to make sure that the body coming in on the train, was really our Bill. She wanted him positively identified, and Dad demanded to see that our Bill was dressed properly in his Marine Blues.

It seemed like an ordinary request at the time. Who could blame them, as we had endured so many mistakes about identification thus far.

The next thing we knew, our lowly honor guard was replaced with higher up Brass from Denver. Suddenly, the ordinary KIA Marine burial became something that required more clout to keep Protocol on track. They neatly arrived with a personal letter from LBJ of condolence on our loss. Of course, they tried to present it as the Commandants request to honor our family of Marines in a special way. Obviously, they never met a family of Irish Marines before…and so the battle began.

Back and forth the negotiations flew. They insisted the body was in such bad condition, that it could not be viewed. Dad got on the horn to Louis once more, and obtained the autopsy reports in short order. It confirmed that Bill could be identified, still, even though the body had suffered some decomposition from being left in the field for sometime. His face was still intact, and the wounds he received were the loss of both hands and a stomach wound. The report stated that the wounds were the result of his weapon and ammo exploding from hot shrapnel.
When that ploy didn’t work, they set about trying to convince us to just quietly accept that all was well; our Bill was definitely in the casket. We stood our ground, and they finally agreed to allow my Uncle Jack, to ID the remains. Uncle Jack had served at Pearl Harbor and his job there had been body retrieval after the Pearl Harbor attack. Thus, the funeral for another Marine KIA, was accomplished. But to this very day, the question lingers…”Why so much secrecy?” Were they trying to cover up the poor quality of weapons our boy’s were forced to use? I suppose we will never know for certain one way or the other, but it does make one wonder. Why all the secrecy?

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