At a barber shop in Ringsend, Dublin, hangs a purple heart awarded to Lieutenant John Driver of the 101st Airborne, killed in action when his patrol was ambushed in Thua Thien, South Vietnam on April 17, 1969.
His older brother, Jim Driver, keeps his memory alive with a display of memorabilia in his barber shop, and until recently John Driver was believed to be the only Irish person who died fighting for the U.S. Army in Vietnam.
There are over 58,000 names on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. and, says Declan Hughes “about half are Irish names.” In 1999, Hughes helped bring a traveling replica of the Vietnam memorial to Ireland. Now, he is part of the Irish Veterans Historical Research Centre, which is planning to build a permanent memorial to the Irish.
“John Driver was the only one officially recorded as Irish because he insisted on putting down `Ringsend, Dublin’ on all of his army forms,” said Hughes. “But I knew there had to be more. I contacted the Vietnam Vets organizations in the U.S., and by the time `the wall’ came to Ireland, we’d traced 12 Irish-born people who had been killed in Vietnam.”
That number is now at 24.
“Irish people who emigrated to America at that time, were eligible for the draft. Some also volunteered,” said Hughes.
The Irish who served in the U.S. military and died in Vietnam include Lance Corporal Bernard Freyne of the 1st Marine Division from Roscommon, and Corporal Patrick `Bob’ Gallagher, also a Marine, from Ballyhaunis, County Mayo. Gallagher was the second eldest of nine children.
In 1962, when he was 18, Patrick went to stay with his aunt in Long Island. In February, 1966, he went back to Ballyhaunis for three weeks, not telling his family he had been drafted into the U.S. Marines and would be off to Vietnam on his return to the U.S.
He went to Vietnam in April, and on July 18, 1966, saved the lives of three comrades. Four of them had been manning a defense post at Cam Lo near the border with North Vietnam when it was attacked.
Patrick kicked a grenade out of their position before it exploded and, as the citation for the Navy Cross he was later awarded read, “another enemy grenade followed and landed in the position between two of his comrades.
“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.”
As the three other marines ran to safety two further grenades landed in the position and exploded, “miraculously injuring nobody.” Patrick’s squad leader ordered him to throw the grenade he was lying on into a nearby river. It exploded on hitting the water.
“Through his extraordinary heroism and inspiring valor in the face of almost certain death, he saved his comrades from probable injury and possible loss of life,” said the citation. He was awarded the Marines’ highest honor, the Navy Cross, and promoted.
The publicity around Gallagher’s heroism meant he had to tell his family he was in Vietnam, but he was shot dead while on patrol in Da Nang. He was 23.
The list also includes Pamela Donovan of the Army Nursing Corps, the only known Irish woman to die in Vietnam, and Captain Edmond Landers from Oola in Limerick, who served in the U.S. Army from 1958 until he was killed in action in Gia Dinh in May 1968. He is buried in Limerick.
Four of the 24 known Irish people were killed serving with the Australian forces in Vietnam.
Hughes, and the Irish Veterans Historical Research Centre, are keen to hear from anyone who knows of Irish people who served in Vietnam, or who would like to support the efforts to build a memorial.
A site has been identified in the very middle of Ireland, just a couple of miles outside Athlone, in Kiltoom, County Roscommon. It’s an old church, built in 1820, and the organization hopes to restore it as a permanent tribute to the Irish veterans.
The Irish Veterans Historical Research Centre is a registered charity based in Dublin. ♦