The extraordinary life of a young Irish exile who was killed in action in the Vietnam War was honored at a remarkable ceremony when family members from the US, UK, and all over Ireland traveled to Galway to remember him earlier this month.
Extended members of the O’Reilly clan gathered in Moycullen, just outside Galway City, to celebrate the life of US Army First Lieutenant Anthony O’Reilly on the 50th anniversary of his death.
The unusual ceremony of remembrance brought great healing to his surviving siblings, one of whom traveled back to Ireland from Ohio, and it helped the younger generation to find out more about an adventurous young man who died south of Saigon in 1968, just days after his 30th birthday.
Younger and older members came together to create an extraordinary memorial, which included letters home to his siblings; photographs from Vietnam, Galway, and the United States; and mementos from his adventurous life.
Close family members traveled from Ohio, Kentucky, and Florida for two days of ceremonies which included a Mass and poignant exhibition at the home of his niece, Hilary McLoughlin, and a flower-laying ceremony at his grave in Galway City.
Hilary told IrishCentral this week that the ceremony provided great healing for the older members of the family who had never really talked about his death before and it allowed the youngsters to get to know so much about Tony’s life.
“I was full of curiosity about this person whose life was taken at such a young age and it had such a profound effect on the family. There was a picture of him on the wall in the house where I grew up in Galway,” she said.
“We were never allowed to watch films that had anything to do with war. There was an air of sadness about him. I suppose my mother and her siblings weren’t able to talk about his death. He was gone and they just got on with things, and they weren’t able to talk about it.”
The idea for the remarkable memorial ceremony came from a road trip to Kerry which Hilary and her three young sons, aged between nine and four, undertook last year. The Billy Joel song ‘Goodnight Saigon’ came on the car stereo. The boys loved the sound of the helicopters and asked Hilary to play the song again.
When she told them she had an uncle who died in the Vietnam War, the little boys were intrigued. They wanted to find out more. And so began a project to find out as much as they could about Tony O’Reilly and how he left his native Galway City to enlist in the US Army.
As a result, Hilary and the boys traveled to the home of her aunt, Irene Lapsins, in Dayton, Ohio. Irene traveled home for the Galway ceremony, for an emotional reunion with her sisters, Pauline McLoughlin and Joan Bray.
Irene provided Hilary with all of her late brother’s letters last year and Hilary began the process of piecing together the various strands of her late uncle’s life. The project captured the imagination of the children who began a project about their granduncle’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
From Ohio, Hilary then decided to bring the boys to Vietnam, to retrace her uncle’s footsteps and to lay a wreath at the place where he died in 1968. Her mother, Pauline, was completely against the idea at first, but now she also wants to visit Vietnam!
Hilary discovered that Tony had been a keen oarsman and showed “a great spirit of adventure and mischief” during his teenage years in Galway. He was just 22 years old when he joined the US Army, even though that was not his original plan.
“He decided to go off and join the British Army. While he was over there in London, he met some American troops who offered him more money and it was as simple as that. It was a bigger adventure with the American GIs,” she said.
“He wanted to do his military service so that he could become a US citizen, but actually he found that he loved the army. He went to Fort Benning, Georgia, and from there he was posted to various places. We know that he was involved in the Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba. He was 22 when he enlisted and he died just two days after his 30th birthday.”
Hilary pored through his letters in the months leading up to his 50th anniversary. She found that he had a great sense of humor, despite becoming increasingly saddened by events in Vietnam. She feels she got to know him really well through his letters.
“His letters home show, even though they contain harrowing details about life in Vietnam, that he could still manage to throw in a joke or tease his sisters. The tone of the letters varies according to who he is writing to. In all his letters, he says he thinks it would be better that they don’t tell his mother that he’s in Vietnam. He didn’t want her to worry,” she said.
“In his first few letters he is upbeat and he believes that the US troops are doing a good thing. But you can see as time goes on that he becomes disheartened. He is now seeing that the ordinary troops on the ground have to endure conditions which are quite poor.”
She was really struck by his sense of injustice on Christmas Day 1967, when Bob Hope came to entertain the troops, but the ordinary soldiers were left with low rations out in the paddy fields while VIPs were being “ferried about the place” in helicopters.
“He wasn’t even sorry for himself. He writes about feeling sorry for the young Americans who were stuck in this rotten, stinking jungle, wondering how they got there,” she said.
“I don’t think his siblings read the letters until the memorial, which is staggering really, but I think they weren’t able to face it. First of all, it was the Vietnam War, which was very unpopular. It wasn’t something they spoke about.”
Through his letters, Hilary and her children read about his growing despair about the Vietnam War and the reality of seeing 19-year old American boys being flown home in body bags. She believes the experience of putting the project together has taught the youngsters so much about the horrors of war as well as re-connecting with a much-loved family member.
“In his letters, he becomes increasingly upset about what he is seeing around him. I think he was brave and heroic and that he felt he was going out there to do some good at the beginning. He talks about the paddy fields being submerged in water. He talks about foot rot and it sounds very, very uncomfortable. He talks about being 52 days on the go without any rest and relaxation. He talks about how exhausted they are and promises to write more frequently. The letters are very interesting to read.”
She said the ceremony took on a huge significance as family members began to arrive from Ohio, Florida, Kentucky, and the UK. Her American cousins helped her to put up poster boards in her living room and a clothes shop in Galway provided mannequins to display his US Army uniforms.
A priest, Fr. Brendan Walsh, celebrated Mass with a powerful homily which looked at issues of generational healing and how sadness can pass from one generation to the next. He talked about the links which bind family members, even when they move across an ocean.
“We had gathered in one place to commemorate something that happened a long way away, in Vietnam, but Fr Walsh said that the world was now a much smaller place and 50 years was only a drop in the ocean of time,” she said.
“He put it very nicely and made us feel that my uncle was with us. A lot of people said that they felt his presence that day. Fr Walsh gave a beautiful homily about the importance of letting things rest and also the importance of connecting with your ancestors. It was a really beautiful Mass.”
She said that the extended family was also moved to tears when she lay flowers at the spot where Tony died on a narrow little canal in Vietnam last October. Family members watched the event live on social media, prompting them to decide to organize a bigger memorial in Galway to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his death.
“It was lovely. We felt we got to know him, but also it became apparent that he had been an extraordinary person within our family and that he had been overlooked. He did something extraordinary. He left Galway for a new life in the US Army and packed so much into his 30 years of life,” said Hilary.
Relatives from the US brought over photos of Fort Benning and the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC. His siblings read the last letter his sister Irene received from Vietnam, which arrived just days after his death. They had never read it before.
“I think it has healed the family. I could see that he was much loved and that his death had devastated the family. I know that there was an intense sadness among his siblings after he died, but there was an outpouring of happiness when we gathered to celebrate his life. The children got to connect with their cousins, to learn about an amazing family member, and they learned so much about the reality of war.”
This article was submitted to the IrishCentral contributors network by a member of the global Irish community. To become an IrishCentral contributor click here.