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'Mayo Boy, Vietnam Hero': The fascinating story of Patrick Gallagher

The Ballyhaunis man kept his service with the US Marines a secret until he won a top honour.

KATHY RAFTERY FIRST heard about Patrick ‘Bob’ Gallagher when looking at an old childhood photo of her mother.

It was an Irish Press image of a group of schoolchildren taken in 1956.

Her mother explained who everyone in the photo was. When she got to Patrick she said, ‘That boy died in the Vietnam War.’

Intrigued about a Mayo man fighting in one of the most high-profile wars of the 20th century, Kathy started to research his story.

pat Patrick 'Bob' Gallagher Source: Martin Durkan

Patrick was born in Co Mayo in 1944. He grew up near Ballyhaunis, before emigrating to Long Island in the US in the early 1960s.

He joined the US Marine Corps and was stationed in Vietnam during some of the most intense fighting of a controversial war that waged for almost 20 years.

Two of his sisters also lived in New York and were aware he was serving in Vietnam, but he swore them to secrecy as he didn’t want his family in Ireland to worry about his safety.

Kathy notes that all the letters he sent home went through a military training camp in California so had an American stamp, meaning his family never suspected he was living elsewhere.

Grenades 

A fateful event in Vietnam forced his hand, making telling his parents inevitable – before they found out from someone else.

Patrick was hailed a hero after saving his comrades from incoming grenades, throwing himself on one of them to save his fellow marines in 1966.

patrick Source: Martin Durkan

A military citation states: “Without hesitation, in a valiant act of self-sacrifice, Lance Corporal Gallagher threw himself upon the deadly grenade in order to absorb the explosion and save the lives of his comrades.

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. His daring actions were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.

Luckily, the grenade had a delayed fuse which allowed him to roll over and throw it away before it exploded.

Patrick was awarded a Navy Cross, the second highest honour in the US military, for his actions.

He sent a letter home explaining he was serving in Vietnam. Soon afterwards a journalist from RTÉ arrived to interview the parents of the Mayo man hailed a war hero.

The news was a surprise, to say the least.

Fred Bohenek, Frank Morelli & documentary maker Kathy Raftery Kathy with Fred Bohenek (left) and Frank Morelli, two of the Marines who were with Patrick near Da Nang when he died, just weeks after he received his medal. Source: c/o Kathy Raftery

During the course of researching and recording the documentary, Kathy spoke to some of Patrick’s relatives and men who served with him in Vietnam.

His fellow soldiers said Patrick was proud of receiving the Navy Cross but “didn’t want a big fuss made of it” and “just wanted to move on” from a “traumatic” experience in which he could have died.

They remembered him as “very positive and very thorough … a nice guy”.

“When I starting researching it I didn’t realise what a big story it was,” Kathy notes, adding: “It has been an honour to speak to these marines.”

She says they were very sad about recalling Patrick’s death, but happy to help ensure his story was remembered.

Ambush

Patrick was killed in an ambush by Viet Cong soldiers on 30 March 1967, shortly before he was due to leave the country.

Kathy says the attack happened “out of nowhere” on a routine patrol.

download Patrick's story was remembered at Dublin Airport last year. Source: Martin Durkan

Millions of people – both soldiers and civilians – died in the almost two-decade war. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC bears the names of almost 58,000 members of the US armed forces, including Patrick.

He was one of thousands of Irish people to have served with US Armed Forces in the Vietnam War. About 30 of them were killed in action.

There is an online petition calling for the US Navy to honor Patrick by naming a ship after him. It has over 5,700 signatures to date.

Mayo Boy, Vietnam Hero will be broadcast as RTÉ Radio’s Documentary on One at 2pm today, and repeated at 7pm tomorrow. You can also listen to it online after it has been aired. 

Read: There’s a campaign to have a US military ship named after an Irishman from Ballyhaunis

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Órla Ryan

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