War’s Death Watch, Part 2 of 3

The following is the second installment of what was originally titled A Burial at Sea: Remembrances of a Casualty Notification Officer.USMC Eagle, Anchor & Globe  It was written by Lt. Colonel George Goodson, U.S.M.C. (Retired) and published in the Marine Corps Gazette in September 2007.  Because of it’s length it was divided here into three parts.  Part 1 was published the day before while the final Part 3 was published the following day.

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Notifications and Funerals

Over the next 18 months I notified the families of 18 Marines killed in action, 2 missing in action, and 30 seriously wounded in action.  Despite the controversy that existed about Vietnam, I received sympathy and affection from virtually every family.  Once a mother said to me, “I’m so sorry you have this terrible job.”  With tears in my eyes, I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.  When I presented the flag to the father, mother or wife, I always said, “All Marines share your grief,” instead of, “On behalf of a grateful Nation.”  I didn’t think the Nation was grateful so I wouldn’t say that.

Flag Presentation U.S. MarineIn this article I have chosen to write about two notifications — my first and last — that are typical because of the fact that they are atypical.

My First Notification

My third or fourth day in Norfolk, I was notified of the death of a 19 year old Marine. The notification came by telephone from Headquarters Marine Corps. The information detailed:

  • Name, rank, and serial number.
  • Name, address, and phone number of next of kin.
  • Date of and limited details about the Marine’s death.
  • Approximate date the body would arrive at the Norfolk Naval Air Station.
  • A strong recommendation on whether the casket should be opened or closed.

The boy’s family lived some 60 miles away in North Carolina.  I drove there in a Marine Corps staff car. As I crossed into North Carolina, I stopped at a small country store to ask directions.  Like many such rural establishments the store also served as a post office.  I parked and walked toward the store.  A middle-aged couple approached.  I held the door; they nodded and walked in.  The man carrying a package, looked oddly at me.  I assumed it was bacause of my uniform.  Following them into the store, I heard the owner say “Hey, John.  Morning Mrs. Cooper.  Got a package for the boy”  I was stunned.  My casualty’s next-of-kin’s name was John Cooper!  I hesitated, then stepped forward and said, “I beg your pardon. Are you Mr. and Mrs. John Copper of (address.)?”  The father looked at me, dropped the package, bent and vomited.  His wife looked at him horrified, and then turned toward me.  Understanding came into her eyes, and she collapsed in slow motion. I think I caught her before she hit the floor.

The storeowner took a bottle of whiskey from a drawer and handed it to Mr. Cooper who drank, coughed and said, “It’s Thomas, isn’t it?”  “Yes.  I’m sorry.”  Cooper and his wife embraced and cried.  Seconds passed like hours.  The storeowner led us to the rear of the store where we sat.  I answered the questions I could for what seemed like an eternity.

I drove them home in my staff car.  The storeowner locked his business and led me there in their truck.  We stayed with them about an hour until the family began arriving.  I drove the storeowner back to his business.  He thanked me and said, “Mister, I wouldn’t have your job for a million dollars.”  I shook his hand and said; “Neither would I.”

The Three Soldiers Statue, Washington, D.C., National Mall, Commemorating the Vietnam War

I vaguely remember the drive back to Norfolk.  Violating several Marine Corps regulations, I drove the staff car straight to my home.  I sat with my family while they ate dinner.  Then I went into the den, closed the door, and sat there all night, alone.  My Marines steered clear of me for days. I had made my first death notification.

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Lt. Colonel George Goodson enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1951 and was trained as a demolitions specialist.  Commissioned in 1952 he served in Korea, the Dominican Republic and Vietnam before retiring in 1974.  Semper Fidelis; Always Faithful.

The final Installment 3 continues here.

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