War’s Death Watch, Part 3 of 3

The following is the third and final 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 Tuesday, part 2 yesterday.


More Notifications and Funerals

More notifications and funerals followed.  My staff and I were numb.  The tension was palpable.  My marriage was affected; it ultimately failed.  My corpsman was so alarmed that he insisted on taking blood pressure readings on everyone–twice a day.  My staff and I ran 5 miles daily trying to reduce the stress.

My Last Notifcation: A Burial at Sea

One day while I was running, Sergeant Jolley stepped outside the building and gave a loud whistle, two fingers in his mouth… I never could do that… and held an imaginary phone to his ear.  I waved acknowledgement and went into the office.  Jolley handed me the phone.  It was another call from Headquarters Marine Corps.  I took notes and said, “Got it.”  I hung up.  I had stopped saying “thank you” long ago.

Jolley asked “Where?”

“Eastern Shore of Maryland.  Father is a retired chief petty officer.  The kid’s younger brother will accompany the body back from Vietnam.”

Jolley shook his head slowly, straightened, and then said, “This time of day, it’ll take over two hours to get there and back.  I’ll call the senior chief  at the Naval Air Station and borrow a helicopter.”  He thought a moment.  “Then I’ll call the Maryland Reserve unit and have a car pick you up and drive you to the chief’s home.”

He did, and 40 minutes later, I knocked on the chief’s door. He opened the door, looked at me, looked at the Marine standing at parade rest beside the staff car, and asked, “Which one of my boys was it, Colonel?”

I stayed with him for a couple of hours, gave him all the information, my home and office phone numbers and told him to call me, anytime, day or night.  He called me that evening about 2300. “I’ve gone through my boy’s papers and found a will.  Somehow he knew he wasn’t coming back.  He asked to be buried at sea.  Can you make that happen Colonel?”  I said, “I can, and I will Chief.”  My wife who had been listening on the extension, asked, “Can you do that?” I replied, “I have no idea. But I’m going to try.”

I called Lieutenant General Alpha Bowser, Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force Atlantic, at home at about 2330.  He was a friend.  I explained the situation, and asked, “General, can you get me an appointment with the Admiral in charge of the Atlantic Fleet?”  Lt. General Bowser said,” George, be at his office at 09:00 tomorrow.  He will see you.

I was there and the admiral did see me.  He asked coldly, “What can the Navy do for the Marine Corps, Colonel.” I told him the story.  The Admiral consulted briefly with his Chief of Staff called the captain of a destroyer.  “Captain, you’re going to conduct a burial at sea. You’ll report to a Marine Lieutenant Colonel Goodson until this detail is over.  Goodson will be at your ship within the hour.”

The admiral looked at me, “Colonel, my chief of staff will give you the pier number.  The next time you need a ship for a burial, call me. You don’t have to sic Al Bowser on me!” I stood and said, “Aye Aye, Sir” did an about-face and got the hell out of his office.

Jolley and I met with the captain, executive officer, and senior chief.  We set up four training dates 7 days before the body was expected.  I asked the captain and senior chief to meet with the father and give him the details.  They did.

Jolley and I trained the ship’s crew for four consecutive days.  The ship was spotless.  On our final training day, we were seated in the wardroom having coffee and, I’ll admit, feeling pretty good about ourselves when Sergeant Jolley spoke up.  “These government caskets are air tight. How do we keep it from floating when it goes over the side of the ship?”

All the high priced help, especially me, sat there looking dumb!  Then the senior chief stood and said, “Come on Jolley.  I know a bar where the guys from World War II hang out.”  (Burials at sea were commonplace during that war.)  He looked at us and said, “Gentlemen, we’ll be back in a couple of hours.”

They returned a couple of hours later, slightly the worst for wear.  The chief said, “It’s simple Gentlemen.  We cut four 8-inch holes in the outer shell of the casket on each side and put 200 to 300 pounds of weight in the foot end.   It sinks!  We can handle that, no sweat!

The day arrived. The ship and the sailors looked sharp.  Lt. General Bowser, the admiral, a U.S. Senator, and a Navy band were on board.  The casket was brought aboard and taken below for modification.  I escorted the father and the remaining son, a lance corporal, aboard.  The ship got underway to the 12-fathom depth.

The sun was hot and the ocean flat.  The casket was brought aft and placed on a catafalque.  The Chaplin spoke.  The flag was removed fom the casket, folded and handed to me.  I handed the flag to the father and saluted him.  The younger brother cried.  The band played the Navy hymn, “Eternal Father Strong to Save.”  Volleys were fired.  Taps was played.  The casket was raised at the head and it slid into the sea.  The heavy casket plunged down about 6 feet.  The incoming water collided with the air pockets in the outer shell. The casket stopped abruptly, rose about 3 feet, stopped, and then slowly slipped back into the sea.  The silvery air bubbles, rising from the casket, sparkled in the sunlight as the casket disappeared from sight forever.

I returned to the office the next morning and called a close personal friend, Lieutenant General Oscar Peatross, at Headquarters Marine Corps.  I said, “General, get me out of here. I can’t take this any longer.”  I was transferred two weeks later.  I’d been a good Marine for 18 years.  But I’d seen too much death and too much agony.  I was used up!

Vacating the house, my family and I drove to the office in a two-car convoy.  I went in and said my goodbyes.  Jolley walked out with me.  He waved at my family, looked at me with tears in his eyes, came to attention, saluted, and said, “Well Done, Colonel. Well Done.”  I felt as if I had received the Medal of Honor.

Forty years have now passed, but rarely a day goes by that I don’t remember.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Washington, D.C.


A veteran is someone who, at one point, wrote a blank check made payable to ‘The United States of America’ for an amount of ‘up to and including their life.’  That is Honor, and there are way too many people in this country who no longer understand it.

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.

This story appeared in the September 2007 issue of The Marine Corps Gazette.

Sadly, war’s death watch continues.

3 thoughts on “War’s Death Watch, Part 3 of 3

  1. Okay, 3 days in a row now you had me crying while I read these pieces. And yet, it also brought forth such feelings of pride -not quite sure that is an accurate word choice there, but something along those lines at any rate. Mixed emotions for sure and I hesitate to say I “enjoyed” reading these pieces but, I did -because it is a story that deserves to be told and is a well-written one as well.

    To deal with that much pain, anguish, sadness over and over again, makes one wonder how much a person can actually withstand, doesn’t it? And so true too that war’s death watch continues to this day.

    We are told it is a necessary thing but is it really? What is the true purpose behind this necessity anyway? Does anyone really know? Surely, if we are truly a civilized society, we can find better, safer, not lethal ways to assist other countries supposedly who are in need of help, can’t we?

  2. I read this when it was first published in the Gazette. I’ve been a subscriber to the Gazette since I was young “buck sergeant”. It doesn’t hurt to read it again though. I have saved very few of my old issues so it is good you are posting this.

    I remember the most important thing I took from the article the first time I read it. That was I would a whole lot rather keep putting my ass on the line than have to do what the colonel was doing. His job, to me at least, had to be the most difficult and heart wrenching that anyone could imagine. I cry just hearing about combat deaths and major wounds. I would have never been able to hold it together delivering our KIA Marines home.

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