The following is an excerpt from the sequel to my first book. It relates and relives the tragic events of June 1969 when two wonderful young men sacrificed their lives for their comrades and for their country. Although it deals with the deaths of Daniel G. O’Connell and Dennis G. Murphy, those two young Marines are symbolic of the deaths of thousands of Americans during the tragic events in Viet Nam. Theirs is a story that was repeated day after day in homes all over our nation. It is submitted in honor of all the heroes who made the supreme sacrifice in all of our wars.
Finals were over and teachers were finishing their end of the year procedures when the public address system crackled on. It was the voice of the assistant principal, Vito Amari.
“May I have everyone’s attention?” The voice was somber and faltering.
“Mr. O’Connell has just been summoned from the building. The Marines are at his home and all of the family is arriving there now.” There was a pause.
“Please say a prayer for the O’Connell family,” and the speaker snapped off.
There was nothing else to say. We all understood that whatever the branch of service, when members of that branch came to your home, the news that they brought was never good news.
Private First Class Daniel Gerard O’Connell was killed in action on June 19, 1969 by an explosive charge, while attempting to get medical aid for a severely wounded comrade while radio communication was down. Danny was five months short of his nineteenth birthday.
There was no way to describe the mood in the high school. It was beyond somber. Everyone knew Danny and the O’Connell family. Our hearts went out to our principal, Walter G. O’Connell, who had his building ripped out from under him the year before. The principal had stood proudly that June, as he watched Danny approach. He stood ready to hand his son his diploma. The former Marine knew full well the dangers that his young Marine son would face. Now, a year after he had proudly handed his son his diploma when his pride was twofold because Danny was both a high school graduate and a Marine, he had been informed that his son had lost his life. There can be no greater tragedy for a parent than to lose a child.
I was drained of emotion as I drove home. Danny’s image and our conversations kept racing through my mind. I couldn’t begin to imagine what life was like for his mother, Mary, his father and his brothers. I kept reliving the memories of him in class and of my last meeting with him and Dennis in the hall as they came to say farewell to me the previous June, before leaving for Parris Island.
The flag was at half-mast in front of the high school when I arrived the following morning. I walked into the high school office and the mood was as somber as it had been when we received the news of Danny’s death the day before. Secretaries were dabbing at their eyes. I went to the sign in book, and on the sign in desk I saw two Marine Corps pictures. One was of Danny and next to Danny’s picture was a picture of Dennis Murphy, and under it was written: Pray for the souls of Private First Class Daniel Gerard O’Connell, killed in action on June 19, 1969 and for Private First Class Dennis Gerard Murphy, killed in action on June 18, 1969.
I felt my knees buckle. No, no, no! It couldn’t be true.
And then I said out loud, “No, not the two of them. There must be some mistake. It can’t be. Not both of them, Danny and Dennis a day apart. Maybe they got their names confused with someone else. Oh no God. How could this be?”
One of the secretaries looked up.
“It’s true, Mr. Bilotti. Mr. O’Connell is over at the Murphy home right now,” and she turned around, her shoulders shaking gently as she cried into a tissue.
It was so typical of Walter G. He had received word the day before of the death of his own son, and yet he put aside his own feelings to console the family of Dennis Murphy, another fallen Marine.
Although Danny had been killed a day after Dennis was killed, Danny’s body came home first. As I viewed Danny’s body I couldn’t help but think how fresh and alive he appeared to be, almost as if he was sleeping under his plexiglass covered casket. The Marine honor guard stood by Danny’s coffin as throngs of people came to pay their last respects.
I don’t know from where he got his strength, or how he kept his composure, but Danny was eulogized by his father at his funeral Mass.
And then Dennis’ body came home, and as with his Danny, the Marine Corps honor guard stood by the young Marine’s coffin. Dennis like Danny wore his Marine Corps Blues. The top of Dennis’ head was covered with a bandage, and he as with Danny, was under plexiglass.
I didn’t learn as much about the facts of Dennis’ death as I did about Danny’s. What I did learn was that Dennis had been wounded already in combat but he insisted on going back to join his fellow Marines while he tried to get into Danny’s unit. He was killed by small arms fire and received the Silver Star for bravery in action against the North Vietnamese. Dennis Gerard Murphy, as was Daniel Gerard O’Connell, five months short of his nineteenth birthday.
The two Marines are buried close to one another in Suffolk County, and their names are located close to each other on the Viet Nam War Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
Daniel Gerard O’Connell. Panel W. 22, Line 92.
Dennis Gerard Murphy. Panel W. 22, Line 79.
The small town of Copiague and of Copiague High School sent many of their young men to fight for their country in Viet Nam. Walter G. O’Connell and his wife, Mary’s contribution to the nation that they loved went above and beyond what was asked of most Americans. Their oldest son, Walter, served in the Air Force, and their son, Francis, joined the Marines after he learned of his older brother Danny’s death. Francis, like his brother, Daniel, also served in combat in Viet Nam. A total of five young men from the tiny hamlet of Copiague made the supreme sacrifice.