US destroyer to be named after Vietnam War hero from Mayo
A Mayo man who was willing to die so his comrades could live will be honoured in the US, writes Emily Hourican
The next US Navy destroyer to be launched will go by the name of the USS Gallagher - named after a young man from Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, who died, aged 23, on March 30, 1967 in South Vietnam.
Patrick Gallagher was just 21 when he joined the United States Marine Corp. He had been living in Long Island, where he emigrated to with his sister in 1962 and had studied law.
Some months before his death, he was awarded the Navy Cross - the second highest US military honour - for a spectacular piece of bravery that involved him throwing himself on to a grenade, with the intention of absorbing the blast and thereby saving his comrades.
By some miracle, the grenade didn't explode - and after a few moments he was able to throw it into a nearby river, where it blew up.
For that, Patrick received the Navy Cross, and a citation that said: "Through his extraordinary heroism and inspiring valour in the face of almost certain death, he saved his comrades." Eight months later, Patrick was killed, on what should have been his last day of active service. He died instantly, of a gun wound to the head, and was buried at home in Ballyhaunis.
Now, 51 years later, Patrick's memory is to be honoured in a most significant way (the cost of building a destroyer is around $5bn, and naming them is at the discretion of the US Secretary of the Navy).
For Patrick's family, this is unexpected, but not entirely surprising.
The letters received by his parents after he died, including one from Robert Kennedy - then a US senator for whom Patrick had campaigned when he was a law student on Long Island - describe someone quite exceptional.
Kennedy's letter quotes Winston Churchill: "'Courage is rightly esteemed as the first of all human qualities because it is the one that guarantees all others'. This courage Corporal Gallagher gave to all of us. To him and his family are due the thanks of a humbly grateful nation."
Two days after his death, Gallagher's commanding officer, Captain Walter E Boomer, wrote to the family: "Patrick was one of the finest Marines I had ever known." He describes, "his leadership, courage, uprightness and devotion to duty", and says, "we will miss him greatly".
Patrick was the second eldest of nine children, brought up in a close farming community in Mayo. Like so many of his generation, he left for the opportunities America could offer. There, he chose to support his adopted country, and joined the Marine Corps. This much, his parents knew, but he didn't tell them he had been posted to Vietnam until he was actually there.
Patrick's own letters reveal plenty of his personality.
Writing home on January 28, 1967, he begins: "Dear Mammy and Daddy and all. I hope you won't be too mad at me… When I was home last year I had my orders for Vietnam…
"Now don't be worried", he wrote, "everything is going just fine and I'm enjoying it very much".
He explains why he didn't tell them: "I was afraid you'd worry" and then, almost casually: "Last July when my battalion was involved in some fighting, I was recommended for the Navy Cross…
"It's not much but they're making a big thing out of it here," he modestly wrote, before signing off "I hope that you'll understand… and also hope that you'll be proud of me".
Proud they were. Patrick's sister, Pauline, youngest of the family, recalls her parents' delight in his achievements, and also a young man who was, she says, "very ordinary. He was interested in the simple things. He talked about farming in his letters, ploughing, the neighbours".
And indeed, just 10 days before he was killed, Patrick wrote home again: "the time's going very fast and I should be home soon... Daddy, how are you getting on with the sheep?"
Tragically, he never made it. The day he died, Patrick shouldn't have been in the field at all, says Pauline. "He should have been at base, but they were short, and he volunteered."
The devastation at his loss was, she says, terrible for everyone but particularly her parents.
"The priest told them after Mass on Sunday." The grief, she says, was so "unbelievable for the first few years that we couldn't look at anything - but after that, we had a box of all his things and letters and we would read through them.
"He was never but part of our family and part of our lives. His name was a household name, and for the neighbours and community."
And indeed, last year there was a magnificent commemoration in Ballyhaunis, involving the Irish Defence Forces, Minister for Defence Paul Kehoe, the US Marine Corps and the local community.
The Last Post was played over Patrick's grave and a monument to him unveiled. In the meantime, a petition spontaneously got up by two Irish-Americans quietly gathered over 10,000 signatures and support from the likes of New York Senator Chuck Schumer among others, and finally came to the attention of Richard Spencer, the US Secretary of the Navy.
Normally, the naming of a destroyer will take years to be approved, but in this case, Spencer acted fast and decisively.
And on Thursday last week, Senator Schumer met Leo Varadkar in New York, and presented him with a USS Gallagher baseball cap, saying: "We are thrilled that Corporal Gallagher's ship has finally come in, and will sail on for many years as a resolute reminder to America and the world of that brave boy from Ballyhaunis."