Looking for Egan

Posted on October 29, 2012


Looking for Egan

By Lawrence A. Clayton (Duke, 1964)

Jim Egan in Full Dress Marine Uniform[1]

Jim Egan (ND, 1964) was one of my best friends in high school in New Jersey, back in the 1950s. It seems like a long time ago, but not so long ago that I can’t remember Egan and I duking it out on the sixteenth or seventeenth hole of the Plainfield Country Club for the Junior Club Championship in the summer of 1960. That September we both went off to college in different directions. I headed South and Jim to the Midwest, and our lives began to gradually take on different complexions.

But that summer of 1960, golf was still our passion. And the Junior Club Championship was at stake.

As we came down the stretch, the only observer/witness I can remember was Bill Ellis, our third golfing partner. The three of us played golf every summer. Our dads had good jobs–they were executives in one business or another–and the Plainfield CC was pretty snooty, but I don’t remember the three of us being part of the “in” crowd. Maybe that’s why we hung out together. Three kind of nerdy guys who didn’t fit in with the fast, neat people. Later on they would be the beautiful people. There’s always a name for those with immediate charm in place and style. And, there’s always those on the outside looking in.  Bill Gates, the guru billionaire founder and creator of Microsoft, was kind of a geeky guy, outside the magic circle.

Now, of course, he stands inside the circle, at its very epicenter.

That summer was our last summer together, hauling our clubs around the course, playing the same holes day after day, knowing all the bunkers, trees, hilly lies, every hidden and obvious obstruction which makes a golf course a never-ending challenge for golfers. Non-golfers simply do not understand the lure. Like fishing or bull fighting, it is a mystery of sorts that attracts certain people, repels others. And, of course, some remain indifferent, an attitude I always found rather strange.

Bill Ellis remembers our golfing days in similar fashion.  “Aside from the addictive nature of golf, especially when playing on a hilly open course that represented a cross between the old British courses and the more wooded Eastern American courses, the 3 of us did seem to have something to prove.  Golf became the perfect challenge. “

For you non-golfers, and golfers too, I recommend a movie that came out around Thanksgiving, 2000, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Robert Redford, its director, captures the magic, and then some.

I must have had a good day on the course, because I remember the match finishing after the long par 5 sixteenth hole. It seemed like the longest hole in golfdom, the pin thousands of yards away from the tee, the right side of the fairway just waiting with all those trees to suck up a slice, or the slightest draw, huge cavernous bunkers scattered like land mines all the way to the green. At the end of the monster, I went three up on Jim. With only two holes remaining, the match was over.

We could have walked back to the clubhouse, but I remember playing out the seventeenth and eighteenth holes with Jim. That’s what, after all, we liked to do, tournament or no tournament, winner or loser. We liked to play the game.

Forty years later I found myself searching for my old golfing partner. We parted ways, but not friendship, after that summer. He went to Notre Dame, and I sent my trunk by Railroad Express south to Durham, North Carolina where I started at Duke. Sometime in the 1980s I visited Notre Dame for the first time, not looking for memories of Jim but on a swing of potential colleges for my daughter Stephanie during her junior year of high school.

“Dad, I don’t WANT to go to Notre Dame,” she said as we drove north from a stop at Purdue, and before that Indiana University, and before that the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

“Well, I’ve heard about Notre Dame football all my life,” I answered as we entered South Bend. “I’d like to visit it.”

I seem to remember Notre Dame beating Duke 60-0 one fall day in Durham. I think it was 1962 or 1963. It seemed to me a bit excessive to pile it on in such a humiliating fashion. Notre Dame must have been in one of its monster football epochs at the time, dominating and humbling opponents. They looked and acted cocky. So I joined the half of the American public that rooted against Notre Dame. The other half was equally passionate on behalf of the Fighting Irish. To love or hate Notre Dame was kind of like one’s feelings towards the New York Yankees. One hardly remained indifferent to the great American teams of the twentieth century.

During the intervening years, football and Notre Dame kind of dropped off my radar. Then my profession took me to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the University of Alabama and its fabled Coach, Bear Bryant. I think the Bear got kicked around once or twice by Coach Ara Parsegian’s Fighting Irish. But, somewhere along the line, the Bear got in his licks and the sting of loosing 60-0 eventually disappeared as I watched the Crimson Tide humble the Fighting Irish.

Notre Dame, in fact, is one of America’s great universities. Besides, I knew Egan had gone there. We were close to South Bend as we swung back towards Chicago where my daughter Stephanie lived with her mom.

“We’ll spend the night here,” I said as we drove onto the campus.

“Oh, Dad, do we have to!”
“No, we don’t have to,” I answered as we explored the campus, like an oasis in the desert of South Bend, kind of a grimy post-industrial town from what I could tell. “But we will.”

“I really like the University of Illinois Dad.”

“So do I.”

In fact, Stephanie went to school there. But now I was on the Notre Dame campus.

It didn’t take us too long to find a hotel on campus for visitors. I remember it very near the golf course. Maybe Egan played there while an undergraduate. I had hacked around the golf course at Duke a few times, but my passion for golf ebbed after I went away to college. Ten years of prep schools with nothing but boys left me unprepared for the exhilarating experience I discovered in the classrooms of Duke in September of 1960–coeds. Golf receded as a major activity.

Notre Dame reeked of tradition. Its Gothic architecture reminded me of Duke, although I don’t remember any of the gargoyles at Duke with football helmets. Stephanie pointed that one out to me.

An immense statue of Jesus somewhere on campus with both hands extended was “Touchdown Jesus” to the faithful.

Moses with one arm in the air was “First Down Moses.” Or maybe it was the other way around. I can’t remember. What a place! Egan must have enjoyed the cold fall afternoons, filled with the sounds and laughter and smells of football and cookouts and the sights of pretty girls as much as I did down in Durham. It wasn’t as cold in North Carolina as northern Indiana, but crispness, the vitality, the colors, the exhilaration of youth were common to us both.

I knew I couldn’t call up my old friend and ask him to share his memories of college life with me. After graduation, he from Notre Dame and me, barely, from Duke in the summer of 1964, he went into the Marines and I into the Navy. We started to part ways, but our innocence certainly didn’t prepare us for how final that parting would be.

Jim went into the Service, like so many of us our generation. We didn’t think too much about it. It was something one did. Vietnam was just around the corner, but we were pretty clueless as what being in the Service might mean. That’s probably true of every generation on the brink of war.

Having graduated toward the behind-end of my NROTC class, I was of course not assigned to the sexy Navy—the Navy made up of Carriers, hot shot (Top Gun wasn’t invented yet) pilots, nuclear submarines, or even the dashing destroyers. I went to USS Donner (LSD 20) in the amphibious fleet, called the “Gator Navy.” I guess this was because alligators can be mean suckers when they crawl out of the water and take off after their prey. We carried regular Marines, reconnaissance Marines, Navy Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs, the predecessors to the more famed SEALS of today), and other shock troops and special forces.

Jim, I discovered in a letter he sent me from Vietnam in October, 1965, could relate to my world.

“Thanks a lot for writing and filling me in on your travels,” he wrote.

“I came over here from Oki [Okinawa] on the Gunstan Hall (LSD 5 I believe),” and he added, with a Marine’s experience gained at sea in the Navy, “and I think she’s due for the melting pot after this tour.”

Then, good friend that Jim was, he continued, “LSD 20 sounds like young blood in the WestPac so don’t count any chickens.”

We both had been in service for over a year by the late fall of 1965, and the chickens and eggs adage probably alluded to our getting out of the service eventually. Or maybe he thought LSD 20 was quite a bit better than LSD 5. It was, typically, a nice thought. Jim was that type of guy.

I really hadn’t thought much about Jim Egan for years when I found that letter in an old cardboard box, full of other relics from my past.

The box itself was stained by water, barely in tact, its bottom shredded by age and water. The weight of its contents would soon have broken through the bottom and spilled out with another house move, swept up into a debris pile and put out for the garbage man.

I was in the carport, months after the move, contemplating unopened boxes, some sealed long ago with tape now yellowed and frayed. We had already unpacked all the “essentials,” everything from the big-ticket items such as furniture, to the clothes and computers. What was in these boxes? Memories?

I sat down by one and pulled off the old yellow tape. How long ago had I packed them? Where?

I carefully unearthed tokens of my past like an archaeologist. Tenderly I pulled out old college notebooks, my NROTC insignia carefully preserved in a clear plastic folder, letters from girls I had long forgotten about.

Then the letter from Jim Egan came into my view. I recognized it instantly.

It was a bit faded, but still readable, dated 9 October 1965, Saturday, Fy Xuan, an island, as Jim described it, “northwest of the airfield [Chu Lai].” He added, “you can see it in Time maps, etc.—it looks roughly like the continent of Africa upside down—it is right at the mouth of a river. This is now our very own South Pacific island a la Viet Nam.”

A South Pacific island! My old friend, schoolmate and golfing partner always did have an optimistic, upbeat way of looking at life. To relate his place to Shangri-La of James Michener’s famed Tales of the South Pacific was typical of Jim. He wasn’t going to let the place get him down.

He described his job laconically. I had written him earlier, on August 22, guessing that he was in artillery. So was I, in a fashion. Gun Boss, or Weapons Officer on a Navy ship. Jim, however, was out there with the grunts.

“You guessed right about my being in artillery,” Jim wrote.

“When I first arrived I was one of the officers in a general support battery of 155 mm howitzers.” Jim added parenthetically, “about 6’” for my Navy way of measuring gun bores, still using outmoded English measures.

Jim’s letter prompted me to look through my old diaries. Where was I that fall of 1965 when Jim wrote me from his island in Vietnam?

Gitmo. Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

My diary entry for 6 November 1965, a month or so after Jim’s letter, was almost as laconic as Jim’s letter.

“Back in Little Creek [Virginia, homeport of the Atlantic Amphibious Fleet] after a month of Guantanamo Bay, Port-au-Prince, and the transit to and fro. The only memorable recollection from Gitmo is the heat, the perspiration, the constant bath of sweat I lived in.” So much for “refresher training” at the U. S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, acquired from Cuba in the wake of the Spanish-American War of 1898. Boy, I thought, what a misnomer.

“Gitmo,” as the place was affectionately known by American sailors, was usually the first stop after a ship underwent extensive repairs and refitting. My ship, the Donner, spent three months in the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in the summer of 1965. By definition, we were due for “refresher” training to get the crew up to snuff.

I thought three months in a drydock in South Philly had been hot. But, at least in South Philly I met Delma. And, as I read through the diaries, I had only recently left Pat the go-go dancer in Virginia Beach, and was only falling out of love with Helen, when I met Pat, who I had to leave when we moved the ship to Philadelphia. But, there I was with Delma, who I then left when we finished at Philly at the end of August and headed south into the Caribbean and Gitmo.

Who WERE all these girls and women? Thirty plus years later, a few tantalizing memories of lusty encounters reminded me of why some men go to sea in ships. Largely, I discovered, to get to port and find the women! Had Jim fallen in and out of love as many times as I had since joining the fleet?

How did Jim get on that island at the mouth of the river in Vietnam anyhow? I knew he had taken the Marine option in NROTC at Notre Dame, but only years later with the help of Angie Kindig, Patrician Mielke, and others, did some of the pieces begin to appear. How to put them together would be my job.

From the old faded clippings in the Notre Dame archive, Jim emerges as President of the Glee Club, and his picture in the yearbook is of a handsome young man indeed, on the cusp of great deeds, looking out at the world with quiet confidence.

Then the engagement picture of a very pretty girl, Carole Barskis Weber, breaks the flow of items about Jim. She and Jim were engaged in January, 1965. Carole was a graduate of St. Mary’s of the Lake and was teaching at the International School of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo.

An adventurous girl? One with a gift for teaching? Perhaps with a calling of some sort? She and Jim were to be married in the summer of 1965.

Later on I discovered they met on Election night, 1963, at Notre Dame where both had volunteered at the polls. Jim was smitten, and Carole remembered that it truly was “love at first sight.”[2] By the time they graduated in June, 1964, they knew they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together.

Well, Jim and I had followed somewhat different tracks it seems. I was pinned to Dotty at Duke, but she dumped me, which was after I left Anita earlier.

Author’s student I.D. while at Duke at same time Jim was at Notre Dame.

Then I remember a pretty blonde in Quebec who I met while on my midshipman cruise on the USS Randolph (CVA 15). Hmmmmm, that was Sonia, summer of 1964, then the Mediterranean, and I needed the diary to sort them all out.

But Jim, ah, he found his true—and I’ll bet first– love in Carole, was engaged, and the wedding would no doubt be a spectacular, colorful splash of U. S. Marines in their resplendent dress uniforms, beautiful girls attending the bride, a truly memorable wedding. And Jim had plans for living in Hawaii after the wedding. I was cruising the cool bars of hot Philly in the summer of 1965. Jim had prepared for a grand wedding.

Jim had done well at the Marine officers training base at Quantico, Virginia, finishing with a 95 average. Unlike me, sent to the Gators with the rest of Mr. Roberts’ {some would say McHale’s) Navy, Jim had a choice of duty stations. He choose Hawaii. The guy had good tastes and good sense! I’ll bet he was a model Marine. I was a pretty good Naval officer, not bad really, qualifying for OOD Underway (Officer of the Deck Underway) in a little more than a year, and then in formation not too long after that. We both had men under us, with responsibilities, and we both were doing well. A long way from the golf course, but still comparing notes, sharing camaraderie born of, as I recall now with affection, of a mutual respect for each other.

One of his acquaintances from Notre Dame, Patrick McCarthy, remembered him as “a fine gentleman.” McCarthy too took the Marine option at Notre Dame, preceding Jim by two years into the Marines. They later met in Vietnam.[3]

Jim was aiming for Hawaii in the winter of 1965 when he and Carole became engaged. After marrying Carole, they would move to Hawaii where he was slated to be stationed for three years. Hawaii for three years! A three year honeymoon! Golf courses, a beautiful bride, beaches, the kind of stuff that turned a young man’s head.

But, the events of the preceding summer were building up like a summer thunderstorm. While I flew from McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey to the Mediterranean to join my ship for the first time, and Jim was making the grade at Marine officer bootcamp at Quantico, American destroyers tangled with North Vietnamese P.T. boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, far, far away from Quantico and the Mediterranean. Or so we thought.

The “Gulf of Tonkin Incident” in early August, 1964, has become a famous landmark on the road to increasing U. S. participation in the Vietnam War. North Vietnamese P. T. boats either attacked, or allegedly attacked, a pair of U. S. destroyers one a couple of dark nights not too far off the North Vietnamese coast. It is a controversial incident which need not detain us here, except to say that it provided then President Lyndon B. Johnson with the excuse or rationale to widen the war against the North Vietnamese, and their guerrilla allies in South Viet Nam, the Vietcong, in Johnson’s attempt to prevent communism from spreading further into Southeast Asia. In effect, this was Johnson’s application of the “domino theory.” If one state or people fell to the communists, then in all likelihood adjacent states would be susceptible, and if the U. S. did not step in, these peoples would fall “like dominoes” before communism. So goes the theory.

I don’t know if Jim was any more aware than I was of the “domino” theory and how it would play out in our lives. On March 7, 1965, or a few months after Jim and Carole were engaged, two Battalion Landing Teams of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade landed ashore just north of Da Nang to protect that U. S. air base. The Marines had been deployed from Okinawa and were the first regular U. S. forces in Vietnam.[4] The United States was expanding its military commitment. This was the true beginning of the Vietnam War for Americans, although “advisers” and air support had been in place for a number of years.

Jim must have seen the action coming. Instead of planning his marriage and honeymoon, his unit was ordered to Okinawa, and then to Vietnam aboard the old Gunston Hall (LSD 5) that he described to me in his last letter.

Shortly after the first Marines were put ashore at Da Nang, it was decided to build a second Marine airfield about 57 miles southeast of Da Nang. The site chosen was Chu Lai.

Journalist Timothy Kutta later recalled how Chu Lai got its name.

The plan for the Chu Lai facility was sound with the mere exception that the name couldn’t be found on any map, nor did the locals know where it was. The reason was quite simple. The actual location for the airfield had been scouted out by Marine General Victor H. Krulak some months before. He was certain that the airfield at Da Nang would become a major air base for United States Forces. The limited facilities at that field would quickly be taxed and an alternate field, located nearby, would be required.

Gen. Krulak found the spot he needed for the airfield some 57 miles southeast of Da Nang. It was a flat coastal plain along the border of Quang Ngai and Quang Tin provinces. The plain could accommodate an airfield; it was serviced by a major road and was close to the coast so that the Marines could reach it by sea. The area had no official name as there was nothing there but flat coastland. Gen. Krulak, realizing that it would need a name, christened it Chu Lai, the Mandarin Chinese characters for his own name, and so it came to be.[5]

The story is redolent of how the military worked. On my way to the Mediterranean the previous August I had read “Don’t Go Near the Water” and “Mr. Roberts.” Little did I know that I would be living some of those tales. Jim too, as I quickly learned from his letter, had preserved his sense of humor and wonderful optimism, even in his hutch near Chu Lai.

The airfield at Chu Lai was built quickly, albeit not without some Mr. Roberts’ style comedy. As Kutta recalled, “there were many problems. The Vietnamese civilian firm had finally arrived at Chu Lai but had incorrectly marked off the airfield. Saving face was at stake here. The Marines averted a political controversy by simply moving the survey stakes to their correct positions, and construction began.”[6] Whether the stakes were moved under cover of night, Kutta doesn’t say. By the time the first Marine A-4 Skyhawks touched down on the 4,000 runway, Jim was there, having come ashore on May 19.

Map from: http://h-co.freehomepage.com/id45.htm

Jim was an artillery officer and later became a forward observer, temporarily attached to a unit of the ARVN (the South Vietnamese Army) to offer artillery support from the Marines when needed.[7] As a Marine officer, he was with Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines.[8]

His battalion defended the north end of the airfield and patrolled about five miles out in a sector northwest of the airfield. He was soon in combat.

“I went on almost all the platoon, company, and battalion sized operations,” Jim wrote me in October, 1965. “About the only one I missed 2 men were killed and four injured,” and then Jim added parenthetically with a bit of battlefield humor, “3 of them now have 4 legs between them—and one of the dead was a platoon leader named Jim Mitchell who was really great and a top notch Marine.”

“I’ve been pretty lucky so far,” he continued. “In fact, no one’s been seriously hurt while I’ve been out. We’ve been lucky though—we’ve had mines and booby traps fail to go off and have only had one man hit by rifle fire (in the foot).”

Morale was high at this time. It comes through clearly in Jim’s letter.

“The V.C. [Vietcong; Communist guerillas operating in South Vietname] are very poor shots and usually fire from too far away—mainly because they’re afraid of Marines. They have good reason to be—the other night one of our squad patrols of about 8 men was ambushed and killed 2 V.C. and wounded 3 others. We didn’t have any casualties, which was really good—there should have been some.” That was the young Marine officer, learning on the battlefield, making an honest assessment.

Jim Egan on left with fellow officers in Viet Nam.

Then Jim put the wounded and dead aside for a minute and told me about life on his own Shangri-La. He was on an island called Ky Xuan. “You can see it in Time maps, etc. It looks roughly like the continent of Africa upside down—it is right at the mouth of a river. [see map below].”

“We are doing civil affairs work (medical, etc.) and patrolling etc. The local V.C. Chamber of Commerce stopped by to throw a few rounds at us the first few nights, but I think they’ve been somewhat discouraged now since they have been quite unsuccessful to say the least.”

I read back through my journal from the same period, and uncovered my own military experience with civil affairs. In my case it was a visit to Port au Prince, Haiti, sometime in October, 1965, almost exactly the same time frame that Jim wrote me.

“The whole of Haiti,” I wrote, “excluding a minuscular segment, is poverty stricken beyond belief. We brought some people-to-people stuff in [humanitarian assistance in today’s lingo] but the dent it made was nil at best.”

Later one of Jim’s Marine friends wrote me that “the captain of the company nicknamed it [Jim’s island] “camp gaf.” If the brass asked what gaf meant it was “gain a friend,” but to the troops it was “give a f…”[10] I don’t know if Jim was as cynical as most, but I think we both realized what little impression we were having, he on the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese, and me on the fifth world poverty of Haiti.

“From our clean decks and spotless living quarters,” I continued in my journal, “we could see the men and women and children wander out of their thatched straw and clapboard hovels, to urinate and defecate with their animals in the yards, porches or whatever the squalid open spaces around their shelters can be called.”

Then, like Jim, I seemed to be at a remove. “I wasn’t struck deeply by it all…just objectively. It impressed my mind but found very little sympathy from my heart. Perhaps my own circumstances prevented me from reaching out. I don’t know.”

Then, Jim returned to quotidian life on his island.

“We are resupplied by chopper and get hot chow twice a day.”

Hmmphhhhh I must have thought at the time. THERE’S a BIG difference between Marines and Navy. I got pretty good chow all the time.

Anyhow, Jim was not without the amenities. “In our tent we are wired for stereo. One of my radio operators fixed up a portable stereo with one extra speaker, and a speaker from a radio.” And Jim added parenthetically, “(Kingston Trio “With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm” on now).”

So, life wasn’t so bad. Or maybe that was just Jim’s way of looking at it. He was an optimist, he saw the best in people, he saw the proverbial glass half full, not half empty. As I write this, I begin to see why we had become friends, if indeed one gravitates to like thinkers and kindred spirits.

“Things are going O.K. here, I think, and they seem to be going well all over here.” Already the anti-war movement was cranking up at home, and Jim could read as well as I could. So he added “I think” things are going well.

“I guess the critics are slowly realizing their mistakes—now that we are being successful, everyone is starting to think it was a good idea.”

We parted ways on the above, but there is plenty of room in a good friendship for disagreements. I already thought it was a lousy war, but, then again, I wasn’t there. Jim was. He saw it from the ground, in place. Maybe he was right.

I would have my opportunity to participate in the war in 1966, but that’s another story, for another time.

Jim was not so lucky. His war ended on the night of January 21, 1966, a few months after his last letter to me. He was out on patrol when they were ambushed. Scattered by the attack, the troopers he was with regrouped at a designated position. Jim never showed up. They searched that evening for him until nightfall. They searched the next day for him. A few days later they searched from the air, and they sent in a team of fifty Marines to comb the area.

Leroy Blessing, the first sergeant of an artillery battery based at Chu Lai, and a friend of Jim’s, recalled the night and day of Jim’s disappearance.

“It had been raining almost continuously, around the clock. It was foggy, hazy, visibility was limited and they decided to end patrolling for the day,” he said.[11]

But they were attacked, and when the patrol reassembled, Jim was missing. [12]

“We don’t know what happened to him,” said Blessing. One of the patrol members thought he remembered Jim grab his stomach as if he had been hit. But when they went back over the ground, they found no blood, no body. Only his pencil-size map light, used to read his maps at night to coordinate artillery strikes, was found.

Jim passed into that limbo of war reserved for those who could not be accounted for in any other way, MISSING IN ACTION.

The news devastated his parents and his younger sister, Joanne, who was thirteen when her older brother disappeared in the haze of war. His mother later went to Vietnam three times to find her lost son.

Over the years, the old images of a young Jim slowly replaced the memory of the living person. In May, 1971, Jim’s picture, in his formal Marine blue officer’s tunic, appeared in The Reader’s Digest, along with forty-nine other young Americans, each representing a state, as MIA or a Prisoner of War.

            Following Jim’s disappearance, his mom wrote him letters every week, hoping they would reach a wounded son taken prisoner. None were answered.[13] She became one of the leaders of the New Jersey chapter of the National League of Families of Prisoners of War Missing in South East Asia and met in 1971 with the U. S. Ambassador to the United Nations, a fellow named George Bush, to present a petition signed by thousands calling for better treatment of prisoners.

She was told in 1968 that Jim had been promoted to Captain. Later on he was promoted to Major. One assumes there is some internal logic to these promotions. He was declared dead by the Marines on February 3, 1978. Presumably there are no more promotions along the way. As I write that, I think “how flippant,” and even irreverent. But I bet Jim would appreciate the slightly bonkers rationale of the military mind at work.

He and I, like so many of our generation, were, after all, “citizen soldiers.” I don’t think Jim planned to stay in the military any more than I did. But we both grew up in Service. The big difference was that my growing continued. Jim’s did not.

I didn’t even know Jim was MIA, or dead, until many years later. Our correspondence ceased, of course, early in 1966, but I was off in the Caribbean and Mediterranean in my own learning experiences, assaulting friendly beaches, and determining where life would take me after the Navy. I think my own mom mentioned in passing long ago, “Well, I heard from Jim Egan’s mother that he was missing in action, or dead in Vietnam.”

By then New Jersey, golf courses, Jim and my Pingry friends were really squirreled away in a corner of my memory. After the Navy, I had headed deeper into South of our wonderful country and made my life in the Heart of Dixie, far away from Mountainside and Plainfield where Jim and I had grown up. My travels took me in and out of Latin America, my vision was turned away from the North.

Then Jim’s letter showed up that day a few years ago as I rummaged through the detritus of a move from one home to another. And about four or five years ago a lady named Patricia Mielke popped up in my email inbox.

Patty was searching for Jim also, and somehow we made the connection. I’m sure Patty remembers the details. Patty, I discovered, has a heart for those missing in action, and Jim was one of her “boys” she was looking for.

We have corresponded since then, and we have introduced the many “members” of Jim’s family to each other. I told her about the Pingry crowd—Bill Ellis, Pete Coughlan, Billy Hetfield—and she filled me on the Marines who crowded into Jim’s life in 1964 and 1965—Leroy Blessing (Patty, here I need your help with folks names we should add to this list starting with Leroy). [certainly need something here on Jacquie Sherr and her webpage devoted to Jim as well; http://www.100megsfree2.com/jjscherr/scherr/Egan.htm ]

When word of the memorial reached Patty, she renewed her efforts to locate Jim’s sister, Joanne.  She contacted Bill Ellis regarding his memory of an Uncle of Jim’s, Bernard Egan; then she had a John Egan of England do a search for Bernie and he came up with a news article in Florida that said he was living in Vero Beach.  Bill called his home and Jim’s Aunt put us in touch with Joanne.  Patty had already found Jim’s fiancé, Carole.  Many of the “family” met Memorial Day, 2004.

Jim’s memory came alive once again near his childhood home of Mountainside, New Jersey on that Memorial Day, 2004. There his sister, Joanne Buser, his fiancé of forty years ago, Carole Barskis, and other friends from his high school, college, and Marine Corps days gathered to pay homage to their brother and friend. The town of Mountainside dedicated a new street in his honor, Egan Court, and Jim was eulogized in perhaps the closest thing to a funeral ceremony since he disappeared on that patrol in January of 1965 on the perimeter of Chu Lai.

At the Memorial Day, 2004, Mountainside, N. J. Ceremony. In center left, Carole and to her right, Joanne, and Leroy Blessing on Joanne’s right.

Joanne remembered a brother, Carole the man she loved, and some of his fellow Marines, such as [names of several Marines who spoke at the Mountainside ceremony such as LeRoy Blessing, etc.], remembered an officer, a gentleman, and a friend.

I still wonder occasionally why Jim’s memory is so strong forty years after he disappeared, and died. There is no hope that he lives, as in the case of occasional MIAs who did survive and, miraculously, turned up decades later. Anecdotal evidence from some of his fellow Marines there at Chu Lai confirm almost certainly that he was captured and subsequently executed.

The best we can hope for is to turn up some small physical evidence of his body, bring it home, and give it a proper burial. With that, we achieve what so many family members desire, “closure.”

What is closure?

It is, I think, like an old wound that never really heals completely. Or perhaps a space in one’s heart that goes empty when a good friend, a brother, a loved one, disappears, or goes away. The space grows smaller and smaller over the years, but it never entirely disappears. A longing, a memory of good times, a hurt that simply is incorporated into our being.

I achieved some kind of closure when I ran my fingers across Jim’s name on the Vietnam War Memorial on the Mall in Washington. He is gone. He is certainly not forgotten.

Author and son Carlton, at the Vietnam Memorial, Washington, D.C., November, 2003, pointing to Jim Egan’s name

I sometimes wonder the same thing all veterans wonder about their comrades. Why was I spared war, and injury, and death, and not Jim? What brought him to a violent death so young, and I have lived a long life, satisfying, with children, doing simple things, like Jim and I did many years ago, playing golf and enjoying the challenges, the great ups, and the lousy, high roughs and deep sand traps!

But God in his wisdom provides for us all.

With respect to Jim, I think we gravitate towards like-minded people.  We, in the infinite wisdom of God’s grace, move toward the circles encompassing good people, like Jim Egan.

We are tempted away always by sin, but if we listen to the Holy Spirit within us, it is not those pathways that truly attract us. It is those that lead us to our own Jim Egans in this world, and, indeed, the next. We have but to stop and listen to the quiet wisdom of God, and not to the riotous world around us, which, as the Apostle Paul reminded us, we are in, but not a part of.

So my search for Jim Egan ends in one fashion. His good spirit abides in me. In another way, though, the search goes on. We know his spirit is alive and with us, but we would also like to bring him home.

As he wrote to me in October, 1965, “see you for a cold one soon.” Sooner or later, I’ll have that cold one with Jim.

Last updated: Tuesday, October 30, 2012

[1] This image from a web page devoted to Jim Egan maintained by Patricia Mielke, http://www.virtualwall.org/de/EganJT01a.htm

[2] From video tape of Mountainside, NJ ceremony, May 31, 2004,dedicating a street, Egan Court, to Jim’s memory. Among those speaking was Carolee. Thanks to Bill Ellis for sending me this video.

[3] Personal communication, Patrick McCarthy to L. A. Clayton, 16 June 2000, via email, pmccarthy@holycross.edu

[4] Following info. on Marines in Da Nang, ChuLai region from The First Marines in Vietnam
by Timothy J. Kutta,


[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Email Patrick McCarthy (pmccarthy@holycross.edu) to L. Clayton 15 June 2000.

[8] Letter Jim Egan to Larry Clayton, Fy Xuan, 9 October 1965.

[9] From website http://www.100megsfree2.com/jjscherr/scherr/Egan.htm From left to right the Marines in this photo are: Lt. Jim Egan (Artillery Forward Observer attached to Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division), Lt. Jim Secrist (3rd Platoon Commander), Capt. LoPresti (Delta Company CO), Lt. John L’Estrange (1st Platoon Commander) and Lt. Ed Hap (Executive Officer, Delta Company). Ed Hap later became Company CO. He was killed in Vietnam in mid-late 1966. This information from an email from Jim Secrist  [jes3333@earthlink.net] to Patricia Mielke, July 6, 2004.

[10] Email from andereye@aol.com to L. Clayton June 14, 2000. I honestly forget who this correspondent is/was. I’ll have to try the address. He is the one who put me in touch with Patrick McCarthy, the director of Alumni Relations at Holy Cross. Patrick preceded Jim by two years at Notre Dame. He wrote me that “I was graduated two years before Jim. I too went through the NROTC Program and took the Marine Option. I remember discussing ROTC with him and our reasons for joining the Marines. Our time together was limited because he was attached to a Company and as Liaison Officer to the Battalion I was in the CP controlling all supporting arms. It was when I traveled out to him or when he came back to the CP that we had the opportunity to talk. I remember his as a fine gentleman. It is amazing how we can put death behind us. I guess time is the best healer.”

[11] From article by Gabriel N. Gluck in Star-Ledger [Newark? I forget it’s been so long since I lived in N.J.!], Sunday May 30, 2004.

[12] For full account of that afternoon and night, see eyewitness accounts by Marines who were there with Jim at http://www.100megsfree2.com/jjscherr/scherr/eganstatements.htm

[13] From an article by Marc Shogol in The Daily Journal, March 26, 1971. Copy sent to me by the Notre Dame Archives, Ms. Angela Kindig.


This article published in a much smaller version as Still Searching for Egan After All These Years in my column, The Port Rail in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday May 25, 2014.

Posted in: History, Journal