We called him The Chief. Everybody did. I did, to my husband, friends, family, anybody who read my book, those who served in the Navy under him. Like there was no other United States Navy chief on earth to me. That slot was taken: The Chief. (Capital letter, capital letter.) His kids and grandkids called him “Pop.” He was about to turn 94. Wednesday’s news was expected—his health was failing. But, as many of us know, it’s never that simple.
Calling him “The Chief” denotes greatness and he was. So does “Pop.” He was one of our great World War II veterans and lived up to the phrase for which his generation was known. Grew up in Queens during The Great Depression. Begged his parents to join the Navy at 17 after Pearl Harbor. They said no. When he turned 18 he joined the Navy and spent his first Christmas in “the brig,” a military jail. Young, drunk, and stupid. Yes, he was a character with a lot of great stories. Served on board the USS Oakland, which suffered one casualty the entire war. Somebody broke an arm. Came home and rebuilt America; literally, as he’d at one time work for a homebuilder as a reservist in between his naval duties.
Then came Vietnam.
By 1969 The Chief, having married his high school sweetheart Marion during the more popular war, had by then five children—ranging from college graduate to 8thgrader, dreaming of her 8th-grade graduation dress. His sister Dorothy, a Catholic nun, joked to me once that Larry—the only name she had for her brother—had enough children to make up for her lack thereof. His eldest, Jimmy, had already graduated West Point and was commissioned a United States Naval Officer—the few who spent four years studying army and joined the navy. The Chief was proud of Jimmy: did this mean he had to salute a person for who he had changed diapers? Larry Jr., next in line, was in the Navy by then, too. He wanted to be dad—his siblings said that about their brother. By 1969 the Chief and Larry Jr. were serving together on board the USS Frank E. Evans.
The Evans was an old ship leftover from World War II, kept on the line to fight the war in Vietnam. In addition to helping pilots charged with bombing raids, ships like the Evans supported troops on the ground by firing shells from afar and where needed, obliterating weapons sites and enemy encampments. War was ugly and The Chief never said it was anything but. On June 3, 1969, in between gunfire duties and fully-loaded, the Evans collided with a friendly, chopping the ship in half, the front half sinking in three minutes. That’s where The Chief was asleep. Awakened at 3:15 a.m. and tossed from his rack, he had three minutes to escape and that he did. He was The Chief. Superman. What did you expect?
It was maybe an hour later that he learned his son Larry did not make it.
Jerry, the youngest Reilly son, called June 3, 1969 the best and worst day of his life. His father survived but he lost his brother.
Twenty-year-old Larry, already married, already a father, and 73 of his shipmates had been killed. Only one body—not Larry-- was recovered. Fast-forward 49 years those mostly-young men are not memorialized on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.. It’s a bureaucratic nightmare, some say. Government idiocy at its best.
“Put my boy on the wall,” he told reporters a few years ago when Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, publicly backed the cause. (The issue is now a House Bill, by the way. Write your representative.)
When I first contacted The Chief in 2010 I don’t think he cared too much about the Wall. He told me this, months before our first visit: “We got tired of writing letters.” I was writing a book and of course, he told me, he would help. That he wanted it for the parents, the parents of the new guys, some who went to the Vietnam Wall in the 1980s and 90s looking for a name. Something to touch. A total of 28 of these young men came aboard just two weeks before the accident. They were the ones who didn’t know what the hell they were getting themselves into, the ones who found themselves mid-war—the Navy was safer so they leaped for the promised life of high seas—on board an old rickety World War II tin can, where their last meal included some unmentionable insect in the mashed potatoes. But the promise was they would make it at a time when 300 Americans were coming home in boxes. And then most of them didn’t. And so The Chief told me he wanted it for those kids and their parents and their brothers and sisters and cousins and friends, who all thought this stint in a Crackerjack, ice-cream-man outfit would soon end and they’d come home and marry sweethearts, become veterinarians and dentists on G.I. bills, and play stickball again. They were all kids, he’d tell me. Knuckleheads—The Chief was in charge of discipline on board—but American boys who were expected to be among the lucky ones to come home from the Vietnam War.
I think he made a slow peace with what had happened.
Likely, the journey started rough when he was standing on one of the rescue ships in June 1969, looking at a glistening South China Sea, knowing full-well his son was gone and that there was no hope. But maybe, if he dove in? It had to have crossed his mind. The journey continued when he rushed from Southeast Asia to get home in the little townhouse on Minuteman Street in Costa Mesa, California to be with inconsolable Marion, a mother who would never see her son again, a son who worshipped his dad. They all wanted to be like their dad. Jimmy. Jerry. And, yes, Larry.
Maybe peace was closer when, in the months following the incident, he helped Navy chaplains deliver the worst news ever to homes throughout Southern California. This was his final assignment just before he retired. He told me that he could feel what those parents were feeling. Did they know he was one of them?
Maybe he had already made peace when I arrived at his home in 2010; just a journalist with a story to write. He wasn’t mad anymore, he said. The Evans incident was the result of sloppy miscalculation; an example he deduced to human error. “He made a mistake,” is what The Chief told me of the young officer who he remembers, who had made a fatal call that killed his son. I think we can all learn from that. And this is what The Chief became to me: A wise one. Full of advice that came in the form of stories; life experiences. (Because everybody needs a 93-year-old friend.)
We spoke at least once a month. His stories made me laugh. I recall years ago after Marion passed away, when the Reilly family was worried about Pop being alone, that The Chief called me with big news: he was taking down all of Marion’s blue willow plates (she had wonderful taste in home décor) and putting up brand new bookshelves for all his Navy books, then in boxes in the basement or attic. He was excited about it. Jimmy and I had lunch in San Francisco months after that and Jimmy was telling stories about how his dad can’t sit still—Luanne, his daughter, told me the same thing once—about how The Chief fell off his motorized chair and didn’t call for help. “I said ‘Dad, what are you doing on the floor? How long have you been here?”
“Jim, your father is never going to go gentle into that good night,” was my response to the story. We laughed. Resilience is my favorite trait in people. I’m drawn to people like that. Pick up. Get up. Keep going. Last night I spoke with his grandson Larry, who was just a baby when he lost his father. I said, “your Pop would tell us all to stop crying and pick ourselves up." Maybe he didn't know how great he was? I recall while working on American Boys, on the near-final draft, when it came to my attention all the medals The Chief was awarded in World War II. He never told me about them. Never bragged. That was who he was. Chief, I'm sorry, we're all going to cry a little bit more.
Today I am remembering The Chief and the stories I’ll never forget, and a person who was in my life just a short time, whose legacy made an impact.