Friday, September 21, 2012

Burial at Sea by LTC George Goodson, USMC (Ret)

  Re-post NamSouth 2009
In my 76th year, the events of my life appear to me, from time to time, as a
series of vignettes. Some were significant; most were trivial.

War is the seminal event in the life of everyone that has endured it. Though I
fought in Korea and the Dominican Republic and was wounded there, Vietnam was my

Now 42 years have passed and, thankfully, I rarely think of those days in
Cambodia, Laos, and the panhandle of North Vietnam where small teams of
Americans and Montagnards fought much larger elements of the North Vietnamese
Army. Instead I see vignettes: some exotic, some mundane:

*The smell of Nuoc Mam.
*The heat, dust, and humidity.
*The blue exhaust of cycles clogging the streets.
*Elephants moving silently through the tall grass.
*Hard eyes behind the servile smiles of the villagers.
*Standing on a mountain in Laos and hearing a tiger roar.
*A young girl squeezing my hand as my medic delivered her baby.
*The flowing Ao Dais of the young women biking down Tran Hung Dao.
*My two years as Casualty Notification Officer in North Carolina, Virginia, and

It was late 1967. I had just returned after 18 months in Vietnam. Casualties
were increasing. I moved my family from Indianapolis to Norfolk, rented a house,
enrolled my children in their fifth or sixth new school, and bought a second

A week later, I put on my uniform and drove 10 miles to Little Creek, Virginia.
I hesitated before entering my new office. Appearance is important to career
Marines. I was no longer, if ever, a poster Marine. I had returned from my third
tour in Vietnam only 30 days before. At 5'9", I now weighed 128 pounds - 37
pounds below my normal weight. My uniforms fit ludicrously, my skin was yellow
from malaria medication, and I think I had a twitch or two.

I straightened my shoulders, walked into the office, looked at the nameplate on
a Staff Sergeant's desk and said, "Sergeant Jolly, I'm Lieutenant Colonel
Goodson. Here are my orders and my Qualification Jacket."

Sergeant Jolly stood, looked carefully at me, took my orders, stuck out his
hand; we shook and he asked, "How long were you there, Colonel?" I replied "18
months this time." Jolly breathed, you must be a slow learner Colonel." I

Jolly said, "Colonel, I'll show you to your office and bring in the Sergeant
Major. I said, "No, let's just go straight to his office." Jolly nodded,
hesitated, and lowered his voice, "Colonel, the Sergeant Major. He's been in
this job two years. He's packed pretty tight. I'm worried about him." I nodded.

Jolly escorted me into the Sergeant Major's office. "Sergeant Major, this is
Colonel Goodson, the new Commanding Office. The Sergeant Major stood, extended
his hand and said, "Good to see you again, Colonel." I responded, "Hello Walt,
how are you?" Jolly looked at me, raised an eyebrow, walked out, and closed the

I sat down with the Sergeant Major. We had the obligatory cup of coffee and
talked about mutual acquaintances. Walt's stress was palpable. Finally, I said,
"Walt, what's the hell's wrong?" He turned his chair, looked out the window and
said, "George, you're going to wish you were back in Nam before you leave here.
I've been in the Marine Corps since 1939. I was in the Pacific 36 months, Korea
for 14 months, and Vietnam for 12 months. Now I come here to bury these kids.
I'm putting my letter in. I can't take it anymore." I said, "OK Walt. If that's
what you want, I'll endorse your request for retirement and do what I can to
push it through Headquarters Marine Corps."

Sergeant Major Walt Xxxxx retired 12 weeks later. He had been a good Marine for
28 years, but he had seen too much death and too much suffering. He was used up.

Over the next 16 months, I made 28 death notifications, conducted 28 military
funerals, and made 30 notifications to the families of Marines that were
severely wounded or missing in action. Most of the details of those casualty
notifications have now, thankfully, faded from memory. Four, however, remain.

My third or fourth day in Norfolk, I was notified of the death of a 19 year old
Marine. This notification came by telephone from Headquarters Marine Corps. The
information detailed:

*Name, rank, and serial number.
*Name, address, and phone number of next of kin.
*Date of and limited details about the Marine's death.
*Approximate date the body would arrive at the Norfolk Naval Air Station.
*A strong recommendation on whether the casket should be opened or closed.

The boy's family lived over the border in North Carolina, about 60 miles away. I
drove there in a Marine Corps staff car. Crossing the state line into North
Carolina, I stopped at a small country store / service station / Post Office. I
went in to ask directions.

Three people were in the store. A man and woman approached the small Post Office
window. The man held a package. The Store owner walked up and addressed them by
name, "Hello John. Good morning Mrs. Cooper."

I was stunned. My casualty's next-of-kin's name was John Cooper!

I hesitated, then stepped forward and said, "I beg your pardon. Are you Mr. and
Mrs. John Cooper of (address.)

The father looked at me-I was in uniform - and then, shaking, bent at the waist,
he vomited. His wife looked horrified at him and then at me. Understanding came
into her eyes and she collapsed in slow motion. I think I caught her before she
hit the floor.

The owner took a bottle of whiskey out of a drawer and handed it to Mr. Cooper
who drank. I answered their questions for a few minutes. Then I drove them home
in my staff car. The store owner locked the store and followed in their truck.
We stayed an hour or so until the family began arriving.

I returned the store owner to his business. He thanked me and said, "Mister, I
wouldn't have your job for a million dollars." I shook his hand and said;
"Neither would I."

I vaguely remember the drive back to Norfolk. Violating about five Marine Corps
regulations, I drove the staff car straight to my house. I sat with my family
while they ate dinner, went into the den, closed the door, and sat there all
night, alone.

My Marines steered clear of me for days. I had made my first death notification.

Weeks passed with more notifications and more funerals. I borrowed Marines from
the local Marine Corps Reserve and taught them to conduct a military funeral:
how to carry a casket, how to fire the volleys and how to fold the flag.

When I presented the flag to the mother, wife, or father, I always said, "All
Marines share in your grief." I had been instructed to say, "On behalf of a
grateful nation...." I didn't think the nation was grateful, so I didn't say

Sometimes, my emotions got the best of me and I couldn't speak. When that
happened, I just handed them the flag and touched a shoulder. They would look
at me and nod. Once a mother said to me, "I'm so sorry you have this terrible
job." My eyes filled with tears and I leaned over and kissed her.

Six weeks after my first notification, I had another. This was a young PFC. I
drove to his mother's house. As always, I was in uniform and driving a Marine
Corps staff car. I parked in front of the house, took a deep breath, and walked
towards the house. Suddenly the door flew open, a middle-aged woman rushed out.
She looked at me and ran across the yard, screaming "NO! NO! NO! NO!"

I hesitated. Neighbors came out. I ran to her, grabbed her, and whispered stupid
things to reassure her. She collapsed. I picked her up and carried her into the
house.. Eight or nine neighbors followed. Ten or fifteen later, the father came
in followed by ambulance personnel. I have no recollection of leaving.

The funeral took place about two weeks later. We went through the drill. The
mother never looked at me. The father looked at me once and shook his head

One morning, as I walked in the office, the phone was ringing. Sergeant Jolly
held the phone up and said, "You've got another one, Colonel." I nodded, walked
into my office, picked up the phone, took notes, thanked the officer making the
call, I have no idea why, and hung up. Jolly, who had listened, came in with a
special Telephone Directory that translates telephone numbers into the person's
address and place of employment.

The father of this casualty was a Longshoreman. He lived a mile from my office.
I called the Longshoreman's Union Office and asked for the Business Manager. He
answered the phone, I told him who I was, and asked for the father's schedule.

The Business Manager asked, "Is it his son?" I said nothing. After a moment, he
said, in a low voice, "Tom is at home today." I said, "Don't call him. I'll take
care of that." The Business Manager said, "Aye, Aye Sir," and then explained,
"Tom and I were Marines in WWII."

I got in my staff car and drove to the house. I was in uniform. I knocked and a
woman in her early forties answered the door. I saw instantly that she was
clueless. I asked, "Is Mr. Smith home?" She smiled pleasantly and responded,
"Yes, but he's eating breakfast now. Can you come back later?" I said, "I'm
sorry. It's important. I need to see him now."

She nodded, stepped back into the beach house and said, "Tom, it's for you."

A moment later, a ruddy man in his late forties, appeared at the door. He
looked at me, turned absolutely pale, steadied himself, and said, "Jesus Christ
man, he's only been there three weeks!"

Months passed. More notifications and more funerals. Then one day while I was
running, Sergeant Jolly 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.

Another call from Headquarters Marine Corps. I took notes, said, "Got it." and
hung up. I had stopped saying "Thank You" long ago.

Jolly, "Where?"

Me, "Eastern Shore of Maryland. The father is a retired Chief Petty Officer..
His brother will accompany the body back from Vietnam...."

Jolly shook his head slowly, straightened, and then said, "This time of day,
it'll take three hours to get there and back. I'll call the Naval Air Station
and borrow a helicopter. And I'll have Captain Tolliver get one of his men to
meet you and drive you to the Chief's home."

He did, and 40 minutes later, I was knocking on the father's door. He opened the
door, looked at me, then looked at the Marine standing at parade rest beside the
car, and asked, "Which one of my boys was it, Colonel?"

I stayed a couple of hours, gave him all the information, my office and home
phone number and told him to call me, anytime.

He called me that evening about 2300 (11:00PM). "I've gone through my boy's
papers and found his will. He asked to be buried at sea. Can you make that
happen?" I said, "Yes I can, Chief. I can and I will."

My wife who had been listening said, "Can you do that?" I told her, "I have no
idea. But I'm going to break my ass trying."

I called Lieutenant General Alpha Bowser, Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force
Atlantic, at home about 2330, explained the situation, and asked, "General, can
you get me a quick appointment with the Admiral at Atlantic Fleet Headquarters?"
General Bowser said," George, you be there tomorrow at 0900. He will see you.

I was and the Admiral did. He said coldly, "How can the Navy help the Marine
Corps, Colonel." I told him the story. He turned to his Chief of Staff and said,
"Which is the sharpest destroyer in port?" The Chief of Staff responded with a

The Admiral called the ship, "Captain, you're going to do a burial at sea.
You'll report to a Marine Lieutenant Colonel Goodson until this mission is

He hung up, looked at me, and said, "The next time you need a ship, Colonel,
call me. You don't have to sic Al Bowser on my ass." I responded, "Aye Aye, Sir"
and got the h-ll out of his office.

I went to the ship and met with the Captain, Executive Officer, and the Senior
Chief. Sergeant Jolly and I trained the ship's crew for four days. Then Jolly
raised a question none of us had thought of. He said, "These government caskets
are air tight. How do we keep it from floating?"

All the high priced help including me sat there looking dumb. Then the Senior
Chief stood and said, "Come on Jolly. I know a bar where the retired guys from
World War II hang out."

They returned a couple of hours later, slightly the worst for wear, and said,
"It's simple; we cut four 12" holes in the outer shell of the casket on each
side and insert 300 lbs of lead in the foot end of the casket. We can handle
that, no sweat."

The day arrived. The ship and the sailors looked razor sharp. General Bowser,
the Admiral, a US Senator, and a Navy Band were on board. The sealed casket was
brought aboard and taken below for modification. The ship got underway to the
12-fathom depth.

The sun was hot. The ocean flat. The casket was brought aft and placed on a
catafalque. The Chaplin spoke. The volleys were fired. The flag was removed,
folded, and I gave it to the father. The band played "Eternal Father Strong to
Save." The casket was raised slightly at the head and it slid into the sea.

The heavy casket plunged straight down about six feet. The incoming water
collided with the air pockets in the outer shell. The casket stopped abruptly,
rose straight out of the water about three feet, stopped, and slowly slipped
back into the sea. The air bubbles rising from the sinking casket sparkled in
the in the sunlight as the casket disappeared from sight forever.....

The next morning I called a personal friend, Lieutenant General Oscar Peatross,
at Headquarters Marine Corps and said, "General, get me out of here. I can't
take this anymore." I was transferred two weeks later.

I was a good Marine but, after 17 years, I had seen too much death and too much
suffering. I was used up.

Vacating the house, my family and I drove to the office in a two-car convoy.. I
said my goodbyes. Sergeant Jolly 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!

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.'

Burial At Sea


  1. Outstanding Brock.

    You have managed to leave me with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.

    "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."

    There are some who still do. And that puts steel in spine and fire in your heart to confront the rampant evil, cowardice, and stupidity up in our face everyday as of late.

    Semper Fi.

  2. You have managed to leave me with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.

    A killer indeeed. I ran across it on my site looking for something else and immediately remembered his notification in NC.

  3. Hi Brock,
    Thank God I am on my 3rd Jim n' coke!! I have read this before.....trouble is and after 48 years I have to "Spill the Beans" here....Before those Marines got to "The Sarge and the Col." they had a "Long road to hoe." 'Nam '68, off Da Nang (The Ship and Units for now will remain.......) They were flown in "Medevac Inbound" and my crew hauled ass!! These were the wounded....then, in a while, over the 1-MC..."All Stretcher Bearer's report to your stations" Inbound were the KIA's. First off, when the Flight deck handed them off to me, Hanger deck, I was the POIC for the duration......I oversaw everything!! Me and my Med Deck people... side by side.... ID'ing the bodies, cleaning them up, putting them in the "Frig." till the morning..... when the "Procession" began from the "Morgue" 2 decks below the hanger deck all the way up to the Flight deck with Helos' turned up waiting to Fly!! I would hang out on the Flight deck as the Helo's took off and headed towards Da Nang..... Slowly, I'd "Salute" ...bundle up my thoughts.. and "Carry on" for "The Cruise" was far from over..............'Waiting for the next, "Medevacs Inbound!!!!!!"
    Funny how it goes....I usedta' know the "NAMES" of all these KIA's....they had "Toe Tags" for starters.....I remember some of them when they were "Alive!!"... Trouble is.....over time ....and it wasn't very long after........"I FORGOT ALL THEIR NAMES!!!!!!!!!!"....Then again.....and this is the part where the Whiskey helps......I can't forget "ANY" of their "FACES!!!!!!!!" just like their Mothers and Fathers when they approached that Open Casket...(If they had that Option) Thank God for current Embalming Technology because some of the "MEN" I had to deal with were in pretty bad shape!!....................

    In the Morning,............... I'd Muster my crew, we'd "Go Down" get stretchers, open the "Frig." (the bodies were already in their plastic bags.) put the bodies on the stretchers and go to the first elevator to the "Med Deck" then to the Hanger deck...At that point it was about a hundred paces to the "Elevator" All Stretcher Bearers had their caps off for "RESPECT!!" (I don't know what more we could do....we were in a 'WAR ZONE!!!!'") I have to say, if anyone was on the Hanger Deck when we were moving Bodies, everyone stopped, faced the bodies and saluted!!!!! on the Elevator, my man Jess hit the alarm that the Elevator was in operation... we went up....
    Maybe some of this is "redundant" but it had to be said...

    A few years ago "The Wall" (the portable one) showed uup at the 82nd AIRBORNE Museam in Fayetteville, NC near where I lived at the time......I went there..... I know the names of several "MEN" on the wall, mostly "Golden Knights" some of whom I have their signatures in my early Skydiving Log Books and later they became "KIA's!!" I found them easily....but it is the "Others!!" I still have to deal with...
    Audentes, Fortuna, Juvat,

  4. I guess I should credit you for making my coffee "salty" this morning. A powerful story indeed.

  5. I read this when it was first posted four years ago. Definitely worth repeating. Definitely worth remembering.

  6. With tears, I thank you. We who have never served will never completely understand matters of this significance. This heart hurting recollection does bring us slightly closer to understanding, and greatly increases appreciation for all torn by the effects of war.

  7. i have read this in Sunday school as a devotion, also as a devotion for the honor guard just before we had a burial detail. plus reading it numerous times. i haven't yet made it past the post office without loosing it. glad this still has an effect on me as it does. we have grown complacent and cold. how many stop to think of the family when we hear about the latest KIA. or do we even stop to listen. CHRIST died an awful death for you and for me many years ago. does the thought of HIS death effect us in this way or have we grown cold to HIM too.
    thank you very much for what you do here. semper fi

    1. Wonderful and thanks. Do you happen to know the town he speaks about? I had thought it might have been Edenton which my mother called the most beautiful town in the Old North State.