comrades knew Michael Callahan less than two months before he was killed
in Vietnam in 1967. But they could not forget the young Marine maverick,
and spent more than 30 years looking for his family.
was a bright "wild child" from Drexel Hill who joined the
Marines to prove to his father he was a man. Before he could show off
his new-found maturity, 18-year-old Michael Callahan was killed in the
so-called Antenna Valley in South Vietnam, on Nov. 8, 1967.
nearly 35 years, Callahan's family knew little about how he died, and
even less about the indelible impression he had made on his fellow soldiers.
month, after more than three decades of on-and-off searching, two men
who served with Callahan contacted one of his sisters and cried with
her on the phone. The two put her in contact with a third buddy. And
a fourth had made a similar emotional call three years ago.
would veterans spend more than 30 years looking for the family of a
man they knew for less than two months?
are complicated reasons, tied into Marine honor, an unfinished errand,
and Callahan's charisma, a mystique he possessed that somehow stayed
with these men from their war-wrecked youths into restless middle age.
Callahan Thompson and Deirdre Callahan
was uplifted and elated that an 18-year-old boy could haunt the consciousness
of all these people for 30 years," said Michael's sister Deirdre
Callahan, who is organizing a memorial for her brother in November.
"It's astounding Michael could move these men to search 30 years
for him. That's
Callahan didn't follow rules, and three schools felt the need to kick
him out as a result.
was boy stuff and he was in trouble all the time," said Deirdre,
49, a corporate attorney for SEI Investments Co. in Oaks, Montgomery
County. She sat with her older sister, Sheila Callahan Thompson, in
Deirdre's Merion home recently, in a formal white living room radiant
with spring sunshine.
sister would be specific about Michael's transgressions. What he did,
they said, just doesn't matter now.
Michael's father, James, an attorney who ran an insurance company, seemed
to be angry at the boy all the time. And Michael finally decided to
do something about it.
had a genius IQ, a wild child who wanted to prove to my dad he was responsible,
a man," Deirdre said. "So he joined the Marines."
sisters said James Callahan would blame himself for Michael's decision.
"He never forgave himself," Sheila said.
of Michael's final day with his family before shipping out were published
in The Inquirer on Jan. 21, 1968, two months after his death. (As it
happened, Maureen, another of the four Callahan sisters, dated former
Inquirer photographer Robert Latham.)
one photo, Sheila is seen laughing with Michael. She said she was trying
to defuse the tension and sadness of that day, which registered clearly
in the sad gaze and tight lips of their mother, Honey, whose photo also
is a face of absolute desolation," said Sheila, 55, who runs her
neurosurgeon husband's office in Waverly, near Scranton.
in South Vietnam, the quirky teenager made friends fast.
just liked him because he was really quick, smart, a little brash, with
a Philly personality - braggadocious without being offensive,"
said Edward Blecksmith, 59, one of Michael's former commanding officers
and now an executive recruiter in San Marino, Calif.
Kelly, a Levittown vocational-ed teacher, was drawn to Michael's rebel
persona. "He was a magnetic-personality kind of guy," said
Kelly, 55. "And he didn't go along with authority."
Chuck Goebel remembers was the day Michael helped rig up a shower out
in the boonies. "The kid was amazing," said Goebel, 55, an
investigator with the Orange County, Calif., District Attorney's Office.
a war zone, it's grim. But if you were around Michael, you felt somehow
we're going to make it through today."
men remembered the eclectic items Honey would send Michael: one day,
a large hunting knife that he treasured; the next, a Dostoyevsky novel.
of the men could recount any specific conversation he'd had with Michael.
It wasn't what Michael said that lived on after him; it's who he was
men also remembered Deirdre and Sheila. The sisters would write Michael
sarcastic, funny letters from home, and Michael would read them to his
buddies as he passed around a wine bottle that Honey had sent, cushioned
within a loaf of French bread.
sitting in the jungle, wanting only to live through the night, would
lean forward when Michael read the letters from his self-described "rowdy
Irish" sisters. It reminded them there was a world beyond their
hell, and they reveled in the young women's firecracker charm.
the good times were brief, and Michael - who carried a radio for his
platoon - was killed on his 49th day in Vietnam, in an ambush in Quang
Nam Province, in the Antenna Valley, so named because surrounding hills
impeded radio communications and required radio antennas to be raised
the shooting started, Michael began crawling toward his commander, as
he was trained, so the officer could radio for help. He was killed as
he moved forward, recalled Steve Cottrell, 54, a Boulder City, Nev.,
environmental consultant who was lying next to Michael when he was hit
with .50-caliber machine-gun fire.
was going out of his way to be brave and do his job," Cottrell
said. "He died very quickly."
body returned to Pennsylvania, where the family buried him on a snowy
day in Gettysburg.
two years later, after he was discharged, Cottrell came through Philadelphia
to return the knife to the Callahans, and to talk about Michael. The
family was too devastated to speak with him: Only months earlier, in
March 1970, Honey and James had been killed in a private-plane crash
didn't have a chance to give back the knife, and more years passed.
He again tried looking for Deirdre without success. Unbeknownst to him,
she'd married and changed her name.
and Kelly ran into similar problems in their sporadic searches. But
recently, Deirdre began using her maiden name again to make it easier
for old friends to find her.
found her on the Internet in 1999, and eventually mailed Deirdre the
knife. Mission accomplished. Now, Sheila's son Michael, named after
his uncle, has it. "That's pretty cool," Cottrell said.
March, Kelly, who had once gone so far as to search the Delaware County
Historical Society records for Deirdre, had success with a decidedly
low-tech investigative tool: the phone book. He told Goebel the good
conversations were tearful and sentimental.
years after Michael Callahan's death, his sisters, Dierdre and Sheila,
and several of the Marines who served with Michael and were on Operation
ESSEX when he was killed, met up for the first time at a Celebration
of Michael Callahan's Life in Philadelphia on the anniversary date in
2002. Kevin and Merry Kelly found Deirdre, with a "push" from
Chuck Goebel that started the search. The Callahan sisters invited these
Marines to attend a very special Memorial to Michael...it was an incredible
reunion that celebrated the brief, and as Dierdre says, "irreverant
life" of a young man who blessed the lives of all who knew him.
Marines who came to Philadelphia to honor Michael Callahan and his family
and friends were: JD Murray (Michael's former CO) and wife, Beth; Kevin
Kelly (radioman who trained Michael) and wife, Merry (their son-in-law,
active duty Marine, Rich Medal, also); Frank Jurney (fellow radioman);
Chuck Goebel (FAC), Chuck Cummings (squad leader, 3rd platoon); Steve
Cottrell (company radioman) and wife, Nancy; Jack Swan (1st platoon,
point man); Bill Vandegriff (squad leader, 1st platoon); Brad Reynolds
(1st platoon/wpns/rockets) and wife, Debbe; Terry Otell (1st platoon,
and Steve Cottrell with Dierdre Callahan and Sheila Callahan Thompson
Cottrell's Message to Michael Callahan's Family and Friends
spirit has been in my heart for the last 35years. Sometimes I’ve thought
about him daily and sometimes I’ve gone weeks without a thought….but
never longer than that.
until a few years ago I had a constant reminder of Mike.
long after he joined Mike Company, he wrote his Mom and asked her to
send him a knife….not just any knife…he knew exactly what he wanted.
It was a Puma knife with a handle carved out of bone or antler. It was
the kind of knife you would use for hunting. The day it arrived, he
strapped it on his calf and there it stayed until it came to me for
soon as we got back off Operation ESSEX I wrote Honey a letter….I had
hoped it would still be around, but it’s not….and told her how proud
Mike was to be a Marine, how strongly he felt he was doing good, and
that I had his knife and would send it to her.
rotated home just a few days after I wrote the letter. I talked to Honey
once after that. She had sent a telegram to my folk’s house checking
to make sure I had made it home safe, and I called her to tell her that
got busy and time passed, and I never mailed the knife to Honey.
1971, I came here to Philadelphia with two missions….see Kevin Kelly
and get the knife back to Mike’s Mom. I called the Callahan Company
in the Ledger Building…that was engraved in my mind….but when I asked
for her there was a long pause and then one of Mike’s sisters came on
the line. She told me that Honey had died and I could tell she wasn’t
able to talk to me.
knife traveled the country with me for over thirty years.
1997 I decided that the best thing to do was to take the knife to The
Wall and leave it there with a letter telling the story of the knife,
on the 30th anniversary of Mike’s death, so that the Smithsonian would
pick it up and catalog it and a little piece of Mike would be around
I started thinking about what I wanted to say Deirdre’s name popped
into my head. Thirty years later and I still remembered one of his sister’s
names. I did an Internet search and up she came.
called her with some trepidation. Vietnam was long ago and I had successfully
moved it way down in my psyche. I was worried about bringing the past
up for both of us. But we ended up having a great talk. I also explained
my plans for the knife and Deirdre asked that I send it to her instead.
Deirdre passed the knife on to Mike’s nephew and namesake Michael.
had one other thing through the years that has brought me great joy
and comfort and those are the pictures of Mike that Frank Jurney sent
me right after we got home. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that
made copies of the pictures for Deirdre and her sisters. Deirdre told
me she had not seen Mike’s smiling face for many years. You’ve seen
some of those pictures today.
have still never made it to The Wall. But every time I see it in pictures
or on TV I look for Mike’s name.
night I was watching PBS and there was a promo on for something and
it started with a shot of the full wall and kept zooming in. I started
scanning for Mike’s name as soon as I could make out individual names.
They zoomed from a hundred names to ten, and then five, and then three,
and finally Michael J. Callahan filled the screen. Out of the thousands
who gave their lives they picked Michael J. Callahan to single out.
all of you I remember Mike as a happy full-of-life kid. And he really
was a kid. He was just a few months past his eighteenth birthday when
he arrived in Vietnam. I was an “old guy” of nineteen and a half.
was the youngest Marine in our company. Around the beginning of November
we started talking about the upcoming Marine Corps Birthday. Wherever
you were in Vietnam, if you were a Marine, you got a hot meal and birthday
cake on November 10th. Tradition called for the youngest Marine to cut
the cake. We were looking forward to it.
days before the Marine Corps Birthday we were ambushed by the North
Vietnamese Army. We were pinned down on a trail by just about every
type of armament they had. Mike was carrying the “Company” radio and
I was between him and Capt. Fretwell the Company Commander. He knew
that he had to get up to Capt. Fretwell and even under the intense fire
he started moving up the trail. As he crawled up next to me he got hit
by the machine gun fire. It took a lot of bravery and courage for him
to make that move.
days later we were holed up in a village and the rain was pouring down.
In the distance we heard choppers coming. They carried our hot meal
and birthday cake to us. That was the first time I felt Mike’s spirit
in my heart.
I look out here today at all of you I see that I am not alone. In his
short life Michael Callahan touched many hearts and his spirit lives
on in all of us. I am proud to have been his friend.