by Sue Ann Rybak
— This article is part 2 in a series on Vietnam Veterans.
This Thanksgiving, let us remember that the rights and freedoms that define us as a nation were not given to us, but earned through the sacrifices of those in uniform.
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” said President Ronald Reagan. “We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
For more than 200 years, men and women have answered the call to serve in order to preserve the freedoms and values this nation believes in.
Through the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act, the federal government is remembering the Vietnam War with an official 50th anniversary commemoration period, which began on Memorial Day in 2012 and will last through Nov. 11, 2025. The 13-year program is designed to honor and give thanks to a generation of proud Americans who saw our country through one of the most challenging missions our nation has ever faced and to pay tribute to the more than three million men and women who answered the call of duty with courage and valor.
In this second part of a two part series on Vietnam Veterans, the Local remembers men like Lawrence Joseph Bolger, 23, of Mt. Airy who died while serving in the Vietnam War.
Bolger, the oldest son of a POW, never hesitated to answer the call to serve during the Vietnam War because he believed “in one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”
Pete Dougherty, who grew up in Chestnut Hill and attended Cardinal Dougherty High School, was good friends with Bolger.
“We ran track and cross country together,” he said.
He said sometimes after they got done practice for indoor track, they would go to see Bolger’s dad at his job in Germantown.
“After we got our showers, we would leave and take the bus over to Germantown and Chelten avenues and by the time we got to his dad’s job our hair would be frozen,” Dougherty said.
He recalled running with Bolger on the golf course at the Philadelphia Cricket Club in Chestnut Hill.
“We ran everywhere but we liked to run there, because nobody was around.
“God, I loved it. I felt like I owned the world in those days. We had some really good teams back at Cardinal Dougherty then.”
He said Bolger ran like lighting. Dougherty said he ran the mile in 4:23, a good time for the early 60s.
“I will always remember the one headline in our school paper, it said ‘Good enough to be the first man an any other team,’” he said. “He would have been the first man on any team except we had Mike Coffey. (Coffey ran the two-mile at the Eastern States Interscholastic Track and Field Invitation in 9:32.7 in 1962.) Bolger set the record in the mile. I could never beat him in the mile.”
Dougherty recalled hanging out with Bolger after their team lost the Eastern meet one year.
He added that Bolger got along with everybody.
“He was a great guy,” Dougherty said.
Bob Rogozinski, who attended Saint Joseph’s College (now University) with Bolger, wrote on the Vietnam Virtual Wall about their graduation day. “I knew him to be a good person, friendly, well-liked,” he wrote. “His loss in Vietnam was bad enough; coming only a year and three weeks after graduation made it worse.
“I was one of 23 in the graduating Class of 1966 who were commissioned Second Lieutenants through the Air Force ROTC. Larry was the only member of our class to be commissioned in the Marine Corps.
“He carried the American Flag at the head of the procession of graduates into the Field house. That alone would have been enough to make him stand out. But his crisp Marine Corps dress white uniform, in sharp contrast to those of us in Air Force blue and others in black cap-and-gown, guaranteed that everyone’s attention was drawn to him.
“The Marine Corps sent a Captain to administer Larry’s commissioning oath. Larry was first up, followed by the 23 of us who were commissioned by the Air Force ROTC Detachment Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel J. Boyle.
“Accompanying the Captain to the commencement was a Marine Corps Sergeant who, after the ceremonies ended, was the first enlisted person to salute each of the 24 new Second Lieutenants. And, in keeping with custom, he collected a dollar from every one of us.”
John M. Kaheny, who served with Bolger, said they were both platoon commanders in Alpha Company, 1st Bn 26th Marines.
“When he arrived, we were guarding a road southwest of Danang,” Kaheny said. “We were only there about a week and we had to pack up to go further south.”
He said they soon became close friends because they both ran track in college.
“Bolger had a great sense of humor. All things considered, being where we were, it wasn’t much of a fun place – but he was always able to put a joke out there to keep us laughing.”
He said when they got to Khe Sanh, the site of the big battle in late May 1967, a Marine regiment had taken on a whole bunch of Vietnamese who were attempting to take the base. He said his company Alpha was assigned to take over Hill 881 South.
“We were all pretty well packed in there and it was pretty rough,” Kaheny said. “We had to dig up any of the bodies that were there and rebury them, so we could build our fortifications. We had some serious patrol activity out to the west, but Larry’s platoon somehow avoided that and didn’t get into any serious action.
Shortly after Kaheny said he left the company to go to the battalion operational center as a watch officer.
He recalled a dispute involving Bolger’s company commander.
Kahney said his CO put the rifle company next to the artillery battery to camp out for a couple of nights before they went back into the field.
“The North Vietnamese brought in some mortar teams and they tried to hit the artillery battery but their rounds fell short and landed right in Alpha company’s area,” he said. “The company commander was wounded, another lieutenant was severely wounded and Larry was killed.
“He was deeply missed. His platoon loved and respected him.
“I ended up temporarily going back to Alpha Company and took over what was left of his platoon because many of them had gotten killed or wounded in the mortar attack.”
Kahney described Bolger as “a lively sort – full of energy and just a wonderful person.”
Bolger was just one of 58,220 members of U.S. military killed in Vietnam (646 were from Philadelphia).
Art Bolger, Larry’s brother, said his family as well as thousands of other families managed thru their grief.
“It was a tragic time especially since my brother Michael was in Vietnam at the same time and had to be notified” he said. “God only knows what was going through my parents minds at that time. He is still sorely missed because he was such a positive influence on all of us. Needless to say, I wish he was here today. I will always remember what a Marine Corps colonel told me one day: ‘It is bad enough to lose a loved one in battle but their families pay a deep and lasting toll.’”