T.R.’s Memoirs: A Memorial Day tale
(Fort Lawton Post Cementary/Veteran Affairs)
Editor’s note: T.R. Sullivan covered the Rangers for 32 years for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and MLB.com. The following post first appeared in the old blog Postcards from Elysian Fields. It is a T.R. tradition to post this post on Memorial Day.
It’s Memorial Day and my dad was a 28-year veteran of the U.S. Army. So I’m going to tell one of my all-time favorite stories. This is how it’s told in my family …
When your father is in the Army, you move all over the country and so it was when I was growing up. But our “base of operations” was Seattle. Grandma Jo lived on the Magnolia Bluff neighborhood in close proximity to Fort Lawton, and that’s where we lived when my dad was overseas.
We lived there when I was born in 1959 while my dad was in Korea and again in 1966-67 when he was commanding the 282nd Aviation helicopter company in Vietnam. The Black Cats.
The Grays always lived next door. Priscilla Gray and my mother were lifelong best friends. Priscilla drove my mother to Fort Lawton Army Hospital when I was born and again in 1966 to Virginia Mason hospital when my younger sister was born.
Priscilla’s first husband was a bombardier who was killed in World War II. With her second husband, Wayne, they had six children and at least three served in the military during the Vietnam era. Also, the oldest was a Washington state trooper.
Christopher “Kippy” Gray did his tour of duty in Vietnam as a crew member on a helicopter. But when his hitch was up, he decided to stay in Vietnam for a second tour, which was not fashionable to say the least at the time.
He didn’t make it through the second tour. His helicopter was shot down, and Kippy Gray died in the service of his country.
Now this is about 1969 and you have to understand that Fort Lawton as a military base was closed down. There were a couple of buildings still in use by reservists, but the base had been shut down.
Fort Lawton, now known as Discovery Park, was just a few miles from where the Grays lived, and naturally they wanted their son buried close by at the military cemetery there. Otherwise he would have been buried at Fort Lewis — still in operation but an hour or more south near Tacoma.
Problem was, some colonel at Fort Lewis told the Grays that the Fort Lawton Post Cemetery was closed. No more burials there. Sorry but under no circumstances could or would their son be buried there. End of debate.
Priscilla, in tears, called my mom. My mom talked to my dad.
At the time my dad — a lieutenant colonel — was stationed at Fort Shafter in Honolulu. Shafter was the headquarters of the United States Army Pacific (USARPAC).
All the big generals were there, and this is where much brainwork was done in the day-to-day logistical operations of the Vietnam War. My dad was on staff as a briefing officer, which meant he knew the generals and they knew him. He was the guy who handled all the presentations and briefings on what was going on in Hawaii, Vietnam and the Far East.
Turns out Fort Lawton was also a part of all that jurisdiction.
Not that my dad was eager to get involved in the Grays’ dispute with the chair-bound colonel in Fort Lewis. My dad respected chain of command and all of that, and preferred to let things be.
Not Mom. Priscilla was her best friend. The Sullivans were going to get involved.
At first my dad called the colonel in Fort Lewis. Did no good. Tried to reason with him. Nope. No burials in Fort Lawton was the final word.
Not good enough for Mom. My dad was prodded — possibly ordered — into going to see the highest brass possible there at Fort Shafter.
I believe it was Gen. Terry, four stars and the big cheese himself. Plus two other generals of multiple stars. My dad, quite uneasy about the whole affair, was ushered into the office.
He was so nervous he couldn’t look at the generals. But he told the story of Priscilla Gray. First husband died in World War II. Three children in the military, one at that moment on a destroyer in the South China Sea. One son dead, only after signing on for a second tour of duty.
Now, all this poor woman wanted was her son buried close by at Fort Lawton. My dad laid it on pretty good. Surely a grateful nation could at least do that.
When he finished and finally looked up, my dad saw that Gen. Terry had tears in his eyes. At least that’s the way my dad remembered it. The other generals were also emotionally moved. There was little more to be said.
“Col. Sullivan,” Gen. Terry said. “Don’t worry. We’ll take care of it.”
A few days later, my dad got a call from Fort Lewis. It was the desk-bound colonel in charge of the cemetery.
“Col. Sullivan,” he said. “I just want you know that the Gray kid will be buried in Fort Lawton.”
My dad thanked him respectfully
“But I have just one question,” the colonel grumbled in awe.
“Just who the hell is this kid?”
A most profound Memorial Day to one and all.