Marine fulfills pledge to dying buddy

By RON GOLDWYN
goldwyr@phillynews.com

TWO MEN trudged through the lingering snow at Beverly National Cemetery - one in Arkansas loafers, the other in Drexel Hill oxfords - to find their link at Plot V O 613:

William David Gillingham, Pennsylvania, PFC, U.S. Marine Corps, Vietnam, October 12, 1948 - July 14, 1969.

For Ken Hollingsworth, now 52, last week's gravesite visit meant keeping "The Promise" - seeking out the family of the buddy he called Pinky and describing the final moments of the young soldier who had died in his arms. Hollingsworth had been the Delta Company squad leader that hot, humid day in 1969 when Pfc. Gillingham was shredded by a Claymore mine.

Taking a small American flag he had brought from his home in Arkadelphia, Ark., Hollingsworth planted it at his friend's headstone. "One more thing," he said. He took out two cigars and handed one to Stephen Gillingham, whom he'd just met. Gillingham, 50, had not visited his older brother's grave since his burial in the Burlington County, N.J., cemetery 32 1/2 years ago. The Gillinghams always had strong religious roots, but they're not a cemetery-visiting family. Yet, Gillingham was drawn by this stranger's search, by a compelling need for answers, for recollections, for questions about a beloved only sibling who died in a war nobody liked and no one can dismiss.

For Hollingsworth, a sunny man living with some clouds, the visit was the culmination of the battlefield vow he had made long ago to the dying 20-year-old. It brought him a modicum of peace for his anger at the war's aftermath and for the flashback agony of his own son's death, also at age 20, just 16 months ago. In every direction at Beverly - straight ahead, left, right, diagonally - thousands of identical white headstones line up like soldiers at attention. Quietly, the seeker and the brother puffed their cigars and squinted under the bright sky at Grave V O 613. "It's a beautiful day," Hollingsworth said, finally. "You have no idea what this is going to mean to me."

'Everybody knew Pinky'

Pfc. Bill Gillingham, the quiet, friendly Marine from West Oak Lane, was assigned that sweltering July day to set up an observation post outside the perimeter of Delta Company in dangerous hedgerow country 17 miles southwest of Da Nang. It was so hot and sticky that the Marines had long before stopped wearing flak jackets. Gillingham had been in-country for seven months. That meant six more months of war, then back to the States and a reunion with mom, dad and 17-year-old Stevie on Nolan Street. Gillingham's partner was from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, part of the ARVN contingent assigned to 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. Cpl. Ken Hollingsworth, then 20, a self-styled Arkansas country boy with a drawl so thick it makes you smile, was the squad leader who doled out the duty for the day's four observation-post teams. A squad was the basic unit of combat patrol, about a dozen men. Hollingsworth was a natural leader. He was savvy to the countryside, liked walking point on dangerous missions, and he had taken an almost paternal liking to the gangly, rail-thin Philadelphian whom he'd nicknamed for a resemblance to a "Pink Panther" movie character.

"Everybody knew Pinky. Nice as he could be. We all took care of him," he recalled. "He belonged to me. He was one of mine. I felt responsible for his life." Hollingsworth had just pulled off his boots for a midday break when he heard the explosion nearby. He knew what it meant. He and a medic went running.

Search becomes a mission

"Do you want to know exactly what happened?" "Sure."

Ken Hollingsworth, in his airport hotel room on his first day ever in Philadelphia, began the story he had been waiting three decades to tell, to the only family member he could locate. The search for his buddy's family hadn't been continuous by any means. But three years ago, the Internet made it a lot easier to track the identity of someone Hollingsworth knew only by hometown, date and place of death.

"I talked to my old commanders, and they were looking [for family members], too. He was lost out there, and they were trying to bring him in," Hollingsworth said. After Sept. 23, 2000, the search became a mission. His son, Matthew Hollingsworth, two months shy of his 21st birthday and a promising student at the University of Arkansas, was out with friends on the eve of a Razorbacks football game. He fell from a cliff and was killed. Ken, devastated by the death of his only child, searched for answers - facts, context, religious meaning, psychological guidance. The pain, so intense, brought his thoughts back to the family of his Marine buddy. They, too, must be searching for answers in the death of a loved one who died at 20, answers only he could provide. "I had to finish this," he said. And that meant finding Pinky's family, starting in Philadelphia. He e-mailed the Daily News, which had chronicled every one of Philadelphia's 630 Vietnam War dead in 1987. The Daily News located Stephen Gillingham in Drexel Hill. For a month, there was occasional e-mail and telephone contact. Gillingham was interested in learning more - he was 17 and just out of high school when his brother was killed. But he had his hands full. Gillingham's father, William, a retired accountant for a mission board and other Protestant organizations, died in 1996. His mother, Betty, who had founded a Christian school in Cape May, N.J., was in advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease. Steve Gillingham's globetrotting career as a management consultant was on hold while he cared full time for his mom. Hollingsworth, the postmaster in Arkadelphia, a central Arkansas college town between Hope and Little Rock (don't call it Clinton country in his presence), decided he would visit his Marine buddy's gravesite. Period. He flew to Philadelphia Jan. 21.

The next morning, Hollingsworth and a reporter were ready to drive the 30 miles to Beverly's century-old military burial ground when Gillingham called. He was on his way, with a grocery bag full of scrapbooks. In Airport Marriott Room 807, moments after their meeting, Hollingsworth began leafing through the collection: basic training snapshots from Parris Island, S.C., Bill's letters from Vietnam - "Dear Stevie" - and a childhood poem. The telegrams connected to Bill's death were terse, full of logistical information about shipment of the body, funeral arrangements. There were letters of condolence from President Nixon, the commandant of Marines and Gillingham's commanding officer, a snapshot of mom and dad at the grave in Beverly. For Hollingsworth it was time to tell his story.

"I directed him because it was his turn. He was directed where he was supposed to go," he described.

There was fishline connected to a triggering pin, almost invisible in the undergrowth, that had probably been there, deadly, for years.

"We don't know which one of them tripped it. It was a Claymore mine," Hollingsworth said. "Do you want to know about the injuries?"

"Sure," Gillingham said, his voice steady. He was rapt. It had been a long time since he had talked about his brother.

"A Claymore is a shaped charge filled with steel BBs," Hollingsworth said. "It gets everything in a 180-degree arc. It was like he was shredded. Millions of holes. No bigger than a shotgun pellet."

Gillingham wanted to know if his brother died instantly.

No. Hollingsworth recounted his dash up the path, and taking the soldier he knew as Pinky into his arms.

"We were lookin' at each other. He was taking his last breath. It was peaceful."

Hollingsworth recalled no final words, except those of the promise that he made to himself to seek out Pinky's family. Three decades later every e-mail to Philadelphia would be headed "The Promise."

"There was no pain," he said. "We were with him and we all suffered with him."

He paused.

"I'm not going to start crying."

He enlisted to belong.

As Ken Hollingsworth looked at the scrapbooks from Steve Gillingham's grocery bag, something stunned him. "I never saw him in glasses," he said. "I didn't know he could see without his glasses," Gillingham replied. Hollingsworth would return to the topic of eyeglasses, military issue in the photo published after Gillingham's death, the rest of the day. "The glasses thing answered a whole lot of questions for me," Hollingsworth said. "He couldn't see. That last day he might have seen that thing. I never saw that man with glasses on." The men wondered whether glasses had been lost, or broken, or maybe tended to fog up in the heat. It was simply a disconnect that couldn't be resolved. Gillingham hasn't had much occasion to talk about his brother in recent years. Now he described his brother: "skinny as a rail. . .kind of a dreamer." "He was very creative. He could paint, he could draw, he could play the guitar. He did carpentry. He was always in his room making stuff. He won a blue ribbon in a science fair. "He was a soldier buff, he had GI Joes as a kid. I remember one time he took an oatmeal box and made a 'Flintstone' car." But Billy was not a successful student at Germantown High School. His dyslexia held him back, he didn't have many friends, and the schoolwork frustrated him. In the tumultuous spring of 1968 - a few weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., as antiwar sentiment swirled across the nation - Bill Gillingham dropped out of Germantown High School, just weeks from graduation, and enlisted in the Marines.

Steve thinks patriotism played a part, but the main motive was his brother's search for a direction in his life, wanting to belong. "He never really found where he belonged," he said. The young Marine went through basic training at Parris Island, scoring well in marksmanship. In December he got orders for Vietnam.

As young Steve finished his high school studies, he shipped a few tapes of music from underground WMMR that his brother had requested. The letters from Vietnam were just a trickle. Then came July 15, 1969, when two Marines arrived on Nolan Street.

"They showed up at the house. I'll never forget that night. A Tuesday night around 7 o'clock. As soon as my mom opened the door, she broke out crying." At first the Marines asked for "Mrs. Nolan," confusing the family with the street name. Had there been a horrible mistaken identity? No, they quickly corrected themselves. "My dad was in shock. He didn't cry. He had a big knife in his hand - we had just gotten delivery on a sofa and it was for the sofa box that was lying all over the living room. "My mom reminisced while she cried, for half an hour, and the Marines didn't say a word. There was a small explanation, but they didn't know much. Mostly it was what to expect" - with the body's shipment and funeral arrangements. "They basically sat back and let my mom go on, it seemed like two hours. And I thought, 'My God, what kind of job is this, to deliver such news?' " It took eight days for the body to arrive at Dover Air Force Base and be shipped, with Marine escort, to the funeral home in Philadelphia. Hollingsworth, it turned out, had guessed correctly about the family's information void. He had learned, through the years, that many families of dead Marines knew only the bare outlines of how their loved ones died so far from home. "He's right, we really didn't get that much in terms of specific information," Gillingham said. "We got a letter from his commander, but nothing in particular. We never talked to anyone" from the unit. Hollingsworth, a compact man with a crinkly smile, couldn't stop telling stories, even at the gravesite. "We spent many nights together in a foxhole, kickin' each other to keep awake. You fell asleep, you put everyone in jeopardy." The cigars, a grand and manly gesture, simply seemed appropriate, he said later. It wasn't a sad thing to pay your respects, it was just "the end of something."

'Brothers' united

For years, Ken Hollingsworth seethed at what he considered the disrespect toward Vietnam veterans. As the years passed, he turned more philosophical about the war. "Not a day doesn't go by that Vietnam doesn't enter my mind in some way. I remember some ambush or wonder what are the guys doing, are they OK?" For Hollingsworth, the healing was helped by the Gulf War, whose veterans received the wide public support denied to Vietnam vets, and by the Wall. When he visited the brooding dark stone Vietnam War Memorial on the Washington Mall, with its 59,000 chiseled names of the dead, "I cried like a baby. That turned the bitterness to emotion." The Wall figured large in the mourning of the Gillinghams as well. Mrs. Gillingham made an imprint of her son's name in the stone. Whenever the Wall was shown on TV, Steve's dad would try to spot Bill's name. "Christmases were tough for years. His birthday. Special events more than day to day," Gillingham said. "You get on with it, but you certainly don't get over it." Steve Gillingham packed up his scrapbooks last week to return to his mom, with whom he could share nothing.

Ken Hollingsworth was making plans for a 7th Marine Regiment reunion in Washington, D.C. Steve Gillingham was invited.

"Don't think you don't have a brother," Hollingsworth said. "If you go you'll have a hundred brothers."

And they hugged.

Promise kept. *

2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.