George Nagle's resting place at St. Patrick's Cemetery, Clonmel, County Tipperary.
On January 6, 1969, just 47 days after his arrival in Vietnam, a young Irishman by the name of George Nagle lost his life in battle in a jungle near Saigon. A rifleman in the Australian Army, he died instantly in a Viet Cong Army ambush. He was just 12 days short of his 24th birthday on January 18.
George Nagle’s death, lonely, far-away and futile as it may have been, in what was a prolonged and savagely brutal war, left an indelible mark on his family back home in Ireland. The pain of his loss was most profoundly felt by his mother Ellen and by his brothers William and Paddy. Half-a-century on from that fateful day, Private George Nagle’s action-packed and adventurous short life is still reflected on with sensitivity and sadness but also with a great sense of family pride.
His is a story of a childhood in Clonmel, County Tipperary, in a time when young boys had to become men early, and where opportunities in education and indeed in life in general were far scarcer than today. His is also a story about leaving home at 14 years of age, to serve not in one, not in two, but remarkably in three different armies, before eventually giving his life, fighting another man’s war.
Adventurous always from an early age, George Nagle ultimately packed more living into his 23 years than most who live to be old men. The strength of his legacy to his family, to this day, lives on forever, young and strong.
His brother Paddy, still residing in the family home in Barron Park in Clonmel, recalls with affection his youthful older brother - George was the middle of three boys.
“As a young boy he was the outgoing sort, always had to be on the go, doing something. He had a streak in him for adventure and travel. As a kid he had a thing for cycling and athletics, he ran a bit of cross-country, but cycling was his thing more so, and he was a strong swimmer too.
“At one stage when we were living in William Street, before we moved to Barron Park (in 1963) George bought this sort of stop-watch and he would have kids running and cycling up and down William Street timing them. He was real lively, full of enthusiasm. He’d be telling them they were two seconds faster, or a couple of seconds slower, or whatever. It was great fun for them all,” said Paddy.
JOINS BRITISH ARMY AT JUST 14
George then went off and joined the British Army as a Boy Soldier at 14 and was posted to a barracks in Ballykelly, County Derry, a Royal Air Force base. During his time in the British Army he did training tours in Wales and in Germany. (George made his own decision to finish his service in the British Army).
By 16 years of age George was back in Ireland where he enlisted with the Irish Army at Kickham Barracks in Clonmel, joining the D Company 12th Infantry Battalion. He went on to volunteer for United Nations duty in Cyprus in 1964 with the 40th Irish Battalion, still short of his 20th birthday, heading off to a country torn apart at the time by the Greece/Turkey conflict. He completed his tour of duty and returned to Clonmel.
A year later in 1965 George’s request to do another UN tour to Cyprus was turned down. Bitterly disappointed by this decision, he made his mind up soon afterwards to leave and by way of purchase, discharged himself from the Irish Army. Soon afterwards he took up employment in Ronans factory at Dudleys Mills in Clonmel and spent a year or so there. However, it wasn’t long before he set his sights on travel and far-away fields once more.
“From the day he first left home at 14 George always wrote home almost on a weekly basis to his mother. He was great to keep in touch like that,” said Paddy. “He had beautiful handwriting too and he would write lovely letters and she really looked forward to getting them.”
According to older brother William: “George then made a decision to emigrate to Australia on an assisted package migration programme (in June 1967). You could do that back then for £5. Australia was young and growing and the country wanted people to come to live and work there. But after a while he found out that things weren’t as good on the ground as he thought and then he went and joined the Army.”
George first went to work in Sydney and later to Melbourne. The plan wasn’t specifically to join the Australian Army at the time, but with his training it was always an option. He tried a few different jobs. Soon professional soldiering was calling him once more and so he enlisted in the Australian Army in August 1967 - the third national flag to which he would serve and he was still just a young man of 22 years.
George Nagle in Australia in 1967 enlisting in the Australian Army
JOINS AUSTRALIAN ARMY
George enlisted in the Australian Army in Sydney and following training was sent to Woodside Army Camp, Adelaide. In November 1968 his unit was ordered to duty as 1ATF based at Nui Dat, Phuoc Toy Province, South Vietnam. George was a member of No. 5 Platoon B Company 9 Battalion RAR.
While taking part in a reconnaissance-in-force operation east of Saigon in early 1969 tragedy struck. On January 6, Pte. Nagle’s life came to a tragic end thousands of miles from home.
George Nagle was the first Irishman serving with the Australian forces to die in the 20-year Vietnam War. By the end of the war in 1975, Australia had lost 496 soldiers, the Americans 58,000 and almost 1.5 million people in total had died on all sides. At least 26 Irish-born soldiers died in Vietnam fighting for the allied forces.
Paddy went on to add: “As always, right up to the end, he kept writing home - he never forgot his mother. And sometimes he would include a letter to me too.”
William showed me a couple of those letters including two written while George was in Vietnam, and also postcards he sent from a stop-over in Singapore on their journey from Sydney Harbour. Indeed he did write beautifully.
In his letters he discussed everything telling his mother how he was getting on. He even thanked her in one saying “There were two Nationalists waiting when I got back Mam and thanks for sending them.” He mentioned it was a pity Tipp got beaten in the All-Ireland final (Sept 68 v Wexford) and lamented a Clonmel man he knew well who had died, according to a report in the paper. Perhaps in a poignant premonition he went on to write “Just goes to show no one ever knows when their time is up.”
His last letter home to Barron Park arrived on Tuesday, January 7 - George Nagle, unknown to all at that exact time - was already dead.
“Fifty years on from that day it is still very difficult in ways to look back. He was a great son and a great brother. Times were different then, people just didn’t have it, and George knew that too from the time he was a young boy. He just wanted to help, and in a way he felt he was helping by signing up for the army. He would always send home what he could to help out. From Australia he very often sent his mother home dollars.
“George was just full of adventure and wanted to travel to see the world. He didn’t intend staying in the Australian army either and he had his next destination already picked out - Canada. And the plan was that I was going to go to Canada with him,” added Paddy.
“His dying was very sad in many other ways. George was a very bright lad and it was a shame his school days were so short. And still even after finishing school so young he took it on himself to try and continue his education with night classes in the Tech. I can remember him learning shorthand, determined to get on for himself. But he wanted to look after his mother as best he could and after primary school he wanted to get going and get a job,” recalled Paddy.
George Nagle (centre) as a 12-year-old pictured on his Confirmation Day. Back left his mother Ellen, and front right his younger brother Paddy.
ANOTHER FAMILY TRAGEDY
The boys’ father, also George, was a farm labourer, ‘aged about 48’, according to the newscutting William still has from The Nationalist who reported on his tragic death in a road accident in 1953. The lads were still very young at the time. It made already hard times even more difficult back in an era in which few in Ireland today could possibly imagine. “We were left with nothing, and I mean nothing,” added William.
William recalls some of those times, difficult as they were, and praises his mother for keeping it all going and together. “She was an amazing woman,” he stated.
“The people I think of most are the mothers of Ireland, Mother of God what the Mothers of Ireland did and how they reared their families then. If they are not in Heaven I just don’t know,” he added.
William now lives on the Mountain Road in Clonmel overlooking the town. With his wife Helen they reared a family of six, the first-born George, was called after William’s father, and was the only nephew or niece born before the Vietnam tragedy. Their other children are William, Meave, Helen, Sinead and Andrew.
From William’s house on the Mountain Road he pointed out to me, across a lit-up Clonmel skyline, the floodlights of Moyle Rovers GAA Club shining like a beacon in the distance. “Our house was right there, at the entrance to the new club. That’s where we were living at the time of my father’s death.”
Today, half a century on, it seemed the location was on the same world. The circumstances though on a different planet.
In my chat with Paddy he told me: “We originally lived on the Scotch Road (Monroe) and then moved into William Street and then into Barron Park. There was little compensation after my father’s death or anything of the sort back then and it wasn’t easy. That was the reality of it. Willie and George helped out as best they could; that’s the way it was in those days.”
That move into town from the country was described as “darkness into the light,” by the older Nagle brother. “It was the first time we had electricity and light where we had lived.”
George in Vietnam
NEWS OF HIS DEATH VIA TELEGRAM
The news of George’s actual death came through a few days after the event. William’s wife Helen remembers clearly it being the Friday morning (January 10) around 11 o’clock. The world inched along differently then compared to now. For the Nagle family though, it seemed to stop right at that moment, never to be quite the same again.
The news was delivered by telegram to William.
“I can remember it very clearly. It came to me at the Rink Garage (Queen Street). Back then in Clonmel everyone knew where everyone was, or the postmen did at least. I used to do a bit of work there; I used a corner as a kind of store when I was starting off. I was the first to hear the news. The telegram boy delivered the message and I had to pay him then, sixpence, to deliver the telegram, which was the practice at the time.”
William continued: “Straight away I went up to tell my mother in Barron Park. It upset her an awful lot. No mother will ever say they have a favourite child, but he probably was her favourite,” added William.
“The telegram itself was just three words ‘GEORGE NAGLE DEAD.’ And it had a telephone number to ring some office in London. That was it,” reflected William on hearing the shocking news.
“But what made it even worse for us, and particularly for our mother, was what happened after that,” added Paddy, who together with his wife Teresa have three grown-up children, Anita, Kieran and Donna.
The family were given some choices as to what would become of George’s body. The Australian Army could bury him in Vietnam, bring him back to Australia for burial or they would send his ashes home to Ireland.
“They agreed to what was the standard at the time, pay for his ashes to be sent home, they would cremate him in Australia. But go back to the time, and the Irish mother then, when cremation wasn’t as accepted as it is now. My mother was very upset at that,” said William.
FAMILY STOOD THEIR GROUND
Defiantly, as if almost in a campaign of their own, Ellen Nagle and her sons stood their ground and did the proud and righteous thing; they repatriated George’s remains back home.
William informed me that it was friends of theirs, the Egans (who had a garage and other business concerns in town) who came to the family’s assistance.
“In fairness to them, they gave me a loan of £450 (quid). I can vouch for that. I was good friends with them. And that is how we got George home then. I hadn’t got it myself at that time,” added William.
Years later, through the Australian Ambassador, there was an apology to the Nagle family on behalf of the Australian Government for making them do that.
The funeral took place the following month in February and Paddy remembers the day clearly; the family going to Dublin Airport to receive the body and bringing George home, along slow winding roads, not like the motorways of today. (George Fennessey was the undertaker for that long goodbye).
The hearse came into Clonmel from the Cashel direction and down Ardgeeha Hill and poignantly stopped at the entrance to Barron Park where neighbours walked behind as far as Ss Peter & Paul’s Church. George was interred the following day in St Patrick’s Cemetery. The wish of his heartbroken mother and brothers had finally been granted. The Australian Ambassador made his way to the cemetery that day also to pay his nation’s respects, slightly hollow as it may have seemed in the circumstances.
There has been occasions down through the years when others have remembered George Nagle’s life and death.
His Commanding Officer (B Company 9th Battalion) in the Australian Army, Major Ted Chitham, paid a visit to St. Patrick’s Cemetery in 1989 to lay a wreath at the grave on the 20th anniversary of his death. On that solemn occasion Major Chitham spoke with kindness of a young soldier, George Nagle, and his time under his command.
And he also featured in an RTE ‘Nationwide’ television programme some years ago when fallen Irishmen in various conflicts throughout the globe were remembered.
On the recent occasion of the 50th anniversary of Private George Nagle’s death, his family gathered at St Patrick’s Cemetery in Clonmel to remember him, and also his mother who passed away in 1987, 18 years or so after her son’s sad death.
CLOSE TO HIS MOTHER’S HEART
Losing a child is often regarded as the hardest death of all to come to terms with. Losing a young son in such tragic circumstances on the other side of the world was a cross that brought immeasurable grief to a widow and mother who had already suffered her share. Ellen Nagle wore her son’s signet ring for the remainder of her life, it kept him as close to her heart as he could possibly be.
And yet behind all the decades of heartbreak, silent suffering and sadness of what did happen on that life-ending day in January 1969 there has been an admirable and stoic family pride in remembering. Remembering a son, a brother, an uncle, simply worth treasuring. Time is a great healer, but how long does it take and how much does it really heal. Fifty years hasn’t been enough, George Nagle’s family will go on remembering him always.
* Memorials to George Nagle today are at the Garden of Remembrance in Springvale, Melbourne, Australia and at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, Australia.
George Nagle kneeling at front during a period of relaxation during training with the Australian Army in 1968 prior to Vietnam. At back: G. Thomas, J. Hallam and J. Jellett.
(Thanks to Michael Lyons, formerly of Killenaule, County Tipperary, a member of the Irish Ex Services Association Australia, for his help in compiling this story).
THE YOUNG DEAD SOLDIERS DO NOT SPEAK
Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses: who has not heard them?
They have a silence that speaks for them at night and when the clock counts.
They say: We were young. We have died. Remember us.
They say: We have done what we could but until it is finished it is not done.
They say: We have given our lives but until it is finished no one can know what our lives gave.
They say: Our deaths are not ours: they are yours, they will mean what you make them.
They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say, it is you who must say this.
We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have died; remember us.
by Archibald MacLeish