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August 23, 2019 - 3:55pm

Marine vet wishes he had 'do-over' to get to know two fallen comrades who were Notre Dame schoolmates

posted by Billie Owens in notre dame high school, Vietnam, batavia, Alexander, veterans.

Above, Marine veteran and former Batavia resident Jim Heatherman. Photo courtesy of Jim Heatherman.

Editor's Note: Eighteen days apart in 1968 two 1964 Notre Dame High School graduates were killed in Vietnam. Today, on the 51st anniversary of one of their deaths, their classmate and fellow Vietnam vet Jim Heatherman remembers them and wishes he got to know them better.

Story by Jim Heatherman.

It has been 50 years since I was a Marine lieutenant in Vietnam. It doesn’t seem like it but it’s true. Longer still since I graduated from Notre Dame High School in Batavia. I think of those days often. Notre Dame was a fine school but certainly not heaven on Earth.

My friends and I were by no means angels when we went to school there. I remember helping to make hydrogen sulphide in the chemistry lab, which permeated the entire school with the smell of rotten eggs and nearly caused an evacuation.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a proud graduate of Notre Dame in 1964, a college graduate later, and a Marine Vietnam combat veteran later still.

Many of my family grew up, lived, and died in Batavia. My brother, Pat, and I regularly visit their gravesites although I now live in Tulsa, Okla. My friend, Dave Reilly, has written wonder articles for The Batavian reminiscing those youthful days in Batavia.

Incidentally, we older people think in our minds and hearts that we are still young people living back in the 1960s. We try to ignore the pains in our knees...and, well, everywhere else, too.

I don’t think we spent much time thinking of the world situation including Vietnam when we were in high school. We were accepting our role as average teenagers thinking mostly of driving, girls, and sports. Since most of the girls didn’t particularly care for us we were able to focus mostly on the other two things.

Of course there were other guys in our class who were better looking, smarter, and all around cooler than we were and they got the girls. I wonder whatever happened to them. And then we had other classmates who were not members of our group and we didn’t think much about knowing them at all.

One of them was Daniel Bermingham (inset photo, left), who I remember as a pleasant person but not particularly cool...like we thought we were. (He was killed on Aug. 23, 1968 in Vietnam.)

Another was Thomas Welker (inset photo, below right), who with others was bussed into Notre Dame daily from a farm community.

Like Dan, Tom was an outsider to our group and we hardly got to know him. Unfortunately that did not change through four years of high school. I’d like to think that we are now wiser than we were then. That is our blessing but it is also our curse.

Well I graduated from Notre Dame, went on to college and joined a Naval ROTC unit. When I graduated from college I was happily commissioned a Marine 2nd Lieutenant. I come from a Marine Corps family so that result was expected and inevitable.

After additional training at Quantico, Va., I got orders to WESTPAC Ground Forces. That meant Vietnam, of course. I was fortunate to survive my combat tour in Vietnam as an infantry platoon commander and battalion staff officer.

I spent several more years in the Marine Corps and then returned to civilian life. I got married and had five children. They all went to Catholic school, too, and are all college graduates.

The four boys are Marine combat veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan, later became federal agents, and one is now a United States Attorney.

My daughter is a wonderful teacher in a Catholic school in Tulsa. I go there and mostly talk about Revolutionary and Civil War battles, although the kids want to talk about Vietnam, too. I have 15 grandchildren. I go to many, many sports events. I think often how blessed I am to have that family.

Then I think of Dan and Tom -- the guys that we never really got to know in high school. When most of us were happily running off to college in 1964 they were both preparing to join the Navy.

Dan became a member of a Naval Construction Force battalion -- the Seabees -- and was eventually sent to Vietnam. People in those positions rarely die in combat but Dan was killed.

He is buried in St. Joseph Cemetery in Batavia, only 50 yards from my grandparents. I want to visit there often and leave a memento.

Tom received medical training in the Navy and became a Corpsman. Eventually he was sent to Vietnam and, of course, assigned to a Marine infantry unit.

As a Marine myself, I can tell you that no one is more revered by the Marines they serve than the Navy Corpsmen. They are always known as “Doc.” Tom was killed on a patrol with the Marines he served. He is buried in Attica.

I read in an article that his mother never really recovered from the loss of her son. I’m sure she is not alone.

Looking back now, I think of two things. As a very fortunate head of a family of 27 people today, I think of the void and unfulfilled promise that was cut down for Tom and Dan and so many others in Vietnam. The wives, children, and grandchildren that never were. Also, as a wiser and a bit more humble person now, I think that just being the goofy teenagers we were in those days should not have been an excuse for not knowing and appreciating our Notre Dame classmates, Tom and Dan, more.

Yet I’m sure we are not alone either. Wouldn’t it be nice after all these years to have a do-over?

Inset photos courtesy of Dave Reilly.

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