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2004.11.30

Carol Crowley remembers her father, Jack Gell

I received this letter from Carol Crowley yesterday, on the 39th anniversary of her father's funeral.

"I spoke to my Mom today. I called to see how she was, 39 years later after losing my Dad. November is a hard month for her every year. My father died on Nov 14, his body arrived home on Thanksgiving day, my sister Bonnie's birthday is Nov 22, my father's funeral was the 29th and his birthday the 30th.  She said it would not have been right to bury him on his 25th birthday. All I can do is call her and let her know I am thinking about her, and I love her.

My Mom is so wonderful to me. She has endured more than most people and she has been my strength through tough times in my life too.  I know from talking to her and my Aunts that my Dad loved her more than anything on this earth. His wife and children were the most precious thing to him. He took with him, pictures of his beloved and beautiful wife and kids, a lock of hair from Bonnie and Jay, and my 'binky' pacifier. My Mom said, he was not afraid of fighting for a country he loved, but he feared most not seeing us again. My Mom kept my father alive in us, and against the odds, he lives on. A few years back, she gave me the binky .... and when I face difficult times, I clutch it, because I know I have survived worse things in life. It is my 'memento' that helps me realize that life is so much bigger than obstacles.

We always had pictures of my father up. My stepfather, John, was supportive of that, being in the Army as well, he understood our loss, and appreciated the sacrifice. It is most likely that he was put in my Mom's life because she needed someone like him who was not intimidated, but understood. He has always been supportive of that. He is a true blessing to all of us. And my Father's dear friend, Johnny Rangel, made a pact that if either did not make it home, the other would look after the family. Johnny did that and is still a big part of our lives today.

In 1992, our family met Hal Moore and Joe Galloway, at the book signing of 'We were Soldiers Once.,..and Young". We learned things about our father's death that have become significant in his memory. (Such as his dying words, "Tell my wife I love her...") His comrades and friends, Tony Nadal, Bill Beck, John Clarke, Garry Dunlow, Ron Sleeis, Lt. Marm, Southern Hewitt, and many others welcomed  us into the First Calvary family. Tony Nadal was his company commander, and wept at meeting us, and in front of "The Wall', we stood there with him, and my Aunt Mary and Aunt Fran. I never thought that looking at my Dad's name on a wall could be so emotional. We all stood there, crying, hugging, and comforting each other. The men who served with my father, and saw him die, had now met his family. Some had been to our home when we were small. Some had never met us before. All had a common bond. For some, meeting us brought forth guilt that they came home, and he did not. For some, they had lost children of their own, so meeting us was difficult and incredible at the same time. For years that followed, we all formed friendships and  a unique bond.  Lt. Moore would look at me, and I would see this deep sadness. I understood that look. He loved his men so much. I know it was hard for him to lose even one. He wrote in my book, "You father was a true American Hero, loved by all. You WILL see him again one day." Hal and Joe Galloway are two very special people to me and my family...for their courage to tell this story of how bravely our men fought in Vietnam, and how valiantly so many died, has a permanent impact on so many. It has taken me years to digest and comprehend what I (we) lost. My family was deprived of knowing this wonderful man, and that is what still hurts so deeply today.

Jack ("Jay") Gell is gone, tragically taken from a family who still loves and misses him, but he is not forgotten, and will forever be alive in the hearts of his wife, children, sisters, and friends. And to my Mother, who means the world to me, I love you so much. Thank you for making me all I am today, and for sharing our Dad's memory and stories with us."

Carol also sent me a copy of this article, which ran in the Charlotte NC Observer as part of their  Memorial Day 1999 commemoration.

HONORING THE FATHER SHE NEVER KNEW
DAVID PERLMUTT, Staff Writer

She never knew him, but each Memorial Day she digs into a jewelry box and pulls out a broach with his photo and pins it to her clothes.

In the photo, he is young and strapping, dressed in Army khaki.

Carol Gell Crowley never knew her father, Sgt. Jack Gell, because on Nov. 14, 1965 - before the Vietnam War tore his country apart - his unit was ambushed along a dry creek bed in the Ia Drang River Valley of South Vietnam. It was among the war's first major ground battles.

Gell had volunteered to carry the company's radio. In a burst of fire from the North Vietnamese, a bullet ricocheted off a tree and hit him in the chest. His dying gasp: ``Tell my wife I love her.''

Crowley was 16 months old. Her father was wearing her pink Binky pacifier around his neck. She grew up listening to stories about him, especially on Memorial Days. Her mother flew a flag, said a prayer for her father and other fallen soldiers, and made sure he lived on in his three children.

``When I was younger, his death affected my brother and sister more; they are older'' (brother Jay was 3 then, sister Bonnie, 6), said Crowley, 35, a mother of four. She, her siblings and mother, Rebecca Workentine, all live in Charlotte.

``It wasn't until I got older and had children of my own that I became aware of what I really missed out on. I never had a relationship with my father, but I grew up loving him and feeling as much pride for him as any daughter would for her father.''

Her parents met in Aiken, S.C., where Workentine grew up and was a waitress at a restaurant during her last year of high school.

Gell had grown up in Rochester, N.Y., and joined the Army at 17. He was stationed at a missile site near the Savannah River defense area when in June, 1958 he walked into the Oyster Bay Restaurant with Army buddies.

Gell saw her across the restaurant and requested her section. He pointed her out to his buddies and reported ``That's the girl I'm going to marry.''

They married four months later, and daughter Bonnie was born in November 1959. When she was 6 months old, Gell shipped out to South Korea with the 1st Cavalry Division for a yearlong stint.  Returning, he was reassigned to Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga., where they had a son, Jay, and then Carol.

In August 1965, orders came for Vietnam. For days, they talked - she weepingly - about what she and the children should do if he didn't return.

``I'm a professional soldier, and I want to be buried at Fort Benning with a full military funeral,'' he told her.

The day he left, he took a lock of hair from Bonnie and Jay, along with Carol's pacifier - he thought it was time she gave it up. At the base, he told the commanding officers he'd forgotten something and returned to the family's trailer alone. On a mirror in their bedroom, he wrote in red crayon: ``I love you Beck - your Jay.''

He was the first Vietnam War casualty to be buried at Fort Benning.

The Defense Department telegrammed the family of his death; a Western Union courier delivered it. His company chaplain was outraged at the treatment, and persuaded a CBS reporter to do a story. He interviewed Rebecca Gell, who talked about how upset she was over how the Army notified her. On the ``CBS Evening News,'' anchorman Walter Cronkite ended the story, saying: ``One widow speaking for many.''

After that, officials set a policy that an officer and chaplain accompany death telegrams. Nine years later, she remarried, to John Workentine, himself an Army man. She joined Gold Star Wives of America, a group for people who lose spouses in war. Each of the children got a Gold Star pin, signifying a survivor of a fallen soldier. On occasions like this weekend, they all wear their Gold Stars.

In 1992, the family went to Washington and the Vietnam War Memorial - ``the wall'' - to celebrate a book about the Ia Drang battle. They met many of the men Gell fought with, and through their stories and others, Carol Crowley came to know her father.

She has only a vague memory of him: There's a Christmas party. She's tired and a man in black combat boots carries her to a car. She doesn't remember his face.

She keeps a photo of him on a table.

``He never got to know us and his grandchildren,'' she said. ``At one point, the school system didn't honor Memorial Day, and that offended me and I kept my kids out anyway. I know through our loss that Memorial Day is something that should not be taken lightly.''

(Please click here to see my entire "Sgt Gell" collection.)

Posted by Bill Faith on November 30, 2004 at 05:13 AM in Sgt_Gell | Permalink


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