Marshall H. McNamara died in the service of his country during the Vietnam War. Of that, there is no doubt.
The location of the Manchester native’s death and the nature of his service, however, raise questions about where McNamara belongs on the nation’s military honor roll.
Town Clerk Joe Camposeo began researching McNamara’s record while trying to find family members of Manchester servicemen who were killed in Vietnam.
Camposeo verified the Vietnam service of 13 of the 14 men whose names are on a local monument on Main Street to Manchester men killed in the war, but he couldn’t find McNamara’s Vietnam connection.
Camposeo has been working with local organizers to invite next of kin as The Wall That Heals, a traveling version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., is to be installed in Center Memorial Park next week, with an opening ceremony on Oct. 8.
McNamara’s name is not part of these monuments.
Turns out that the career U.S. Navy man died well north of Vietnam, in the Sea of Japan off North Korea.
The fierce fighting in Southeast Asia coincided with the depth of the nation’s Cold War with the Soviet Union and its communist allies, of which North Korea was a particularly hostile member.
McNamara, 34, a chief petty officer, served on an EC-121 Warning Star, a surveillance airplane that was part of the U.S. attempt to watch its enemies. The plane carried about 6 tons of electronic equipment, with a radar dome on top and antennas on the belly to monitor radio communications.
Taking off from Japan on April 15, 1969, at 7 a.m., the crew’s mission was to fly off the coast of North Korea, gathering intelligence, according to a National Security Agency report. The unarmed, propeller-driven plane was about six hours into the flight and still over international waters, according to U.S. government reports, when the pilot, Lt. Cmdr. James Overstreet, received word that two North Korean fighter jets were coming his way.
The lumbering Lockheed was unable to escape and disappeared from radar at 1:47 p.m. after one of the MiG pilots fired a missile that obliterated the U.S. aircraft. Two bodies were later recovered; neither was McNamara’s. The entire crew was presumed dead.
“I can still remember that day,” Larry McNamara, Marshall’s older brother, said Wednesday.
He had taken a call from Marshall’s wife in Japan, who told him what had happened and urged him to rush to his parents’ home on Hemlock Street in Manchester before Navy representatives arrived.
“As I’m coming down the road, I see the U.S. Navy car parked right in front of the house,” Larry McNamara, 85, said. “They didn’t waste time.”
Marshall McNamara was one of three brothers who grew up on Bridge Street in Manchester. Their father was an auto mechanic and their mother worked as a secretary in the fire department. A soccer player at Manchester High School, Marshall had been fascinated with aircraft, Larry McNamara said.
“He was a nut about flying,” Larry McNamara said of his brother.
Soon after graduating in 1952, Marshall McNamara joined the Navy. Larry McNamara recalled vividly his father’s furious reaction to the news that Marshall was missing.
“He said, ‘Those sons of bitches shot down an unarmed plane!'” Larry McNamara recalled their father’s reaction. “If it was up to him, the U.S. Navy would have sent battleships and everything.”
Richard McNamara, 78, who lives in Florida, said his brother’s name should be on the national Vietnam Memorial.
“I certainly think that his name should be on the Wall,” Richard McNamara said, “because he was in the service during that timeframe and I think, even though it didn’t happen in Vietnam, I think it’s all related.”
Camposeo said that’s one of his main questions. Although some reports on the shoot-down of the EC-121 are public, others remain classified. Was the mission focused solely on North Korea, or could the crew have been doing surveillance related to the Vietnam War?
The town clerk said he is still trying to find answers. He plans to work on three fronts — talking to supervisors at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington to determine if Marshall McNamara could qualify for inclusion; determining whether McNamara’s name could be included on a proposed national Wall of Remembrance for the Korean War; and urging Connecticut’s U.S. congressional delegation to help him obtain national recognition for the Manchester native.
“He died fighting for his nation,” Camposeo said.
As for how McNamara’s name ended up on the local Vietnam Memorial, Camposeo said all he can determine from talking to people who were involved with raising the monument was that a relative or friend of McNamara had come forward when organizers were seeking names of slain service members.
Richard McNamara was quoted in a 1985 Courant story about the dedication of the local memorial bearing 14 names. He said the monument “means to me my brother will be remembered. … He was one hell of a guy.”