LOOKING FOR TOMMY
By Gene Carrington

     Saturday, March 31, 2001. St. Mary’s Cemetery, Bangall, New York. The ground was still damp from the heavy rains of the night before. As we stood on the small knoll overlooking his gravestone we were overwhelmed by emotion. For all of us, it was the culmination of a journey that had begun 35 years ago and half a world away. We were finally with our good friend Tommy again.
     The first time I met Tommy Holden was at the start of football for the Quantico Marines in July of 1964. I had been invited to try out for the team and was standing in front of my locker. I looked to my left and saw a rugged guy, about 6 ft. and 200 lbs. I am over 6 ft. 5 in. and was weighing about 235 lbs. He had just removed his three front teeth and was placing them in his locker. I looked at him, smiled and said, “Aren’t you the cute little thing.” He gave me his nastiest look and said, “And when was the last time you won a beauty contest you big @%$&*$# brute?” I reached over and gave him my hand, “Gene Carrington, nice to meet you handsome.” He took my hand, gave me a big toothless grin and said, “Tom Holden.”
     At the time we met, we were both students at The Basic School. I had received my commission after nine weeks of Officer Candidate School. Tommy had been commissioned upon graduation from the Naval Academy. There was one big difference about our tour at Basic School from previous classes. We started to receive input about a small police action in a small Asian country called South Vietnam. I had read Bernard Fall’s book, “Street Without Joy” in college. This book told the story of the French debacle in Vietnam a decade earlier. “Street Without Joy” now became standard reading for our class along with “Marine”, the story of Chesty Puller.
     By December of 1964 the football season was over and we had been asked to stay at Quantico to play football for the 1965 season. I had chosen Artillery, 0802 as an M.O.S. Tommy had picked the Infantry, 0302 for his M.O.S. We were assigned to the Schools Demonstration Troops, S.D.T. I was assigned to the A.D.B., Artillery Demonstration Battery. Tommy was assigned to a Weapons Platoon. Our jobs, until the season started, would be full time Lieutenants learning our jobs and helping to put on firing demonstrations for the various schools at Quantico. When the season started we would still put in a full day’s work and then play football.
     We moved into Liversedge Hall, the Bachelor Officer’s Quarters. We lived on the second floor wing of the B.O.Q. Joining us for a second season was Glenn Custar, our center. Glenn had also chosen Artillery and would be assigned to A.D.B. with me. He would live across the hall from us for the next year. John “Duke” Snider was our punter and defensive back. John had decided to marry while at the Basic School and was living in married quarters. John was another cannon cocker and assigned to A.D.B. with Glenn and I. John “Gourd” Kopka was our tight end. John had opted for the Infantry and was assigned to an Infantry Company in the S.D.T. John lived between Tommy and me. Jay Robertson had played on the 64 team and was coming back to coach for the 65 season. Jay was assigned to an Infantry platoon. The last member of our crew was Hank Hatch, our kickoff return specialist and halfback. Jay and Hank lived across the hall. When John Kopka got married in July of 1965, Tommy and I became roommates. December of 1964 had us out of The Basic School, assigned to units and living in the B.O.Q. For the next year we would live life to the fullest and enjoy every minute of it.
     We did have one bit of excitement during February of 1965. S.D.T. sent Tommy, Jay, Glenn and myself to two weeks of training at the Marine Corps Cold Weather Training School in Bridgeport, California. The place was called “Pickle Meadows”. We were part of a 40 man group that S.D.T. sent out. We lived in snow caves that we dug out of the side of the mountain. We had a ball. We did have a hard time figuring out what “Cold Weather Training” had to do with “Jungle Warfare”. Maybe they had a secret mission in mind.
     The rest of 1965 went by in a blur. We took trips to the Jersey Shore as well as the mandatory trips south to Mary Washington College. In July John Kopka was married. Tommy, Glenn, John Snider and myself were members of the wedding party. Rounding out the wedding party were Glenn Russell and Terry Terreborie. Glenn had gone to Navy with Tommy and was living with us while he awaited orders to Pensacola. Terry would later serve with Recon in Vietnam and end up finding the 324 B Division of the North Vietnam Army.
     After John’s wedding we started practice for the 65 season. John Snider’s roommate at Syracuse, Ed Conti was at Basic School and would be joining the team. Shortly before the season started Ed graduated from Basic School and moved onto the second floor at Liversedge along with the rest of the gang. From that moment on Ed was a member of our group. Unfortunately, before we knew it the 1965 season was over and we all received orders for Vietnam.
     I would lose track of Ed Conti, Jay Robertson, Hank Hatch and Glenn Custar. In January of 1966 John Kopka and Tommy Holden arrived in South Vietnam. They were assigned to the Second Battalion, Third Marines. I attended Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and didn’t arrive in DaNang until March of 1966. I eventually became the Executive Officer of “A” Battery, First Battalion, Twelfth Marines. John Snider would end up as the Executive Officer of Bravo Battery, 1/12. Although John and I were in the same Battalion we would only see each other a couple times during the next year. The primary mission for “A” 1/12 was to give fire support to 2/3. I had the opportunity to speak to Tommy and John but didn’t get the chance to see them. I was kept abreast of events surrounding my two buddies by Lieutenant Tom Nash who was the Forward Observer from my battery assigned to John and Tommy’s company with 2/3.
     On August 23, 1965, ironically, Tommy’s 25th birthday; he was up in the mountains on Operation Allegheny. Their mission was to find mock ups that the North Vietnamese Army had built. These mock ups were made out of bamboo and were exact replicas of a 105 mm howitzer battery. Tommy’s platoon came under heavy fire and we received a fire mission. We were able to walk them down the hill by firing behind them. Tommy was wounded on this operation and would later on be awarded the Silver Star. My outfit used the information about the bamboo mock ups as a motivator. The young Marines in my battery would continue to improve our defenses daily knowing full well that an attack on our position could be imminent.
     During the month of September I finally had a chance to visit with Tommy at his position. We spent the afternoon talking about his recent R&R to Hong Kong. We were going to do some traveling together when we got back to the states. We were so young and there was so much to see and do. But first we had our little war to think about.
     That afternoon was the last time I would ever see Tommy. On October 22, 1966 while on Operation Kern, Tommy Holden was killed. At the time he was the Executive Officer of Golf Company, Second Battalion, Third Marines. Our friend, John Kopka was the Commanding Officer. My battery had to fire maximum charge at maximum range to help pull Golf Company out of trouble that day. Unfortunately Tommy was already dead by the time we received the fire mission. Tommy’s dad would later receive a second Silver Star and a second Purple Heart for his actions that day.
     I never forgot Tommy Holden. My first child, Sarah was born in July, 1969. She was and continues to be a delight to my wife and I. I had a yellow Marine Corps tee shirt that had belonged to Tommy. Sarah wore that tee shirt to bed for a long time until it was just a rag. She then kept it under her pillow and now that she is married she keeps it in a special place. Our son was born in 1971. His full name is, Thomas James Holden Carrington, named for my friend Tommy. My Tommy should have been a comedian. Of course, I am on the receiving end of most of his stories. My wife, Margie has been great. Her father was a Marine Lieutenant on Guadalcanal and Okinawa. She knew about mood swings and could anticipate mine.
     I kept Tommy’s Quantico football picture over my desk next to mine. I also had a picture of the two of us when we won an award at our 1965 break up dinner. Over the years I could never stop thinking about Tommy and of all the things, I enjoyed, that he never had the chance for. I worked for Esso/Exxon for 28 years and retired from that company in 1997.
     Tommy’s uncle Jim Holden had run an Exxon station in Hoboken for over 40 years. Tommy’s dad worked for his brother. During a seminar in the early 70’s I had the opportunity to visit with the Holdens. Part of me was glad that I had made the visit but I could see that even though it had been over six years since Tommy had been killed the family was still devastated. When I left that evening I knew that I would never see the Holdens again. I know that it was hard on them to bring up the subject of Tommy’s death but I never realized how hard it would affect me. A few years later I received a Mass card from Jackie and Jim Holden. Tommy’s dad, Thomas Holden had passed away. As far as I’m concerned, Tommy’s dad died of a broken heart.
     I was still serving in Vietnam when Tommy was buried. My older brother Mike and my dad were able to attend the funeral and when I finally came home Mike gave me the Mass card that he had saved for me. I always intended to visit Tommy’s grave but between raising a family, holding down a steady job and life in general I never put in the concentrated effort to find him.
     I went off of active duty in May, 1968. I married the Colonel’s daughter who lived on the next street over and had finally come of age. Our wedding was in June. Glenn Custar and John Kopka were in the wedding party. That was the last time I saw John Kopka. Glenn stayed in the Reserves and retired a full Colonel. Over the years the Carrington family and the Custar family have stayed in touch and we have met on several occasions. I have seen Jay Robertson twice. Tn 1983 Jay was coaching at Notre Dame and we ran into him in Memphis at the Liberty Bowl. In 1987 he was at West Point and we met him in Nashville when they came into town to play Vanderbilt. Other than those few times, I had seen none of the guys who had played such an important part in my life for that brief, but intense two year period.
     In November of 1998, my wife had a chance to transfer to Orlando or Indianapolis. We visited Indianapolis but it was too cold for us. While there I had the opportunity to find Jay Robertson. Jay had been coaching with the Colts but lost his position when they changed the entire staff. We promised to stay in touch. One of the things we talked about was my desire to find out where Tommy was buried and visit his grave. Jay said that he wanted to be included. Just before we moved to Florida I found out that John Kopka was living near Jacksonville, North Carolina. He had stayed in the Corps and had retired as a full Colonel. I now knew how to get in touch with Glenn, Jay and John.
     During all of the time that I worked for Exxon no one ever asked about Vietnam, I felt that no one cared and I kept it all inside of me. Once I hit Florida I developed a wonderful, “I give a crap attitude.” I started wearing Marine Corps tee shirts and I started visiting the local Marine Corps recruiting office to talk to some live Marines. Finally, last year it was put up or shut up time. I was going to visit Tommy’s grave. Margie offered to accompany me but felt it would be best if I went by myself. Early in 2000 I started my quest. The only things that I knew for certain were that Tommy had grown up in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey; he had graduated from the Naval Academy in 1964 and his father had passed away in the early 70’s. After repeated failures home in Rutherford, N.J. This was going to be a lot easier than I had thought. Boy, was I ever wrong.
     The original funeral home had been bought out several years earlier and the new owners either were unable to find what I wanted or couldn’t come up with the information which was over 34 years old. Next, I contacted the Church that had handled the funeral Mass. Their records were badly faded but it looked as though Tommy was buried at the Calvary Cemetery near Poughkeepsie, NY. They promised to help me but they never came through as they promised.
     I called Exxon to check on Jim Holden, Tommy’s uncle. Their records showed that he had sold his business in the early 80’s. They had no idea where he was. In early November I decided to write to the Mayor’s office in Hasbrouck Heights. I received a letter from a Marilyn deRussy. Her letter informed me that they had no record of a Lieutenant Thomas J. Holden being buried in Hasbrouck Heights. She was kind enough to send me the names of the local newspapers in the area. She suggested I write to them seeking information. I wrote to the local papers in Hasbrouck Heights and Bergen as soon as I received Marilyn’s letter. A couple of weeks later I had a phone call from a Barbara Bosch who told me that she had seen my letter in the Hasbrouck Heights paper. Barbara had gone to grammar school with Tommy. She spoke of his smile, his dimples and she said that all the girls thought he was cute. Tommy had been an Altar Boy. Wait a minute, was this the same guy I was thinking about? When I thought about it later I remembered his big smile and the way he could be so charming and how his gift of gab could get us out of any situation. At least the newspapers in Jersey were on the ball. I’d find Tommy despite the poor records and lack of help from certain people.
     Next, I received a letter from “The Record”, a newspaper in Bergen, NJ. They sent me at least a dozen articles from their archives that they had printed at the time of Tommy’s death. I now knew that his mother’s name was Virginia and I knew when she had died but there was no mention in any of the articles about a cemetery. Based on the information on hand; I was going on the assumption that Tommy was buried near Poughkeepsie. NY. The Poughkeepsie Chamber of Commerce sent me a list of cemeteries in the area. One of them was the Calvary Cemetery. Maybe the priest was right. I wrote letters and made numerous phone calls. Again I came up empty handed.
     On Thanksgiving Day, I received a letter from Jay Robertson. I had been trying to get in touch with Jay for most of the summer. He was usually very good about getting back to me and I had been worried. Jay’s letter informed me that he had been hired by the N.F.L.’s Giants just before the season started and he had been very busy and was just catching up on his correspondence. The last time I got a letter from Jay he gave me the address of Hank Hatch from the 64 and 65 team. I had sent Hank a letter and he had called me back. Now Jay gave me another name from the past. Ed “Squally” Conti was one of our linebackers at Quantico in 65. I had often thought about Ed. As soon as I got through with Jay’s letter, I called Ed. It was at this moment when everything began to come together.
     It turns out that Ed had also been thinking about Tommy. When I told him what I wanted to do he said that he would like to go with me and he knew that his old roommate, John “Duke” Snider would also be interested in going. John Snider, another name from the past. I had tried to find Duke on several occasions while driving through Virginia but I never had any luck. I now had Ed Conti, Jay Robertson, Glenn Custar, Hank Hatch, John Snider and myself who wanted to make the trip. If I could only find Tommy we could make our plans.
     Ed became a big help in my search. He started sending me information that he had picked up on the internet. Ed sent me one item that included the name of William Stoehs. It was unusual to find a home address along with an e-mail address. I sent Bill a letter and several weeks later he called. Bill had gone to St. Mary’s High School in Rutherford, NJ with Tommy. Bill promised me that he would get in touch with his old high school buddies and someone would get me the information I needed.
     Sure enough, the following week I received a call from Kevin Jones. Kevin had gone to high school with Tommy and now worked for the school as the Alumni Director. Kevin didn’t know where Tommy was buried but promised to find someone who did know. He promised that he would get back to me.
     A week later I got what I was looking for from Kevin. He sent a lot of material that the school had about Tommy. There were pictures of Tommy when he was a young boy and information about a scholarship program in Tommy’s name. Most importantly, there was a map with directions to St. Mary’s Cemetery in Bangall, NY. We had found Tommy Holden at last. Kevin had got the directions from Tommy’s cousin Ursula, Uncle Jim’s daughter. In addition, I received a copy of a great book, “100 Years of Army-Navy Football”. This book was a gift from Arlene Stewart, a cousin of Tommy on his mother’s side of the family. Arlene and her husband own “Signature Publication Inc.” in Syracuse, NY. Arlene managed to get Tommy’s picture on page 182 along with Navy’s Joe Bellino, Roger Staubach and President Kennedy. Not bad company for our boy Tommy.
     In February Ed Conti came to Florida for some fishing. Margie and I spent Saturday, February 3rd with Ed at the “Boondocks Restaurant” in Daytona Beach. It was the first time I had seen Ed since December of 1965. Ed and I agreed on the weekend of March 30 and 31. We contacted Jay, Duke and Hank. They were all excited and were with us for sure. We would all meet at Ed’s home in Orefield, Pennsylvania on Friday, March 30 and make the visit on Saturday, March 31.
     I have kept in touch with Glenn Custar since 1977. Glenn would not be able to make the trip. His sister had incurable cancer and it was only a matter of days. (Glenn’s sister, Joanne would pass away on April 16. Jay Robertson’s sister also died of cancer the week of April 2) Glenn knew that we would make sure Tommy knew why he was not with us. There remained one piece to fit in. John Kopka, Glenn Custar, Tommy Holden and I had been very close for that two-year period. John had been the C.O. of Golf Company and Tommy had been the X.O. on the day that Tommy was killed. I knew that this would be difficult for John. I had tried to call him on several occasions but had hung up each time before he could answer. I finally called John and told him that we knew where Tommy was buried, did he want to come with us? John said it would be very difficult for him but he would be there.
     Plans were made and finalized. I had been in touch with Tommy’s cousin Ursula Holden Corr to verify the location of the cemetery. She assured me that she had visited the cemetery often. Her mother and father were also buried in the family plot along side of Tommy and his parents. Ursula and another cousin, Larraine Payne, wanted to have everyone come back to Larraine’s home after we visited the cemetery for some refreshments and a chance to talk about Tommy. We were all set. I would fly to Allentown on Thursday, March 29. Duke was also coming in on Thursday. Hank would drive over to Giants Stadium early on Friday afternoon to meet Jay. They would arrive late Friday afternoon. John Kopka would also arrive on Friday afternoon.
     Somehow the Navy got involved in our little plan. I had been in touch with Tom Lynch, the captain of the Navy football team during Tommy’s senior year. I told him that I had found out where Tommy was buried. An hour after I got off the phone with Tom Lynch I got a call from Ron Bosken, Tommy’s Naval Academy roommate during their Junior and Senior years. Ron made me promise to keep him informed, he also wanted to visit the cemetery. Before we knew what was happening the Naval Academy guys were sending out e-mails to the class of 64. This was getting a lot bigger than I had anticipated. I called Ursula to tell her and she said the more the merrier, they could feed them all. I was getting upset because when I started my search I just wanted to visit Tommy’s grave and spend some time with him talking about my life and family. I mentioned this to my wife. Margie as usual helped me to put things in perspective. She asked me, ”Is this about you or Tommy? Did you ever think that someone a lot bigger than you is using you as a way to get people together to honor your friend. Go visit your friend and don’t worry about how many people show up.”
     On Friday evening, after Ed’s wife Grace had wined and dined us, we sat back and listened to John Kopka tell us the story we had all waited so long to hear, how Tommy died. While on the operation, one of their platoons came under heavy fire and had taken heavy casualties. Tommy said that he was going to see what he could do to help. John told him to stay with him at the C.P. John said that Tommy got that look in his eye, grabbed a flak jacket and helmet and took off. We all knew what he meant when he said “Tommy got that look in his eye”. No one could have stopped him from trying to help his men. It was difficult for us to hear and even more difficult for John to tell us. I am sure that John has spent a lot of time over the years wondering what he could have done. I believe that Tommy was destined to die a hero. No one could have stopped him that day, a higher authority was directing things and he chose Tommy. All of a sudden I was glad that I didn’t have to make this trip alone. We would be able to lean on each other.
     We left early Saturday. We would have a three-hour ride. We planned to get to the cemetery early to pay our respects. We would then go to meet the rest of the people and return to the cemetery. The cemetery was exactly as Ursula had described it. As we drove in we could see the name Holden on the stone. We had found our friend at last. After paying our respects and having our moments alone with Tommy, we drove over to meet the rest of the people at a small diner where Ursula suggested we all meet.
     We had a total of 30 people who drove back to the cemetery. There were his six Marine buddies from Quantico as well as five members of his family Kevin Jones, his son, and two other high school buddies along with Barbara Bosch from his grammar school days also made the trip. Rounding out our group were members of his college class. One of Tommy’s Naval Academy classmates in attendance was Bob Johnson. Bob and I were on the same little league all star team back in 1954. I hadn’t seen Bob in over 30 years. Small world. Making the day complete were nine Marines in dress blues. Several people spoke including John Kopka and myself. It was very emotional and a lot harder to talk than I would have imagined. Usually I am not at a loss for words, but on that day it was tough to speak. When we were finished at the grave the Marines fired a salute to Tommy and the lone bugler played “Taps”. When it was all over, the young Marine Sergeant in charge came over to shake my hand, he had tears in his eyes when he said, “I have always been proud to be a Marine, but today you have made it special because after 35 years you have come back to remember your friend. This day will always be special to me.” - . - - . . . -
     There are very few role models in society today. Tommy Holden is a true American Hero. His bravery earned him two Silver Stars but recognition was never Tommy’s motivator. Tommy gave his life trying to help the men under him, he was a leader of Marines.
     St. Mary’s High School has a scholarship in his name and they also award the Thomas Holden trophy to the outstanding player at the annual homecoming game. Tommy’s real legacy is in the memories we hold of him in our hearts. That great smile and his full speed ahead attitude will remain with us always. It is a great testament to a man when after 35 years over 30 of his friends will come from all over the country to gather at his gravesite.
     Anyone who would like to visit Tommy’s grave will find St. Mary’s Cemetery in Bangall, New York, a small town northeast of Poughkeepsie. As you drive into the cemetery look to the left, you will see the name Holden. Tell him that he will never be forgotten.
 
 
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