The South Vietnam jungle was cold and wet in January 1968.
As 28-year-old U.S. Marine First Lt. Gary Nash jumped into his rack (military slang for a bed or bunk) on the night of Jan. 30, all he could think about was staying warm.
“Everybody thinks (about) the steaming jungles of Vietnam,” Gary said. “It was cold. And I remember jumping in the rack. No boots on, but my full utility uniform flak jacket was next to me. I didn’t sleep with that on but I slept with my utility jacket on. It was so cold.”
His Marine unit was stationed just south of the demilitarized zone separating North and South Vietnam. The Vietnam War had been raging since 1955 and wouldn’t end for seven more years. But this would turn out to be one of the turning points of the conflict.
Somewhere between two and three in the morning, incoming artillery began pounding the Marine compound.
Those artillery rounds marked the beginning of the Tet Offensive, a major escalation by North Vietnamese Communist forces and one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War.
But on this night, Gary Nash’s concerns suddenly shifted from being cold to being shot at.
“I jumped out of my rack, put my boots on,” he said. “I did not tie them. Grabbed my flak jacket and helmet and went to my assigned position.”
The next morning, Gary’s 44-soldier platoon was one of the patrols ordered out into the field.
“Scared out of my mind,” he said recently. “Really scared. Because the patrol route that we had established went into an area that was pretty well open. And then we went into a heavy jungle area.”
They moved through the jungle until they reached a small village the Marines had dubbed Dogpatch. It was generally a friendly place.
“The villagers in Dogpatch, for the most part, liked the Marines,” Gary said. “But we didn’t know if the start of the Tet Offensive was gonna mean that’s when they were doing to dig up their AK 47s. But they did not. We had no encounters on that patrol whatsoever.”
The prospect of running into Viet Cong fighters or waiting for artillery rounds to fall from the sky limits funny moments during a war. But Gary recalled one such story from that otherwise frightening day.
As Gary’s platoon approached Dogpatch, Gary gathered his troops to send a message. “I know how many Marines we’re starting with,” he told them. “And we had better have the same number going out.”
Dogpatch had a reputation. Occasionally, Marines would sneak off base to “fraternize” with local women, Gary said. What may have seemed safe before, likely wasn’t anymore.
“We got through Dogpatch and I assembled the group again,” he said. “I’m counting heads and we had actually gained one Marine.”
He had snuck out of the camp, likely for a social visit, and found himself in the middle of a shooting war.
“When all hell broke loose, he said, ‘Shoot, I can’t leave now, I’ll either run into Viet Cong or if I try to make it back, (the Marines) are going to kill me’ mistaking him for the enemy,” Gary said.
“When we got back inside the wire, he thanked us for providing him safe passage,” Gary said, chuckling. “Then he left to face the music.”
After returning to the U.S. from Vietnam in February 1969, now Capt. Nash served in what he calls his best tour in the Marine Corps.
“I was a company commander of a platoon of scout snipers and recon experts,” he said. “These guys all knew that they were going to Vietnam. Every one of these guys was a volunteer and they knew where they were going and they didn’t shy away from it.”
After his Marine Division was disbanded, Nash found himself responsible for a different group of soldiers.
“At this time, there were tens of thousands of deserters from the military,” he said. Gary was responsible for a group of 200 who were assigned to training, but who had declared themselves conscientious objectors.
“Every day we’d have a formation,” he said. “Out of 200, I could muster, maybe, 30 or 40. It was terribly frustrating.” Because it was such a difficult assignment, commanders rotated people so that nobody had to do the job for more than a few months.
Gary met his first wife in Hong Kong while on a temporary assignment. They were married there in 1969 and had a daughter. They divorced after seven years.
By the end of 1970, Gary had returned to Orange County, California, and civilian life. He worked for a large medical records billing company, and later at nutrition company Mead Johnson.
In 2003, things changed.
“I was single for 30 years,” he said. “And then we had a (45th) high school class reunion and I got a notice in the mail to save the dates for the reunion.”
That reminder came from Margie, who had attended the same schools in Southwest Minneapolis as Gary and was in charge of contacting their classmates. He was still living in California, while she was in Minnetonka.
“So, I emailed Margie,” he said. “I said, ‘Hey, how’s the girl with the world’s greatest smile? Say hi to Eddie. And put me on that list.’”
Margie wrote back. “I said, ‘thanks for the compliment, but who are you?’” Margie said, laughing. “He didn’t sign his name.”
As it turned out, Eddie, Margie’s first husband, was no longer in the picture. The two wrote back and forth between January and May of 2003 before the September reunion. By then, Gary was ready for an early reunion. That visit resulted in a long-distance relationship.
For two years, the couple flew back and forth from Minnesota to California to spend time together.
Finally, while Margie was visiting him in California, Nash broached the topic of her moving there.
“And Margie said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a full time job and I have clients ready to go and I can’t just be leaving like this,’” Gary said. “So, Mr. Smooth grabs her shoulders and I said, ‘Sit down, I have something really happy to discuss with you,’” he said.
“I thought he had cancer or something,” Margie interjected.
“So, Mr. Smooth says, ‘Will you marry me? Don’t answer right now. Go back. Talk it over with your kids.’ She has three kids and grandkids,” Gary said. “And now, well, next month we’ll celebrate our 18th anniversary.”
Gary eventually agreed to move to Minnesota with the contingency that the day after Christmas every year they would head south to Texas to visit his daughter, visit the grandkids who live in California, and “then head straight west to Palm Desert,” he said.
Gary’s speech on Memorial Day includes a story about the five good friends he lost in Vietnam.
But he can’t tell it himself.
“There is a piece I have to do,” Margie said, “because he cries very easily. It’s too emotional for him. So, I have to do a piece of it.”
On this day, Gary is able to relate part of the story before the memories take their toll.
“One of them was a kid from St. Paul,” he said. “We went to OCS (officer candidate school) together. Rode the bus to Quantico, Va. We were in the same squad, same platoon.”
His name was Patrick Murray, but everyone knew him as Pat.
They were commissioned second lieutenants together and became roommates during the six-month basic training school.
“Pat always felt sorry for me because I was going to be in the hard charging infantry,” he said. “And he was going to Pensacola (Fla.) for flight training.”
Then, in January 1968, just before the Tet Offensive, Gary picked up a copy of the Stars and Stripes newspaper.
“They list KIA’s (killed in action) and MIA’s (missing in action),” Gary said, pausing. “And there he was, missing in action. He was a back seat looker in an A6 Intruder shot down over North Vietnam.”
Gary never forgot Pat Murray. For 48 years he tried to find his family. After making hundreds of inquiries, he struggled to find any information. Eventually, Gary learned the St. Paul address of Pat’s parents. He went there and nobody was home. Neighbors said that Pat’s mother had died and his father had moved. They weren’t sure where.
Another unfortunate event eventually led to new discoveries.
When Margie’s sister Mary Ellen died, she was buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis because her husband had been a Navy physician. They didn’t know where her gravesite was, and they were directed to the website findagrave.com, which identified her burial site.
“So, we get home and Margie, who everybody knows is smarter than me said, ‘Why don’t we go to Find a Grave and see if we can find anything about Pat Murray?’” Gary said.
And they did.
“There was his picture and everything,” Margie said. They returned to Fort Snelling the next day and found Pat’s gravesite. Gary found an email on the Find a Grave website from a friend of the brother of Murray’s wife, Jo. He sent an email but received no response. Two months later, he tried one more time.
Shortly after the second email, something amazing happened.
“We get this powerful email from Jo,” Margie said. “And that’s what he can’t read.”
Margie will read that message on Memorial Day at Purgatory Creek Park.
Gary and Margie eventually had the opportunity to meet with Jo. As they talked, Jo reached into a bag she had brought. “She pulled out a folded flag and she said, ‘Gary, I want you to have it,’” Margie said. The flag had covered Pat’s coffin. She also presented Gary with one of Pat’s Air Medals.
Some of Pat Murray’s remains were discovered at a North Vietnam crash site by searchers years after the Vietnam War ended. They were interred at Fort Snelling. A second search team later recovered additional remains of Pat and the pilot of the plane that was shot down.
Those remains are buried together at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va.
Gary, now 82, and Margie live in Chanhassen. Gary will be the keynote speaker at the Memorial Day Ceremony that begins at 11 a.m. Monday, May 29, at the Eden Prairie Veterans Memorial at Purgatory Creek Park.
The event will include Civil Air Patrol cadets posting and retrieving the Colors, the Eden Prairie Police Honor Guard raising the Colors to full staff, a performance by the Eden Prairie Community Band, and vocal renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful” by Julie Tuck. Additionally, Rob Estrine will perform “Taps.”
The event will include Civil Air Patrol cadets posting and retrieving the Colors; the Eden Prairie Police Honor Guard raising the Colors to full staff; a performance by the Eden Prairie Community Band; and vocal renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful” by Julie Tuck. Additionally, Rob Estrine will perform “Taps.”
Mayor Ron Case will make opening remarks, and Pastor Rod Anderson will give the invocation.
You can honor a veteran, such as a parent, grandparent, family member or relative — living or deceased — by placing their name on the Eden Prairie Veterans Memorial in perpetuity. Veterans included on the memorial do not need to be Eden Prairie residents.
For more information about the Veterans Memorial, visit the city’s website.
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