Remembering Easton’s Lost Sons

It is fair to say that US senator Daniel Inouye, a decorated World War II veteran, was not a fan of the Memorial Day weekend.  For almost a quarter century, the legislator from Hawaii fought to have this national holiday reverted to its original date of May 30th as opposed to our current practice of observing it on the last Monday in May.  Since the federal government enacted the change in 1971, veterans and concerned citizens saw Americans losing sight of the true significance of the day as sales, sporting events and getaways were overshadowing what should be a solemn tribute to those who died in the service of our country.  Every year, starting in 1989 till his death in 2012, Senator Inouye proposed his Memorial Day reform with little to no support from his colleagues. 

Looking back at his persistence, we can appreciate how strongly he felt about this cause. Though some may consider his proposal inconvenient, there can be no denying that Memorial Day weekend has become for many little more than a harbinger of summer fun.  As part of our “Easton in the Service” series, the Historical Society hopes today’s story of two local soldiers will give you an opportunity to reflect not just on their sacrifice but also on their character and their courageous choices.  

On July 4th 1967, a Marine Corps officer arrived at the Gilly residence at 200 Wilson Road.  He bore the heart-wrenching news that their 23-year-old son, Private First-Class Ronald Alan Gilly had been fatally shot by the enemy days earlier.  The loss felt by any family receiving such news is certainly profound, but for our town it was particularly tragic: Ron Gilly was Easton’s first casualty of the Vietnam War. 

Born in Bridgeport on October 10, 1943, Ron was the second son of Terrence and Muriel Gilly.  In 1956 his parents purchased the old Samuel Staples House on Wilson Road and the family embraced small town life. His dad, Terrence, who worked for General Electric and Bridgeport University, was soon serving as a Cub Scout master and a committee member at the Exchange Club. His wife Muriel was elected as vice-president of the PTA and was a fund raiser for the new Episcopal church.

Samuel Staples Elementary School, Class of 1957. Ron Gilly is standing in the third row from the front, fifth boy from the left.

Along with his two younger siblings, Ron attended Staples Elementary School and spent his summers swimming in the Easton Pond.  While he excelled in sports, his favorite pastime from an early age was outdoorsmanship.  As a member of the Scouts and Explorers, he was a skilled marksman participating in Saturday morning target practices and in competitions for the Junior National Rifle Association. Considered one of the best in his age division, the younger cadets looked up to him with admiration not only for his skill but for his kindness in mentoring others. A strong sense of faith developed in his early years as well. He served as the president of the Young People’s Fellowship at Christ’s Church and as an assistant at mass. 

Ronald Alan Gilly, senior portrait, Joel Barlow High School, 1961.

As a member of the first graduating class of Joel Barlow High School, Ron was dubbed the “genuine gentleman” and classmates recall his considerate manner that was paired with a seriously competitive streak when it came to sports.  Not only did he excel in track and field, but he was one of Barlow’s “Fearless Eleven,” the football team that won the Western Connecticut Conference Championship in 1961.

Champion Football Team, Joel Barlow High School Yearbook 1961. Ronald Gilly is kneeling in from the right, number 31. Note Russell Equi his teammate, number 12, standing behind him.

Varsity sports paired with exemplary grades, along with choir and student government positions earned him membership in the National Honor Society.  In his senior year, few may have known that he was selected as an alternate for the Naval Academy but most in town would have heard that he was chosen as Barlow’s first candidate for the King of the Barnum Festival.  Along with Jane Rosborg, Barlow’s candidate for queen, Ron vied with other students from local high schools in the popular Bridgeport contest.  

Ronald Gilly and Jane Rosborg, Joel Barlow High School’s candidates for the King and Queen Contest, Barnum Festival, 1961. Bridgeport Post, May 31, 1961.

While he was not selected for the Barnum crown, participants were treated like royalty and were profiled in the local newspapers. It is significant to note that in his interviews he explained that continuing his education in college was an important way to “really help one’s country.” For Ron, as for many Americans, the words of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address earlier that same year resonated deeply with his call for citizens to ask themselves what they could do for their country. 

Entering Tufts in the fall, Ron was working towards a degree in chemical engineering but he put his university studies on hold in 1962 when he enlisted in the Marines.  Though we cannot know all the reasons that motivated him to step away from his education, it is likely that his decision was influenced by the pervasive anti-communist propaganda of the time.  During the Cold War, fears of Soviet expansion manifested in contemporary culture through posters, comic books and films in the hope of instructing good, young Americans about the evils of Communism.  Even some popular TV shows were in fact adaptations of works produced by the AFIF-the Armed Forces Information Films. “Red Nightmare” was one such example which aired as part of the General Electric True series in 1962. Following the popular Twilight Zone format, the show’s narrator, Jack Webb, lead viewers through a surreal tale of a man who wakes up to find his small American town taken over by Russia.

Left: “The Red Iceberg,” comic book, 1960. Warning young readers of the perils of Communism. Right: “The Two Faces of Communism,” comic book, 1961. Detail emphasizing the “willingness to serve” one’s country.

The goal of these works was to heighten American vigilance, discourage complacency and above all, stress civic and military participation as key elements in preserving freedom.  Encouraging young men to join the armed forces at this time was critical for the Defense Department as the United States was expanding its support for the struggling South Vietnamese government. Believing the entire South Asian region was in risk of falling into the hands of communist tyranny, Kennedy increased the number of American troops deployed in South Vietnam as advisory forces. 

Against this political background, Ron completed his training at Parris Island and continued on to Camp Pendelton in California as part of the Third Marine Division. Promoted to Lance Corporal in July of 1963, he led his company squad to victory in a rifle contest and he and his men were flown to Quantico to compete against other regiments in marksmanship, helicopter lift operations and NBC warfare defense measures. (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical) With most of his early years in the service divided between the West Coast and Camp Hanson in Japan, Ron also trained for mountain and extreme weather conditions at Mt. Fuji and travelled with a floating battalion that moved from Hawaii, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and the Philippines.  

Private First Class Ronald Alan Gilly in uniform. Undated photo.

During these years, the United States transitioned from an official advisory role to an active military presence after the USS Maddox was torpedoed by the North Vietnamese in 1964. As a result of this incident, President Lyndon B. Johnson was authorized by Congress “to take all necessary measures” to defend Southeast Asia from communist forces.  By 1965, Ron’s Battalion was one of the first sent to Vietnam.  Through the course of that year, they were tasked with protecting Da Nang Air Base and opening a Marine Compound at that site. 

With his enlistment period ending in January of 1966, Ron returned home as ground hostilities were escalating overseas. One can imagine the collective sigh of relief from his loved ones.  In our current world where news cycles are live streamed, it might be hard for us to understand that Vietnam was the first war to have daily, graphic TV coverage.  Images of political unrest, violence, wounded soldiers and injured citizens were broadcast into living rooms across our nation nightly.  These vivid reports not only heightened the angst of a country sending more and more of its young men into the fray, but they also helped raise questions as to the purpose of the conflict and the viability of a victory.

Returning home four years after he enlisted, Ron was certainly changed by his experiences abroad.  For a while he took a job at D. M. Read’s department store in Bridgeport and then he drove a truck for the Post Publishing Company. While he briefly re-enrolled in school and attended the University of Bridgeport, you get a sense of restlessness from the record of his time at home.  Perhaps, as with so many veterans, he struggled to re-adjust to civilian life. Of course, along with that challenge, he also had to adapt to all the changes that were taking place at home.  There were still fears of a communist threat and overall support for the war, but anti-war protests increased in frequency and size. Suddenly there were demonstrations on campuses and in cities across the country and even public speak outs against veteran memorials.  A returning soldier may very well have felt he had awoken in a nightmare where he was suddenly an enemy of the good. 

College students marching against the Vietnam War in Boston, October 16, 1965.

At the same time Ron was adjusting to life back in Easton, the United States was dramatically increasing its troop numbers in South Vietnam and there was a steady rise in hostile confrontations and casualties.  Anyone who knew Ron understood that it was not his nature to sit at home while his brethren in the service suffered overseas.  Whatever he could do with his training and talents, he likely believed the greater good of others would be best served by his return to active duty.  Re-enlisting in April of 1967, Ron immediately shipped overseas as a rifleman. Stationed in Quang Nam province on June 30th, he was on a patrol assignment with his squad in the vicinity of Phu Lac in the Duy Xuyen District. He was about 3 kilometers south of Liberty Bridge-an area with substantial Viet-Cong activity when he was fatally shot by sniper fire from the tree line. 

Liberty Bridge across the Thu Bon River south of Da Nang. Built in 1967, this area was continually harassed by enemy forces.

Back home in Easton, the town declared a 30-day period of mourning after hearing the news of his death. His funeral was held at Christ’s Church and a Marine detachment from Fort Nathan Hale attended as honor guard.  Men who served alongside Ron during his first enlistment travelled from across the country to stand as pallbearers. His funeral procession solemnly drove across town from Church Road to his final resting place in the Aspetuck Cemetery.

Ronald Gilly’s final resting place today. His funeral and burial took place July 11 1967.

Many of the town’s officials attended the services, including the local selectmen William Pollitt and Ferdinand Equi.  For Ferd, Ron’s death must have been particularly sad and unsettling.  The young man buried that day had grown-up alongside his own son, Russell. Russ, as he was known to his friends, had enlisted and was already in training at Quantico.

Russell Lloyd Equi, senior class photo, 1962.

Russ was a year younger than Ron, born on November 29, 1944.  Attending Staples Elementary and Joel Barlow High School, friends who grew up with him recall a great little league pitcher who excelled in sports. Particularly strong for his age, he was on the same football team with Ron Gilly that won the state championship. Despite his laconic nature that led him to be dubbed “the Quiet Man,” he was affable and well regarded by his classmates, serving as both the senior class vice-president and the head of the student council.

Bill Zimmerman with Russell Equi in the 1962 school yearbook. Special thanks to Glenn Govertsen for sharing his memories and photos for this article.

Continuing on to study economics at Columbia University, Russ was a pre-med student and a beloved member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity.  Fellow classmates recall him as a true friend with a wonderful sense of humor.  Not only did he continue playing football at university, but he also made time to volunteer in the local New York City community. 

Russell Equi at football game during his years at Columbia University, 1963-1967.

Russ completed his training as an amphibious assault vehicle officer at Camp Pendelton in 1968 and he distinguished himself as an outstanding leader amongst his peers. Known as much for his fun-loving side as for his intellect, those who served with him remember he would help others with complicated computational exercises, and he enjoyed unwinding with his classmates playing touch football on the beach. 

In July, Russ’s regiment arrived in Vietnam during a period of intense fighting.  Wounded in battle twice, he was taken out of the field to recover at battalion headquarters at Marble Mountain Air Facility. Fellow soldiers recall him as a good friend who was always ready with a smile and eager to help prepare troops with the proper equipment they needed.  He spoke often of returning home to continue in his studies at medical school.  

In January 1969, Russ volunteered for a mine clearing mission that placed him in on a rarely used engineering tank.  The armored vehicle was an LVTE-1 and it was fitted with a bulldozer blade at the front to push aside buried land mines. A rocket-propelled demolition charge on its roof was used to shoot a trail of explosives across a suspected minefield.  The ensuing controlled blast would help clear a safe path for troops, but for the men in the tank, it was a particularly dangerous assignment.  Some colleagues were surprised that Russ would sign up for this task but like Ron Gilly, Russ was not one to sit on the sidelines when he had the skills and training to get a job done. 

On January 26th, Russ and his crew of six men were conducting a clearing operation 12 miles south of Chu Lai in Quang Ngai Province. The line charge deployed with several thousand pounds of C-4 explosives, but it detonated before it could fully launch. The subsequent blast created a huge dome of “pure energy” killing the entire tank crew and several surrounding Marine infantrymen. The tragic incident highlights the many non-combat casualties of the Vietnam War. Injury and death were possible not only from booby traps and mine fields, but also mechanical equipment failures exacerbated by the extreme tropical field conditions. 

Monument commemorating Russell Equi and his fellow Marines who died on January 26, 1969. Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia.

After Russ’s death, a telegram from the Defense Department informed the family about the accident and the unfortunate consequence that his body would be impossible to recover. A memorial service was held on February 28th with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery where a cenotaph was placed in honor of the crew members.  That same day, a mass in his name was offered at Notre Dame of Easton and the local community once again pulled together in their grief to comfort one another.  In Russ’s honor, friends began a scholarship at Joel Barlow High School and that prize is still offered in his name today.  It recognizes those students who “most nearly reflect the outstanding traits of character, leadership, scholarship and service to the school as possessed by the late Russell Equi.” 

Soon after, the Joel Barlow Education Association began plans for a memorial to those students who died in military service.  Set for the new auditorium’s curved wall, it was unanimously supported by the school board and paid for by the faculty. Large silver letters read: “In memory of the students who have died for their country.” Underneath these words are the framed yearbook photos of Easton’s Ronald Gilly and Russell Equi paired with two additional portraits of Redding students who lost their lives: Philipp Vollhardt who died February 2, 1971 and Arthur Nicholson who died March 25, 1985. 

In our ever-changing world, this installation has remained a part of our high school for almost fifty years and it is a testament to the core values of our community that we have continued to honor the memory of these young men.  Whether it is over this weekend, or on Monday at the town parade, or perhaps even next time you happen to be in the high school, take a moment to remember these sons of Easton.  They, along with so many other heroes in our country’s history, were willing to give everything to save the lives of others.