1. Military

Romano: Fifty years later, this bay area soldier is forever 19

This is Mike Murphy’s gravesite at Royal Palms cemetery in St. Petersburg.  Courtesy of the Murphy family
This is Mike Murphy’s gravesite at Royal Palms cemetery in St. Petersburg. Courtesy of the Murphy family
Published May 29, 2016

Fifty years ago, the letters seemed to arrive too late. Almost as if they passed each other in some sad, hopeless chase.

In a distant jungle in a rapidly escalating war, Army Pfc. Mike Murphy was days away from taking part in one of Vietnam's most infamous battles when he paused to write a letter to his parents. And in a comfortable house in the Maximo Moorings neighborhood of St. Petersburg, Thomas Murphy saw the news of the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne locked in a ferocious battle, and he immediately began writing a letter to his eldest son, Mike.

Each man wrote of hope, but of reality, too. The son from his war, the father from his nightmare. It turns out this is the secret of the written word; no matter when it arrives, it lives forever.

Unlike sons. And soldiers.

• • •

Dear Dad,

I hate to worry you with all the details of our combat, but I know you will eventually find out anyway … The Second Platoon walked into an ambush somewhere in the highlands of Duc Co. Unfortunately the Second Platoon was in a canyon. All Charlie did was to roll hand grenades down the hills on both sides. The only escape was to turn around and run.

He was a handful. That much was undeniable.

Mike Murphy was a grocery bag of laughs, mischief, loyalty and music. School? That was another story. But put him in a crowd, and Mike was the guy everyone adored.

He grew up in downtown Clearwater with his brother Steve and sister Sherry, in a big antebellum home near the water. It was the kind of house with servants' quarters and outside stairs, making it that much easier for teenagers to sneak out at night.

"I was never quite sure what kind of shenanigans they were getting into,'' said Sherry, who was the youngest of the three. "I only knew they were grounded the next day.''

Rowdiness aside, the Murphy kids had it made. They were teenagers near the beach in the days of the Beatles. What more could a kid want? They were all musically inclined, but Mike was the star. He played saxophone at Clearwater High, and later in a rock band.

The family would eventually move to the southern end of Pinellas County and, after a disastrous stint in a boarding school, Mike graduated from St. Petersburg High. His parents were insistent that this generation of Murphy children would earn degrees, but Mike never made it through his first semester of college.

Instead, he joined the Army just as the Vietnam War was beginning to capture the attention of middle America in 1965.

"We all have questions now about the sanctity of that war,'' said his brother, Steve. "But Mike believed in what he was doing. He bought the whole idea of protecting the world from communism. We were so proud of what he was doing.''

• • •

Dear Mike,

As I write this, the news accounts of your company being overrun are in front of me and I really don't know what to think or hope for. I only hope, if you are all right, that you will never have to wonder if your son is alive, badly hurt or in enemy hands … I pray that you're all right — I just can't imagine it any other way.

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• • •

It was midafternoon on June 9, 1966, when three platoons attacked what they assumed was a small band of North Vietnamese. The Screaming Eagles pounced quickly but it soon became clear they had misjudged the enemy's size and strength. They were badly outnumbered and being overrun.

In a decision that made headlines around the United States, a captain shot off a flare and instructed a nearby Air Force fighter to drop napalm right where he stood.

The strike slowed the Viet Cong advance and allowed the U.S. platoons to retreat. Mike Murphy, who had been deployed only seven weeks earlier, survived all of this. The enemy's bullets and grenades, and his own nation's napalm attack.

By the next day, they were looking for men to retrieve the wounded and dead. Just months earlier, an old Clearwater friend of Murphy's had returned from his own tour and offered this advice:

"Never volunteer, and keep your ass down.''

Murphy didn't listen. He volunteered for the retrieval mission and was cut down by a machine gun as he was trying to carry a dead soldier back home.

He was 19.

• • •

(Dear Mike)

As long as I can write to you it makes you seem still alive. I don't see how anyone could have got out of that mess but maybe you did … The thought of never seeing you again is more than we can stand — but the thought of you laying hurt in the jungle is even worse.

• • •

It began with a sergeant and a major at the front door. They informed Thomas and Eileen Murphy that their son Mike was listed as missing in action. The hours and days that followed were interminable. Friends and neighbors gathered in the living room for news on the television.

Eileen Murphy finally had to leave the house and drove to Saint Mary our Lady of Grace church on Fifth Avenue S. She wasn't Catholic, but the solitude and serenity appealed to her.

"If I didn't get out of that house, I was going to explode,'' she said. "God has a way of helping you push your pain to the side when you need to, and that's what He did for me.''

Eventually, word came back; Mike's body had been retrieved.

• • •

(Dear Dad)

I really miss you, Dad. I guess you and Mom meant a lot more to me than I ever realized before … I'm determined to be the type of person that you would be proud to call your son. I know I'm proud to call you "My Dad.''

• • •

More than 100 soldiers from Pinellas would eventually die in the jungles of Vietnam. Bronze Star recipient Mike Murphy was the seventh. Around then, the war was just beginning to escalate, and all of its horrors were starting to resonate back home.

Ken Helle was a classmate of Murphy's at St. Petersburg High in June 1965 and a pallbearer at his funeral in June 1966.

"You've heard people say only the good die young? Mike personified that. And all of his friends really felt it," Helle said. "The adults had been through Korea and World War II, but for the kids, his death really hit home. We realized how bad it really was.''

Eleven days after this Memorial Day will be the 50th anniversary of Mike Murphy's death. His brother was thinking about him recently while listening to NPR. The program talked about death coming in three stages. The first is the actual physical death of the body. The second is when the body is cremated or interred. The final stage is when your name is never mentioned again.

"I can tell you the world missed out on so much because he wasn't around long enough,'' Steve said. "But as long as we're here to talk about him, it's like Mike will never die."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.