It was Feb., 1968 — the month that Richard Nixon announced his candidacy for president, Vince Lombardi resigned as coach of the Green Bay Packers and “Green Tambourine” by the Lemon Pipers topped the charts on Feb. 9 — when 20-year-old James J. Brennan was killed by friendly fire in South Vietnam.
Brennan lived on 86th Street in Bay Ridge and attended Fort Hamilton High School. After graduating, he studied for six months at the Academy of Aeronautics before he was drafted on Sept. 2, 1966 and served a full year in Vietnam.
According to a story that appeared in the March 8, 1968 Brooklyn Spectator, Brennan’s mother was informed by telegram that he was missing on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day.
Two days later the family received official notification that he was dead. Arrangements were handled by Fred Herbst and Sons Funeral Directors. Brennan was buried on Long Island following a mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH).
Brennan was awarded the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal and the Purple Heart, among others.
Those medals and commendations were missing for years until Gary Farris, a Vietnam veteran himself and a 72-year-old resident of San Bernardino, California, happened to come upon them by chance.
A family friend, Christopher Guillen, had purchased a box at a yard sale in California that contained an Army Commendation medal, two ribbon racks and a medallion identifying a combat infantryman.
Farris was asked by Guillen’s brother if he could help identify the fallen soldier. Farris agreed and did some digging, eventually linking the medals to Brennan.
“My son’s friend Sammy, who is Chris’ brother, came to me, knowing how involved I was with the military and that I had served in Vietnam, thinking that I would be the one to find and return the medals to the family, not knowing that Brennan was killed in Vietnam,” Farris told this paper. “I was very surprised that the medals were found in a yard sale.”
So Farris began trying to piece together how the medals of a Brooklyn soldier ended up in San Bernardino.
Farris also found online articles about Brennan that originally appeared in the Spectator describing Brennan’s death and funeral arrangements.
Further research led him to Dennis Callahan, a nephew of Brennan’s who lives in New Jersey. Farris sent him an email and Callahan responded.
“After finding Brennan’s name on the Vietnam Virtual Wall.org, one of the postings –by Dennis Callahan — said ‘Feb. 09, 1968 was the death of my uncle James in Vietnam.’ The posting also gave an email address. I contacted him and he responded to my email. I told him what I had in my possession. He was a little skeptical at first, but listened to what I had to say.”
Regarding the mystery of the medals ending up in California, Callahan told Farris that he recalled his grandmother’s New York apartment being robbed twice in the 1970s. The medals may have been stolen, ending up in California.
Another scenario Callahan offered was that perhaps Brennan’s girlfriend may have taken some of his medals when she moved to the West Coast, although he did not know where or when.
Farris also learned that Callahan’s daughter, First Lieutenant Nicole Callahan, was stationed at the National Guard Armory in Toms River, New Jersey.
Farris found her address and sent her the medals. He was happy to learn that they’d arrived safely and that the family was grateful to him for sending them.
“On September 24, I sent them to Nicole,” Farris said. “She said that her father would contact me as soon as he received the medals.” Farris is still waiting to hear from Callahan and his fondest hope is that Callahan would be agreeable to a formal ceremony returning medals to the family at Fort Hamilton Army Base.