Many SI alumni served in the armed forces during the Vietnam War and six are known to have died: John Santos ’51, Robert Reed ’51, Denis O’Connor ’58, Richard Bloom ’60, Richard Arthur Timboe ’62 and Paul Medlin ’63. In addition, one other grad, Frederick John Riley ’51, a retired Navy pilot, served in the CIA’s Air America and was killed in Laos.
Frederick John Riley ’51
Frederick Riley grew up close to SI near Haight and Ashbury. As a senior, he served as a cheerleader, and he was a member of the 130s basketball team and the rally committee. He joined the Navy while still in college, according to his close friend Richard Howard ’52.
In the 1960s, he left the Navy to join in the CIA’s secret war in Laos, supporting Laotians in their struggle against the North Vietnamese. Riley flew C-123s into Laos carrying supplies. On November 27, 1962, his plane was damaged by Neutralist anti-aircraft fire while on approach to land at Xieng Khoung. He was mortally injured in the ensuing crash. “He was a hell of a good guy,” said Howard. “He had no business being killed like that.”
Riley is memorialized on the Wall of Honor at an Air America memorial in Texas. He had no siblings and his parents, who have since passed away, “suffered immensely after Fred’s death, as he was their only son,” added Howard.
“Fred’s case has always troubled me. I saw many people die on ships. I lost my wingman during the war and saw a lot of blood spilled. Those people were all remembered and honored, but those who died in Air America were, for the most part, performing an admirable and honorable task for our government. Whether or not you agree with their mission, they were heroes of the first rank and never recognized. It’s heartbreaking.”
Denis O’Connor ’58
Denis O’Connor was born May 3, 1940, and grew up in San Francisco with his parents and six sisters. In a ’56 Chevy that was the envy of his class, he would drive many of his sisters to a bus stop near SI every morning on his way to school. “It says a lot about him that he risked his ‘coolness’ by performing this task in his even cooler ’56 Chevy filled with other SI boys,” said his sister Brenda MacLean. “He had a wonderfully sarcastic humor and his little sisters were treated to the daily observations of the world by him and his friends.” His sister Mary Pratto recalls his pride in wearing his junior jacket and his desire to study engineering at SCU. “Having three sisters older and three younger, Denis established himself at a young age as a strong individual,” she added. At SI he also participated in the Sanctuary Society and the Sodality and held a number of class offices.
Denis’ father, Jim, was a concrete contractor and the owner of D. O’Connor and Son, and Denis worked for him every summer from the time he was 5 to learn the business. After college, he planned to enter the family business and then go into San Francisco politics. “He believed it was possible for an honest patriot to make a difference in San Francisco and even in the country,” said his widow, Patricia (Patty) Ekenberg, who was in her first year at the University of Detroit when she met Denis, a senior.
A finance major, he was active in ROTC, and after college he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant and stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany. Patty and he were married there in 1964, and they had two daughters — Elizabeth, born in 1965, and Christine, born in 1966.
Denis had a great sense of humor, according to Patty. “Not only was he funny, but he also loved music. He prided himself on knowing the words to every song in every Broadway show and every movie musical.”
As a member of the 101st Airborne Division, Denis was transferred to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 1966 before shipping out to Vietnam for his first tour of duty in 1967. He was killed three months later, on October 10, 1967, from an explosion in Quang Nam, possibly from a grenade or an artillery shell.
“Denis was one of the lucky people in this world who defined his priorities at a young age,” said Patty. “He told me that his first duty was to God, his second duty was to his country and his third duty was to his family. I understood taking a back seat to God, but was a bit miffed to be behind country, especially when he volunteered for Vietnam. His values would not have allowed any other decision. It wasn’t easy, but it was simple. He volunteered for service because he thought that for the defense of our country, we had to help rid the world of communism. He was a man of great honor and principle. He had to do the right thing.”
Patty, who had moved to Sonoma with Denis shortly before his leaving for Vietnam, vividly recalls the day she learned of his death. “It was horrible. The minute I saw the uniformed men coming to the door, I knew what it was. I was numb.”
Years later, one of Denis’ sisters introduced Patty to a family friend and Lowell grad, Don Nelson. Patty married him, and the two had a son.
She maintained close ties to Denis’ sisters. “Our son, Curt, called the O’Connor sisters ‘auntie’ and Don adopted our girls.” Sadly Don died in 1996 and Patty endured another visit to her door to inform her of a husband’s death. She later married a close friend of Don’s mother in 2000 and continues to make her home in Sonoma.
She and the sisters continue to honor the memory of Denis. “He was the best brother and is missed every day of these past 37 years,” said Brenda MacLean. His daughter, Beth, added that “a family gathering doesn’t go by without stories told of him (always accompanied by plenty of laughter and tears).” His sister Mary added that “Denis was very loved by all of us. I still miss and remember him to this day.” His name appears on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Panel 27E, Row 85.
Richard Bloom ’60
The October 7, 1966, Inside SI included the following notice: “Rich Bloom was in many ways a typical SI student. He was active in his school life, rifle team, track and football, and received fairly good grades in his studies…. When the war in Vietnam began to get hotter, he was sent to fight. It was there that he was killed in action in service to his country and ideals. Inside SI salutes Rich Bloom, a true Ignatian, who gave his life that others might be free.” — Joe Cordes ’67
Born in 1942, Richard Bloom grew up on 35th Avenue and attended Holy Name Church. His mother, Dolores, a third-generation San Franciscan, worked at SI in the treasurer’s office, and his father, a San Francisco policeman, came from West Marin. His friends included Dick Lynch ’60 and Bill Foehr ’60. Lynch recalls that Bloom and his father were “more devoted to one another than any father and son that I’ve ever met.”
At 6-feet, 2-inches and 190 pounds, Richard was “solid as a cement block and an exceptional athlete. As a defensive back at SI, he could run as fast backwards as I could forwards,” said his Marine buddy Richard Torykian. Lynch recalls that he was “very friendly, not too studious, a great athlete and hunter and very into automobiles. He had a ’49 Ford hotrod that we rebuilt.”
After SI, he attended USF for two years where he continued to play football before enlisting in the Marine Corps Officer Training Program. According to his sister, Katherine Bloom, he hoped to become a pilot. He had a girlfriend, but didn’t want to marry until he came back from the war.
He first trained in Pensacola, Florida, to fly the A4E Skyhawk and F8 Crusader and then went to El Toro with the First Marine Division. There he hooked up with Torykian, who recalls the day he met Richard Bloom. “My roommates, two fighter pilots, and I went to a bar one night where I ran into Dick Bloom. We got into a little bit of an argument when I told him his date was ugly. You had to know him to understand how he took it. He had so much life in him and an enormous sense of humor.”
At El Toro the two used to play handball on Friday nights after work and share a few drinks at the Officers’ Club. “When he smiled, his whole face smiled,” noted Torykian. “We talked about going deer hunting with his dad in Olema after the war.”
Torykian thought that Bloom was “an outstanding aviator. We struck up a great friendship.” The two were roommates in Laguna Beach until March 1965 when President Johnson sent elements of the Third Marine Division to Vietnam. Richard went to Vietnam in early 1966 and flew 70 combat missions in two months with Marine Attack Squadron 224 before being killed on September 20, 1966, flying support for ground troops near Chu Lai. Bloom’s aircraft was hit during his third run against a truck park near the village of Ha Tinh, about 20 miles southwest of Danang. According to Bloom’s wingman, small arms fire downed the plane. Bloom’s body was never recovered. Torykian believes the plane burrowed into the soft jungle ground and buried Bloom in his cockpit.
Katherine, his sister, remembers the day two men in full dress uniforms came to the door to inform the family of Richard’s death. “They rang my doorbell, and I heard my mother scream. I ran to the door. It was horrible. I’ll never forget that day. I adored my brother.”
Dick Lynch found out about his friend’s death two weeks after he married. Then, two months later, he received his wedding present from Bloom. “That was really hard. His death was such a useless tragedy.”
Torykian, on his way home from the war, stopped in San Francisco to spend time with the Bloom family, answering their questions about how their son had died. He made a point of visiting them every five years. Both he and Lynch became surrogate sons to Bloom’s father, and both spent time hunting with him.
Years later, someone called Bloom’s family claiming to have his dog tags and offering to recover the body for $50,000. The family called Torykian, who knew it was a scam, and authorities arrested the caller. “Dick’s remains are gone,” said Torykian. “They are a part of the earth. But I still remember him as a vibrant man and great athlete. Everybody loved him. He was a courageous person who feared nothing. I lost a great friend and the country lost a great American.”
His name can be found on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Panel 10E, Line 123.
Richard Arthur Timboe ’62
Born March 23, 1944, he was known as “Rich” at SI, “Art” at USF and “Tim” at home and in the military. Richard Arthur Timboe is also remembered as a hero for giving up his life while trying to save a soldier in the South Vietnamese Army.
Timboe grew up an Army brat in the Presidio along with Margo McRice, whom he later married. “It was like growing up in a little village inside a big city,” said Margo. “No one locked the doors.” Tim played Little League baseball and ran track at SI, and his best friend was Terry Gillin ’62, now a professor of sociology at Ryerson University in Canada, who knew him as a quiet guy. “It blew everyone’s mind when Margo and he eloped a year after he graduated from SI.”
In 1963, after returning from Mexico, Tim and Margo moved in with Tim’s parents while Tim continued his studies in political science at USF. Their son Michael Arthur Timboe was born in late 1963 and Brian William Timboe was born the following year. Tim graduated in 1966 and entered the Army after receiving his ROTC commission.
He went to Ft. Benning, Georgia, for infantry training and then to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, to the 101st Airborne Division for jump school training. As a first lieutenant and pathfinder, he went to Vietnam in November 1967, assigned as an advisor to a village north of Saigon to work with the South Vietnamese Army as part of Advisory Team 70. He slept and ate with the villagers and wrote home about drinking homemade liquor. His wife sent him care packages of San Francisco items: copies of the Chronicle, Ghirardelli chocolate bars and sourdough bread.
On January 30, 1968, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive. On February 1, the Vietnamese commander of Tim’s unit sent out a light machine gun unit to try to capture Viet Cong. One gunner was hit and Tim ran out to carry him to safety. He hoisted the man onto his shoulders and was running back when he was shot and killed. For his bravery, he was awarded the Silver Star.
“He was really friendly and didn’t have an enemy in the world,” said his son, Brian. “He died doing exactly what he wanted to do. All he ever wanted to do in his whole life was serve in the Army.”
Timboe’s family was first told that he was missing in action. Five days later, word came that he had died. “This poor soul in uniform came to the door,” said Margo. “He was a basket case. I was his first case ever, and I had to call my father to take him to a bar to calm him down. He didn’t know what to say. It was probably for the best, as it took my mind away from my own loss worrying about this poor guy.
“Fr. Eugene Schallert, SJ, at USF was such a good help during this time,” added Margo. “He told me not to wallow in self pity and to focus on taking care of my children.” Fr. Schallert presided over the funeral Mass at St. Ignatius Church February 14.
For Gillin, the loss of his best friend was a hard one to take. “I was in grad school when Margo called me. Like so many at that time, I had a kind of confusion about opposing the war while still struggling to honor those who were fighting. I had a tremendous sense of loss and a sense of ambivalence over whether or not he had died for a good and just cause. Part of my sadness was that I thought his death was unnecessary because the war was inappropriate. We need to honor people like Tim who have served their county so selflessly while, at the same time, remain free to intellectually and morally challenge the rightness of any war.” Margo chose to involve herself with Swords into Plowshares. “They know how to heal everyone, even widows.”
Richard Arthur Timboe is buried in the San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio, Plot WS 636-B, and his name can be found on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Panel 36E, Line 62. He is also survived by his two grandsons — Christopher and Dylan.
In addition to having their names appear on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. and in Sacramento, Denis O’Connor, Richard Bloom and Richard Arthur Timboe have their names inscribed on a memorial in Justin Herman Plaza along with 160 other San Franciscans who died in Vietnam. Brian Timboe spoke at the 2001 dedication of that memorial, telling a cheering crowd of 500 that “there’s nothing to be ashamed of, to be a Vietnam vet. I just want to say this to you: ‘Hold your heads high!’” His father is also remembered in a memorial at USF.
Postscript: After the publication of Spiritus Magis, members of the Class of 1951 wrote to inform SI of two more casualties of the Vietnam War: Robert Reed & John Santos, both of the class of 1951. Their stories are included here.
Robert William Reed ’51
Bob Reed, a fourth generation San Franciscan, was raised in the Haight, attended St. Agnes and played baseball at SI where he socialized with a close group of friends. His sister, Carol Reed Turner, recalled that despite their four-year age difference, “my brother was very attentive to me. I was the tag-along little sister, but he took care of me and let me play with the rest of the boys.”
His close friend Bill Reed ’51 noted that growing up in the Haight was like a scene from the Our Gang movies. “We used Golden Gate Park as our backyard, playing cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians. One day, when we were 8, Bob and Dick Clark decided to build a ship and pretend to sail on the ocean. We ran around to the sandlots and brought back enough wood to build an 8-foot boat with little cabins.”
Bill Reed recalled that he and Bob Reed (no relation) traveled to Truckee where they saw their classmate, Paul Getty, and later attended the prom at Sacred Heart High School, where they had many friends, including Vern Buer, who also sings Bob’s praises. “He was 100 percent USA who believed in what he was doing.”
A year after graduating from SI, Reed enlisted in the Marines but discovered that his lack of a college degree kept him from advancing as an officer. He went on reserve status to obtain a Bachelor’s degree in history from San Jose State in 1958 and then returned to active duty.
‘He was a warrior at heart,” recalls his sister. “He liked the service and strategy of warfare.”
He married Therese King in 1961, and they two had sons — Robert William and William Damien.
One of his first assignments after his marriage was to the USS Washburn, a Navy cargo ship, where he discovered that he was the only Marine on a boat filled with sailors — not an enviable post.
After a stint at San Clemente, Camp Pendleton and Quantico, he went to Vietnam as a Captain and commander of C Company, First Battalion, Third Division, Ninth Marine Regiment. After 16 years in the service, he died on April 5, 1967, while reinforcing troops in the Thua Thien province of wounds sustained from rifle fire. He was promoted to Major and received the Bronze Star posthumously. (His company had the nickname of “the walking dead,” as it suffered more casualties than any other Marine unit in Vietnam.)
According to the official report of his death, Reed showed “aggressive and inspiring leadership and intimate knowledge of enemy tactics [that[ directly contributed to his company’s success in the field.” During the operation in which he was killed, he led his company “in a well coordinated assault on a series of cleverly concealed and well entrenched enemy positions before being mortally wounded. As a result of his actions, Company C overran the position and routed the enemy to retreat. Major Reed’s dynamic leadership, exemplary courage and loyal devotion to duty reflected great credit upon himself and the Marine Corps.”
The day before his death, his older son had just celebrated his fifth birthday; his younger son was just over two. “As soon as I saw the Lieutenant Colonel and the monsignor from my church walk to my door at 8 a.m., I knew what had happened,” recalls Therese. “The hardest part was having to tell his parents, as he and his father were very close. His father died of a heart attack eight months to the day after his son’s death. But he really died of a broken heart.”
Buer was at work at a retail shop when Reed’s father called to tell him the sad news. “I was devastated,” said Buer. “He had been my best man, and we had done so many things together.”
Therese added that her husband “loved the Marine Corps. I always knew that the Corps came first, and I came second. I accepted that. He was a great guy, a wonderful husband and a Marine through and through.”
Robert Reed’s name can be found on the Vietnam War Memorial Wall on panel 17E, line 109. He was buried at Golden Gate Cemetery across the road from the grave of Admiral Nimitz.
John F. Santos, Jr. ’51
John Santos moved with his family from Hawaii to San Francisco while John was in the ninth grade. “He was a happy-go-lucky, friendly guy,” noted his classmate Floyd Stuart ’51. “He was a good student, and we hit it off. We used to double date in high school.”
Bill Reed, who asked John to be the godfather for his oldest daughter, recalls John’s passion for cars growing up.
Santos studied at USF before enlisting. His sister, Geraldine “Jerry” Mederios, recalled that her brother signed up for the Air Force when a recruiter promised him he could become a pilot. “He wanted to be a pilot ever since he was little. But after he signed up, they told him he would be a navigator.”
Santos finished his degree while in the Air Force and did eventually become a pilot, first in jets and then in helicopters.
With Stuart as his best man, Santos marred Kathryn Godfrey and had four children — Lisa, Steven, Paul and John. His family went with him when he was sent to Thailand as an advisor to the Royal Thai Air Force.
On April 28, 1964, he and seven Thai airmen were to go on a supply mission to a radio relay site near Pitsanulok, Thailand, when their RTAF H034 helicopter lost power as it was taking off near the town of Thit Anulok 200 miles north of Bangkok, killing all aboard. Santos was 30 years old.
Col. Loren Nickels praised Santos shortly after his death as being “an exceptionally capable advisor … During [his work with the Thai Air Force], his outstanding professional skill, knowledge and leadership aided immeasurably in developing and implementing a Helicopter Flight Training program and establishing a higher degree of professional competence in the 63rd Search and Rescue Squadron. The accomplishments of your son reflected credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”
“The news of my brother’s death was on the radio, and some people knew about it before my mother,” said Mederios. “She received a call from the military informing her that John was missing. We didn’t know until years later that his name was on the Vietnam Memorial Wall.” (You can find it on Panel 01E, line 50.)
Bill Reed went to the Wall last summer and paid tribute to his fallen classmates. “It was a very emotional day. Regardless of the feelings about the Vietnam War, all served their country well; memories of these two — and my classmate Fred Riley ’51 who died in Laos with Air America — have stayed with me through the years.”