Today, almost no one remembers Herman Mulligan. In 1942, he left his home in Greenville, S.C., to join the Marines. He died at age 21 in the Battle of Okinawa. He had no wife, no children. He didn’t even get a marked grave. His remains were never identified.
Dale Maharidge never met Mulligan, but the 57-year-old writer has spent most of his life haunted by the mystery of this young Marine. Mulligan served in the Pacific in World War II with Maharidge’s father. Steve Maharidge and Herman Mulligan shared a tent, became best friends. And though Maharidge’s dad seldom talked about Mulligan, he displayed Mulligan’s photo in his home his entire life.
Maharidge wrote his 2013 memoir, “Bringing Mulligan Home: The Other Side of the Good War,” to try to understand his late father and the rage that sometimes consumed him. As he uncovered the story, he realized his dad’s anger was tied to what happened to Mulligan.
The more he learned, the more he wanted to put a name on Mulligan’s grave. He knew the task would be difficult. The process would probably require a DNA sample and exhumation. He needed to find some relative of Mulligan’s. But he wanted to try, because he believed it would have made his dad happy.
Now, more than a dozen years after he began searching, Maharidge has found a man who holds a key piece of evidence. His name is James Patterson. He’s 71, retired and lives in Huntersville. He’s Herman Mulligan’s cousin.
In a bookcase in their home, James Patterson and his wife, Jean, display Mulligan’s Purple Heart and dog tag under a glass dome. James Patterson inherited the artifacts from his mother, though he never knew much about the man they belonged to. He was 2 when Mulligan died.
In January, with help from a genealogist and the Observer, Maharidge found Patterson and mailed him a copy of his memoir. In it, Patterson discovered pieces of his family’s history, including letters his grandfather sent to Mulligan’s commanding officer as he tried to learn where his grandson’s remains were buried.
“I am his grandfather,” Robert Owens of Greenville wrote in 1949, “and I am blind and sure would appreciate any information you would give me.”
After Patterson received the book, they spoke via Skype. By then, Patterson knew he wanted to help Maharidge. More than that, he realized he also wanted to bring Mulligan home.
“I think it would mean a lot to my mom and my granddaddy,” he said. “Especially Granddaddy Owens.”
What happened to Mulligan?
When Dale Maharidge was growing up in a working-class neighborhood outside Cleveland, his father rarely talked about the war. But he displayed a photo in his basement workshop of two skinny, smiling Marines – him and Mulligan on Guadalcanal. Mulligan’s arm is draped around Steve Maharidge’s shoulder.
Dale Maharidge remembers his father talking about Mulligan only once. Dale was about 12, with his dad in the workshop, he recounts in his book, when his father became emotional, saying others blamed him for Mulligan’s death. “But I didn’t kill him!” he told his son. “It wasn’t my fault.” Dale didn’t ask questions. But that evening came to symbolize all he didn’t understand about his father.
Most of the time, Maharidge writes in his memoir, his father, who worked grinding industrial cutting tools, was a great dad. But occasionally, “something would snap, and he temporarily became the worst.” The rage wasn’t targeted at his family. “It seemed to be focused on some unseen entity.”
After his father died in 2000, Maharidge decided to investigate what happened on Okinawa – to Mulligan, and to his dad. He was well-suited for the task. A veteran journalist, Maharidge has written 10 books, including “And Their Children After Them,” winner of the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. The book, illustrated with Michael Williamson’s photographs, re-examines the land and descendants of families in James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”
Maharidge began his memoir research by tracking down men from his dad’s Marine unit, L Company, 3rd Battalion, 22nd Marines, 6th Marine Division. Some had never talked about their war experiences, but now, in their 80s, they divulged details. One man recalled that Mulligan had thrown a grenade into a tomb dug into a hill, and “the damn thing was full of explosives.”
As Maharidge located more veterans, the picture became clearer. The Japanese had been storing munitions. When Mulligan tossed the grenade on May 30, 1945, the thing blew like a volcano. A piece of concrete landed on him. One veteran remembered Mulligan telling him he was a hemophiliac. He didn’t have a chance. And then, somehow, his body got misplaced. No one blamed Maharidge’s father for Mulligan’s death.
Maharidge theorizes that his father, who had been squad leader, may have given Mulligan the order to throw the grenade. That could explain his guilt over his friend’s death. It’s also possible that his father tried to help Mulligan and removed his dog tags in the process. Perhaps that’s why his remains weren’t identified.
“I think he felt guilty on many levels,” Maharidge said.
Maharidge also learned that his father and others in his company suffered blast concussions that day. Such concussions often cause permanent damage. They can change personalities and lead to dementia. He now understands his father’s erratic behavior, he said. He hopes his book will enlighten other children of veterans who suffered similar undiagnosed injuries.
A grandfather’s questions
James Patterson grew up in Laurens, S.C., the son of textile mill workers. In Charlotte, he had a varied career that included owning a restaurant, Beauregard’s Too at University Place. Patterson never knew much about Herman Mulligan. He knew that Mulligan’s mom died in her 30s while Mulligan was still a teenager. He had an abusive father. And when he lost his mom, he moved in with his grandfather.
Patterson has fond memories of Robert Owens, the grandfather he shared with Mulligan. Blind most of his life, he lived by himself, shaved with a straight razor and made his living running a wood saw. He could tell the difference between a one-dollar and five-dollar bill by touch alone.
In 1945, Mulligan’s commanding officer told Owens in a condolence letter that his grandson was buried on Okinawa, in the division’s cemetery “with military honors with our chaplain administering the final religious rites.”
But another government letter informed him there was no burial record. That letter proved to be correct. Such mistakes were common, given the circumstances of war. Sometimes, casualties were so high that Marines resorted to digging trenches to bury their comrades.
Owens tried to learn more and dictated another letter to the officer in 1945: “I Have Got a letter Saying That They Have no Record Where He Was Buried an i would like Very mutch for you to let me know just How He Was Killed an Where He Was Hit at an if He Was Buried are Not.”
Is identification possible?
Maharidge discovered Owens’ letters when he met with Frank Haigler, a retired California physician who’d been Mulligan’s commanding officer. It was Haigler who had sent his condolences to Owens in 1945, and he had kept their correspondence for more than a half century.
Maharidge concluded that Mulligan was buried in the division’s cemetery in Okinawa. One soldier he interviewed recalled putting Mulligan’s body on a stretcher, then loading it on a truck going to the medical battalion. Several soldiers told Maharidge that Mulligan would have been buried in the cemetery, and that unlike some casualties, his body was still intact.
Maharidge also learned that the U.S. exhumed the bodies in that cemetery after the war and transferred them to the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, the resting place for more than 2,000 unidentified World War II soldiers. He believes that Mulligan rests in that cemetery.
The U.S. military maintains a commitment to identify all fallen soldiers, “to leave no man behind.” Still, about 83,000 Americans remain missing from World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and the 1991 Gulf War. Most – about 73,000 – are from World War II.
Leading identification efforts is the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which excavates sites across the globe and runs a laboratory where remains can be identified. Advances in DNA matching have aided these identifications, and over the years, some recovery work has yielded spectacular success. Wil Hylton’s 2013 book “Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II” describes an ambitious mission that found remains of eight members of a B-24 bomber on the floor of the Pacific Ocean.
But identifications remain difficult. Before researchers can exhume a body, they must have enough evidence to show a strong probability of success, said Army Maj. Jamie Dobson, a JPAC public affairs officer. This happens, but not frequently. In fiscal 2013, JPAC identified nine bodies as the result of disinterments, Dobson said.
Hylton cautions that the odds of identifying Mulligan may be long. Researchers need more than DNA. They must have personnel records and other information about the deceased. And even when they have a possible match, remains don’t always yield a good DNA sample. “It can go wrong in a million ways,” he said.
Still, if Mulligan’s remains rest in Hawaii, identification seems possible. After all, Maharidge has gathered research about Mulligan and the circumstances of his death.
He sent a copy of Mulligan’s personnel file to JPAC several years ago. And after Maharidge and James Patterson spoke in January, Jean Patterson got busy, researching what her husband needed to do to submit a DNA sample that could help find his cousin. At her request, the Marine Corps mailed a free DNA collection kit.
What the Pattersons and Maharidge don’t know is what information JPAC has about each of the unknown soldiers who died on Okinawa. For instance, does the agency have death dates for some unidentified remains?
An act of love
There’s also the problem of JPAC itself. The agency has been criticized as slow and ineffective. Last month, CBS News reported on management lapses, noting that in 2012 the agency identified only 80 soldiers.
When JPAC receives a DNA sample from a family, Maj. Dobson said, “it is processed and maintained in a database, under the casualty’s name.” Hylton said ongoing controversies have left the agency in a state of upheaval. Given that upheaval, will anyone at JPAC even look into Mulligan’s case?
If you’re a pragmatic sort, you might see this whole effort as more trouble than it’s worth. Identification can bring closure to bereft families. But the people who loved Mulligan are gone. There’s no one left to mourn him.
Then again, you could see it as an act of love. As they attempt to correct an old mistake, Dale Maharidge and the Pattersons pay tribute not just to Mulligan, but to Maharidge’s father, and to Patterson’s grandfather. That tribute is paid whether they succeed or not.
In January, James Patterson followed the directions on the collection kit, swabbing the inside of his cheeks to obtain what the military calls a “family reference sample.” Then he took his DNA to the post office in Huntersville. He sent it Priority Mail.