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Memories of My Friend “Brother Bo”
Gunnery Sergeant Donald Bohan
From Ed McGrath
(Ed McGrath and Donald Bohan)
I knew Don Bohan, before I got to know him. That is, after about a year together, we discovered that we had both played hockey when we were younger. We were discussing injuries. I mentioned that in a game against a team named the Outlets, one of their players broke past the defense. I caught him from behind and placed my stick on his stick and pressed down as hard as I could, in order to keep him from shooting. In his effort to free his stick, he pulled his stick up. It came loose, traveled over his shoulder and crushed my nose. “Bo” began to snicker and I asked him what he was laughing about. He asked a few more questions about the circumstances and we both realized that my “Brother Bo” had given me my first broken nose. I had the satisfaction of returning to the game and having our team win the game. “Bo’s” answer was that “it was more fun to have broken my nose than winning the game.”
Over the coming years, we remained close friends. We enjoyed each others company on and off the deck. In the first dojo of Master Nagle, it behooved the students to bond, because it was us against the Sensei. The dojo was filled with Marines who were already in great shape, but Master Nagle’s drive to weed out the non-committed with three hour workouts, that only included a three minute break between exercises and kumite, made us a band of brothers. As I’m sure most Isshinryu students know, kumite, in that era, was without equipment and with contact, including the face. Within a short period of time, Sensei selected his prime targets; Bohan, Jim Chapman, Rick Niemira and myself. This meant that he fought us more than other students and punished us worse, when we made a mistake. This could result in a split lip, closed eye or broken nose. The strange part of this, is that the four of us felt a sense of pride that we had been chosen as Sensei’s prime targets. Our kumites often went twenty to thirty minutes. We knew that we could not beat Master Nagle, but we gave him the best that we had, unfortunately making Sensei better and faster. The four of us fought each other in the same manner. We were Marines and if we were injured, we earned a light duty chit, during which we would still attend the sessions, but might be temporarily kept from kumite. After each session, we would go to one of the many bars in the town, such as JazzLand, for a few cold ones and to be debriefed by Sensei on our matches and technique. Our little group would often meet alone and the four of us would work on kata and kumite, at the beach or at my home, such as we did on one Easter Sunday, much to the dismay of our wives. I invited the guys, Sensei and their wives to my home for Easter dinner. In the time between their arrival and dinner, the discussion revealed that every one of my friends had their gis in their cars. The result was a kumite festival on my front lawn, next to an adjoining two lane highway, causing some of the cars to slow down on their way past my house. Obviously, our wives were not thrilled and the dinner was a bit quieter than it might have been, without the kumite.
Throughout all of this, “Bo” remained a close and loyal friend. While in Vietnam “Bo” had several close calls. For instance, he had “adopted what appeared to be an orphan, a young kid, who slept in the tent with “Bo” and several other Marines. The”kid” did jobs, like shining shoes and tidying the tent, for which he was paid by “Bo,” so that he could have some independence. “Bo” also had a specific guy who he could get to cut his hair in the tent. One evening, as “Bo” was returning to his tent from the field, he noticed, as he walked up the path to the tent, that a portion of the dirt in the path had been disturbed. “Bo” got down on his knees and began to probe the area with his K-Bar (typical sheath knife carried by Staff NCO’s, Officers and BAR men who did not have bayonets) and finally uncovered a large tank mine, with a pressure release set-up that would have blown a good part of the area into a giant hole. Investigation found that the barber and the kid were Viet Cong. They were turned over to the South Vietnam authorities. Even when you thought you were in a safe area, you were not safe. But mentally, “Bo” was able to move on, in each case. While he was “in country,” he also set up his own outdoor dojo, for his fellow Marines and drew the admiration and curiosity of several Staff NCO’s and Officers of the famed Korean “Tiger Division.” I have pictures he sent me from Nam, watching his men train, with the Koreans looking on. “Bo” obviously didn’t get enough fighting from the Viet Cong. I was also proud to receive a plaque with his emblem and the North and South of Vietnam in red and green, respectively. My wife also received some beautiful sketches of Vietnam scenery. How he found time to remember us would be a mystery, if we hadn’t known “Bo” as well as we did, his friends were the center of his world.
When “Bo” returned to the United States, he came to my home, on Long Island for two weeks, just to cool out, before going home. We all had a ball together and he especially enjoyed his time with my children, who would wake him up at 0600 hours every morning, by hitting him with their toys. It was astounding that he didn’t kill them. He and I actually went grocery shopping together and luckily, no one stared at us or made any remarks. While he was with us, he made an appearance at my dojo and, as we did in those days, he promised to fight my entire school before he left. Unfortunately, he was not used to the tatami on my deck and in his second match, he caught his foot and broke a bone in his ankle. I wanted to take him right to the hospital, but he said that he had promised to fight my whole gang and proceeded to do just that. Afterward, we caught a few beers and drove back to the house. We had scheduled a drive with “Bo” and his son Sean and my children to Rye Playland the next day. The first thing in the morning, he dressed in his Winter Service A uniform and off we went. “Bo” went on every ride in the park with his son Sean and my children, limping all the way. The following day we took him to the doctor, where an X-Ray showed a fracture. “Bo” allowed only a taping of the ankle.
In all he did and said, my brother “Bo,” known to his students as “Papa-San” typified the “man’s man,” of story and legend. He was a prodigious fighter, a Warrior for his country and a loyal and steadfast friend to his buddies. He refused you nothing and forgave you everything if you were his friend. He was there to protect you, straighten you out if needed and defend your reputation if necessary. He was what we call a heroic figure, not what the media thinks a hero is and not what the movies portray as a hero. He was what other men recognize as a hero. He was my confidant, my good buddy, as he was a courageous fighter and a loving teacher to others. His students are now making sure that his presence will never pass from our minds and for that, they have my thanks and blessing. He will always be our hero.
I am sure that, with Rick Niemira, Jim Chapman and Grand Master Nagle, “Bo” will be waiting for me, when my time comes and they will show me where the dojo is, for our first workout together, in a long time.
Edward F. McGrath, Hanshi
(Back L-R) Giulio Cavallaro / Conrad Marotta / Pat Ditore / Ed McGrath (Front L-R) Don Bohan / Don Nagle / Gary Alexander
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