ROBERT P CATLING - SP4
- DATE OF BIRTH:
- July 29, 1946
- DATE OF CASUALTY:
- July 03, 1966
- BRANCH OF SERVICE:
- South Vietnam
Robert P. Catling was born on July 29, 1946. His home of record is Woodbury, NJ.
He served in the US Army and attained the rank of Specialist 4 (SP4). Catling was assigned to Company B, 1st Battalion, 35th Infantry, 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, Pleiku, Vietnam.
Catling was killed in action on July 3, 1966. Another New Jersey resident, Frederick Delange, was part of the same unit. Delange was killed in action on February 12, 1966.
Catling was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal, the Vietnam Campaign Medal and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm Unit Citation.
July 29, 1946-July 3, 1966 SP4, Army Woodbury, NJ
Elmer and Dorothy Catling raised four sons while living in the Woodbury Gardens section of Deptford Township, NJ. The values of hard work and perseverance were ingrained in the boys from birth. They were, and are, an extremely close family. Dorothy contacted their youngest, Gary, in Florida recently and asked what he would want said about Bobby. "Whatever you say is okay with me, Mom", was the reply. "You know he was my hero."
The meaning of patriotism is also very much a part of their lives. Elmer fought in World War II. Dorothy's father died as a result of World War I. Their oldest son, Butch served in the Army before the Vietnam War heated up. Bobby joined the Army in 1963 and planned to make the military his career. The younger boys, Joe and Gary, grew up with the legacy of military service, but also with the devastating loss of their brother.
"It tore the whole family apart," says Dorothy. "It was especially tough on the two younger boys. They were so close to Bobby. The hardest part was that the boys didn't have anyone to talk to. They didn't want to further upset us. Elmer was being strong for everyone. And they knew I was having a hard time accepting Bobby's death. I'm still not sure I believe it."
Dorothy keeps a beautiful scrapbook relating to Bobby and the outpouring of love after his death. All the newspaper articles and official documents are there, but what she cherishes most are the cards and letters people sent. Some came from people they never met, a few came from other families who also lost their son.
"These really helped," she says. "And we never had any crank calls or nasty letters. None whatsoever, like some of families that I heard about."
Butch was twenty at the time, and although he had a better understanding of what was going on than the other boys, he suffered tremendous guilt.
"I felt bad because Bobby followed me into the service," he said. "But I know now that he was doing what he wanted to do. And he had a heart of gold. He would do anything for you."
Bobby stood just over six feet tall, had brown hair and blue-green eyes. He was thin but had a strong athletic build. He had an outgoing, gregarious attitude towards others.
Jack and Claire Catling, now in Livonia, MI, remember their nephew with fondness and a memory of Bobby playing with their newborn son. "He would love to visit us," Claire says. "He just loved being around our baby and making him laugh with all the funny faces he made."
Bobby attended Clayton High School, worked for a time, and then enlisted in September of 1963. His first assignment after training at Fort Jackson, SC was with the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii. He spent two years there learning, and then teaching others, to use machine guns. The training was comprehensive and it toughened him up.
"He seemed to like it," said Butch. "But he didn't really talk about it that much. I don't think anyone really wanted to go to Vietnam but they did because they had taken an oath to help and protect whatever was deemed necessary."
"He came home on leave during the winter and would walk around outside in his bare feet. He could walk on glass and not even feel it," Elmer recalls. "They would take them out into the jungle and tell them to make it back however they could. I can't tell you what they were forced to eat. They had little more than a knife and a flashlight. He was trained very well."
Bobby was home on a thirty-day leave in December of 1965 when he got word that the 25th Infantry Division was about to be deployed to Vietnam. He had to return to Hawaii after about 10 days, and with the rest of the division, arrived in Vietnam on January 3, 1966.
Bobby became a weapons squad leader with B Company, 1st Battalion, 35th Infantry. His unit operated out of Pleiku, in the central highlands of South Vietnam. Their missions were always dangerous sweeps into enemy infested areas, but in his letters home, he never mentioned the difficulties he faced.
"He would always ask us to pray, not only for him, but for all the men he was serving with," Dorothy says. "And he told us that they would never make it without the mail from home."
On July 3, 1966, Bobby's platoon was sent to reinforce another platoon that had been pinned down by enemy fire. As they moved forward, they too, were attacked from the front. Bobby saw some of the enemy waiting for them on their right flank and charged towards them with his machine gun blazing. As he moved to within ten meters of the enemy, he spoiled the ambush but, in doing so, was mortally wounded by the return fire.
Bobby Catling was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star with a 'V', designating valor under fire. His act of "alertness and bravery" caused the enemy to direct their fire at him, rather than his whole platoon, thus saving many lives.
On the morning of the 6th of July, Butch saw the Army staff car pulling up to his parents' house. "All I could say to my wife was, 'It's Bobby'," Butch recalled. "I just knew why they were there."
"I felt so sorry for the two Army officers that had to notify us. They had the hardest jobs," remembers Dorothy. "I wouldn't even let them talk. It was terrible. They were so kind about it. I thought it was the milk man banging on our door that early in the morning."
When Bobby's body was returned home, it was in a sealed casket. The family was not permitted to view his remains. To this day, they resent the government not allowing them a choice.
"I just wanted to see his hand," says his mother. "What would be so wrong with that? At least I would be sure it was him."
Butch added, "I think the hardest part to accept about his death was the closed coffin. It left so many unanswered questions. How did it happen? Where did it happen and most important of all, was it really him or an empty casket? But after all these years, I know that something happened to him because he never came back. It was just very hard to understand why the service didn't give us very much information."
The funeral director was able to assure the family that it was Bobby, but the bitterness remains. Dorothy continues, "And then, when the President pulled us out of there, I was really upset because then it seemed such a waste. For us and all those families."
Their neighborhood took up a collection for the Catlings when Bobby was buried. The spread of flowers was tremendous. "It was gorgeous," Dorothy says. "It was made from red, white and blue carnations. We really appreciated it. It was about the greatest tribute a neighborhood could give."
Claire Catling was seven months pregnant when Bobby was killed. "His death affected us in many ways," she says. "But what we miss most is that we know he would have loved our daughter as he loved our son."
Butch and Joe have been to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Their parents have not. "I don't know if I want to go," Dorothy says. "It's too final and I don't know if I could handle that or not. But whenever anybody goes, they bring me back a rubbing of his name."
When Joe visited there for the first time, he found Bobby's name without looking it up or asking a volunteer for help. "I went right to his panel and there it was. Bobby was a hero in my eyes and always will be," Joe proudly states. But he finds it difficult to find anyone now that can appreciate what his loss was or cares, for that matter. "People don't want to hear about it, unless they were there. They could care less what Vietnam was or what it did to us."
Butch found the Wall to be about the only place he could relate to people, other than his family. "I've talked to veterans and they know," he said. "They just know. One of the hardest things to remember is how our boys were treated when they came home. There were no parades or anything. It was disgusting. The people who spit on them had to be those who had no one sent over there. They didn't lose anyone and for that they should have been thankful."
On what would have been Bobby's twenty-fifth birthday, Dorothy wrote, and the Woodbury Times published, a poem in memory of her son:
Today is your birthday, dear Bob.
To hold back the tears is so hard.
We cannot give you a gift,
Or even hand you a card.
Dear God, take this birthday message
to our Bob, in heaven above.
Tell him that we miss him
And send our deepest love.
To see his face and watch his smile.
To sit and talk with him awhile.
To be together in the same old way,
Would be our greatest wish today.
We miss him because we love him.
He is dearer to us than gold.
No treasure on earth can replace him,
His memory will never grow old.
For all of us he did his best.
Dear God, grant him eternal rest.
After more than thirty years, the rest of the Catling family still laments the loss and recalls the broken dreams left in the wake of Bobby's death.
"Whenever Bobby's name is mentioned, I wonder what he would be like today," Butch said. "He was always so kind and giving. I wish he had the chance to have known my children and my other brothers' families. He would have been proud of them, I'm sure. He was missed in 1966, and still is. He was a caring person who would do anything to help someone. He gave his life for what our country believed was the right thing to do and will always be remembered as a loving son and brother."
The words are his Aunt Claire's, but the feelings extend to the rest of Bobby's family when she simply says, "He loved life, he loved people and he loved his country."
Excerpt from They Were Ours: Gloucester County's Loss in Vietnam
by John Campbell
Used with permission of author
Sources: John Campbell, Marshall Jackson (veteran) and NJVVMF.
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