This Side Up

A big brother’s enduring gift


Ken MacNaught told the story with such detail that it was hard to imagine it happened in 1959:

Ken remembered it was the last race of the Wednesday night sailing series and he and his brother Robert had gone undefeated. Like the around the buoys races held today, most of the action took place on Greenwich Bay. But unlike today, the race ended in the cove off the dock of the East Greenwich Yacht Club. The northwest wind was dying as the sun set and the MacNaughts found themselves ghosting along in John Dickerson’s wake. The outcome seemed inevitable. John was sailing his beetle cat on the most direct course and it made no sense to tack. But Bobby took a flyer, steering into the mooring field. Soon, it seemed, there was no chance of a perfect season. The finish was now out of sight.

“He was sailing and I was bailing,” Ken recalled as he cradled his coffee mug. We had been talking for nearly an hour and the attendant at the Coffee Grinder brought over a full carafe, knowing we were going to be there for a while.

Her instincts proved correct.

Bobby MacNaught was only 26 when he was killed in action Aug. 7, 1970 in Vietnam, but he accomplished a lot in his short life. It was a story I knew nothing about, although I had heard of the Robert W. MacNaught wrestling scholarship. The recipient of that receives a grant annually for up to four years after the initial award. The scholarship is the highlight of the Warwick Veterans High wrestling awards and is unique, probably to the state, in that the coaches don’t make the selection. It is the team members who name the most valuable player by secret ballot and, quite frequently, the winner is not the member with the most wins. This year’s winner is Devon Hurst.

This is the 40th anniversary of the award and Ken wanted to mark the occasion. Bobby was a member of the Vets Class of 1962, which also makes this the 50th anniversary of his graduation.

The combination of 40th and 50th was an appropriate occasion to talk about Bobby, and Memorial Day was the ideal time.

Bobby loved scouting, sailing and “making things.” He was an Eagle Scout at Troop I Greenwood and later joined the Sea Scout unit. As I learned from an email Ken sent me after our meeting, Bobby loved working with wood and at one of the state science fairs built an infrared oven, which he used to cook hotdogs for the judges. Similar accounts of how he built things and relationships peppered Ken’s account and the information that followed. Using plans he found in Popular Mechanics, he built a DN Class iceboat in the 9th grade that he would take out on Warwick Pond, Lake Tiogue and Buttonwoods Cove – yes, winters were colder back then and the cove would freeze.

Later, at Northeastern University, where he studied engineering for two years before transferring to Wentworth Institute where he graduated, Bobby drove a Tessy, a German motor scooter. Often he carried a washtub bass on his back, an instant passport to parties wherever he went.

But, as Ken talked, the themes of the military, wrestling and, naturally, sailing emerged time and again. Bobby took up wrestling at Vets and wrestled at 110 pounds as a junior and 127 as a senior. In college, he wrestled AAU at 155. He also ran cross-country but, as Ken says, “that was to build up his wind for the wrestling season.” He had a passion for wrestling to the point where their mother needed to remind the two brothers to be careful not to knock over furniture at home.

Sailing was a family affair. Ken remembers cruises on their small boat where, after anchoring for the evening, they would string a hammock in the cabin and he’d be sleeping over his brother. That all changed when Bobby graduated Vets and was awarded a full ROTC scholarship. No longer faced with tuition payments, their father bought the hull for a Kenner Privateer, a 30-foot cutter that the family built, from the pouring of the lead keel to the bright work.

That race in 1959 – Bobby won the Bay Beetle Class Championship that year – ending in front of the yacht club captures Bobby’s streak, not to simply accept what would appear to be the inevitable, but to step beyond the bounds and do something about it. In leaving the “accepted” course, Bobby gambled that, on a broad reach, he could sail faster and, while he would have to travel farther, he could get to the finish line first. He did, although by less than a boat length.

Bobby was drafted on Sept. 1, 1965. With his mechanical education, he was assigned to Aberdeen Proving Grounds where he calibrated ordinance. Relatively speaking, it was a “safe” assignment away from the war in Vietnam. But Bobby wasn’t satisfied to drift through life. He transferred to the airborne infantry, reporting to Fort Benning where, because he finished in the top 10 percent of his class, he had the opportunity to join the Special Forces. It meant more training, after which he joined the 1st Special Forces in Okinawa and for a time he trained Korean troops in underwater demolition techniques. His team then flew to Vietnam for a temporary assignment. They were air dropped into the Marine base at Khe Sahn, where he manned a mortar crew during the 77-day siege that started in January 1968. In June of that year, while in the area of Phu Bai on night duty, he received a report that two men had mistakenly entered a minefield and set off two anti-personnel mines. In total darkness, Bobby entered the minefield and carried the nearest casualty to safety. Then he went back for the second soldier. His actions won him the Soldier’s Medal.

It was Bobby’s first tour in Vietnam.

He was ready to take another tack.

He envisioned an Army career and applied for Officers Candidate School and returned to Fort Benning. After graduation, he was sent to Germany with the 3/36th Infantry 3rd Armored Division. Meanwhile, Ken, who had just completed Officers Candidate School, was also assigned to Germany. Over a three-month period, the brothers saw one another off and on. The big brother took command. They saw the country and, naturally, made a stop at Munich for the Oktoberfest. It was a young and happy time when everything seemed possible.

But Bobby looked for more than commanding a platoon in a motor pool. He wanted to return to Vietnam and asked to be considered for the elite Rangers. That took him to Panama for more training before being assigned – as a platoon leader with the 2nd Battalion 503rd Infantry of the 173rd Airborne Brigade – to a beach area of the South China Sea at Lo Dieu.

As Ken tells it, it was an extremely dangerous area. The security mission of Bobby’s unit took them on nightly ambushes and daily patrols. He was killed scouting a trail for his unit. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star.

The detail of Ken’s account amazed me, with the names of places and dates as fresh as if the events had taken place just months before. It makes sense. Ken has kept Bobby’s memory alive, as he sought to do when he completed his tour of duty in June 1972.

It was then that the family initiated the scholarship, starting with $100. It is now $500 for the four years. It is entirely family funded, with Ken’s son, Robert W. MacNaught II, participating. Like his late uncle, Rob was also a high school wrestler, as captain of the Toll Gate team.

In a sense, as the family intends, there is no end for Bobby. A part of him is carried on by people who never met him, people chosen by their teammates for their leadership qualities, the qualities that made Bobby such an inspiration to his younger brother and those who have come to know him through Ken.

Ken’s devotion endures.

“My big brother is very special,” says Ken.

And what he gave for our country is immeasurable.


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