Remembering a Surfer and a Soldier— 50 Years Later

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Rockaway never forgets. And on Sunday, May 13, that will continue to ring true as friends, family and other community members will mark the 50th anniversary of the passing of a surfer, a soldier and an all-around great guy, John P. McGonigal, Jr., killed in the Vietnam War in 1968.

Born on Halloween day in 1947, to John and Ruth McGonigal,  John McGonigal, Jr. was a true Rockaway kid who spent most of his free time engaging in Rockaway’s most popular hobby—surfing.

 “We went to the beach one day around Beach 118th and we see these guys on the water, Pat Reen, Kenny and Wally Schreifels, Ernie Vohs and others. They were out there surfing,” Tom McGonical, John’s younger brother, by 13 months, recalled. “John and I devised a scheme to get boards of our own. We had to get $150 a piece to get boards, so we decided to ask this guy if we could spend the winter fixing his house. He needed the houses painted and a floor put in, so we said, sure, we know how to do it. We had no idea. I’m looking at John, and he’s looking at me, and John says, ‘Don’t say anything.’ So we’d work on weekends and after school and we’d paint the house. By April, the guy said we did a great job and he gave us $150 a piece for the whole winter. $300 for the winter. I think that’s considered slave labor now,” Tom joked. But it was just the right amount to get what they needed.

“There were no surf shops in Rockaway at the time, so we had to go to Emilio’s Ski and Surf Shop in Forest Hills. Leaving Rockaway when you’re kid is like falling off the earth. We looked at a map and John said he knew where we were going. We took four different trains until we asked a cop where to go. We finally got there and we were looking at the boards and we knew what we wanted—something that floated,” Tom said with a laugh. “Our next challenge was figuring out how to get these things home. Some lady looked at us on the subway platform and said, ‘Where are you going with those?’ We said we had to get home to Rockaway. She said, ‘There’s no waves in Rockaway.’”

Having lived in Rockaway since toddlers, and being able to see the waves from their Beach 130th Street home, John McGonigal and his brother knew better. “The next day we went out with our wetsuits, which weren’t really made for surfing. We melted the wax with a hot pan and poured it onto our boards and we went out on the water with a few guys. The first thing I said was, ‘I have no idea how to turn this thing around,’” Tom said. “It took me three weeks to stand up on the board. It took John three hours. Ever since then, we’d go every day after school.”

Having met local friends by attending school at St. Francis de Sales and later Far Rockaway High School, and through surfing the waves, the McGonigal boys became a part of the big local surfing crew back in the day, joining the likes of Pat and Sean Reen, Dee and Dennis McLean, Wally and Kenny Schreifels, Billy Sautner, Terry McConnell, Eddie Brennan, Jack Murphy, Jay and Bobby Levey and many more.

“Surfing dominated our lives back then. We had to get up early to surf and John was always up before me, at 4 a.m. There’d be a group of eight to 10 of us. Back then it was illegal to surf. The cops would come and try to give us tickets and we’d always give the same name—John Doe,” Tom said. “John and I were very close. I didn’t spend any time away from him when we were growing up.”

That was, until John McGonigal made the decision to enlist in the U.S. Army. “They had the draft back then and he knew he was probably going to have to go, but he wanted to serve his country. He also had a plan. He wanted to be a cop. He figured he would join the Military Police and he could use that once he got out,” Tom McGonigal said. “I’ll never forget when he said the words, ‘I enlisted in the Army today.’ My father was calm. My mother fell off the chair.”

At just 19 years old, McGonigal enlisted in September 1967. He first became a Military Policeman with the 194th MPs, 1st Signal Brigade and volunteered to go to Vietnam in January 1968. There, he was detached from the 194th MPs and reassigned with the 25th Infantry Division and was sent to Black Virgin Mountain in the Tay Ninh Provence of Vietnam. McGonigal was manning a .50 caliber machine on the night of May 13, 1968, when there was an assault attack on the firebase on top of the mountain. He sustained multiple fragmentation wounds fired from an enemy RPG. McGonigal, along with 23 other soldiers, were killed in the attack. He was 20 years old.

“I remember the day vividly. There was a knock on the door and Father Bracken from St. Francis was there with the chaplain. We were first told that he was missing. Sometimes they just don’t know where a guy was. That wasn’t the case,” Tom said.

"He was a great guy and and he had wonderful parents. Needless to say, they were pretty devastated about his loss," McGonigal's friend and fellow surfer, Dee McLean said. "News traveled pretty quick around the beach. Good news doesn’t travel that quick. Bad news does."

“Those first few months were very tough. If it wasn’t for the community, I don’t know what we would’ve done. So many people stopped by the house, but not just right after. They kept coming," Tom said. "They weren’t going to let John’s sacrifice go unremembered.”

And they still haven’t. Dee McLean has organized a ceremony to remember John on Sunday, May 13—50 years to the day since he was killed. At noon, all are welcome to join at John McGonigal’s tree at Memorial Circle on Beach 121st Street, where McLean and others will say some words about their old friend. They will then proceed to Beach 130th Street, where another tree is planted
outside the SFDS rectory, in honor of McGonigal.

“This is a milestone anniversary and the community and his friends will never forget him and never did forget him,” McLean said.

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