Still a hero 50 years later: 1st Lt. Robert S. Byrnes
February 9, 2018 will mark 50 years since U.S. Army 1st Lt. Robert S. Byrnes was killed in action during the Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War. Sadly, just one month prior, on January 24, 1968, Robert was married while on R&R in Honolulu Hawaii. Cpl. Darrel A. Bondrowski, who was the best man at Robert’s wedding, was with Robert in Vietnam and died next to him on that fateful day in 1968.
For Robert’s brother Jim and the town of Carmichael, California, this February will also mark 50 years of memories and lessons learned.
“I looked up to my older brother in every way.” Jim remembers. “He was my hero and I always looked up to him. We would do a lot together and funny enough, I was not the only kid in town who looked up to my brother.”
Before he enlisted in the United States Army, Robert was already well known around Carmichael, California as “lifeguard Bob” who worked at the local pool where he gave swimming lessons during the summers. When he was not lifeguarding, Bob could be found driving his blue Ford Galaxie 500 convertible, top down, with his dog named General. The car became famous around Carmichael when Robert would drive it to his archery, track, and water polo practices throughout the year. For Jim and many others in the town, the car is a symbol of the hero who left home to serve his country.
“I still have the car and drive it around occasionally,” Jim says. “Every time I drive it around town someone always recognizes it and says, ‘I went to high school or college with that car!’ You would be surprised at how many people I have met who knew my brother from driving that car around town.”
The car holds a special place in Jim’s heart and will always remind him of the hero he and his town lost.
Military service runs in the Byrnes family. Jim and Robert’s grandparents served in World War I, World War II, and Korea. Their father, Mac Byrnes, a Navy Pilot, served in WWII and the Korean War. Once Robert got his draft notice for the Vietnam War upon completing college, he knew what he would do.
“My grandfather told my brother to tell them he was enlisting after he finished college so he did,” Jim remembers. “He always told me that he was ‘going to go to Vietnam to help Uncle Sam.’”
When Robert decided to enlist in the Army after finishing college in 1965, his family was enthusiastic with their support.
“My family was very supportive of Robert’s decision to enlist,” Jim says. “My father even became good friends with his sergeant since they were training my brother in an area close to where we live. I also remember being the coolest kid in the movie theaters one day because my brother drove me there in his uniform and all the other kids just thought that was the coolest.”
Despite his enthusiasm and his family’s support, tragedy struck when Robert was killed in the Tet Offensive on February 9, 1968. While tragedy had struck, it could not damage the pride or impact that Robert left on his family and community.
“My family supported the war and his decision to serve even after his death,” Jim says. “While I have heard a lot of negative stories from people involving protesters, I can say that I experienced quite the opposite because my entire town mourned Bob’s death with my family.”
Jim will always remember the crowds that came to his house and the funeral to support his family. Jim even remembers the large crowd that formed for the funeral of Robert’s dog General, who passed away in July 1968, around six months after Robert was killed.
“The dog’s funeral had like hundreds of people,” Jim says. “My brother always told General to wait until he got home and the dog ended up dying right around when Bob was supposed to come home. People came to that dog’s funeral to mourn my brother and the dog. They were both really well-known and loved around town.”
Through the years, the town of Carmichael continued to honor and remember their local hero.
Robert was one of the original inductees to the Patriots Park Wall of Honor in 2008. His name is listed on the wall with other military servicemen and police officers who gave their lives in order to serve their community and country. He is also honored at La Sierra High School every Veterans and Memorial Day, as well as class reunions.
While the memorials and facilities dedicated to his brother’s memory symbolize that Robert has not been forgotten, the stories and memories he gave to the people of Carmichael are cherished to this day. Jim hears about them every time he drives his brother’s blue Ford Galaxie 500 around town.
“I can never drive it without meeting someone who remembered it from when it was my brother’s,” Jim recalls. “The other day I was driving it to the Dollar Store and the clerk said, ‘A lifeguard who I had used to have a crush on and who taught me how to swim used to drive that car.’ After some talking, I found out she was talking about my brother! What a small world we live in.”
While Robert’s memory and sacrifice will always make him a hero in the eyes of Jim and the people of Carmichael, Jim would like children and their grandchildren to carry on his brother’s impact and memory the same way he has.
“I would like all children and their grandchildren to know what an incredible person Robert was and how he could light up a room with his incredible smile,” Jim says. “I want them to always keep his memory alive and to keep in mind why he made the ultimate decision and sacrifice.”
For Jim, carrying on his brother’s memory also reflects the need to honor and remember those who served.
“Whenever someone decides to enlist, they are literally putting their lives on hold just like my brother did with his new job and bride of two weeks,” he says. “The least we can do is honor these men and women and give them the respect they deserve for putting their lives on hold so we can live ours.”
Jim’s family has taken the need to honor those who served to heart. Every time they see someone in uniform eating out, they will always make sure to anonymously pay for their meal or anonymously pay for a flight of a veteran looking to return home for the holidays. Through these good deeds, Jim always has his hero on his mind.
The next time Jim takes his brother’s blue Ford Galaxie 500 out for a drive, he will almost certainly run into someone who knew his brother and they will share memories of the lifeguard who used to parade the car around town. Whenever those memories are shared, the life and impact of a beloved hero lives on.
This blog was written by Communications Intern Scott Lynch