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Michael J. Carley (Class of 1962) oral history and papers relating to the Vietnam War

Biographical Note

First Lieutenant Michael “Mike” John Carley (1940-1967), United States Marine Corps, attended boarding schools in Western Connecticut, winning scholarships to attend first the Indian Mountain School, then Hotchkiss School. At Hotchkiss, Mike became close with classmates Charlie Milmine and George Gurney. During his sophomore year of high school, he earned his pilot’s license. Senior year, Mike accepted a Naval ROTC scholarship to attend Brown University in the fall of 1958, along with these two best friends. In the summer of 1963, preparing for his last semester at Brown, he met Connie Worthington. On their first date, Mike took her flying.

By January of 1964, when Mike finally completed his degree in Sociology, Connie and Mike were engaged to be married. After graduation, Mike was required to attend Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Quantico, Virginia to fulfill his NROTC contract. The couple married on June 6, 1964 at St. Sebastian’s Church, on the East Side of Providence. Mike then reported to the Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida. The couple lodged in a small, two-story apartment complex just outside the base while Mike completed basic flight training on the T-28 aircraft before opting into the helicopter track. The Carleys had moved to the eastern panhandle at the beginning of Freedom Summer, the June 1964 civil rights campaign to register Black voters in staunchly-exclusionist Mississippi. Even in the insular communities formed around military bases, life on the Emerald Coast was difficult for Connie and Mike. Connie remembers “a Rebel (brand) gas station refused to serve us because we had Connecticut plates on the car. Some of our friends, who were Northerners, got Florida plates rather than be identified as ‘Yankees’ during a very tense time.” In the fall of 1964, after Mike had made first lieutenant at Pensacola, the Carleys headed east to a small auxiliary base in Milton, Florida for air carrier training.

On November 7, 1964 in a civilian hospital in Avalon Beach, Mike Jr. was born. Though the baby was born a little early, the Carleys had to admit he was conceived before their wedding. “It was unacceptable in those days,” Connie explains, “but everyone was very kind. And my mother got over it.” As the couple moved from base to base to continue Mike’s training over the next 18 months, the Carleys learned to keep their Connecticut plates out of sight and stay quiet about his Catholicism and her occasional visits to the Quaker meetinghouse in Pensacola. From Milton, the Carleys moved to another naval auxiliary base in Pace, Florida before transferring to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. They would remain there from the spring of 1965 until June 1966, when Mike received orders for deployment to Ky Ha, I Corps, South Vietnam as an H-34 helicopter pilot in the “Ugly Angels,” HMM-362. With a month off before he was scheduled to deploy, Mike, Connie, and 18-month-old Mike Jr. headed back to the Chepachet, Rhode Island cabin where they had spent their wedding night.

Connie remembers having “lots of discussions, and ‘what if’ conversations” with Mike. An entire year had passed since the fall of Saigon, and everyone understood that Mike might not make it home. She and Mike were pragmatic, deciding that if something happened to Mike in the service, she’d go back to school, get her degree, and rely on her parents’ help to raise Mike Jr. The frank talk allowed them to relax and enjoy what would be their last weeks together in Rhode Island. In June of 1966, Mike flew to Camp Pendleton to prepare for deployment to Vietnam. At Ky Ha, Mike was known for spit-shining his flight boots and keeping a meticulous bunk. (His ironic nom de guerre: “Pig Pen.”)

Connie would get to see Mike one last time, for a Hawaiian R&R at the end of January 1967. “I was really worried about the R&R,” she admits, “Because I had been on a college campus that was mobilizing against the war, and he had been in a war zone. And I was afraid that we might have grown apart somehow.” She was relieved, though, to find that nothing had changed between her and Mike: “The minute we got together, it was still the same old, same old. I mean, it was just wonderful that we’d had such totally different experiences, which we talked about, but it was just great.”

Correspondence from “The Brown Club of Ky Ha” in January 1967 provided by Carley to Brown Alumni Magazine (published February 1967) noted that Carley had flown 320 missions, entitling him to 16 Air Medals (20 missions/Air Medal). On February 27, 1967, Mike was killed in action while copiloting a transport mission. Mike was shot through the windscreen and pilot Hippert was shot in the leg, but made his emergency landing. Other team members rescued Hippert and the remaining crew and organized a reaction force to recover Mike’s body. An hour later, a reconnaissance team recovered Mike’s body from where it hung in the straps. The funeral was held in Mike’s hometown of Sharon, Connecticut. Later there was a packed memorial service in Brown’s Manning Chapel, attended by Mike and Connie’s friends from Providence. Charlie Milmine and George Gurney came, along with Connie’s Rhode Island family.

Mike’s death marked a turning point in Connie’s political and personal life. “It became a different war after his death,” she reflects and she became involved with antiwar protests at Brown. She also faced economic adversity as a single mother.

In February of 1990, Connie and 26-year-old Mike Jr. travelled to Southern California to meet three Ugly Angels who had been at Ky Ha with Mike Sr. and who still felt guilty that Mike’s body had been left in the wrecked helicopter while he and the others were extracted. The meeting brought a sense of resolution for Mike Sr.’s team of Angels as much as for Connie and Mike Jr. “It was amazing,” Connie says. At the same time, “I don’t think anything really closes. I mean, I forget the dates, I forget the names, but I—as I said, it’s a part of who I am.” Connie and her husband, a Brown professor, continue to make their home in Rhode Island. “I couldn’t ask for a better partner in life. But I will always be a Vietnam widow. It always defines me.”

While Connie has remarried, she and Mike Jr. have remained close with the Carleys. Though he never enlisted, Mike Jr., who lives with Asperger’s syndrome, has travelled with American Veterans (AMVETS) and Veterans for Peace to complete postwar service projects in Iraq, Cuba, and Bosnia. Now in his 50s, Mike Jr., in addition to the Carleys has kept in touch with some of his father’s Marine Corps friends, even attending Ugly Angels reunions.