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In memory of Marine Sgt. James Wilson Jr.: The Shelter Island service member who died in Vietnam

This article first appeared in May 2020, for Memorial Day weekend.

Genevieve Wilson would sometimes tell her son, who was 6 feet 4 inches, “Jimmy, get down on your knees. I need to talk to you.”

It’s one of the memories Genevieve passed on to her grandson, Michael Wilson about his father, James Wilson, Jr., who died in Vietnam in October 1967, the one Islander fatality in that war.

Michael Wilson never really knew his father, he said. He was not quite 3-years-old when his father died, and he relied on his grandmother to bring him pieces of his father’s life.

Reached at his home in the upstate town of Broadalbin, where he’s a retired New York State trooper, Mr. Wilson has letters his father — Shelter Island High School class of 1962— wrote home to his mother.

In the letters to Genevieve Wilson, the Marine sergeant wrote of how often he thought of her, how much he missed the Island and was looking forward to coming home. He didn’t write about his service or experiences, but did note how the weather in Vietnam was overwhelmingly hot and oppressive.

Jimmy Wilson, 24, started his tour in Vietnam in January 1967, and died in Quang Tri province that October 30. Wounded in combat, he had returned to the field, Michael Wilson said, and suffered from heat stroke and died. He was brought home and buried in Our Lady of the Isle Cemetery.

The Wilson Traffic Circle in the Center is named for James Wilson Jr., his father, James Wilson Sr., a combat veteran of World War II, and Genevieve Wilson, who died in 1992, and was one of the guiding spirits of the American Legion Post.

Michael Wilson, left, and his son Matthew at Wilson Circle. (Credit: Alicia Wilson)

Bruce Jernick remembers Jimmy Wilson, who was a few years older than him, as a happy go-lucky boy and young man. “Not too many things bothered him,” Mr. Jernick said.

They both played tuba in the Shelter Island School band. “Jimmy was a good athlete,” Mr. Jernick said. “He could really hit a baseball. A fast runner and a good golfer. He caddied up at Gardiner’s Bay. And he worked at Bohack, which was where the IGA is now.”

Mr. Jernick served in the Army in Vietnam. “My first leave home,” he said, “was Jimmy’s funeral.”

Vietnam veterans Joseph “Butch” Klenawicus, left, and James “Mac” McGayhey, in November 2012, finding the name of fallen comrade-in-arms James Wilson Jr. at the Vietnam Memorial. (Credit: Ambrose Clancy)

Michael Wilson has some memorabilia about his father that his grandmother passed on to him, including the telegram from the Department of Defense informing the family of his death.

“She was stoic — that’s the word I’ll use — when I’d talk to her about his death,” Mr. Wilson said. “I think about what must have been going through her mind when she got the news.”

Genevieve was a harelegger, the daughter of two Polish immigrants who came directly from the old country to Shelter Island. “Her whole family were hard workers,” Mr. Wilson said. “The salt of the earth.”

She and his grandfather, James Sr., when speaking about their son, “remembered him in a way that celebrated his life,” Mr. Wilson said.

His grandmother kept a tradition alive. A 6-footer-plus like his father, his grandmother would often say to him, “Michael, get down on your knees. I need to talk to you.”

He said that, when he thinks of home, “it’s always Shelter Island.” Growing up in a small upstate town not far from where he lives now, he spent every summer from the time he was 4-years-old to his teens on the Island.

“The day after school was out, I was on my way to Shelter Island,” he said. “I’d be there all summer. Most people look forward to the Chicken Barbecue, but not me, because it meant the summer was coming to an end. I loved the chicken, but not the event.”

Part of Memorial Day is usually reserved by Mr. Wilson and his wife Alicia to attend a parade and ceremonies in their local village, he said. “But not this year,” since most live ceremonies across the state have been canceled by the pandemic.

They usually travel to Shelter Island at least once a year for a few days, he said, to visit family members, including Catherine Rowland, the niece of James Jr.

This year, their son Matthew James Wilson — his middle name is in honor of his grandfather — will accompany them on a planned September visit.

Matthew, who serves on the USS Paul Hamilton, now cruising the waters off the Middle East, will have some leave then.

“We’ll go to the Circle, and the gravesite,” Mr. Wilson said, adding that the Island’s lone serviceman to die in Vietnam has not been forgotten by his grandson.

“On Matthew’s bicep is tattooed the exact longitude and latitude of my father’s gravesite.”