More than 58,000 Americans went to war in Vietnam, never to return to their homeland. Upon arrival in Vietnam, the military found themselves in a dangerous and violent conflict that divided the nation. The black granite wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC is a solemn reminder of servicemen who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Robert John Carmody’s name is on panel 28E, line 79 of this wall.
Staff Sergeant Carmody, a 29-year-old infantryman, arrived in Vietnam in 1967 with the Delta Troop, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 199th Infantry Brigade. He and members of his unit patrolled the Saigon area. Shortly after arriving in Vietnam, Carmody died in action.
Carmody’s death, while tragic and untimely, would likely have disappeared from the lists of thousands of other young people killed in the war. That wouldn’t be the case, as Carmody had already achieved some sort of celebrity status for his accomplishments in the Olympic boxing ring leading up to his deployment to Vietnam.
Carmody was born September 4, 1938 in Brooklyn, New York, and then moved to Paterson, New Jersey, where he lived with his aunt and uncle. Carmody learned to fight on the streets in his youth. He joined the military in 1956 and took formal boxing lessons shortly after enlisting. Carmody joined the 11th Airborne Division in Germany after graduating from Basic Training, Advanced Infantry Training and Airborne School. There he proved to be a boxing natural as he found success in the ring representing the division and the largest US Army in various tournaments across Europe.
Carmody’s army boxing career continued when he won the first of four All Army titles in 1961. He continued that success in All Army tournaments with a gold medal in the 1962 International Military Sports Council or the International Military Sports Council (CISM) in Frankfurt, Germany, and a bronze medal at the 1963 Pan American Games in São Paulo, Brazil.
An upset victory over Melvin Miller in the 1964 Olympic Trials Finals saw Carmody advance to the US Olympic boxing team. The 5-foot-2, 112-pound Carmody fought in the flyweight division. He was a teammate and close friend of Olympic gold medalist and future heavyweight world champion Joe Frazier. Several sources close to the two fighters claim that Carmody convinced Frazier to continue his boxing career after a disappointing loss among amateurs.
At the Tokyo Games, Carmody beat Nepalese Nam Singh Thapa and Germany’s Otto Babiasch, en route to a semi-final showdown with Italy’s Fernando Atzori. The Italian dashed Carmody’s hopes of winning a gold medal, beating him in a split decision contest.
Carmody did not turn professional after his success at the Olympics. Now, with several years of service, he has chosen to stay in the military to end his career. As part of a CISM program, he coached the Iraqi boxing team for two summers in Baghdad. Carmody was due to join the Army boxing team as an assistant coach in February 1968.
The selection of Carmody as the coach of the army boxing team could have kept him from fighting. His sense of obligation to serve in Vietnam stems from a desire to follow in the footsteps of many friends and comrades who have gone to war. As an army boxer, Carmody received limited infantry training. His friends begged him to find a way out of going to war. Influential friends, including Muhammad Ali’s future business manager Gene Kilroy, have expressed reservations to Carmody. Those calls fell on deaf ears as Carmody prepared to deploy to Vietnam.
Carmody arrived in Vietnam on October 4, 1967. On October 27, just weeks after arriving in Vietnam, Viet Cong forces ambushed Carmody’s patrol near Saigon. He and his comrades engaged the enemy in an eleven-hour firefight without reinforcements. Enemy small arms fire ultimately resulted in the deaths of Carmody and five other men in the patrol. For his heroic actions, Carmody was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with “V” device (value).
Carmody left behind a wife, Mary, and two young children. Terri Lynn was two years old and her son Robert Jr., born the day his father left for Vietnam, was only three weeks old at the time of his death.
Family, friends and members of the military and boxing communities, including Olympic teammate Joe Frazier, attended Carmody’s funeral in Paterson. He was buried with full military honors in Paterson’s Calvary Cemetery.
Newspapers across the United States responded to Carmody’s death with tributes printed for the fallen Olympian. For many years after his death, those who knew Carmody continued to express their respect and admiration for him. In a 2006 interview, Joe Frazier told ESPN, “He’s the kind of guy you really need,” Frazier said of Carmody. “I had a tough time, things were tough, but he was a guy who helped you a lot. I loved him like a brother.
Gene Kilroy asserted that great fighters need brains, speed and courage. “He was the real deal, he had all three,” Kilroy said of Carmody. “He was the greatest lightweight the military had ever had.”
English author Terry Pratchett wrote: “A man is not dead while his name is still spoken.
With the anniversary of his death upon us, it is only fitting that we “say his name”, in remembrance of a patriot who represented his country in the boxing ring and made the ultimate sacrifice for his country on the battlefield.