A love lost
By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on December 31, 2007 1:58 PM
For 32 years, Gail Hargrove has honored and cherished the memory of the man she pledged her life to, remaining the wife -- the widow -- of Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph Hargrove.
A whirlwind affair, the pair dated for only six weeks before getting married on Feb. 14, 1975.
They had 33 days together.
Then Joseph had to leave -- shipped out to Okinawa, Japan, on the same orders he had paid $20 for a month earlier, the same orders he had used to help convince Gail to marry him.
For 61 days the couple wrote letters, mailed photographs, sent gifts and yearned to be with one another.
But on May 15, 1975, that all ended. Joseph was gone. It was his 24th birthday.
Originally listed as missing, the Marine Corps changed his status to dead 14 months later.
It was the beginning of the rest of Gail's life.
The love story
"We had a great love story," Gail said. "I loved Joseph. If I didn't, I wouldn't have married him. But we didn't have enough time."
She explained that they had known of each other since they were kids growing up in the Beautancus and Scotts Store areas of Duplin County. He was a friend of her older brother.
She was six years younger, though, and, she added, "he knew not to mess with me."
But, when she 18 and he was 23, that changed.
He was back from a tour and she was in town visiting from Wilmington when he asked her out through a mutual friend.
After some initial resistance, she relented and agreed to a double date.
"We went out and got married six weeks later," she said. "He was just so sweet. I had never even known that he liked me."
Just like his initial request for a date, though, his first proposal was rebuffed.
Gail relented after he promised that she could finish school -- and after he showed up with those orders to deploy back overseas.
Over the course of the next month the couple enjoyed life.
"We had a ball," she said. "Those 30 days all we did was dance, play music and hang out with friends. We had a great time."
He also taught her how to shoot and how to transplant daffodils.
"His plan was to have eight children," Gail said. "I talked him down to four, but he used to still tell friends we were going to have eight. I think I would have been a good mother and Joseph would have been a good daddy."
But Gail did not have children.
It's part of the legacy Joseph left behind.
She explained that on the day he left for California, he asked her to promise to never remarry, regardless of what happened to him.
"He said, 'I don't mean that selfish, and I don't mean for you not to love again, I just mean for you to never lose my name. I'm going to take care of you.'"
Gail agreed and remains true to her word to this day.
"I made that promise to my husband in the airport in Raleigh and I'm still Joseph Hargrove's wife."
It was the last time she saw him.
For the next two months, as Gail adjusted to being a Marine's wife, she and Joseph wrote constantly.
Hardly a day passed that there wasn't a letter from him.
Then, the Friday before Mother's Day, there wasn't one.
Not too concerned, she went down to Wilmington to see her mother.
But that Sunday, when Joseph's mother, Charlotte, came to pick her up at the bus station, something seemed different. Something seemed different, too, when she got to her mother-in-law's home and all of Joseph's siblings were there and wouldn't let her drive down the street for a pack of cigarettes.
"They already knew," Gail said. "But they weren't allowed to tell me."
Even when the two Marines arrived on the doorstep, she still didn't understand -- until they walked up to her.
"That's the last thing I remember. Them saying, 'Mrs. Hargrove, we're sorry to inform you that your husband is missing,'" she said. "The next thing I remember is being rocked in bed.
"I didn't understand."
A few days later, she took her first drink at the suggestion of a friend.
She didn't find the bottom of the bottle until more than a decade later.
It was a rough time.
After Joseph was declared dead, she moved with her family to southern Florida, intent on finishing her education, but still masking the pain with drugs and alcohol.
"I drank myself crazy," she said. "I was drinking and drugging because tomorrow he was coming home and I would sober up then.
"For 10 years I thought every day that Joseph would come home one day."
Finally, though, after another friend challenged her and asked what Joseph would think, she began sobering up.
"I couldn't get that out of my mind," she said. "You can't keep doing that. There's just so long you can be that insane."
Gail, 51, isn't over Joseph, but she has made peace with his death and what happened.
Over the years, she explained that she would get regular communications from the Marine Corps about the incident.
But it wasn't until 25 years later that she began to learn the whole story -- how Joseph was flown onto Koh Tang Island to rescue the would-be rescuers of the S.S. Mayaguez, how because of bad intelligence the fighting was worse than expected, and how after being moved beyond the perimeter to protect the right flank, he and two other Marines, Pfc. Gary Hall and Pfc. Danny Marshall, were left behind.
She began with the newly opened Pentagon records.
"I couldn't believe all that information had been documented and I'd never been asked to review it," she said.
She learned even more when she began to talk to the other Marines, airmen and soldiers who were on Koh Tang.
"Those guys are awesome," she said. "I'm so blessed to have met them."
And despite the fact that they came home and her Joseph didn't, Gail no longer harbors any bitterness.
"I was angry at the world. But once I found Jesus I figured I'd leave that alone. How in the world can I ask God to forgive all the things I've done if I can't forgive those idiots for the mistakes they made, even if those mistakes led to the loss of my husband and our life."
Still, she would like for him to come home and she's pleased that the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command is going back to Koh Tang Island in January for the first time since 2001.
"I found closure when I found Jesus, but I have a problem with my husband being buried like a dog. I don't like the fact that they just dug a hole and threw him in," she said. "He was one of the heroes."
Of the three sites the recovery team plans to visit, one has been identified as Joseph's grave by a man named Em Son, a former Khmer Rouge commander on the island who claims to have killed Joseph several days after the battle.
She, as well as Hargrove cousin Cary Turner, who is trying to raise money for a trip to Cambodia to make sure the site is excavated, are hopeful the team will be successful.
"I believe there's as good a chance as any. If he doesn't come home in January, I'll be disappointed, but I've been disappointed before," Gail said. "I just want a resolution. I want it for his mother, as well as for me.
"I'm just going to lean on Jesus and hope for the best."
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