Commander Robert L. ‘Bob’ Gillen passed away on July 6 at the age of 85, and the life-long Townie and retired U.S. Navyman was laid to rest in a grand procession and funeral Mass on Wednesday morning, July 11.
Commander Gillen was remembered by many lately for his extreme service to his community, helping to coordinate the Battle of Bunker Hill Day Parade, the Old Charlestown Schoolboys Association and many other voluntary endeavors. He was also remember by many in the Navy for a career that was as stunning as it was surprising to those close to him here that did not know the extent of his service.
His brother, Moe Gillen, spoke for the family in saying that their brother would be dearly missed.
“He was my partner in all the things we did, and he will be sorely missed,” said Moe. “He was a great big brother and he was very soft spoken and unassuming despite all of the things he accomplished in Charlestown and around the world in the Navy.”
Commander Gillen’s final assignment in the Navy was as the 59th Commander of the USS Constitution in the Navy Yard – the only Charlestown sailor to command the ship.
Arthur Hurley, who was a long-time friend of Gillen’s through the many organizations in the Town, said he would miss him greatly.
“More than anything, he served his country well and his community,” said Hurley. “He and I were partners in crime from planning the Parade to the June 17, Monument activities with the Bunker Hill Monument Association. He’s sorely missed. He really will be missed here.”
Commander Gillen left home in 1950 at the age of 17 to join the Navy, much like his late brother, Francis, left Charlestown at an early age to join the priesthood – also serving overseas in the Philippines. Commander Gillen, like his late brother, never forgot his roots though.
His service in the Navy was a list of amazing accomplishments that many of his closest friends in Charlestown weren’t aware of.
He quickly rose to Chief Petty Officer and in 1962 got a commission as an Ensign, special duty cryptologist.
He served in the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
He served on a wide variety of surface airbourne platforms in the Pacific, Atlantic and Mediterranean, as well as with the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Danang, Vietnam where he earned the Fleet Marine Force Combat Insignia. He served in other areas such as Morocco, Germany, Philippines, Winter Harbor, ME, Adak, Alaska, Spain and also with the National Security Agency (NSA).
In the Navy, the was known as the pioneer in developing operations security, signal security and special planning techniques that provided tactical commanders with greatly enhanced electronic warfare capabilities.
That led him to author many papers on electronic warfare, and he produced training books for the U.S. and NATO forces.
Later, his extensive knowledge of Naval Security group acquisition systems and familiarity with special communications requirements resulted in his being assigned to the staff of Commander Second Fleet and then to the Commander in Chief Atlantic Fleet’s staff. There, in 1978, he was DEP selected to the rank of Commander.
For his last active duty assignment, though, was not with the Naval Security Group once again, but rather back home in Charlestown. He was assigned as the 59th Commander of the USS Constitution in the Navy Yard. Shortly after, he retired from the Navy and became the head of the Naval Science program NJROTC at West Roxbury High School.
On the side, he also remained active in special intelligence and electronic warfare as the owner of a consulting firm.
His activities in Charlestown were numerous, from the Bunker Hill Monument Association to the Constitution Museum Board to the Old Charlestown Schoolboys Association. He was also on the American Legion Bunker Hill Post #26, the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, Charlestown Historical Society and the Kennedy Memorial Post #5880 VFW.
That’s to name a few.
Gillen, however, was well-regarded in the Town for his ability to tell a great story, from the story about how he met and courted his wife, Eileen ‘Paula’, to the stories of how he
Those were the stories he could tell about his life, and they were often shared over a “covert” lunch or Sunday supper at the Mt. Vernon Restaurant – where he was addressed as ‘Commander’ and he rarely had to order. They usually knew what he wanted to eat.
At his funeral on Wednesday, the funeral party entered as the choir sang ‘Amazing Grace.’ Just as they finished, the bells at St. Francis tolled for the 11 a.m. hour.
Father Daniel Mahoney conducted the service, with Gillen’s son, Commander Robert L. Gillen Jr., giving the remembrances of his decorated father.
Father Mahoney concluded his remarks by saying all were fortunate to have known Commander Gillen.
“Yes, today there is sadness and sometimes even anger, but beyond all of that is love – love that God has for his family and a love that Bob had for the US Navy,” said Mahoney. “Every one of you in the Navy here today can be proud to know he was one of you and you were one of him. With no headlines, no TV reports, no breaking news, Bob lived out his life with that love…We were fortunate to have known him…There is an age-old Navy saying that is ‘To fair winds and following seas.’ The fair winds and following seas are now Bob’s for eternity.”
Commander Gillen is the beloved husband of 61 years to his wife, Eileen ‘Paula’ (Foran) Gillen – born in Dublin. He is the devoted father of Commander Robert Gillen Jr. (retired) and his wife, Kathy, and Eileen Dannemiller and her husband, John. He is the loving grandpa to Tara, Samantha, Lt. John Dannemiller USN, Robert and Steven.
He is the beloved brother of Irene ‘Renee’ Moffatt, Maurice ‘Moe’ Gillen and the late Brother Francis ‘George’ Gillen and Barbara Salvador.
He was buried in Bourne National Cemetery.