Former New State Assemblyman John Behan’s life could be compared to that of a literary hero. Rife with adventure, war, humility, friendship, solidarity and tragedy. Only his story is true. And through every chapter, he’s maintained an innate relationship with his birthplace. A lifelong resident of the South Fork, Behan has spent time out of the country for both leisure and battle, and despite his many travels, there is no other place he would call home.
“Growing up I never thought I was better than anyone else,” the accomplished Behan recalls. “I think that is why I made friends so easily.” It was this boyhood knack for making friends that helped him survive the war in Vietnam and transition into political life after returning to the United States.
His story begins in Hampton Bays, where he would pass his days playing along the Shinnecock Canal. His mother owned a restaurant on the waterway and his father was a boatman. “Mom always ran the restaurant and Dad always ran boats,” Behan says, noting that he himself was attracted to the water.
The canal he loved so much as a boy in Hampton Bays eventually became the catalyst for his family leaving the hamlet. Behan was only eight years old when his four-year-old brother, Joshua, drowned there. “He fell off the dock and hit his head on a boat,” a somber Behan vividly recalls. “We all searched and searched. A fisherman found him.”
The loss of a son was too much for his mother to take.
“It broke all of our hearts, especially my mother’s—Joshua was just a sweetheart to everybody,” Behan says, interrupting himself. “And my mother couldn’t bear it. She sold her restaurant and we decided to move to Montauk,” he remembers. “We couldn’t stay in Hampton Bays.”
He loved Montauk, especially in the summertime. Behan would spend his days riding horses, working on boats with his dad or hanging out and swimming at the beach by the Sloppy Tuna. “I’d look forward to the summer and the new people that would come into town, especially the pretty girls,” Behan reflects with a laugh.
Like any boy from Montauk, he attended East Hambpton High School, where he played football, basketball and baseball. He was elected Senior Class President in 1963, a feat he relishes and attributes it to his character. “Kids from Montauk, Springs and Amagansett were treated different at school because we weren’t from East Hampton,” Behan says, though he never personally experienced this high-school prejudice. “I think I was treated well because I played sports—I was good at them and wasn’t much of a student,” he admits.
Indeed, Behan gained his peers’ respect through his amiable personality and the hours he put into his extracurricular activities. “I’d get out of practice and it would be dark, and then I’d have to hitchhike my way home to Montauk,” he says with a hint of nostalgia.
After high school his world grew as he ventured out of Montauk. He traveled the ancient Mediterranean and countries such as Italy, France, Spain, Greece and Turkey before sailing onto the Caribbean. But Behan came of age when Vietnam was an inevitability. His boots touched down in the war-torn country on December 24, 1965, just as many Americans were settling down for their Christmas Eve ham.
“I was a little depressed when I first got there,” Behan says, remembering his days as a young soldier. “Vietnam was different. I had no idea of what to expect.” Time crawled and then it flew for Corporal Behan. Then, came May 23, 1965.
He had recently joined the 9th Marine Corps and was immediately caught in the fray. “It was a strange day for me, we didn’t know the trouble we’d be in,” Behan recalls. “I was very eager to get involved, even after seeing my guys getting killed, wounded, mangled….This was the first big fire fight.”
He tells of being in a field of tall grass around Hill 55 and spotting two Vietcong who took off running. Behan remembers a bamboo fence and then an explosion. “I hit the ground, started crawling on my belly and then stopped because I thought there may be another mine nearby.” Behan never passed out or lost consciousness, but the trauma racked his ears like an explosion of steam whistles. “I had no imagination of what might have physically happened to me,” he says, remembering hearing a soldier yelling, “I don’t know. We need a chopper. Corporal Behan lost both his legs.”
In the 30 seconds he chased those two VC soldiers, his life was changed forever, but Behan’s focus was not on himself. “All I could think about was my mother and how she would handle this. I remember how she felt after Joshua, and now her other son has lost his legs,” Behan recollects.
“They flew me to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines where my mother was waiting. She looked dirty and tired—looked like she came by horseback,” Behan recalls. So he told her, “You look worse than I do,” and they both laughed and cried. “That’s what kept me alive.”
After leaving the Philippines, he returned to the U.S., where he spent the first 10 months at a Navy hospital in Philadelphia before going home to Montauk. But it wasn’t in Behan’s nature to indulge in self-pity and seclude himself at the Island’s far eastern end. He opened a liquor store, Behan’s Liquor Wharf, which he owned for eight years before becoming restless with the desire to do more with his life.
“I was desperately bored in my own business,” Behan concedes. “There are only so many times I could put price tags on bottles and bottles on shelves. But being from Montauk, you were a cop, a volunteer fireman or a shop owner. That’s when the political life appealed to me.”
Behan’s political career is perhaps his greatest claim to fame. He became the East Hampton Town Tax Assessor in 1976. “Not the most popular job,” Behan chuckles. “But it was my first elected position.” He enjoyed his time as Assessor, but the following November he was elected to the New York Assembly, where he served the Second District from 1978 to 1995. Then, at the request of Governor George Pataki, Behan worked as the Director of the New York State Division of Veteran Affairs before retiring from public life in 1998.
Despite the tough demands of a life in politics, “I actively enjoyed it a great deal,” Behan says. “I made new friends and I got things done—I was responsible for East Hampton, Southampton, Riverhead, Southold and parts of Brookhaven. It was a lot to look after.”
Yet Behan was unfazed by his often thankless and difficult duties. “I spent a lot of time on the road. I’ve lost track of the miles and cars I went through, but I understood it was part of the job,” he says. “It was the first time I had that combat feeling that I was
The public life was a perfect fit for Behan’s penchant for making new friends, proactively getting things done and fighting for his beliefs. His journey from a boy playing on the Shinnecock Canal to a young man severely wounded in battle, from a shop owner running a business in Montauk to a political figure representing the East End and fighting for the men and women who fight for our country, epitomizes what it means to be a true, proud East Ender.
For a full list of Veterans Day events in the Hamptons and on the North Fork, visit danhamptons.com/events.