America changed during the Vietnam War, but the nation has changed even more since the end of the war, according to the men who fought it.
When soldiers returned stateside after their combat service, civilians mocked, insulted and spat upon them. Some branded the veterans as failures for allowing the communists to overrun the former French colony, while others called the soldiers “baby killers,” a reference to the large number of civilian deaths that occurred during the drawn-out conflict that came to an end when South Vietnam lost Saigon, it capital, to North Vietnamese forces.
That many Vietnam vets struggled mightily to re-assimilate at home didn’t help their reputation as a whole.
“We can’t forget that the attitude toward Vietnam veterans was totally negative, and toward the war itself. And it was a false attitude,” said Mike Daily, an East Falls native who served in combat from 1969 to ’70 with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.
“The public perception was (that we were) weirdos, psychos and druggies.”
The construction of Philadelphia’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1987 has helped change public misconceptions locally about Daily and his fellow vets. And with the memorial’s 2012 Silver Anniversary commemoration already in the planning stages, the site’s leading advocates hope to further develop it as a center for remembrance and education.
“For a young man or woman today, the Vietnam War could be (like) the Civil War. It’s not something they reflect on,” said Terry Williamson, a Glenside resident who served as a captain with the 7th Marine Regiment in Vietnam from 1968 to ’69. “(The memorial) gives an opportunity for people who may not be familiar with the Vietnam War to reflect on the sacrifice.”
IT WAS A CAPITAL IDEA
The Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a direct descendant of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. The national wall was dedicated in 1982. Two years later, Philadelphia area veterans decided to organize their own project.
The Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial Society and the Vietnam Veterans of America’s Liberty Bell Chapter 266 spearheaded the fund-raising effort. Members of both groups formed a tax-exempt fund for the project. The founding board members were president Dennis P. Fink, vice president Harry J. Gaffney, secretary Ron Castille and treasurer Edward J. Lowry.
Castille was Philadelphia’s district attorney from 1986 to 1991 and is now chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. He lost his right leg in combat in Vietnam.
Williamson is now president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, while Daily is executive director.
“At the time, we knew it was the time to put (the war) into perspective and time to honor those who gave their lives in Vietnam,” said Daily.
Old wounds were starting to heal in other cities, too. In Chicago, for instance, they held a parade more than a decade after U.S. had pulled its troops out of the combat zone.
“The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington really provided the impetus for not only what they did in Philadelphia, but what other towns, communities and counties did across America,” Williamson said. “I’m not sure there are any nicer than ours in Philadelphia, but they’re all over the country.”
Erected at a cost of about $1 million, not including donated labor and materials, Philadelphia’s memorial is at Front and Spruce streets, on a patch of park ground that spans Interstate 95.
WALLS OF WAR
Designed by landscape architect Perry M. Morgan, the memorial consists primarily of two facing granite walls. A curved wall features the inscribed names of 646 military casualties who lived or studied in Philadelphia. The opposite wall is flat and depicts a series of scenes from the war, along with the insignias of the U.S. military branches.
According to Daily, Philadelphia was one of the nation’s hardest hit communities for war casualties. More than 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam.
“We lead the nation in public- and private-school deaths,” Daily said. “There were more than sixty from Edison (High School) and twenty-seven each from Father Judge and Cardinal Dougherty.”
The site was envisioned as a secluded, quiet place, befitting hallowed ground. “They designed it as a sanctuary to the dead,” Williamson said.
In retrospect, seclusion has led to some persistent problems. Unwanted activity and vandalism are routine. Sometimes, loiterers do their inappropriate business, litter and leave. Other times, there’s some real damage done, for instance, when skateboarders grind down the granite or bicyclists skid on the pavement. Sometimes, thieves take the flags.
“It waxes and wanes. In the winter months, obviously, it dies when people are not out and about,” Williamson said.
Philadelphia police have stepped up patrols of the area, but a grassy berm and the closed configuration of the walls obscure views from the surrounding streets. As part of an ongoing $2 million capital campaign, leaders of the memorial fund plan to redesign the monument and open up pedestrian visibility and access. This will help security, and better integrate the memorial within the surrounding community.
The wall of names will remain unmoved.
“What we’re trying to do now is find a way to create a learning center down there to provide information on the men who are memorialized,” Williamson said. “Really, the memorial should be the focus in the city of all learning about Vietnam.”
They know their time is running short. The young faces depicted in the vintage photographs and videos are now reaching retirement age.
“In truth, that’s what drives us, creating a lasting legacy. We want to create some fund in perpetuity to take care of the maintenance,” Williamson said. “Clearly, I don’t know how much longer we’ll have the energy, the time or the inclination to continue raising funds.” ••
Visit www.pvvm.org for information about the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or firstname.lastname@example.org