Northeast Times

Wall of Sorrow

As the monu­ment nears its 25th an­niversary, the Phil­adelphia Vi­et­nam Vet­er­ans Me­mori­al is a trib­ute in gran­ite that stirs pride, in­spir­a­tion, and nev­er-end­ing sad­ness.

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 wkenny@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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