Back in 1967, the Vietnam War wasn’t talked about much in the tight knit community of Fishtown, PA until the first of its boys returned home in a coffin. The dead hero was a personal friend of this author and was hanging out with other friends when the news broke. Here’s what he had to say.
Each month at our VFW meeting we have a segment that honors the fallen. In that segment, we honor any Pennsylvania residents who were killed in action in our present conflicts. For many of us, these are just names. But for the friends and families of theses fallen, the horror of war has come home. Losing a loved one to a war is a very tragic event. For many of us, we will never experience it.
As of February 7th, 2012 the number of Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom & Operation New Dawn casualties stands at 6341. Many of us may know those who have served in these conflicts, yet many of us are fortunate to not have a family member or friend who lost their life there.
Being a Vietnam veteran, things were a bit different during that war. With troop levels at over 500,000 for a great part of the war, it was difficult to find someone during that period in history who did not know someone that had served or who was a casualty in Vietnam.
I lost eleven friends from my neighborhood and seven (six that I knew) from my 1966 graduating class at Northeast Catholic High. A few years ago, I was contacted by a newspaper from my old neighborhood. I was asked to write an article about the first of my friends who perished in Vietnam.
It was a difficult piece to write but it was well-received by so many. I visit the memorial in Fishtown each Memorial Day and have been approached by so many friends telling me how much the article rang true to them, as well. The places may not be familiar to many of you, but at the time, it could have been Anytown, USA.
I will never forget my reaction to the news received while hanging out at Allen and Shackamaxon streets on that warm July evening. The Vietnam War had taken one of our own Fishtown boys, Charlie Glenn. I can’t remember everyone who was there that night, but I know we were sitting on Be-Bop Brannigan’s step when his mom came out and gave us the news. No one knew what to say. We were all stunned. We sat silent for a few minutes and stared blankly before we eventually realized that the Vietnam War had come home to us and taken one of our own. This was the first time that any of my friends had died, and the shock was great and very hard to accept.
The war had meant little to us until that moment. It had been just a part of the evening news that few of us even watched. Charlie would be coming home, but he would be in a pine box.
Fishtown was a very patriotic and tight-knit community when I was young, and it was a great place to grow up. Many of us never saw anything outside of Philadelphia until we either moved away or joined the military. But that was OK; everything we needed was right there.
Living on Richmond Street, all one needed to do was walk down to the corner to Shackamaxon Street and there was a grocery store, Ed’s, and a drug store, Black’s.
There was a rag and paper factory where we would take our collected newspapers and get 10 cents for a hundred pounds. There was another hangout on Richmond Street – Tillie’s – where we would take soda bottles we had collected to get two cents each for them and either buy baseball cards or use the money for the pinball where we would compete with Tillie’s son, Ronnie.
We would get together for pickup baseball and basketball games and go up to the Tip-Top or Hetzel’s playground or down to Penn Treaty Park. We would get on a boat at Penn Treaty Park in the summer and spend the day at Soupy Island, where we could swim and have lunch. It doesn’t seem like much, but it was how we spent our days, and we were happy.
As the war escalated, many more of us were drafted or enlisted in the military. Fishtowners did not shirk their duty. Many more of us went to Vietnam in subsequent years. In all, 10 more names were added to the original Cpl. Charles J. Glenn III Memorial, which was built at Marlborough and Wildey streets shortly after Charlie was killed. The memorial was erected in record time, all with private donations. It might have been the first, or one of the first, memorials dedicated to a Vietnam veteran in the United States.
Although Charlie was a year older than me and a year ahead of me in school, he was still a friend. I remember him as a kind and caring individual who always watched out for others. I can truly say that he was an inspiration to me. He has been in my thoughts since his death, but mostly around Memorial Day.
The one thing that bothers me the most about Charlie’s death was what happened on the evening of his wake at the Grant Funeral Home on Girard Avenue. I had planned to go with all of my friends, but at the last minute, I suddenly changed my mind. I was not yet ready to say goodbye to him. I was a bit unsettled about the whole situation. I wanted my last memories of him as a living person and not in a casket, lifeless. That one action does not take away from the memories, and I am now comfortable with the decision I made that night.
Charlie’s memory has helped me in some of my writings. The poem “Away in a Bunker” was written in his memory during the Christmas season in 1997.
I also wrote a passage in a play – Etchings: The Stories Behind the Wall – in which a visitor to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall speaks to Charlie and tells him how much his Mom misses him.
“Chuck” is also one the main characters in my novel, Chapter One: The Story of Vic Charles. This work is a fictional account of both my experiences in Vietnam as well as the struggles of adjusting to a normal life while coping with flashbacks to the horrors of war.
The ceremony is a tribute to those from Fishtown, Port Richmond, and Kensington who gave their lives, and to all of those whose names emblazon the Wall in Washington. The Vietnam War took many fine young river wards men to serve, and failed to return 11 of them. That is a significant number for such a small community. I feel proud to have served and lucky to have returned home unharmed.
Fortunately, although I served in the northern part of the country not far from the “Demilitarized Zone,” or “DMZ,” I was not in harm’s way as often as many others, though any area in Vietnam could be considered hostile.
I recently returned to Vietnam after almost 39 years. The reasons were not to bury any ghosts or demons, but to visit Kim Long Orphanage. Kim Long was a place where my unit would take our dirty laundry to be washed and pressed. I was asked to go on a run one Sunday morning, and the children have captured my heart ever since. Our visits were a respite from what was going on around us. The faces of the children that met us on each visit could have melted a heart. It was a safe haven for a few hours, once or twice a month.
When I finally found that the Kim Long Orphanage still existed in 2008, I was determined to return. Finding that a nun – Sister Xavier – was still there at 91 years of age was another reason to return. I was fortunate to share the visit with my younger daughter and was glad to have her support as we traveled from Saigon to Hue to Hanoi. I don’t think I could have done it without her.
I have kept in touch with Kim Long since our visit and have collected funds for the orphanage.
Vietnam changed many of us who served. It has affected each of us in a different way. For those valiant 11 souls on the Glenn Memorial, it changed the lives of those who were close to them forever. Let us not forget our 11 “Hometown Heroes”:
Charles J. Glenn III
Harry Seedes III
And let us not forget the over 58,000 others who lost their lives while serving their country in the Vietnam War.
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