War memorials honor sacrifice to be sure, but they can be more. Without context, they can turn into faded stone, with worn letters that no longer speak to future generations.

The founders of the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial, dedicated in 1987, recognized that with a design that included well-known photo images sand-blasted in the huge panels of the black granite Wall of Scenes. The wall displays images of combat and others, such as the helicopter rescue of evacuees at the 1975 fall of Saigon, that represent different phases of the 10-year conflict.

Building on that idea over the years, we envisioned that the sacrifice of the 648 lost in the War is more meaningful when anchored to certain aspects of the conflict.

The March dedication of the National Vietnam POW/MIA Monument to those from the war on the south side of the Memorial brings that vision full circle. The return of the POWs in 1973 was the beginning of the end and became burned into the national consciousness.

A total of 591 Prisoners of War (POWs) were returned from Southeast Asia in 1973 as part of Operation Homecoming. Eventually 2,646 Americans were listed as Missing in Action (MIA) or killed in action, body not recovered, including 19 from Philadelphia.

The remains of more than 1,000 Americans, including nine native sons, have been returned, but for the remaining MIA families there will be no solace until there is the fullest possible accounting.

We can’t join the hundreds who normally attend our annual Memorial Day ceremony on May 25, but we can pause to ponder why this Memorial is so important to Veterans and our Philadelphia  heritage.

We honor, as we should, the loss of more than 58,000 Americans, including 3,147 from Pennsylvania, the fourth highest in the nation. And the sacrifice continues as scores of the survivors die every day from the complications of wounds, injuries and PTSD. .

But as terrible as the casualties were, they pale in comparison to those of South Vietnam. Estimates vary, but two million civilians and between 200,000 and 250,000 of the military were killed.

When members of the Philadelphia Vietnamese Community approached us to recognize our joint sacrifice in opposing Communist aggression, the PVVM Board agreed and supported their effort to raise funds for a monument.

The Republic of South Vietnam (RVN) Freedom and Heritage Flag Monument was dedicated April 2015 and besides honoring the joint armed forces, it is a “testament to the resilience of the Vietnamese people,” the Monument inscription notes. A map of Vietnam is on the monument, which is so named because the distinct yellow-and-red RVN flag, which flies side-by-side with the US Flag, is no longer the official flag of the country.

In May 2016, the eight-foot, bronze statue of Army Cpl. Michael J. Crescenz by local sculptor Chad Fisher, was dedicated.  Cpl. Crescenz, a 1966 Cardinal Dougherty High School graduate, is the only Philadelphian to receive the Medal of Honor for Vietnam service.  He was killed in November 1968 after taking out three enemy machine gun bunkers that had halted the advance of his infantry company. The VA Medical Center was named in his honor the same month the same month the statue was unveiled.

Apart from honoring this genuine hero, the statue serves another purpose. Generations of future visitors may be likely to ask the question “what did they look like?” They will discover details like the small bottle in the rubber band in the helmet, which contained “bug juice,” or mosquito repellent, and the towel wrapped around his neck to remove the sweat generated in the field by the hot and humid climate of Vietnam.

Another marker of note on the south side is the Purple Heart Monument to the combat wounded of all wars, erected by the Pennsylvania Department of the Order of Purple Heart, one of two in the state. Across from this monument is a bronze plaque atop the resting place of the tracings of Philadelphia names from the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

It recognizes a remarkable trip made by the “Last Patrol” in May 1987 by 10 veterans, including our current vice president, Dennis Best, a Marine who lost both legs to an explosion in Vietnam. Dennis made the six-day trip, which received national media coverage, by wheelchair from Washington, DC, to Philadelphia.

It also highlights a time when attitudes were starting to change towards the Vietnam Veterans, who were not treated with the same respect accorded earlier veterans. After the dedication of the Washington Memorial in 1985, veterans in their communities across the land wanted to honor their residents who fought and died in Vietnam. The Philadelphia memorial is one of the finest in the county.

Standing on Spruce Street in front of the wall of names spreading in a half-circle is moving scene for most visitors.  And for Vietnam Veterans the memorial is not just a stone edifice, cold in recognition of service and sacrifice — it also speaks to their spiritual well-being, knowing their sacrifice meant something. 

We can’t join the hundreds who normally attend our annual Memorial Day ceremony on May 25, but we can pause to ponder why this Memorial is so important to Veterans and our Philadelphia  heritage.

For more information, please visit pvvm.org, where you also can view a video “Journeys to Freedom,” about the plight of Vietnamese refugees who came to Philadelphia.

Terry A. Williamson is the president of the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial and served as an infantry officer in 1968-69 in Vietnam.

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