By Pat Ciarrocchi
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Twenty five ago today, Philadelphia Veterans of the Vietnam War dedicated a memorial at Penn’s Landing. It’s a wall inscribed with names of the young soldiers lost.
On Friday night at 6:30, they’ll gather again, to remember a journey that brought them to what’s become sacred ground.
If you are of a certain age, when you walk onto the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Front and Spruce Streets, you remember.
You see images of war sketched into granite, and you can almost hear the sounds of helicopters overhead.
Vietnam was the first war played out on televisions in our living rooms.
Dennis Best, a retired Sergeant, always a Marine, didn’t watch it from home. He lived in the battlefield.
“Vietnam War and service time measures out to be a small percentage of one’s life,” Best said, with the Memorial at his back. “But usually, it’s something you’ll never forget … and be one of the most traumatic times of your life.”
Dennis Best knows trauma. Both of his legs were lost to an artillery booby trap in August, 1970. He was 19. But Dennis is a Marine, and that’s a different breed.
“It’s only right and fitting and our duty to remember,” Best said.
In 1987, a memorial originally etched with the names of 630 Philadelphians killed in Vietnam just seemed the right way to remember.
Twenty five years ago, Dennis, in his wheelchair, and his band of brothers set out on what became known as The Last Patrol, first tracing names from the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial that was dedicated five years earlier, and marching them back to Philadelphia.
An Eyewitness News crew had documented the five days along highways, through blisters and over bridges — especially one over the Susquehanna which clearly warned, “No Pedestrians.” They were on a mission.
A Maryland patrol officer stopped the men mid-span, and made it clear they would all be arrested and jailed, once they got to the other side.
The veterans insisted, “We have to march it.” They had all been battle-tested, so a little resistance didn’t intimidate them. It was all resolved with a promise, to never walk the bridge again.
Now, the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a destination.
“Our slogan here … it is our duty to remember this place,” said Best.
And remember they will. Beginning at 6:30 Friday evening, there will be a candlelight ceremony at the memorial at Front and Spruce Streets. Then a party at $30 a ticket at the nearby Society Hill Sheraton. That will be followed by a 24 hour vigil leading up to a parade Saturday morning at 9, to retrace the steps of the last patrol.
For more information go to www.pvvm.org.