VFW Magazine — May 2013
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The 64 Who Never Came Home
Katherine Dawson

A philadelphia high school located in A gang-infested neighborhood lost more students in the Vietnam War than any other school in the nation.<br /> <br /> At the heart of a hardened Philadelphia neighborhood, the former Thomas Alva Edison High School stands quietly in the Northeast precinct like an abandoned mansion.On the inside, it's as broken as the gang-infested community that surrounds it.<br /> <br /> These crumbling hallways are a war-era landmark, as they were once walked by 64 young men who gave their lives in Vietnam. It was, notably, the largest loss of students from any single high school in the nation, according to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation.<br /> <br /> Thomas Alva Edison High School, or simply known as Edison High, opened its doors as Northeast High School in 1903. In 1957, the school's staff-along with its trophies and awards-moved to a different location, leaving an opportunity for a new school in its shell. But instead of prestige, the student body-thenknown as Edison High-encountered the violence that plagued the Northeast neighborhoods during the Vietnam era.<br /> <br /> 'OUR KIDS WEREN'T GOING TO COLLEGE'<br /> <br /> "It wasn't unusual to have a student sitting here on Friday who then died over the weekend [because of gang violence]," Freddie Federman, an Edison High social studies teacher for several decades since the late '60s, told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1982.<br /> <br /> That same life of crime offered teenagers a gun and a reason to skip school. And with a hard life looming on the edge of graduation, the military offered these young men the chance to be something other than another member of a gang.<br /> <br /> "You see a guy who doesn't have anything going for him," Federman said. "Then he comes back in his dress blues-they always came back in their dress blues. For some of them it was a name on a uniform that meant you were somebody."<br /> <br /> And that uniform came with a paycheck and stable employment- something that appeals to someone with only a high school diploma or especially a drop out.<br /> <br /> Backing that notion is David Segal, a University of Maryland professor who studies military sociology.According to Segal, the military offers exceptional opportunity to the lowincome during peacetime. In wartime, the same opportunities are offered, but the risk is higher. Yet for some, Vietnamese jungles provided more protection than Philadelphia streets.<br /> <br /> "I was told that military recruiters were a constant presence in the school during that time," said Darryrl Johnson, a former Edison High student, instructional design facilitator and principal intern at the facility today. "Some students were given two choices by judges: to choose prison confinement or military service."<br /> <br /> But military recruiters weren't the only ones recognizing opportunity during the Vietnam era. Raul Torres, an Edison High principal in the '80s, whose brother, Robert, also was one of the 64 killed, witnessed the effect the environment had on area students' futures.<br /> <br /> "Our kids weren't going to college," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1989. "I think part of the feeling was, 'I'm going to probably end up in a gang. I might as well use the Army as a way to improve myself, a way to get some money and some training.' It was better than being out of work and being on the street."<br /> <br /> For Clyde James, a 1972 Edison High graduate who joined the Air Force immediately after graduation, it was an escape from the streets.<br /> <br /> "There wasn't much you could do coming from the worst high school in the city," James told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1982. "There was a lot of gang warfare in the neighborhoods, so you figured if you survived that, Vietnam couldn't be that much worse."<br /> <br /> Like James, Duane Williams could predict how he might end up.Enlisting in the Army in January 1969, he wanted to escape violent streets and gang-life. The West Philadelphia native became part of Edison High School's legacy on New Year's Day 1970 when he was killed in Tien Phuoc while serving with A Co., 2nd Bn., 1st Inf., 196th Light Inf.Bde.<br /> <br /> "If I'm going to die in the streets," Federman reflected on the young men's sentiments, "I might as well die with a uniform on, earning a paycheck."<br /> <br /> NAMES IN THE SKY<br /> <br /> In 1988, Edison High's opportunity for a fresh start began when the student body moved to a new building on a 23-acre facility a few miles north. Renamed Edison/Fareira High School after one of its former principals, it still embraces its sad legacy that began in the hallways of the gothic mansion-starting with the new facility's construction.<br /> <br /> The school district had felt pressure since before the Vietnam War to build Edison students a new school. But it was a former student and Vietnam veteran, Tony Burgee, who gave the long-standing proposal another push in 1982.<br /> <br /> Burgee organized a committee of Edison graduates with the intention of raising money for the new facility.Between the school district and Burgee's raised funds, $50 million was put toward construction. The building has been an active school since its completion in 1988.<br /> <br /> "It was a promise made to them before they went to Vietnam," Burgee told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2000. "It was like a thank you."<br /> <br /> And the memories of the 64 young men are far from forgotten in the new facility. Mounted on a wall of the building's main entrance is a basrelief of the original school building.On it is a solid bronze plaque with the names of 54 students killed in Vietnam. (Ten more names were discovered after the plaque was dedicated.)They are etched in the sky around the building. Today's students walk by it daily.<br /> <br /> "I felt some way should be found to let more people know the price that one single American neighborhood paid for Vietnam," the designer, Reginald Beauchamp, told the philadelphia Inquirer in 1989.<br /> <br /> For JoAnne Press, who started teaching at the original Edison High building in the 1960s, the young men who went off to war will always be "her kids."<br /> <br /> "Some days I can't even look at this," Press told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2000 about the bronze plaque memorial."Whatever they might have become, they never had an opportunity to fulfill."<br /> <br /> Despite the turbulent high school surroundings, Torres' brother, Robert, wanted to become a pharmacist after serving in the Army. He spent a year in Germany before serving in Vietnam with C Co., 5th Bn., 60th Inf., 9th Inf. Div. In 1968, after only a month in country, he stepped on a landmine and was killed during a patrol.<br /> <br /> Press also remembers the day Adolfo Martinez was accepted in the Marines in1967. She recalled his excitement at donning the uniform. He eventually served with the 3rd Bn., 9th Marine Regt., 3rd Marine Div. The 20-year-old rifleman's name made the fatality list in February 1969 after an accident took his life in Vietnam.<br /> <br /> A composite demographic profile of those killed from Edison High reads like this: hostile deaths amounted to 83% of the total while 17% died from non-hostile causes. Spanning the course of the war, the first died on Nov. 6, 1965, and the last on Jan. 17, 1971.<br /> <br /> Some 54% served in the Army; 43% in the Marine Corps. About 70% volunteered for the armed forces versus 30% who were drafted. Nearly three-fourths were in the Army or Marine infantry.Most were around 20; the youngest was 18 and the oldest 39.<br /> <br /> Exactly one-fourth were married. Some 63% were Protestants and 32% Catholics.Clearly reflecting the racial composition of the student body, the ratio of black to white was 54% to 46%. Only one-third graduated from high school.<br /> <br /> Edison High also produced heroes.Stephen Blanchett enlisted in the Army in November 1964 and became a medic.Assigned to Headquarters Co., 3rd Bn., 60th Inf., 9th Inf. Div., at the time of his death in March 1967, he eagerly volunteered for combat. While running through heavy fire at Ding Tuong to help a wounded officer, he was KIA.Blanchett was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.<br /> <br /> Gone but never ForGotten<br /> <br /> Today, the school still mourns the loss of its 64 young men with an annual ceremony held the Friday before Memorial Day.<br /> <br /> Darryrl Johnson, who attended the first ceremony in 1968 as a student, has been involved with it since he returned to the high school as a staff member in 1999.<br /> <br /> "When I returned to Edison as a teacher," he said, "I was pleasantly surprised that the ceremony had continued with increased fidelity."<br /> <br /> The ceremony includes patriotic hymns and lectures on the immense sacrifice that comes with war. As a staff member reads out the 64 men's names to an audience, a candle is lit for each individual.<br /> <br /> "This is Edison," Press said. "Those were our kids, and they gave their lives.<br /> <br /> E-mail kdawson@vfw.org