Fallen of Vietnam War remembered on city's 'hallowed ground'

Sgt. 1st Class Richard Pinter, known as "the Lone Bugler," pauses after playing Taps during a Memorial Day service Monday, May 26, 2014, at the Philadelphia Korean War Memorial on Penn's Landing. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Sgt. 1st Class Richard Pinter, known as "the Lone Bugler," pauses after playing Taps during a Memorial Day service Monday, May 26, 2014, at the Philadelphia Korean War Memorial on Penn's Landing. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 28, 2014

Jason Adams, 39, held up his son, Jason, 2, Monday afternoon and rubbed the toddler's fingers across a name engraved in the charcoal-gray granite of the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

"This is your Great-Uncle Carlos," father said to son. "He served his country."

Carlos Ashlock's name is one of 646 carved into that wall at Front and Spruce Streets and he was one of the fallen whose service and sacrifice were honored at a Memorial Day ceremony.

The sergeant went missing after his unit was surrounded and attacked in Quang Tri on May 12, 1967.

His mother, Ethel Mae Turner, who died six years ago, always sat with the other Gold Star Mothers at the Memorial Day service. She never gave up hope that her firstborn would come home.

"I saw my grandmother struggle for years and years," said Catisha Ashlock-Adams, 37, niece of Carlos Ashlock and mother of little Jason.

"Even on her deathbed, she wondered about her oldest child," Catisha Adams said. "I come every year, we all do, just to keep the memory alive."

In his official remarks, Mayor Nutter called the newly refurbished memorial "hallowed ground," and part of the "most sacred square mile in America."

"This is a day of respect," the mayor said. "Today is about service, honor, dignity, the respect that we must give to those who made the ultimate sacrifice."

Nutter also said the city simply will not permit skateboarders to desecrate the memorial, which is still in need of $126,000 to complete renovations.

Defeating Communists

Theresa Anne Tull, a native of Runnemede and graduate of Camden Catholic High School, gave the keynote address.

Tull joined the U.S. Foreign Service at age 26, and was the political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive, which she called "a major military defeat for the Communists," despite "distorted press depictions."

"But photos of the embassy under attack gave the Viet Cong a powerful psychological victory that seriously harmed popular U.S. support for the war," she said.

"The Vietnam War was not lost by actions of the U.S. military in Vietnam," she said. "It was lost in the United States when the public and Congress ceased to support it. But any serviceman or woman who served in Vietnam should be proud of their service. They did not fail their country."

Tull later served as U.S. ambassador to Guyana and to Brunei, and is now retired and living at the Jersey Shore in Sea Isle City.

Most of the crowd of nearly 1,000 listened attentively as Nutter and Tull made their remarks.

But two former Marines who had never met before - Pete Wymes, 69, of Center City, and Victor Smith, 66, of North Philadelphia - found themselves seated side by side along the memorial wall, underneath an engraved quotation that reads, "For those who fought for it, freedom has a flavor the protected will never know."

New friends

Wymes and Smith swapped stories with each other about their service throughout the prepared remarks. Each displayed his vest and hat and buttons and patches and tattoos, all commemorating their service in Vietnam. They discovered that both were in Con Thien in 1967, "a [expletive] place you didn't want to be," said Wymes. Both men belong to the Liberty Bell Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Association, but have pretty much stopped going to meetings.

But coming to this Memorial Day service was never a question.

"This is a must-do," said Smith.

"Agreed," said Wymes.

At the end of the ceremony, Smith had to take a wreath up to the dais, so he shook hands with his new best friend as they parted.

"Good luck," said Wymes

"You too," said Smith.

Gerald Miller, a Vietnam veteran, started teaching a class on the Vietnam War at La Salle College High School in 1980, a time, he said, "when Vietnam was not something you talked about."

He taught it for 30 years, each fall and spring, taking 60 trips with students to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Two years ago, he was asked to modify the class, to go into less detail on Vietnam and add the civil rights movement and later wars.

"History doesn't stop," he lamented.

He understands, as chairman of the history department, that the additional material needed to be covered, too. He also noted that many parents, once his students, don't like the fact that their children aren't getting the full Vietnam class experience. There is discussion, he said, about teaching it again at least once a year.

Miller still runs one trip a year to Washington, and brought a dozen students Monday to the Philadelphia wall and ceremony. It started at 12:30 p.m., but he and his class were there by 8 a.m.

Moving encounter

"The wife of a man whose name is on the wall came early, to pay her respects," he said. Nobody else was there yet, and she told the students her story. "They were quite moved by it," he said.

Miller is on the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund board, and stressed that the memorial still needs lights, landscaping, and kiosks. (For more information, go to tiny.cc/pvvmf.)

A new flagpole was recently put in place, and at the service a new flag was raised for the first time.

The old flag was folded and presented to James Moran, whose brother's name is on that wall and who has come virtually every day for 27 years to maintain the memorial and who is irate there are already skateboard marks on the new marble. He wants vandals to know that "if they're caught," he said, "it's a $1,000 fine and jail time.

After Taps was played, and the ceremony concluded, little Jason Adams was sound asleep in the arms of his father, who rocked his son gently in front of Great-Uncle Carlos.


mvitez@phillynews.com

215-854-5639

@michaelvitez

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