Donnie Turner Jr., 12, never knew his father, who played football in the Boston Park League, graduated from high school, and then died in Vietnam. His mother, Donna, became a widow when she was barely old enough to vote. On Sunday, Donnie, with his scrubbed altar-boy's face, placed a wreath beside the black granite monument in South Boston in honor of his father and 24 others who left the streets of "Southie" for Vietnam and never came home. Donna Turner, a freckle-faced woman, watched as he laid the wreath as several thousand friends and neighbors clapped. The sun caught her tears as they coursed down her cheeks.
It was a day of Norman Rockwellian scenes -- bands and Marine brass, babies in strollers and old men in lawn chairs, of morning church services and wake-like partying late into the night. Chiseled on the granite monument were the names of the 25 men and the inscription, "If you forget my death, then I died in vain," but it was also a reunion for those who planned and participated in it -- the 200 Vietnam veterans of Southie, an enclave that has long given up its sons to war. The monument is the first in the country to be dedicated to the memory of Americans who died in Vietnam with official recognition from the president of the United States and all five branches of the military. Patriotism, Southie-style, placed a special, sad stamp on the neighborhood. Out of a population of 38,000, the 25 who died in Vietnam reveal a stunning statistic. "If every other community in this country had suffered the same losses, we would have experienced three times the casualties we did. Fifteen were Marines, that's a ratio of seven times that which the nation as a whole experienced for the Marine Corps," James Webb, former Marine captain and author of "Fields of Fire," told the crowd in the park.
In Southie there is a street called Marine Drive; in World War II every son on that block automatically joined the Marines. Vietnam was America's greatest class war and while the upper-class enclaves around Boston were sending their sons to college and Canada, Southie's working-class sons went to war as usual.
"Those guys went to Andover for finishing school, we went to Parris Island. It put the finishing touch on the Southie macho mystique," said Thomas Irwin, now director of the planning division of the Boston police department and one of the five men who spent three years working on the memorial.
The faces of Southie are the faces of Belfast and the accents still retain a lilt. These are the grandchildren of Irish immigrants who left their homeland when the rotting potatoes in the fields caused half a million Irish to starve. The Vietnam veterans grew up on tales of Ireland, and Southie today is an IRA stronghold where money can always be found to aid Northern Ireland. At the morning memorial service at St. Bridgid Church there was laughter and sustained clapping when one of the priests -- all of whom had been chaplains -- was referred to as a "secret chaplain of the IRA."
The young men of Southie were raised to be patriotic to the country that gave their ancestors a home and that even meant going to a war that most felt made little sense. But America's longest, most divisive and most unpopular war was not being championed Sunday. Over and over the priests and pols, the parents and veterans spoke of honoring individual patriotism and loyalty, of honoring the dead, not the war itself.
Southie is a community suspicious of outsiders. Theirs is a clannishness turned ugly at the sight of intruders -- as in the fight against forced busing. They feel they are misunderstood by the outside world and the press. Still, it is the peculiar paradox of this tightly knit neighborhood that, for all its insularity, it sent so many of its sons -- 12,000 -- away to a remote and foreign field of battle.
"Southie is like nowhere else. Everybody knows everybody. Your grandparents came over on the boat with your friends' grandparents. If your ma got sick it was automatic, 'Come on over for suppah.' "
And so, when Tommy Lyons thought of the idea of the memorial three years ago, the community got together and raised $38,000. They put jars in the bars, they sold bumper sticker memorial decals, they gave dances. Late Sunday afternoon in the American Legion bar the veterans lined up five deep for beer, then stayed on into the night talking about old times. Tom Gill, Paul Evans, and Paul Lombard, two cops and a firefighter, Southie class of '67, went in with three other friends at the same time. "Everybody on the corner went," said Gill. "In Southie you hang with your corner, there are maybe 50 corner gangs. You play baseball together and you got in fights with other gangs and you went off to war together."
Tom Gill pops the top of his beer can and with an easy grin starts to remember. "Six of us all went together. I got wounded; John Cole was killed. Another four came back fine." Like all the veterans, Gill was unabashedly touched by the memorial. "It made us feel better finally, after all these years. When you came home everyone was kicking the s--- out of the war." Gill, 32, says Vietnam made little difference in his choice of profession. "I still would have been a cop." Evans, his friend, said, "I would have been a schoolteacher, probably, not a cop. I'm an attorney now, also, and I may not be a cop much longer." As Evans drifts away Gill starts extolling his friend. "He graduated with honors from law school. He's really modest." And then as Gill moves off, another friend speaks proudly of him. "He was really wounded bad over there but he never talks about it." Buddies talking like brothers.
At the monument: Thumping drums, Marine band spit and polish, gleaming Corfams and teen-age acne, the swirl of the Kevin Barry Irish Bagpipes and Drums, the parents and families of the 25 dead, the veterans, some in Sunday suits with red carnations in their lapels, others, like the firemen who just got off their shifts, in work clothes. The several thousand around the monument clapped for each and every one. As they marched through the center, the veterans were suddenly four abreast -- marching in cadence, remembering it by rote from long ago. "It seems like in another century, so to speak," said Lyons, "not 12 years ago." A few of the veterans brushed away tears. A speaker was calling them heroes but standing in the crowd, Steve Simpson, who went to Vietnam the day Robert Kennedy was killed, said, "I don't get into that issue myself. There's no hero worship on this side. It was just something I did; just a pawn in a big game of chess."
Pfc. James Stewart was killed three days after he landed in Vietnam. In a picture in the memorial program he resembles his mother, long slim nose and the same look around the eyes. As they played mournful taps, Mrs. Stewart stared straight ahead. There is a street in Southie named after her son, a common practice in this community. While there is fertile soil among some veterans for the Vietnam-as-noble-cause-revisionism, that viewpoint is not often matched by the mothers. James was one of nine children. "One of the younger ones," said Lillian Stewart. "I don't think we had any right being in Vietnam but you couldn't tell the boys that. It's an awful thing to say but if I had a boy of 18 I'd make sure he'd never go if it was anything like Vietnam. He thought he was going for a cause."
Jim Webb has been made an honorary member of the South Boston Veterans Brigade; they even bestowed the ultimate honor of giving him an Irish wedding ring with hands clasped around a heart. And so he speaks with a special kindness for the men of Southie and talks of the ones he had in his own platoon. "I can see them now on the ridges and in the pockets of raw earth they had scraped away to make fighting holes. We roamed like nomads through villages and mountains, we ripped the earth with our bombs. We stained it with our blood. When we left a part of us stayed forever focused in the stench and dread of combat and at the same time, those who made it back . . . part of it clings with us forever. It became an inseparable part of us, like a burden few of our countrymen seem willing to share. Giving your life in a war is the ultimate, irretrievable gift to your culture. The manner in which we as a people and community express our thanks for that gift is the ultimate judgment on our values."
Robert Stone was 15 when his brother Edward was killed in Vietnam. "The mothers are overwhelmed that someone is finally doing something. It was always Vietnam. No one liked it then and they still don't like it. Last night my mother got the blues again. It's never ending. Her thoughts of Sonny are always there. He was 18 on Jan. 1, 1968, he got to Vietnam in February and he was killed in March when he ran over a land mine during the Tet offensive. The statistics in the paper would say we only lost four for some weeks, but you don't realize how many families that affects. It's awesome." At Sunday's ceremony, for example, there were 250 family members for the 25 men who died. Stone recalls the day they heard of Sonny's death. They were living in a triple-decker house in Dorchester. "Mom was upstairs and I was on the couch and I seen the priest and officer. I also had an older brother in the Marines so I says to him, 'Do you have any friends visiting you?' A couple officers and a priest are coming up the stairs. I knew right away when they asked, 'Does Catherine Stone live here?' what it was. It was heartbreaking for Mom." Catherine Stone said, "All my boys are very good to me and they keep me up but you never forget. I don't think any mother can take that message easy. My Sonny was such a nice boy. He loved people. Christmas, that was his biggest holiday, bringing presents for all his brothers and sisters."
The politicians were droning on too long and Harry Carroll was waiting to unveil the memorial he designed. Harry Carroll is a man you don't lose easily in a crowd, spanning six feet three inches and weighing 350 pounds. He, too, was in Vietnam and came back without a scratch. "I ducked a lot," he jokes. "On the backside of the memorial is what we never got from this country and that's a 'Welcome Home.' When we got out and landed in the States there were all these kids with these "Bring Our Boys Home" signs but they were yelling at guys on stretchers, calling them baby-burners. I can't understand why they picked on us. Who were 'our boys' if it wasn't us?"
A stranger to Southie became an instant friend when he took the mike for an unscheduled speech. Will Basque is a Micmac Indian from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. He is all tattoos and turquoise rings, deeply tanned face and coal-black hair and a former Marine combat veteran in Vietnam. "We met your sons long ago in Vietnam. We shared the same foxhole. One night in a foxhole and you can walk down that person's street. You know the librarian, you know the barber . . . we've known Southie a long time. There are a lot of Vietnam veterans from our reservation who will never forget, who have not forgotten."
After the ceremony people seemed unwilling to leave. For half an hour they clustered around, looking at the monument. On either side of the list of 25 names a rifle pierces the soil and is topped by a helmet. By late afternoon, a few blocks from the park, the American Legion Hall jammed with veterans and friends while the Irish Fife and Drum Band played the Marine Hymn to loud cheers. Later in the evening it was replaced by the Rolling Stones' "I Can't Get No Satisfaction." No one seemed an outsider at that point. The Marines from the Cherry Point, N.C., marching band mingled with the Indians and the Southies mingled with everyone.
Earlier in the day one of the mothers, Diane Sheehan, spoke of her husband, who died in Vietnam in 1969. "The only legacy I was left with were my eight children, who ranged in age from 15 to 2. God was very good to me. We were able to survive and sometimes with class. Nixon was the focal point for my anger and hate for a long time. He kept it going and not even to a victory. One of my sons has chosen not to register and my 20-year-old, who did register, said he did so because he didn't want to go to jail or pay the fine. My heart goes out to those boys who followed their conscience and went to Canada. I think these young boys today think about it more than they did then. All people are thinking far, far more about future wars because of Vietnam."
But that night two young Marines from the band were downing their beers and talking at the American Legion Hall. Chip Brently, 20, said the day was "very sad. We were standing at parade rest and I was thinking about my dad. He was one of the people who were honored in a way because he was killed over there in the Air Force." Brently's mood changed very quickly, though, when he talked of today. "I was the troublemaker and I joined to fight." Of Vietnam, he says, "I thought it was a good war. The Marines got a chance to learn to fight in a jungle. Do I think war is glamorous? No, but I like the ribbons and badges and decorations and stuff like that. If there was war I'd like to get out of the band and into a grunt unit that would fight." He savors the thought, and then, as if echoing the Southies of 15 years ago, he says, "I think I would like to fight."