Cardinal Dougherty, Father Judge alums honor memory of men killed in Vietnam War

By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – The number 27 is really important, to the point of reverence, at Father Judge High School, and it used to be really important at Cardinal Dougherty High School, coincidentally, for the same reason.

They ranged in age from 18 to 25, and they all died for their country, thousands of miles from home in Vietnam, a country probably most of them had never heard about when they were children.

Second Lieutenant James P. Kelly was the first. He died at age 23 Sept. 27, 1965. PFC Donald Wood was only 18 and less than a year out of high school when he was killed May 20, 1968. Sgt. Joseph Wilhelmi, who died Sept. 6, 1970, was the last. {{more}}

They were 27 soldiers and Marines whose common bond is all were graduates of Cardinal Dougherty, and in 1982 their names were engraved on a large monument permanently placed on the school’s lawn.

Permanent is a relative term. Now Dougherty, once the country’s largest Catholic high school, no longer exists. But thanks to grateful alumni and other veterans, the honored dead will remain honored, but at a new location: VFW Post 2819 at 6850 Martins Mill Road in Northeast Philadelphia. It was to be formally rededicated today, Nov. 11, Veterans Day.

“I went to Marine boot camp with (Sgt. USMC) Jim Lynch,” said John C. Lynch, a 1960 graduate of Dougherty who was a prime mover in the monument relocation. “We were just 18 when we got out of high school. I also knew James Kline, ’61; he was a Philly police officer before he went in. He was assigned to the infantry and died in May 1968 rescuing other soldiers. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.”

Charles Becker, also a 1960 Dougherty grad, knew Lynch well along with 2nd. Lt. Jim Kelly, ’60, who was killed in 1965. He also knew the family of Cpl. Mike Cresenz, who was killed in 1968 just two years after graduation, and earned the posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor.

Moving the monument, Becker said, was “bringing our brothers home. We weren’t going to leave them there after the school closed.”

“You wonder what could have been. We sometimes get a survivor’s guilt. I was in Vietnam 1966-67 and I know how I felt when my lieutenant was killed; we were close. But everything happens for a reason.”

“Every single medal that is given is represented by the men on that monument,” said Joe O’Rourke, commander of VFW Post 2819 who graduated from Dougherty in 1964. “When the alumni asked us to take the monument, there was no question. We couldn’t say no.”

The Vietnam War was ongoing when Father Judge first erected its monument and names were added as new casualties were announced. Leonard J. Albany, ’61, was the first Judge grad to give his life, dying in January 1965. Michael Vitale, ’66, who died in April 1969 was the last.

It is an odd coincidence that 27 was the final Vietnam mortality for both schools.

The selfless spirit of the Judge boys is perhaps best epitomized by Sgt. John Bense, ’63, who lost his life in April 1967. He pushed his platoon leader out of the way and took the brunt of a live grenade himself. He is still remembered through an annual award given by the school.

At Judge that number is etched in the minds of the whole school community, not just on a monument.

“We have all 27 in our Hall of Fame,” said Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Father Joseph Campellone, Judge’s president. Before every game, saying a short prayer before the monument is a must for the football team. All sports uniforms bear the number 27 in some fashion, but the number itself has been mostly retired, with only one student in the school who has demonstrated special qualities permitted to use it.

Judge’s Vietnam heroes are topics for religion classes, and every year special services and programs are held in their honor. “It’s a centerpiece of our school and it’s an emotional and amazing thing,” Father Campellone said.

The Judge Alumni Association does its part to keep the memory alive. For example, three years ago at a seashore gathering, there was a special service for the 27, and each year speakers who participated in the war come to address the students, according to Kevin Kilkenny, a past president of the alumni association.

“It’s important we keep their memory in the forefront,” he said.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.