An American flag and the flag of the Marines rest in holders John Rumsey permanently affixed to the trunk of a big, old maple tree in the front yard of his Langhorne home.
Between the flags, Rumsey has placed framed portraits of Army Sgt. Martin Terry McDonald and Marine Lance Cpl. Harry J. Simmons Jr. Both grew up on the same Brendwood Drive block of 16 houses as Rumsey’s wife, Renee, and both died in Vietnam.
“My wife still remembers the cars with the military personnel going down the street to inform the two families that their sons had been killed,” said Rumsey, 65, who was awarded the Purple Heart for multiple combat injuries in Vietnam, and still has an enemy bullet lodged in his right leg.
McDonald and Simmons are among 136 Bucks County residents killed in the war whose memory will be honored when the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall comes next month to Penndel. For three days, the nearly 300-foot-long, 3/5 scale replica of the Washington wall will be displayed at the Penndel Memorial Ball Field, with round-the-clock volunteers keeping watch and reading aloud, in shifts, the 58,307 names of fallen soldiers.
Four decades have passed since the war ended, but the respect for its service men and women does not wane. The visit, arranged by the Penndel-Hulmeville Memorial Day Parade Inc., is expected to draw as many as 25,000 visitors. Admission is free. The group raised the money on its own to bring the wall to the region.
“I knew from the beginning that raising $30,000 for this project from local businesses and veterans’ groups would not be a problem, and it wasn’t,” said Ed Preston, chairman of the nonprofit.
A veterans group in Brevard County, Fla., created the replica wall — black powder-coated aluminum with the soldiers’ names in white — 13 years ago, after another replica wall it had rented for its annual reunion failed to show up.
The Brevard veterans vowed that “this will never happen again,” said Doc Russo, a Florida veteran who co-manages the wall.
Russo said he now gets 300 requests a year for the wall, chooses 15 to 18, and is booked through 2018.
“I’m not going to be the sideshow at the county fair,” he said. “That’s not where the wall belongs. I’d much rather go to little towns because people in small communities are close-knit.”
Visiting the wall is, for some, a step in the healing process, he said.
“Veterans go to see buddies they lost, family members and high school friends go. I was in this itty-bitty town in the mountains of West Virginia, and this little old lady, 90 years old, asked if she could give me a big hug,” Russo said. “She grabbed my hand, pointed to a name on the wall, and said, ‘This is the first time in 47 years my son’s been home.’ I have a cousin who’s on the wall. Every time I load and unload it, I say hello.”
Preston, of the Bucks County vets group, recalled a visit to a traveling Vietnam memorial wall when it stopped in Palmerton, a borough of 5,000 residents in Carbon County, Pa. He said he was amazed to see “15,000 visitors on a weekend in the middle of nowhere,” including 100 veterans paying their respects at 2 a.m.
The Penndel event will be from July 14 to 16. Retired Army Col. Rick Kiernan will be among the opening-ceremony speakers at 8:30 a.m. on July 14.
“The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in D.C. is literally cut out of the ground, so you have to go down into the earth,” said Kiernan, who saw combat in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970, when he lived in a small village and trained South Vietnamese soldiers. “Subliminally, you go into a grave. We lost all those wonderful kids. It’s very moving to see all the names at once, all the sacrifice, the enormity of it.”
The traveling wall has the same impact, Kiernan said.
“It would be like going to Normandy or to Gettysburg and seeing all the names written there. The wall is the only opportunity to get your arms around all the people, together in one place. Their one common experience is that they all sacrificed their lives.”
Rumsey will deliver a speech honoring Bucks veterans in a twilight ceremony at the field on July 15 at 7:50 p.m.
A native New Yorker, he moved 30 years ago to Langhorne, where he owned and operated an optical store.
Rumsey said he often thinks about three Marine buddies who accompanied him through basic, advanced infantry, and jungle warfare training, and served with him on mountain patrols in Vietnam for three months before he was assigned to a small village, where he trained the Vietnamese residents to fight the Viet Cong.
Rick Saveio was killed by a booby trap while on night patrol in the mountains, Rumsey said. Jack Perry was on a sweep in the Khe Sanh Valley when he emerged from a tree line, was mistaken for the enemy by an American helicopter gunship, and was killed by friendly fire. A third buddy survived the war, could not adjust to civilian life afterwards, and died from a drug overdose.
Rumsey was stationed in a remote Khe Sanh Valley village on a January 1971 afternoon, he said, when a little boy ran to him, frantic, and said the Viet Cong were stealing his family’s water buffalo.
Rumsey, another Marine, and three South Vietnamese Popular Force soldiers ran out to help and were ambushed. He was shot in the right leg and right arm. A grenade exploded in front of him, sending shrapnel into his legs, stomach, and arms.
As more Marines arrived from the village, the Viet Cong retreated. A fellow Marine, Tim Akers from Wilmington, carried Rumsey to a MedEvac helicopter that rushed him to a naval hospital ship.
In the family room of Rumsey’s Victorian house hangs his framed Purple Heart, along with a photo of himself and Akers.
“I guess my guardian angel was sitting on my shoulder,” he said.
He has visited the Memorial Wall in Washington many times to pay his respects to the soldiers who did not survive the war. “I feel at peace when I go there,” he said.
The traveling wall will serve the same purpose:
“When it comes to Penndel, a lot of veterans, families, and friends who can’t get to D.C. will feel the same emotions, the same peace.”