The photos show teenage boys in suits, military uniforms and fatigues.
They grin and stare at the camera, their images captured in color and black and white.
All attended high school in Lancaster city, and all made the ultimate sacrifice.
More than four decades after the Vietnam War ended, J.P. McCaskey High School recognized 18 former students who died while serving in the military during that war. On Friday, the high school’s alumni association dedicated a plaque in their honor. It hangs in the lobby of the high school.
“These were special people, and they didn’t have the chance to take that next step in life and blossom,” says Ken Keener, who helped start this project. “They deserve some recognition for that.”
The Vietnam project
The Vietnam project started with three friends — Keener, Ron Horn and Charlie Fridinger. All three are Vietnam veterans themselves and are members of McCaskey’s Class of 1968.
Keener was drafted in 1969. He served with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, typing orders and working as a postal clerk. He left Vietnam in 1971 and now lives in Lititz.
Two of his classmates — Michael Kiscaden and James Wieler — did not come home.
Keener says he looked up to Wieler in particular, describing him as popular, friendly and a great athlete.
“We really need to recognize these guys,” Keener says. “We lost some really good people.”
Initially, the three wanted to shine a light on all the McCaskey students who served in the military during the Vietnam War.
“When we came back, we weren’t real well received,” Keener says. “It’s different now, the way veterans are received, and it was different from the world wars.”
The school has a wooden plaque in the lobby that lists staff members at Lancaster city schools who served in World War II. A concert organ was dedicated to veterans of that war as well, Miller says. And Jim McMullin, Class of 1946, dedicated a tree to veterans.
Recognition of Vietnam veterans is finally here, Fridinger says. Now living in Phoenix, he served in the Air Force, and worked as a carpenter in Vietnam. He stays connected to what he calls the brotherhood of Vietnam veterans by joining an honor guard, being active in veterans groups and pushing for recognition at his alma mater.
The three friends found an ally in the alumni association, a group that usually coordinates three projects every year: naming five graduates as distinguished alumni, the 50th high school reunion and a basketball game between McCaskey seniors and graduates.
Former alumni director Sherma Woolstenhulme and later, association volunteers, had collected names of veterans through the years.
Jeremiah Miller, coordinator of alumni affairs, and Kathy Arnold, secretary of alumni affairs, agreed to focus on Vietnam veterans.
“We’ve already lost some, due to getting older,” says Arnold, Class of 1967. “At least this is an era where a lot of the veterans are still alive, and it would be nice to honor them.”
The group compiled a list of dozens of students who served in the military during the Vietnam War era.
Unlike World War II veterans, who were championed in yearbooks, tracking down the Vietnam War vets required months of research.
And the research was difficult because some of the students didn’t graduate. For example, Steven Hess Boyer, who died in 1965, was the first McCaskey student to die in action in Vietnam. Miller, Class of 2000, was able to track him down through a group photo.
They announced their search for veterans in alumni newsletters. They contacted members of graduating classes from the 1960s and 1970s for leads. They tracked down the students through friends and family.
Worried that they might miss someone on the long list of veterans, the group decided to first focus on a plaque recognizing students who died while serving in the military during the Vietnam War.
“They did not come back with us,” Horn says. “They were just like us but they were the unfortunates.”
Horn, who now lives in Manor Township, enlisted in the Navy and served on the USS Niagara Falls, a ship that supplied troops fighting in Vietnam.
The first name on the plaque is Percy LeRoy Campbell, who was a member of Lancaster Boys High School Class of 1935, the school that existed before the doors of J.P. McCaskey High School opened in 1938. Campbell, a postal clerk in Lancaster, was a member of the Army Reserves when his division was activated. He died at 49 of a heart attack in Vietnam in 1966.
The last name on the plaque is Lynn Blessing, who was a private first class in the Marines when his helicopter crashed off the Cambodian coast during a rescue mission in 1975.
Blessing had left McCaskey in his sophomore year. And at 18, he left behind a wife, Anita, and a 1-year-old son, Tommy.
The plaque now hangs in the high school lobby, in a spot where pay phones used to stand.
Now as students walk past the trophies, they’ll see this final roll call.