If you’ve never shared breakfast with Old School Devil Dogs, I highly recommend it. There is nothing like breaking bread with Marines who faced down death and lived to eat bacon and eggs sunny side up.
I don’t know how many times I’ve met Joe “Silver” Silvestri, Bob Worra and other Vietnam veterans for breakfast at the Glider Diner since 2010. What I know for sure is that I would never have met these great souls without the help of Charlie Boylan.
Charlie reached out to me. He thought I might be interested in the story of Jimmy Reddington, his boyhood hero. Jimmy was six years older than Charlie, handsome, athletic and smooth with girls. He enlisted in April 1966. Less than a year later, Marine Lance Cpl. James T. Reddington was dead, killed in a firefight on March 23, 1967.
Decades later, Charlie found Silver. Both found a way to honor Jimmy. (Read the original column at the bottom of this post.) They meet a few times a year for a meal and a visit to Jimmy’s grave at Cathedral Cemetery. It’s a touching tribute to a young man who impacted many lives before sacrificing his own.
And an honor for me to be included in his remembrance. The best thing about this job is meeting people who make you feel better about yourself and the world we all live in. It’s a rare experience, which makes each instance all the more special. These men are my friends. I look forward to seeing them, and I’m honored to know them, to be part of the legacy of a 19-year-old Marine from Scranton who died in Vietnam eight months before I was born.
These are my Marines. Charlie Boylan gave them to me, and I am forever grateful. #my marines
The original column:
Publication Date: May 30, 2010 Page: 1 Section: A Edition: FINAL
This is a story about the power of memory, about how even the most hurtful recollections can bring comfort when shared with good company and how even death can’t silence the echoes of a fierce life cut short.
It begins in the Weston Field neighborhood of Scranton in the 1960s and might have ended in an ambush in South Vietnam if Jimmy Reddington hadn’t made such a lasting impression on Charlie Boylan.
Charlie was six years younger than Jimmy, and Jimmy was everything Charlie wanted to be.
Jimmy Reddington was bright. Good looking. Funny. Tough. Girls adored him. Boys admired him. A left-handed quarterback who thrived under pressure, Jimmy was a natural leader who never backed down from a challenge. Even as a Little League pitcher, he was a fierce competitor. The other boys nicknamed him “Pecker,” because if you got a big hit off of him, you could count on him drilling you in the ear with the first pitch of your next at-bat.
A note alongside Jimmy’s photograph in the 1965 Scranton Technical High School yearbook summed him up in 14 words.
Jim’s a guy that’s on the ball. He’s liked everywhere by one and all.
“That’s who Jimmy was,” Charlie said as he spread out copies of grainy photographs taken more than 40 years ago. “Everybody liked him. He just had a magnetism that’s hard to explain. He was somebody any 12-year-old boy would want to be like.”
Jimmy always wanted to be a Marine. A car accident that left him with a shard of glass embedded in his head might have disqualified him, but he was determined to serve. He enlisted in April 1966. Less than a year later, Marine Lance Cpl. James T. Reddington was dead, killed in a firefight on March 23, 1967.
He was 19.
A story in the March 25, 1967, editions of The Scranton Times said his mother was notified by a pair of Marines, and the body was expected to arrive at the Solfanelli Funeral Home on North Main Avenue in about 10 days. Details of the death of the former Times paperboy were lacking at presstime.
“It was different back then,” Charlie said. “If you got killed in the war, your picture was in the paper one day and then you were just gone. That was it, end of story.”
It might have been, if not for a radio broadcast heard by chance 40 years later.
Man on a mission
Charlie Boylan was drafted into the Army on Aug. 6, 1972.
He served as an M.P. in New Jersey and was discharged on Aug. 5, 1974. He married Marianne, his wife of 25 years, and raised two sons. He worked as a substitute teacher before taking a job with the state Liquor Control Board, which he still holds. He is the proud son of a World War II veteran who was wounded at Okinawa.
Charlie is 57 and lives in Clarks Summit with Marianne, and that’s about all he cares to say about himself.
“This is about Jimmy,” he said several times during our conversation, and he meant it.
Charlie was driving home from work in November 2007 when he heard on the radio that the “Wall that Heals” was being displayed at Nay Aug Park. The wall is a scaled-down replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., which lists the names of the 58,627 Americans who were either killed or reported missing in action in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Since 1997, the names of 82 veterans who died later from wounds suffered in the war have been added to the wall.
Charlie went to Nay Aug and found a listing for Lance Cpl. James T. Reddington — Panel 17 East, Line 31. He stayed a while and noticed that no one seemed to stop at Jimmy’s name. He went back the next day. Same thing.
“It was like this kid just fell off the planet,” Charlie said. “I couldn’t believe there was nobody there for him. It just wasn’t right. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to find out more about Jimmy Reddington.’ ”
He started at Cathedral Cemetery, at the top of Oram Street. An attendant there told Charlie he was the only one who ever came to visit Jimmy’s grave, except for a pair of out-of-town veterans who were with him when he died.
Amazed, Charlie asked if she knew their names. She didn’t, but she did have a photograph of them with Jimmy in Vietnam. He asked to see it before heading to the grave. There, he found that Jimmy’s mother had died in 1975. A sister and a nephew were also buried there. He noted from Jimmy’s marker that he had been a member of Echo Company of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, the elite infantry unit that was the subject of the film “Full Metal Jacket.”
The next stop was the library, where Charlie found a microfiche copy of the Scranton Times article announcing Jimmy’s death. He learned that his friend’s father died when he was 3 years old, and that aside from the names on the markers he had already seen, the only other relative listed in the story was a grandfather who lived in New Jersey. He naturally assumed Jimmy had no family left.
“I thought, ‘Jimmy died in 1967. There’s no way his grandfather is still alive,’ ” Charlie said. “’This guy is forgotten,’ I thought. ‘He has nobody.’ That’s when I decided I had to find the Marines who visited his grave.”
Charlie found a website for the 2/5 Marines and located the name of Joe Silvestri, one of the Marines in the picture with Jimmy. He clicked on it, and the next page revealed not only an e-mail address for Joe, whose nickname since Vietnam has been “Silver,” but photographs of him at Jimmy’s grave.
Charlie sent Silver an e-mail sharing his connection with Jimmy and asking if he might like to meet. He couldn’t be sure if Silver was still alive or would want to revisit a painful part of his past, but he knew he loved and remembered Jimmy, and that was reason enough to reach out.
Brothers in arms
Jimmy and Silver became friends in a foxhole while waiting for an attack that never came.
The young Marine had been badly shaken by the death of a friend in a recent firefight, and the platoon leader had taken an immediate liking to the funny, tough kid from Scranton. Ahead of an expected but ultimately aborted assault by the Viet Cong, the pair passed the time talking about where they were from and what they would do when the war was over.
They were both from Pennsylvania, and Jimmy lit up when Silver said he was Sicilian. Jimmy’s mother was Italian, and he had many Italian friends in the neighborhood. He promised Silver would meet them all after the war, when he would give him a grand tour of the city he was so proud to call home.
Over the next few months, Jimmy and Silver became inseparable. In photographs, they are always together, clowning for the camera like brothers on a field trip to hell. They wear the smiles of weary souls leaning on each other for support, finding joy in simply being alive and being together.
Silver is not in the last picture taken of Jimmy. The focus is soft, but it’s clear he was exhausted and unsure of what lay ahead. A few hours later, he, Silver and the rest of Echo Company were pinned down by sniper and mortar fire.
Silver was hit first, and it was bad. Laying motionless in a pool of blood, he was presumed dead. When another Marine told Jimmy that Silver had been killed, he snapped. Jimmy charged ahead. He was immediately shot.
Silver didn’t know that part of the story until another veteran shared it in May 2001. Gripped by the survivor’s guilt that so often afflicts soldiers who lose good friends on the battlefield, he wondered if his closeness to Jimmy helped get him killed. He and Bob Worra, the Marine who carried Jimmy to an evacuation chopper, had been visiting Jimmy’s grave since 1994, but the new information made the visits even more meaningful to Silver.
Many times, he stood at the top of Oram Street staring down at Jimmy’s hometown. Surely, he thought, there must be somebody down there among all those lights who remembered the funny, tough kid from Scranton whose sacrifice he vowed never to forget.
Answering the call
It had been six months since Charlie sent his e-mail to Silver.
His friend, retired FBI agent Chuck Hydock, had just dropped him off at home after a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees game at PNC Field when Charlie noticed he had a message on his voicemail.
It was Silver. If you’re the guy who e-mailed me about Jimmy Reddington, he said, please call me back.
Charlie did, and as they talked, Silver revealed that he had never before spoken to anyone who knew Jimmy before Vietnam. He and Bob found the grave using a list of Scranton cemeteries. Cathedral was the first they tried.
He had made some friends in Scranton during his years as a criminal investigator for the Department of Defense, including an FBI agent he kept in touch with.
Charlie said that was odd, because he had just been with his friend, who was a retired FBI agent. Silver asked the man’s name. Charlie told him, and Silver said he knew Chuck Hydock, too. They had met years ago in Philadelphia.
Suddenly, the big world Jimmy Reddington got lost in was a little smaller.
“I was getting chills at that point,” Charlie said. “That was when I knew I was supposed to do this.”
‘A hell of a Marine’
Charlie had been anonymously publishing tributes to Jimmy in The Times-Tribune for years, and reaching out to people who might remember him. Many did, and as Memorial Day approached last year, Charlie put out word that he, Silver, Bob Worra and others would be meeting at Jimmy’s grave on May 22 to honor his memory.
Among those who saw the notice in the newspaper was Lea Portonova, of Green Ridge — Jimmy’s niece. She was born two years after he was killed, and therefore wasn’t listed in the Times story about his death. She went to the tribute not knowing what to expect and was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and respect inspired by an uncle she had never known.
“My mother really didn’t talk much about him,” Lea said. “I guess that was because it was too painful for her.”
Lea was there Thursday for this year’s tribute, which drew about 150 people, including local politicians, members of the veterans support group Friends of the Forgotten, and a group of students from John Marshall Elementary School, just over the hill from the cemetery.
It was a beautiful day, and Charlie, Silver and Bob traded handshakes and hugs as they shared stories about Jimmy with old friends who knew him and new ones who wish they had.
“He was just a super kid,” Bob said. Like Silver and Charlie, the 64-year-old retired cop and Minnesota native who now lives in Florida wears a replica of Jimmy’s dog tags around his neck.
“I knew Jimmy three months, and to this day he’s a brother to me,” Bob said. “I’ll never forget him. I think about him every day.”
So does Silver, who is 63, retired and living in Delaware County. He fought back tears as he explained why he sees it as his duty to visit Jimmy’s grave each year.
“I owe it to him,” he said. “He was my friend, and a hell of a Marine. It’s because of me that he died.”
The tribute ended with a lone bugler playing taps. In each mournful note echoed a reminder that we all want to be like Jimmy Reddington: Bright. Good looking. Funny. Tough. On the ball and liked everywhere by one and all.
And when we are gone, we want to be remembered.
This is especially true of the men and women who fight and die in our wars. They offer up their lives and ask little in return but the thanks of a grateful nation. It’s a hard bargain, and they carry the heavy end.
The names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and on markers found in every town, city and village in America belonged to real people with hopes, dreams, fears and futures. The responsibility for honoring their sacrifice belongs to us.
Their stories are our stories, and sometimes it takes a dedicated, determined soul like Charlie Boylan to remind us that’s so.
“That’s all I ever wanted out of this,” Charlie said. “I just wanted somebody to remember Jimmy.”
CHRIS KELLY, the Times-Tribune columnist, will never forget Jimmy Reddington. E-mail: email@example.com