By Bob Podurgiel
In 1970, while recovering from a severe back injury at the Valley Forge General Hospital in Pennsylvania, Elliott native Thomas Fife had a lot of time to think about his days serving in the Vietnam War.
He thought about how lucky he was to survive the war.
He thought about his friends from the close-knit neighborhoods of Elliott, Sheraden and West End who went to Vietnam, but who didn’t come home, losing their lives in a country most of them couldn’t find on a map.
And he thought about his own neighborhood of Elliott, and how it would never be the same with the tumultuous changes sweeping the country in the late 1960s and early 70s.
Fife, now 71, served his country with honor in Vietnam, but he did another service to his country this year when he published the book, “From Pittsburgh to Nam – The Terrible Price Paid By Kids From Elliott, Sheraden & West End.” The concept of the book came to Fife in the mid-1970s.
“As time went on, this story just screamed at me,” said Fife, who now lives in Penn Hills.
The book took him four years to research and write. Fife describes his experiences and those of his friends in lean prose, with a stark sense of poetry which can sometimes be gutting.
In a recent talk with the Gazette 2.0, Fife said despite sustaining a spinal injury in a car accident his senior year of high school, he enlisted with four of his friends on what he called, “the buddy plan.”
He recalled his arrival in Vietnam on June 1, 1970.
“The heat was like a furnace. It was shocking,” he said.
Everywhere and everything in the country seemed hostile. He remembered the bus picking him up at the airfield had barbed wire strung across the windows to keep the Viet Cong, local guerilla fighters, from throwing grenades into the bus.
Fife ended up at a base camp in the central part of Vietnam, where he worked cooking meals for helicopter crews, but his spinal injury wouldn’t heal in the hot, humid climate of Vietnam.
This led to his return to the United States after six and a half months.
Still he, and the friends he enlisted with who also survived, fared better than many from the neighborhood.
The first young man from the three neighborhoods to die in Vietnam was Lewis Nickerson.
“I can remember him dancing with good-looking girls on Friday nights at a hall named the Canteen in Crafton, about a mile or more from Elliott,” he wrote.
“Louie arrived in Vietnam on March 27, 1967…. He was killed on May 4, 1967; 42 days after his tour had begun.
Multiple fragmentation wounds killed him,” Fife wrote of Nickerson, who was only 18 when he died.
Another tragic story he relates is that of a young African-American man, with the nickname “Kayo,” whose real name was Wayne Hawkins.
Hawkins’ family had moved to the neighborhood from the North Side, and Fife, remembers “Kayo” introducing himself to three young white guys on Lorenz Avenue; Fife, Frank Pugliano, and Jerry Pobicki, and the four of them overcoming racial barriers to become friends.
One day, Kayo told them, “‘Hey, you three guys… I like you. So does Clayton, Guppy, [relatives] and my whole family. When we moved here from the North Side I thought I’d have to fight all the time. I really didn’t like white guys until I met you guys.’”
Hawkins died on June 3, 1968 at age 18 after 162 days in Vietnam, many of them spent in heavy combat. Fife’s last memory of his friend was seeing his name years later inscribed on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. and being overcome with emotion.
“We lost 16 men between the three neighborhoods. Personally, I probably knew 10 of them,” Fife said.
When he came home from the war Fife said, “it was like being an alien. It was a painful time for a lot of people.”
Fife writes, “Among Vietnam veterans, it is widely believed that no other generations of Americans who had come from a war had ever been treated like such outcasts. Likewise, a great number of these veterans feel the media at large gave us the poisonous gifts of scorn, ridicule and outright hostility. We were alone with the confusion and unshed grief that lived within us. A glaring example would be the case of Master Sergeant Roy Benevidez, a Korean and Vietnam veteran who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Ronald Reagan for heroism, only to have to fight to keep his VA benefits as the government tried to strip them from him.”
After his discharge from the Army on April 5, 1971, Fife went to trade school then began a career in the steel industry, and later worked for Electrolux International, a worldwide appliance manufacturer. He married and had two children. Fife’s daughter has passed away. His son has read the book and was “shocked” by what his father went through.
“It was pretty personal,” Fife said.
One of the most important contributions of Fife’s book is his recording of the names of young men who served in Vietnam from Bishop Canevin High School in East Carnegie, Langley High School in Sheraden, and Holy Innocents High School, also in Sheraden.
Fife got information from alumni associations, and when other veterans found out about the project, they reached out to him with names. There were seven core people who were involved in the research, and Fife thanks them in the book.
He gives brief descriptions of what happened to the local men during their deployments in Vietnam and where and in what military units they served. So far, his list includes 322 young men from just those three high schools.
“They didn’t receive the recognition they deserved. As the war wore on, some people forgot them. The guys weren’t really recognized,” he said.
In his book, Fife describes the Elliott, Sheraden and West End neighborhoods as idyllic places to grow up in before the war.
“Frank Capra could have made a movie about life in any of these neighborhoods. Elliott had its own version of the famous movie, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ only missing Jimmy Stewart in the lead role,” he wrote.
Fife detailed how Vietnam vets came back to a rapidly changing culture in the many small towns and neighborhoods of Western Pennsylvania and demonstrates how that upheaval was a microcosm of the whole country.
“The world I grew up in doesn’t exist anymore. Not to say I’m sad. It’s just true,” Fife said.
Thomas Fife’s self-published “From Pittsburgh to Nam - The Terrible Price Paid by Kids from Elliott, Sheraden & West End” is available at barnesandnoble.com for $16.95.
Staff Writer Elizabeth Perry contributed to this story.