|In the middle of a blizzard on the night of Jan. 29, 1966, a taxi pulled up outside the home of the Brophy family on Terrace Boulevard in Ewing. Mary Brophy knew what it meant right away: Her son was dead, killed in Vietnam.
She watched the cabby trudge through the snow toward the house and saw him "shaking all over" as the door swung open and her husband reached for the telegram in the driver's trembling hand.
"I started hollering," the mother recalled through tears the other day. "I remember saying, 'My son! My beautiful boy! They had to bring a priest and doctor over for me. They gave me a shot to put me out."
Dennis J. Brophy, 21, an altar boy at Incarnation Church who had studied for the priesthood as a teenager and went to work for a vending company after graduation from Notre Dame High School, was the first draftee from Mercer County killed in the Vietnam War.
An Army captain, Leo J. Kramer of Trenton, had been killed in Vietnam in 1963. Two Marine volunteers, Cpl. David T. Graham of Princeton, and PFC Carl R. Steffan of Trenton, had been killed in combat in 1965.
Brophy's death was a sign to Greater Trenton that the war in Vietnam was expanding seriously and that the fighting in the jungles of Southeast Asia was bound to hit home hard again and again.
Two days later, on Jan. 31, President Lyndon Johnson resumed the bombing of North Vietnam he had halted five weeks earlier in a Christmas peace overture.
Two weeks after that, on Feb. 13, a Marine sergeant from Trenton, James Edward Thompson, was killed two days before his tour of combat was over.
Two other soldiers from the Trenton area, Army privates David J. Decker and Clifford R. Stout, would lose their lives in the war in 1966. In 1967, there would be 22 more Mercer families for military officials to visit suddenly with bad news. Thirteen more Mercer sons would die in 1968. Nine would die in 1969.
In the end, Greater Trenton's war dead and missing would total 246 -- 56 from Mercer, 53 from Burlington County and 137 from Bucks County, Pa., 18 of them from Levittown alone.
As vividly as Brophy recalls the night of the blizzard, Evelina Fletcher remembers the day the Marines informed her of the death of her son, Trenton's Thompson.
A week or so before, Fletcher said, she had received a letter from her Marine saying his tour was up in two days and he'd be coming home soon.
The next Sunday, Fletcher checked herself out of a hospital following treatment for pneumonia and hustled home to bake his favorite cakes, chocolate and coconut, thinking Thompson might show that day.
She was in the family's upstairs quarters in a house on Chestnut Avenue when she heard heavy footsteps coming up the stairs.
"I could tell it was someone wearing military shoes and I was so excited I started patting my feet on the floor," Fletcher said. "When they opened the door, it was a man in uniform, but it wasn't my son. Then he said, 'James Edward Thompson is dead.' "
Already weakened by her bout with pneumonia, Fletcher collapsed in grief. Thompson's little sister, 13-year-old Ethel Mae, fell into her mother's arms sobbing in bewilderment about the loss of "the big brother who
always took care of me."
"I can hardly talk about it now, after all these years," Fletcher recalled by telephone from her home in Connecticut. "He was so sweet. He never did anything wrong. If I'd tell James to do something, he'd say, 'Yes, ma'am.' "
Her 21-year-old son had been destined for greatness, Fletcher said. He was handsome and solidly built and had learned the importance of working with others as a football and baseball player at Trenton High School. Hoping to better himself, he joined the Marines just after graduation.
But in 1966 and for almost a decade afterward, personal betterment through military service would be risky. Brophy and Thompson were among 20,000 U.S. combat soldiers in Vietnam in 1965 and early 1966.
By year's end, 400,000 American soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen would be fighting in Vietnam, as Johnson decided he wasn't going to become the "first president to lose a war."
In June of '66, Johnson ordered oil depots in North Vietnam bombed, causing civilian deaths that steeled the opposition to fight on. That summer, America saw television news footage of Vietnamese Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire outside South Vietnamese government buildings in protest of the war.
In September, French President Charles de Gaulle called on the United States to pull out -- a cry that was beiing heard increasingly on the campuses of American colleges also.
By then, Brophy had just gotten her voice back following a six-month bout with laryngitis she swears was touched off by her vow, a month after his death, to never talk again about what happened to her good-natured, generous son Dennis J. Brophy.
One evening in a restaurant, Mary Brophy heard some people talking about their opposition to the Vietnam War. She listened in silence for a long time, she said, before something possessed her to speak out.
"I stood up and told them, 'I am a Gold Star Mother,' and you could see their faces drop. I told them my son was drafted and he went to Vietnam to do what he had to do. He didn't make the war, so don't blame the kids who are fighting it."
The last son Mercer lost to the war was killed in 1971, though America remained in Vietnam until 1975 and ended up losing more than 58,000 in war dead.
The Vietnamese leaders who drove out the "capitalist dogs" imposed strict communist rule on the unified nation. But by the 1990s, Vietnam was encouraging American companies to move in because communism was doing nothing to improve the lives of the average Vietnamese.
Today, both Brophy and Fletcher are in their 70s. And ever day for 33 years, the mother said they've thought about the sons they lost in Vietnam and how different their lives would be if those men had lived.
"It's still stabbing me in the heart," Fletcher said.
Back to The Capital Century index
|1966: Casualties of war|
|By PAUL MICKLE / The Trentonian|
|GI's in action, 1966.|
|The casualties come home.|