Filmmakers are creating a documentary that will honor the 27 soldiers who graduated from Father Judge High School and made the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam.
Outside of Father Judge High School stands a memorial honoring 27 graduates who were killed in the line of duty in Vietnam.
The soldiers, who graduated in the 1960s, make up the largest number of students killed in an active Catholic or private school in the entire country. It shared that record with fellow Philadelphia school Cardinal Dougherty High School, which closed in 2010.
Though the memorials honor the fallen soldiers, filmmakers Shawn Swords and John Ricciutti felt the families of the victims never got to properly tell their stories.
Swords, of Irish American Films, and Ricciutti, of Radnor Studio 21, are making the documentary Remembering the 27 Crusaders to give them a chance to continue healing through storytelling. The pair was inspired by James Kirlin, a Judge graduate and Vietnam veteran himself.
“I knew this was a story that should be told,” Kirlin said. He serves as an adviser to give perspective to the documentary and said he knew several of the soldiers.
The documentary will focus on Father Judge, but will portray all of Northeast Philadelphia during the Vietnam War. The filmmakers are trying to interview families of all 27 soldiers, as well as priests at the school who knew them as students, and other veterans.
As they conducted interviews, they found a common theme, that family members had no platform to express their grief and tell their stories. At the time, PTSD was not as widely recognized as it is now, with little emotional support or counseling available.
“A lot of the feelings they had were harbored for 50 years,” Ricciutti said. “In some cases, it took the family years and years and years to grieve.”
When family members were killed in the war, soldiers would come to their family’s door to deliver the news. The dreaded visit was known as the knock on the door.
Swords, director of the project, recounted one interview where only the daughter was home for the knock on the door. The soldiers drove the daughter to the grocery store, where the mother was, to deliver the news.
“As soon as she saw the soldiers, she went hysterical in the store and in the parking lot,” Swords said.
Swords found it necessary to accurately capture the feeling of Northeast Philadelphia at the time these soldiers were children. He called the area “idyllic,” with children growing up playing together on the streets.
“Once they went to Father Judge, it looked like they were on another trajectory to go to school or into public services or trades,” Swords said.
Vietnam circumvented those expectations.
Swords said, as the documentary takes shape, that narrative will drive the tone of the final product.
From his time there, Kirlin called Father Judge a blue-collar school.
“The poor and the blue collar fight the war,” he said.
Thomas Alva Edison High School in North Philadelphia has the highest number of soldier deaths from Vietnam of any public school at 64.
The crew has been working at a relentless pace. Production began in March, with the hope of releasing the film before Veterans Day in November. Swords and Ricciutti are often putting in 100-hour work weeks.
Local screenings are planned once the documentary is complete. The documentary is planned to be made available online.
The documentary will also highlight memorials for the 27 and feature original music. It is independent from Father Judge.
American Irish Films previously produced The Cut, a documentary about 57 people who died near railroad tracks about 30 miles out from Philadelphia. ••
Donations can be made here. All donations go to the Delaware County Veterans Memorial, an association that helps educate and pay tribute to veterans that is helping produce the film.