Documentary focuses on local students killed in Vietnam

Following up on a documentary about the 27 Father Judge High School students killed in Vietnam, the new documentary will focus on more schools with similar high casualty rates in Northeast Philadelphia.

Remembering our heroes: Between Cardinal Dougherty, Northeast Catholic, Father Judge and Thomas Edison high schools, 144 students gave their lives in the Vietnam War. A new documentary will examine the families, community and upbringings of those students.

Joseph Crescenz was 12 when he opened the door to a military official who informed his family his older brother, Michael, had been killed in the Vietnam War. Michael was posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions of seizing a machine gun and firing on enemy bunkers, being killed when he reached the third.

Michael was a student at Cardinal Dougherty High School, which closed in 2010. Between Dougherty, Northeast Catholic, Father Judge and Thomas Edison high schools, 144 students gave their lives at the Vietnam War, though Crescenz was the only one to ever receive a Medal of Honor.

“The way we were brought up, mom and pop never made a big deal out of this, and we felt the other young men killed were no worse or better,” Joseph, 62, recalled. There was an outpouring of support from the community before people continued with their lives – many other neighbors and classmates of Michael’s were having funerals of their own, Joseph recalled.

Talking about his brother isn’t new to Joseph, but it is a muscle he rarely had the opportunity to exercise when he was young. That changed when he was approached by James Kirlin and Shawn Swords, who helped create Remembering the 27 Crusaders, a documentary that interviewed families of fallen Father Judge students. They wanted to hear Crescenz’s story, too.

After creating 27 Crusaders, Swords realized there were still many stories to be told from Father Judge and the surrounding schools, all of which are in a 10-mile radius of one another. Now, they’re creating a follow-up documentary that examines the families, community and upbringings of the 144 students who made the ultimate sacrifice.

“There’s a lot of digging we still have to do” after 27 Crusaders, Swords said. “There were a couple of narrative layers we didn’t get to explore as much as we could.”

Production began earlier this year, with American Veteran Productions eyeing a spring 2020 release for the project. Swords and the crew are trying to get in touch with as many families of the soldiers as they can to include as many voices as possible in the large-scale project.

Continuing the narrative threads presented in the first doc, the filmmakers will examine the lives and situations of the men who went to these schools and why so many of them enlisted in the war.

“These weren’t arbitrary happenings,” Swords said, who said patriotism, racial issues and dropping out of high school may have all been factors in enlisting in the war.

The doc will also look at Michael Crescenz, who shipped out to Vietnam the same month his older brother Charlie returned home. Joseph’s father fought in World War II and his three older brothers were all involved in Vietnam somehow, but after Michael’s death, his family “tried to keep the war away from me and my two little brothers.”

Joseph’s memories of the events are a bit hazy, as it will be 51 years this November since his brother was killed. He recalls his brother’s funeral being closed casket because of the state of his body.

“My father was stubborn as all get out and wanted to see Michael, but Charlie said you can’t do it pop, you don’t want to remember him any other way than before he left,” Joseph said.

The doc will be a collaborative effort among American Veteran Productions, Notable Vietnam Academics and Authors and alumni groups of the four schools

Swords and the film crew travel to homes and other locations to interview families of those killed in the war. Anyone with information should contact Swords at shawn@characterdrivenfilms.com. ••