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In Bucks County, people gather to honor a son who died in Vietnam, naming a bridge in his honor

'As long as his name is spoken, he’ll never be forgotten,' said Ed Preston, head of the Pennsylvania Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

People gather Saturday in Middletown Township, Bucks County, for the dedication of a bridge named for David Ortals, a Marine corporal who died in Vietnam in 1970.
People gather Saturday in Middletown Township, Bucks County, for the dedication of a bridge named for David Ortals, a Marine corporal who died in Vietnam in 1970.Read moreTyger Williams / Staff Photographer

David Ortals has been gone a long time, a Marine corporal who died in Vietnam in 1970.

But people in Bucks County haven’t forgotten.

On Saturday they gathered to remember his life and honor his service, to imagine what he might have been and done if he’d come home from Southeast Asia, and to permanently etch his name into the local landscape.

What in the morning was County Bridge No. 15 had by the afternoon, at the end of a formal dedication ceremony, become the CPL David John Ortals, USMC Memorial Bridge.

“As long as his name is spoken, he’ll never be forgotten,” Ed Preston, head of the Pennsylvania Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, told about 70 people who gathered on two lanes of asphalt, concrete, and steel newly marked and named.

The bridge on Frosty Hollow Road crosses Mill Creek in Middletown Township, Levittown. In those rippling creek waters the Ortals siblings splashed and played as children.

Rick Homa was there Saturday, gray-haired at 74, driving up from Georgia to take part. He and Ortals enlisted in the Marines together, having been close friends since they were in first grade.

“He was more of a brother,” Homa said.

Dennis Best was there, too, a childhood friend of the Ortals kids, a Marine sergeant who lost his legs in Vietnam, now vice president of the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

“Dave was a big guy in my life,” he said.

About 2,100 miles away in Arizona, Ortals’ mother, Winifred, followed the ceremony on an internet livestream. She turned 100 on Saturday, having carried the loss of her son for more than half her life.

“Very difficult,” she said in a phone interview.

She recalled seeing coffins being carried off planes in those war years, the sadness and foreboding of it. “I thought, ‘One day that could be David,’” she said, “never dreaming it could be.”

On Saturday the crowd of friends, supporters, and military veterans loudly cheered her, shouting out, “Happy birthday!” In Peoria, Ariz., near Phoenix, Marine veterans arrived at her home to present her with an American flag.

Her son was 22 when he died in an accident at a Da Nang air base in May 1970, according to records in the National Archives and the Coffelt Database of Vietnam Casualties. He’s buried in California, where he lived in Fullerton with his wife, Donna Awaa. They wed shortly before he left for Vietnam.

As a teenager Ortals attended Bishop Egan High School, then transferred and graduated from Neshaminy High School, having played varsity basketball at both places. He was 19 when he enlisted in 1967, arriving in Southeast Asia in 1969 and serving as a mechanic with the 1st Marine Air Wing.

On Saturday, Homa recalled how together they made an odd pair, Ortals a towering 6-foot-4 and he a foot shorter. How they once went muskrat hunting, their trophies ordered removed from the Ortals household. How his friend once convinced him that he should be the one to retrieve a basketball from the yard of a menacing dog — and how Homa went to the hospital to be treated for bites.

They had no particular reason for enlisting in the Marines, Homa said. It was the time of the draft, and young men could pick their branch of service or be swept into the Army. That was the choice.

Bucks County lost 136 service members in the war, 132 dead and four missing, said Preston, who is working with county officials to have local bridges and roads named for them.

The departed are among more than 58,200 men — and women — whose names are inscribed on a black granite wall in Washington.

Ortals’ name is on Panel 10W, Line 83.

The end of what was then America’s longest war came April 30, 1975, when the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon fell to the communist North, and the last American forces evacuated by helicopter to ships in the South China Sea.

On Saturday, two dozen U.S. flags snapped in a steady breeze, held beside the scarlet-and-gold of the Marines flag. Veterans hugged and greeted one another, and people remembered the old days, when fathers who served in World War II sent their children to serve in Vietnam.

“This may be just a small gesture when compared to what they’ve sacrificed,” said County Commissioners Chairman Bob Harvie Jr., but “we as a county are proud to remember and honor those who gave everything in service to their community and country.”

Winifred Ortals marked the day with her daughter and son — Marilyn Mulville, who lives nearby, and John Ortals, of Indiana. The siblings have aged into an adulthood their brother never had.

“We were pretty close,” said Mulville, who was 13 when her brother died. “We used to tag each other and say, ‘I got you last!’ and run away. He was amazing, a good-looking guy.”

Brother John said the same.

“We miss him every day,” he said. “I’m sad I never got to know him as an adult. He would have been a positive in society, and it’s true for many of the men and women of the service that never came back.”