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For three decades, one man, now 75, has cared for Philly’s Vietnam and Korean War memorials

“The flag means so much to me, especially after my brother came home with it draped over his coffin.“

Jim Moran, 75, who is the volunteer caretaker for the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial, inspects the American flag at the memorial.
Jim Moran, 75, who is the volunteer caretaker for the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial, inspects the American flag at the memorial.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

No one is quite sure when Jim Moran became the caretaker of the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial, especially Jim Moran.

It just seems that for as long as the monument has been around, Moran, 75, has been there, picking up trash, watching out for vandals, and caring for Old Glory.

“The flag means so much to me, especially after my brother came home with it draped over his coffin,” he said.

Moran’s brother — Bernard J. Moran Jr. — is one of 648 names etched into the city’s granite Vietnam memorial, all servicemen from Philadelphia who gave their lives in the war.

Moran was there the day the memorial was dedicated in 1987 and just kept coming back every day, to think and to pray. Nobody ever asked him to be the caretaker, and he never offered.

It just happened.

Moran saw things that needed to be done and so he did them. Over time, he found it brought him closer to the veterans memorialized on the monument.

“When I started in 1987, I had one brother,” he said. “Now I have 648.”

Moran used to spend 14 hours a day, seven days a week keeping watch over the memorial. But he hurt his knee a few years ago, so he only comes three days a week now.

Each time, Moran takes the bus from his house at 26th and South Streets where he’s lived all his life (except those 11 years when he was married) to the memorial at Spruce Street and Columbus Boulevard at Penn’s Landing.

His self-designated duties include: making sure the flags in the ground are straight; making sure the flags on the poles aren’t tattered and switching them out or getting them repaired if they are; making sure the lights work; picking up the trash (always being mindful to tear off the soda can tabs to send to the Ronald McDonald House); sweeping up leaves; scraping off anything stuck to the memorial; keeping an eye out for vandals who have urinated on, spray-painted, and damaged the memorial in other ways; and admonishing dog walkers who don’t clean up after their pets.

He also stops teens who come through, telling them about the wars and the military.

“I say, ‘Can I talk to youse for a minute? Why don’t youse do yourself a favor and think about going into the service?’ " he said. “A couple times I got cursed at, but most of the times I got my hand shook.”

And when the teens tell him they don’t want to get shot?

“I say, ‘You have a better chance of getting shot in the city of Philadelphia than you do in the service.’“

But above all else, Moran looks out for the veterans.

“His main concern is protection of the names on the monument,” said Mike Daily, executive director of the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. “And he’s done a hell of a job.”

About eight years ago, Moran became the de facto caretaker of the Philadelphia Korean War Memorial across the street, too.

Nobody else was doing it. And he was around.

Moran’s son, Bernard — whom he named after his brother and who retired in 2016 as a first sergeant in the Marines after 22 years — said he’s not certain why his dad is so devoted to the memorials.

“I’ve been trying to wrap my head around that for a very long time,” he said. “The only thing I can come up with is because a part of his brother is there.”

Jim Moran grew up the son of a Philadelphia firefighter and a claims worker. He and his big brother, Bernard, used to spend their days fishing in the Schuylkill.

“It wasn’t nothing for me to walk into the bathroom and for my brother to have catfish swimming in the tub,” he said.

In 1955, Bernard Moran graduated from Southeast Catholic High School at 17, got married, and joined the Marine Corps.

He was first deployed to Vietnam in 1965, then again in 1967.

When Jim Moran dropped his brother off at the airport for his third tour of duty in 1971, he had a bad feeling.

“I said, ‘Three tours, you’re pushing it. ... I got bad vibes,’ “ Moran recalled. “He says, ‘I’ll be all right. ... Either I’m coming home the most decorated Marine or I’m not coming home.’ “

On Dec. 12, 1971, Bernard was killed when he was shot down in a small plane over Cambodia.

He was 33.

Jim Moran was 27 and sitting in a parked car outside of his parents’ house when a brown Ford Marine Corps car pulled up.

“And I knew,” he said, tears still welling in his bright blue eyes.

To this day, Moran keeps his brother’s dog tag in his pocket, along with the first chip of damage from the Vietnam memorial, and three saint medals.

His son, Bernard, 44, said his dad talked about the Marines and his uncle often when he was growing up. When he told his father he wanted to join the Marines, he was proud.

“He was really happy and excited that I was going,” Bernard Moran said. “I guess you can say that I was following in his brother’s footsteps.”

But then Bernard was deployed for a tour in Iraq and two in Afghanistan.

“I was worried all the time, after going through all that I went through with my brother,” Jim Moran said. “I was constantly with him in my mind.”

But he put up a brave front.

“It wasn’t until I came home from deployments that I knew how much he was worried,” Bernard Moran said of his dad.

On a recent rainy day at the memorials, as Jim Moran switched out a tattered Korean flag for a new one, he said he hopes someone will step up to care for the memorials when he’s no longer able to.

“Our troops and what they go through and their families, how could anybody forget something like that?” he said. “How could anybody turn their heads on them and not care?”

On Monday, Nov. 11, Veterans Day ceremonies will be held at 11 a.m. at the Korean War Memorial and at 12:30 p.m. at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.