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Two Philly-area veterans help bring PBS's 'Vietnam War' home

The 18-hour documentary series, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick ("The War," "Baseball"), and written by Geoffrey C. Ward, premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on WHYY12.

Marine Bill Ehrhart (left) and Army helicopter chief Ron Ferrizzi during their tours of duty in Vietnam. The two are among those looking back on their experiences in the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary miniseries “The Vietnam War,” which begins Sunday on PBS.
Marine Bill Ehrhart (left) and Army helicopter chief Ron Ferrizzi during their tours of duty in Vietnam. The two are among those looking back on their experiences in the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary miniseries “The Vietnam War,” which begins Sunday on PBS.Read morePBS

Ron Ferrizzi knows exactly where he'll be when his face pops up on screen at the beginning of the sixth episode of  PBS's documentary miniseries The Vietnam War.

"I'm going to be with 230 people," who will be celebrating, a few months early, the 50th wedding anniversary of Ferrizzi and his wife, Kathleen. "We have a big party planned. I'm going for my tux this afternoon with my grandson," he said of the Sept. 24 occasion, scheduled long before the couple knew anything else might be happening that night.

"We're actually talking about getting a big screen. We're all going to watch it," Ferrizzi said. As of Wednesday, he said, he had seen only one episode at a screening in New York, but was expecting to receive DVDs of all 10 before they aired.

Ferrizzi, a retired custom-framemaker raised in the Swampoodle section of North Philadelphia, and Bill Ehrhart, who teaches English and history at the Haverford School and grew up in Perkasie, are two of the veterans who speak, memorably, about their experiences in the miniseries, 10 years in the making.

The Vietnam War, which premieres Sunday (8 p.m., WHYY12), will air in its entirety over the next two weeks, Sunday through Thursday, before rerunning on a weekly schedule beginning Oct. 3.

The 18-hour documentary miniseries was directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, and written by Geoffrey C. Ward, the team behind The War, Prohibition, and Baseball. It's a dense, often revelatory look at the history, politics, and grim realities of the conflict that doesn't confine itself to America's experience. Among the dozens of witnesses interviewed are Vietnamese combatants and civilians from both sides.

Novick — who during the production process made three trips to Vietnam, each about three weeks long,  and who was headed back there when we spoke last month — said, "One of the many mistakes that Americans made, and still make in a way, in thinking about the Vietnam War is that we think it's just about us. And if you just think about what happened to Americans, and what Americans did or didn't do, you're missing pretty important parts of this very complicated story.

"People say today Vietnam is a country, not a war, and that's good for Americans to remember," she said. "But on the other hand, you don't have to dig too deep, once you start asking people" about the war.

Nearly everyone she spoke to, "and that's hundreds of people … knew somebody who died in the war. It took me a while to absorb that and to realize what that meant and to then steel myself to ask that question. Because everyone has a tragedy in their life, directly related to this war, whatever side they were on," Novick said.

"The Vietnamese voices, and the sense of so-called ordinary American voices that populate our film are so important," Burns said in a separate interview. "We did not interview Henry Kissinger. We did not interview John McCain and John Kerry."

Instead, they decided "to interview the people that were involved, that don't have a career or a reputation or a legacy to burnish or revive or cover up," he said. "It's just what happened — and not making the other [person or perspective] wrong. … We tried to create a place in which a lot of different views could coexist."

‘I got shot at a lot’

In the sixth episode, Ferrizzi, who enlisted in March 1967, describes what he did as a helicopter crew chief on a light scouting helicopter, which was akin, he says, to riding around in "a lawn chair." His job was "to get shot at. My job was to draw enemy fire. I got shot at a lot. I engaged the enemy a lot," Ferrizzi says in an interview that he said was filmed several years ago.

In a later episode, he's shown participating in the April 1971 demonstration outside the U.S. Capitol, organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, in which they threw their medals over a barricade erected to keep them out.

Among the medals Ferrizzi threw: his Silver Star, awarded for pulling a soldier from a burning helicopter, and his Purple Heart. "Throwing my medals back was probably harder than going to the war … [but] I wouldn't put them on the wall for my son. That was the last thing in the world I would ever want my son to revere," he says in the film.

"I realized after three days in Vietnam that we were doing the wrong thing. I knew it was wrong immediately. I had far more respect for the enemy that I was fighting than the officers I was fighting under," Ferrizzi, who lived for many years in Northeast Philadelphia and now lives in Berks County, said Wednesday. "I was fighting to stay alive."

Ehrhart, a poet and writer living in Bryn Mawr, who has studied and written extensively about the war, including the memoir Vietnam-Perkasie, had been accepted by four colleges in his senior year of high school. Instead, he joined the Marines at 17.

"I volunteered. I was a John Kennedy anti-Communist liberal, and I was going to save the Vietnamese from the scourge of Communism,"

Ehrhart said Wednesday. "It never occurred to me that my government would be wrong, that my government would misuse and abuse me, that my government would lie to me. None of that stuff ever occurred to me. So my experience in Vietnam was extremely disturbing."

It was June 2011 while living in Mount Airy that he sat down with Novick in a neighbor's home for the interview that's excerpted in several episodes, beginning in the third, in which he recalls the 1964 presidential campaign in which "I rode around [in] the back of a flatbed truck in Perkasie with a bunch of my classmates, singing Barry Goldwater campaign songs 'cause Lyndon Johnson was not tough enough on those Communists."

"I talked for a couple of hours, two or three hours," Ehrhart said of the interview, which reveals his later disillusionment. "I know they had to call New York and get somebody to drive down with more film, because it turned out that I had a lot more to say than they'd anticipated."

Ehrhart, who as of Wednesday had seen only one episode and a few clips of The Vietnam War, is scheduled to appear Oct. 12 with Novick at a WHYY-sponsored event,  He said she would be coming the next day to the Haverford School.

He  teaches an elective class on the U.S. and Vietnam — "not a course on the Vietnam War," he said. It starts in ancient China — but for many of his other students, some of whom weren't born or "were in diapers" at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Vietnam War "might as well be the Peloponnesian Wars."

History takes time

The passage of time was important to Burns, who believes historical films need some distance from the events with which they deal.

"Ten years ago, or 15 years ago, we wouldn't have been able to aggregate all of the extraordinary scholarship that's taken place, both in Vietnam and in the United States, about Vietnam. I don't think we'd have been able to have the kind of access we enjoyed to Vietnam itself — not just the country, physically, geographically, but its archives, which had not been opened before, and most important, to its people, who are North Vietnamese civilians and North Vietnamese soldiers, Viet Cong guerrillas," as well as among the "huge South Vietnamese diaspora, spread out particularly in the United States — the South Vietnamese civilians, diplomats, protesters, and, of course, soldiers," Burns said.

As for the Americans who were interviewed, he thinks "all of them needed to get that extra 15 years under their belt, to then put it in into a kind of perspective for them."