Sisters Beth Casey and Christine Banducci don’t remember the sound of their father’s voice. They only know his face from pictures, and his words from the letters he mailed home from Vietnam in 1967.
Not long after the letters arrived, military personnel showed up to tell the siblings' mother that her husband, Denis O’Connor, was gone. He had been killed in an ambush, they said.
“Beth noticed that mom was crying and had a lot of questions,” Banducci said, relating a story her mother Patty Ekenberg had told her. “‘Why did the men come to the door and make mom cry?’”
This Veterans Day in San Francisco, the American Legion will rededicate a newly-cast plaque honoring the 168 city residents who died in the Vietnam War. O’Connor, who was born in San Francisco, is among the names engraved on the memorial.
“Just seeing it engraved just really makes it so real,” Casey said.
The sisters, along with their mother and other family members, plan to attend the 4 p.m. ceremony at the War Memorial Building, where the plaque is being relocated after 15 years on the Embarcadero. Paul Cox, who chairs the American Legion War Memorial Commission, said the Embarcadero site wasn’t fitting for the poignant memorial.
“It had been tagged, it hadn’t been maintained,” Cox said, his voice echoing through the cavernous lobby of the War Memorial Building. “It was a good thing to move it here because this is where that memory needs to be held.”
Cox said the newly re-cast plaque also gave organizers the opportunity to add the names of five previously-unknown casualties — whose names were identified on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.
“These were real individuals — they had families they had parents, siblings, girlfriends, wives, children,” Cox said. “That loss is very real and is still felt by those families.”
Casey was 2 years old and her sister was a year younger when O’Connor was killed at the age of 27. They came to know their dad through the letters written by his fellow servicemen, attesting to his bravery and sense of humor.
Their grandfather from Ireland sent the women a 54-page handwritten letter on the family’s history, and his recollection of O’Connor as a boy.
“In those years growing up, it didn’t come up that much,” Casey said. “We just knew our dad died in Vietnam.”
Their mother married a man who then adopted the two girls. But tragedy visited the family again when he died of a heart-attack at the age of 51. After that, their mother began to reveal more details of their dad — his dedication to God, country and family.
“Through my mom we just started to learn about the person that he was,” Casey said.
The women recently sat at a round dining table in Orinda covered with letters, news clippings, pictures and a family album. A newspaper article about O’Connor’s death was accompanied by a picture of the young sisters and their mother.
Banducci related that earlier in the day, she drove past the hillside crosses in Lafayette that are dedicated to service members killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. She likened the crosses to the raised brass letters of her father’s name on the Vietnam Memorial.
“I think it really is important to have something visual, to have names,” Banducci said, “to realize that those were families that suffered a great loss.”