Fifty years ago, few Americans had heard of Vietnam. That would soon change. In May 1966, Sgt. Walter Stevens was killed in action trying to rescue a fallen Marine. In September of that year, Army Lt. David Rose was mortally wounded by errant mortar fire. Few of their classmates knew about their deaths.
A friend and classmate, Walter Schneider, 68, is currently working in Iraq on the Mine Resistant Ambush Protection (MRAP) vehicle program. He recently created an ROTC Alumni website to honor the rich ROTC tradition at Mission Bay High School. Schneider supported the efforts to reinstitute an ROTC program at his alma mater. He also became aware of a neglected Vietnam War memorial on campus that bears the names of his two friends and four younger Mission Bay students who lost their lives in Vietnam. This is how he learned about a remarkable Mission Bay alumna named Rita Price.
Rita Gaffney Price graduated from high school in 1968 during the height of the Vietnam War. Despite protests and demonstrations on the homefront, she worried about her MBHS friends who had gone to fight "”and some to die "” in an unpopular war.
"I knew all of the young men. They were part of my childhood and teenage years, but sadly not my adult life," Price said.
In the early 1990s, she heard about an ambiguous memorial at Mission Bay High School. Price did not see it herself until 1996. She went to the school and nobody knew about the memorial. Searching with office staff and the principal, they found it outside the auditorium, overgrown with grass. There was no title on the ground-level monument. A bronze plate with an excerpt from a poem and five names on separate bronze plaques were set in cement. The names were David J. Rose, Richard A. Friend (class of 1965), William L. Fix (1967), James P. Gulie (1967) and Charles H. Goldmeyer (1968). Walter Stevens' name was not included. The excerpt was traditional and generic "” "To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die," written by Scottish poet Thomas Campbell.
A 1990 article in the Beach & Bay Press looked back at the memorial's development.
"An ad hoc immemorial committee of 12 students and one faculty member met to begin the project starting in October 1969. This ad hoc committee with opposing viewpoints on the war discussed the design, location, funding, inscription and dedication for a permanent memorial. The Associated Student body approved the project in January 1970."
When completed in 1970, the surrounding area featured a fountain, grass and landscaping. Eventually, time, budget cuts and neglect took their toll.
Price remembers a passing student asking if people were buried there. The student wondered if they were victims of a car accident. Price said she knew she had to do something.
First Price had to convince the school administration that it should be identified as a Vietnam War memorial and that Walter Stevens' name should be added. Fifteen months would pass as she attempted to raise money and have the plaques cast in bronze. She contributed most of the money herself.
In the years to follow, Price would visit the campus from time to time to trim away the grass and later the weeds. Her husband and children knew that mom had another new cause.
Price said her motivation was "to give the memorial the respect that it should have and to honor the fallen students."
Walter Schneider met Rita Gaffney Price through a Vietnam Veterans website. He was impressed.
"Rita is a fine lady and an inspiration to work with. She deserves our respect and thanks for the work she's done with the MBHS memorial plaque," he said.
Schneider wants to correct what he considers to be a disgraceful situation. MBHS principal Cheryl Seelos and JROTC leader Lt. Col. Brian Josten agree, but funds are needed to proceed.
Price had raised $1,000 and Schneider has matched it with his own contribution and additional donations from his 1958 classmates.
Anyone wishing to donate to the Mission Bay High School Vietnam War Memorial Beautification Fund and ROTC scholarships named in honor of the deceased students should contact Rita Price at (858) 274-1480.
On Friday, May 23, JROTC cadets dressed in their Marine dress blue uniforms will conduct three ceremonies at the MBHS Vietnam War memorial site to honor all who have given their lives in service to our country. The names of the fallen Buccaneers will be read aloud.
Three services are scheduled at 8, 9:30 and 11 a.m.
"I have noticed a growing pride among the students in this program and am grateful for Lt. Col. Josten's leadership this year," Seelos said. "He has done a remarkable job in a short period of time."
Walter Schneider adds, "Memorial Day 2008 is important to me, because I have been to many of the Iraq FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) and I have seen the memorial sites there. Having seen the names on the memorials and knowing they represent the lives of troop and the families they left behind, I know it is important to remember and honor our fallen on this Memorial Day and every day."
When the Mission Bay High School Class of 1958 celebrates its 50th Reunion at the Mission Bay Yacht Club in October, there will be two reserved place settings with table signs for Sgt. Walter B. Stevens, USMC, and Lt. David J. Rose, USA.