[Editor’s note: On March 22, 1968, the very day the municipality of Highlands was celebrating it’s 68th anniversary, one of its native sons gave his life in Vietnam. The following is a reprint of an article written by Muriel J. Smith some years ago about Thomas Ptak.]
They buried Tommy Ptak Monday morning, the local newspaper in Highlands reported April 4, 1968.
It was Specialist fourth class Thomas Ptak, 270 Highland Avenue, son of Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Ptak, to the very militarily correct Army sergeant who escorted the soldier’s body from the place where he died in Hue, Vietnam, back home to Highlands for the funeral, then on to Mt. Olivet Cemetery where he will rest forever.
It was Spec 4/c Thomas Ptak to the six ramrod straight and Army-perfect soldiers who served as pallbearers at the military funeral at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church where Tommy and his family had worshipped all his life.
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To all Americans, to all citizens of a free country, it was Spec. 4/c Thomas Ptak whose body lay in the plain casket under the American flag.
But to the hundreds of people who crowded into Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church for a last goodbye and a funeral mass, to the dozens more who spilled out onto the steps of the Church that gave a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean, it was just plain Tommy. It was Tommy to young brothers and sisters, some of whom weren’t old enough to comprehend the ugly way in which he died. It was Tommy to sorrowing parents who couldn’t begin to comprehend what wonderful parents they had been and how much love they received from all ten of their children. It was Tommy, the son who would have been proud of their strength at his funeral.
It was Tommy to the dozens and dozens of high school students from the regional high school he attended, and the two local Catholic high schools where some of his friends attended. They all could remember happier days when Tommy was skillfully performing on a gym horse or tossing a ball with them in the middle of the street .
It was Tommy to the school principals who remembered Tommy as a “good boy, a typical boy, the kind you’d want in any class.” It was Tommy to practically every neighbor along Highland Avenue and Valley St. where Tommy grew up, folks who remembered a friendly wave or a smile from a busy youth working on a motorcycle in the yard as they passed the always happy, always busy Ptak home. Neighbors who had broken all the rules of protocol and flew their American flags at half-staff even before Highlands Mayor John A. Bahrs ordered it for the entire town. The neighbors had all gone out to front yards to lower their flags the minute they heard of Tommy’s death.
It was Tommy to the three priests who concelebrated the funeral mass: the one who grew up in the parish and knew the whole Ptak family, the one who spent five years in the parish and knew and visited often with the family, and the one who just arrived in Highlands the year previous, not lucky enough to get closely acquainted with the young hero.
It was Tommy to the police chief and members of the police department who could remember he was ‘a nice kid, we ought to have more like him.”
It was Tommy to the altar boys who formed their own guard of honor as his body left the church. Boys who were classmates of Tommy’s younger brothers or sisters.
It was Tommy to the grammar school girls who sorrowfully sang a very special funeral mass. It was a mass for the Tommy some of them had looked up to when they were very small, and he was a big eighth grader. It was Tommy, the big brother of their classmates, the big brother who looked so grown up and handsome in his army uniform.
It was Tommy to a neighbor who had served more than twenty years himself in the service of his country. Now retired as a Sergeant Major, Sal Giovenco attended the funeral in full dress uniform, perhaps to show the family of the young hero that he was proud of this particular soldier, proud to have known him, and proud to show that he too believes in the cause for which Tommy died. Sal knew, and showed, Tommy deserved the honor and respect of the American soldier’s uniform.
The official records refer to Tommy as Thomas John Ptak. Born Feb. 1, 1948, died March 22, 1968. The Army records indicate he was an E4, Specialist Fourth Class, ID # 11755688, a member of C Company, Second Battalion, 501st Infantry, 101st Infantry Regiment…Geronimo, as it was known. He had been promoted twice. He started his Vietnam tour on March 14, 1967, and he was in Thua Thien Province, South Vietnam, March 22, 1968, 98 days later, when he was killed in a hostile ground attack of multiple fragmentation wounds. Died outright, the records say. Body recovered. He did have many honors, though: the Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Medal, Combat Infantry Badge and several Vietnam Campaign Medals presented by the South Vietnamese government in appreciation for our American forces.
They buried Tommy Ptak Monday morning, the newspaper continued. The nation lost a soldier, parents lost a son, and Highlands lost a very special youth.
Tommy Ptak was the town’s only casualty of the Vietnam War. It was as a tribute to him and to the cause for which he fought, that the borough’s first high rise senior citizen complex, located just down the hill from where he worshipped, was dedicated as Ptak Towers.
Tommy Ptak would love it that the borough’s first affordable housing built to help the older residents of the town he loved so much stands as a living memorial to himself.