A Vietnam encounter at a Cape May inn

Stephen J. Saluga III

Army Specialist 5 Stephen J. Saluga III in Vietnam

My wife, Mary, and I spent a few days last week at a bed-and-breakfast in Cape May, N.J. On the second floor of the Bedford Inn, at a hallway table where guests could help themselves to tea and coffee, was a shrine to a soldier killed in the Vietnam War. His name was Stephen J. Saluga III.

The shrine consisted of a picture of Stephen’s name as it appears on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, a rubbing of his name and a photo of the handsome young man in a flight helmet, taken aboard a helicopter. There is also a framed saying: “Until everyone comes home, until the battle ends, until everyone is safe with their family and friends. Then we shall have peace.” And a painting of a soldier carrying a pack and walking toward a slant of light, titled Heading Home, by Thomas Kinkade.

We asked innkeeper Archie Kirk about Stephen, and he said the soldier was his wife Stephanie’s brother.

Stephen, an Army specialist, was a helicopter crew chief with the 82nd Medical Detachment, 44th Medical Brigade. On Oct. 19, 1968, during a night rescue mission in the Mekong Delta, his chopper crashed and all aboard were killed. Stephen was 21 and the only person from Medford, N.J., to die in the war. Among his medals was a Bronze Star for heroism.

The New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial website says Stephen’s helicopter malfunctioned before plunging into the Bassac River and exploding.  http://www.njvvmf.org/STEPHENSALUGA-vetmemorial2027. But Archie, who said he himself had gotten in on the tail end of the Vietnam War and was familiar with its vagaries, said the circumstances were murky. He said Stephanie found a veteran who’d known her brother in Vietnam, and the vet said the crash happened because the pilot was inexperienced.

The uncertainty reminded me of my cousin Nicky Venditti’s death in Vietnam about nine months after Stephen was killed. Nicky was mortally wounded his first week in the war zone when an Army instructor unwittingly tossed a live grenade during a class for new Americal Division arrivals at Chu Lai. It’s still not clear why the instructor, a sergeant, had a live grenade instead of the inert one he usually carried as a prop. My quest to learn the truth about what happened to Nicky is the subject of my book, Quiet Man Rising: A Soldier’s Life and Death in Vietnam. www.davidvenditta.com

Stephanie Kirk’s family has a history of service to the country. Her father, an Army veteran of World War II, hit Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He died in 2003. A cousin was one of the 17 sailors killed in the 2000 suicide attack on the destroyer USS Cole off Yemen.

During our stay, we didn’t get to talk with Stephanie about her brother. But the loving shrine to Stephen at the Bedford Inn, like the photos of Nicky I have on my desk, is an example of how the memory of Americans who died in that war four decades ago still burns in the hearts of friends and family.

6 responses to “A Vietnam encounter at a Cape May inn

  1. Hello,

    I grew up in the neighborhood where Stephen lived in Medford called Hoot Owl. Lived there for my first 27 years. There is a street named after Stephen called Saluga Trail. To this day, there is a memorial there. It always fascinated me. My parents did know the Salugas and I went to school with his youngest brother Sam. Whenever I see the memorial, it still has an affect on me. I was probably 2 when he died. Beth Conley

  2. I grew up in Hoot Owl as well…still live here. Every Memorial Day, we say a prayer for Stephen…although his family had long moved away when we moved here.

  3. I doubt Stephanie would remember me but we were friends (and fellow fans of Alice Cooper) in the summer of 1970. I have never forgotten that her brother died in Vietnam or that there was a street in her neighborhood named after him. Seeing an advert for the traveling wall coming to my home in PA this summer reminded me of her and him as he has always been the closest association I had with the heartbreak of that war. A Google search of Saluga Trail brought me to your page. I never knew any details of his death but have thought of him many times over the years. I get to Cape May with some regularity so I’ll have to add a visit to the inn to my to do list. Than you for sharing this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s