The Brave Cannot Live Forever
A Screaming Eagle’s tribute to a Trooper of the Herd
Edward J. Regan
In 1962 Ray “Pop” Edwards drove his car from his neighborhood along the South Philadelphia waterfront all the way to Acapulco, Mexico. That is 2825 miles one-way. His cousin, Frankie Ciaciak, who accompanied him, said “Ray told me we would go to Baltimore and eat some crabs, next thing I knew we were in New Orleans and Ray was calling his bank to wire him some money. We hit San Antonio, crossed the border and away we went. ” That is the kind of guy Ray Edwards was, bold, adventurous and fearless. He was a tough guy but never a bully, never picked a fight and never lost a fight. It was in the cards, he was born to be a paratrooper. Ray was from the same neighborhood as World War II Band of Brothers’ Babe Heffron and Wild Bill Guarnere, and he was a direct descendant of their qualities of honor, loyalty and love of country.
Raymond Edwards was born on March 8, 1934 in South Philadelphia to parents, Joseph and Frances Edwards. A family of longshoremen, he had three older brothers, Willie, Edward and Joseph better known on the docks as Pipe, Knobby and Snizz, and one younger brother, Jerry. His parents passed away when he and Jerry were very young and the three older brothers raised the two younger boys in their tough, old neighborhood, along Two Street in South Philly. Jerry would serve with the 82nd Airborne Division, 1/187, from 1958 through 1961. At the age of seventeen in 1951 Ray went to work as a longshoreman on the Philadelphia docks, then in 1953 he joined the Army for his first hitch, as an infantryman with the 47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division. He was honorably separated in 1955 and received his Honorable Discharge. Ray Edwards then returned as a twenty-one year old veteran to the Philadelphia docks. Eventually he left the waterfront and became employed at the Rhome and Haas Corporation, a large, international chemical company.
It was in 1967 when he decided, at age thirty-three, to re-enlist in the U.S. Army. Ray had been a confirmed bachelor at home, a well-loved gentleman but hard edged character in his South Philly neighborhood and off he went, into yet another adventure of his life. After finishing advanced infantry training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina he went to Fort Benning, Georgia where he completed jump school on October 20, 1967 and received his parachutist wings. He volunteered to serve in Viet Nam.
Ray Edwards arrived in Viet Nam in 1967 and served with D Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade and a great love affair began between Pop Edwards and his Herd. For the rest of his entire life he would be 173rd, all the way. Pop was a light weapons infantryman who used all the smarts, logic and guts he acquired on the docks and mean streets of his hometown and would transfer those skills to the jungle and bush of Viet Nam. His 173rd company commander, Captain Dan Mannschreck, said recently, “Pop was the best point man I have ever seen. He walked point all the time and over time he would save all our lives, he was that good, he missed nothing.” In his combat tour of duty in Viet Nam Pop Edwards would be awarded, among other medals, two Bronze Stars for heroism and the coveted Combat Infantry Badge. While in Viet Nam Pop was promoted to Sergeant E-5 and served as both a fire team leader and squad leader. Sgt. Edwards was thirty-four years old and all paratroopers in his squad were teenagers, maybe twenty years old at most. It was in Viet Nam he got the honored name of “Pop” and to this day is still so addressed by all those men with whom he served, enlisted and officers alike. “Hell,” said Captain Mannschreck, a physician who resides now in Maine and Florida, “Back then I was twenty-eight and his company commander and Pop was thirty-four, he was my big brother and best friend.”
In one of his Bronze Star awards Pop Edwards is described leading his fire team in a search and destroy mission when receiving heavy fire from an enemy bunker killing one of his men. Pop then rushed the enemy small arms and automatic weapon’s position with complete disregard for his own safety laying down his own devastating fire on the enemy and inflicting casualties upon them, then screamed words of encouragement to his fire team who followed him in the continued successful assault against the enemy. Pop’s leadership skills and personal bravery left a mark of inspiration on all those who served with him. Pat Fruchtenicht stated warmly, “Pop was the best. He knew what to look for and he knew how to fight, and he sure knew how to take care of his troops. Hell, we were all kids back then and he was our Pop.”
Ray Edwards separated once again from the U.S. Army on February 27, 1970. He had left Viet Nam and served the last few months of his enlistment term in Germany. He returned home to the Rohm and Hass Company, South Philly and bachelorhood, and to all his brothers and their families. Two decades later, in 1990 he became reacquainted with an old family friend, Anna Marie Ballak, who was a divorcee with three children. Ray and Ree would marry and build their dream home in Sussex County, Delaware becoming residents of a quaint town called Milton, 110 miles south of their beloved South Philadelphia. Ray had retired by then and was settled in domestically as husband, father and grand-father. One thing was constant, Ray and Ree attended the 173rd reunion every year.
On September 18, 2010 Pop Edwards was involved in a near fatal vehicle accident which left him seriously disabled. In late September, 2010 Pop lay in a coma in Christiana Hospital in Wilmington, Delaware. One of his troops of Viet Nam, Martin Sanchez, flew in from his home of Houston, Texas to spend some time with his Pop. Martin put himself into a hotel down the road from the hospital and for over a week he would visit Pop each day and night, and held the hand of his unconscious friend. I recall the day Martin Sanchez left to fly home to Texas. We were all in the hospital family room and I walked over to Martin and thanked him for all his efforts and his love for Ray Edwards. “Hell,” answered Martin, “Pop saved my life in Nam. I was lying out in the jungle, wounded and bleeding out. I was both going to die or get captured and die hard. Pop crawled out, got me and brought me out on his back. I love this guy.” Other 173rd veterans visited Pop, including Doctor Mannschreck and George Bembischew. For the next three and a half years Pop Edwards was in varied hospitals and medical facilities due to his injuries. Finally, in 2011, he became a resident of a wonderful veterans’ home, The Delaware Veterans Home, in Milford, Delaware.
On January 10, 2014 Raymond “Pop” Edwards finally succumbed and passed away, surrounded by his loved ones, at the veterans’ home. He is survived by his wife, Ree, three children, Richard, Lori and Christine, and six grand-children, along with all his nieces and nephews. Hundreds of people attended his funeral including many of his cherished 173rd Airborne Brigade some traveling from as far away as California, Texas and Florida. His son, Richard, gave the eulogy at the funeral mass at Saint Philip Neri Church in South Philadelphia and lovingly described Pop Edwards as a hero to all, and a pewful of 173rd veterans simply nodded their heads, in their final salute to their Pop.
Ed Regan served with the 101st Airborne Division and is a retired Philadelphia police sergeant.