Death by System: A Two-Generation Tale of Loss and Betrayal

Every trip from Vietnam, a place I have called home for nearly two decades, to my home state of Delaware includes a pilgrimage to my father’s grave in Lawn Croft Cemetery, a stone’s throw from the state border in the industrial wasteland of Linwood, PA. It is a short, somber, and depressing ride, the home stretch lined with seedy shops selling tax-free liquor and tobacco products and making title and payday loans to down-and-out locals, tell-tale signs of a neighborhood in economic decline – like so much of the country.

I am the only one of his three children who walks this path. For my older sisters, his grave is where his physical remains reside, not his spirit. True enough, but for me, it is a tangible location where I can pay my respects, say a prayer, burn incense, touch (and even kiss) his bronze plaque, and listen to the bells off in the distance playing church hymns from my childhood and familiar folk songs, the musical equivalent of comfort food. I relish the breeze blowing through the trees and grass and remember him with a mixture of sorrow, gratitude, and love. I treasure these annual visits as a source of solace and peace.

Richard Edwin Ashwill (1925-1967), who hailed from Ohio and was descended from 18th and early 17th century English settlers (think Jamestown and Mayflower), died of a fast-moving cancer that planted its deadly seeds in his lungs and quickly metastasized to his brain. He was diagnosed in January of that year and breathed his last on the last evening of July.

The following morning, I intuitively knew he was gone before my dear mother broke the news. Her husband, my father was laid to rest on a sultry and rainy day in early August. He was 42 and I was nine. By a cruel twist of fate, my dad is one of many immediate and extended family members who were denied the privilege of growing older because of illness or accident.

Cancer was the official cause of death. The manner was death by corporation. He wasn’t the only one. My late mother once talked about the fleeting possibility of filing a class action lawsuit, along with other grieving widows, against – wait for it – DuPont, a company that is synonymous with Delaware, where many of my parents’ friends worked and on whose golf courses I played as a teenager. Chambers Works, on the other side of the Delaware River in Carneys Point, New Jersey, has been described as “ground zero for some of the world’s most environmentally devastating commercial enterprises.”

In retrospect, the carcinogens that triggered the growth of malignant cancer cells in my father and some of his colleagues were likely closer to where they worked every day. One of my father’s patents, “Hydrodesulfurization of Catalytically Cracked Gas Oil,” tells you all you need to know about the kinds of materials he worked with, not to mention what was in the air and water of the surrounding environment.

Before we moved to the outer reaches of suburbia where the air was cleaner and the landscape greener, I can still remember the acrid smell that occasionally wafted over to my home and school in nearby Claymont, Delaware whenever the wind chose to blow in that direction. The lawsuit never materialized because of the pressing need for husbandless mothers to take care of their children and get on with their lives.

Richard Ashwill, a graduate of Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) worked as a chemical engineer and research scientist for Houdry Process Corporation, which was acquired by Air Products in 1962. Its founder Eugène Jules Houdry (1892-1962), a French immigrant, is best known for developing the first full-scale commercial catalytic cracker for the selective conversion of crude petroleum to gasoline at the Marcus Hook Refinery of Sun Company, later Sunoco, Inc., in 1937.

Ironically, the Houdry Laboratory, where my father worked, long since razed, was located a short distance from the cemetery. (I remember going to a company picnic one summer and visiting his lab.) Another irony is that what’s left of Sunoco is right down the hill and across the street from Lawn Croft Cemetery. The high achiever that he was, my father was working on an MS in chemical engineering at the University of Delaware when he passed. While he was richly rewarded for his specialized work, my dad paid the ultimate price in early middle age at a time when workplace safety was not the priority it should have been.

Like many members of his generation, my dad was a smoker, which could well have been a catalyst for the early onset of cancer. Research has shown that cigarette smoke activates eGFR (estimated glomerular filtration rate, a measure of how well your kidneys are functioning) and COX-2, both known to be important in cell proliferation and transformation. Cigarette smoke also contains cocarcinogens and tumor promoters that usually lead to cell proliferation. In plain language, the double curse of smoking and environmental exposure to cancer-causing substances drastically increases your chances of becoming a cancer victim at a younger age.

Earlier this year, one of my sisters coincidentally met with a man whom my father had interviewed for a position in the spring of 1967. He said that remarkably, but perhaps not surprisingly, all of my father’s colleagues who were smokers quit after his passing. It’s worth remembering that it wasn’t until 1964 that the US Surgeon General released his famous report identifying smoking as a cause of lung cancer and chronic bronchitis and a probable cause of coronary heart disease.

It wasn’t until the late 1990s that tobacco companies admitted the obvious: smoking causes cancer and other diseases. This was after whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand stated in a nationally televised interview that his former employer, Brown and Williamson, had intentionally manipulated its tobacco blends with chemicals to heighten the impact of nicotine in cigarette smoke.

One of my father’s colleagues lived to the ripe old age of 102, outliving him by nearly 50 years. What was the difference? Perhaps the fact that he never smoked or drank, especially the former. (Both can contribute to cancer cell growth.) That’s my educated guess and aligns with what people who are better informed about these matters, including medical professionals, tell me. On an ironic side note, he was the man my well-meaning mother introduced as a short-lived surrogate father to engage in some father and son activities that I vaguely (and not fondly) remember.

Neighbors in Death

A cursory online search reveals that many of the people buried in Lawn Croft Cemetery who are from that area, i.e., Delaware County, died of some form of cancer before they reached their life expectancy. The young man buried to the right of my father is a glaring exception. The information on his grave plaque leaves no doubt as to how and where Benjamin H. Harris (1943-1966) from nearby Marcus Hook met his abrupt end at the tender age of 23.

A year earlier, Ben met his end in a hail of bullets in Quang Nam province in Vietnam in November 1966. The cause of death was listed as “gunshot or small arms fire.” While Corporal Harris, a machine gunner who served with the 1st Marine Division, 2nd Battalion, Company E, probably swallowed the official red, white, and blue line that he was a savior fighting for freedom and democracy, the Vietnamese soldier who ended his life did so defending his nation from yet another foreign invader.

Contrary to the customary fawning and expressions of gratitude for his “supreme sacrifice” on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) virtual The Wall of Faces, one of which is entitled “Remembering An American Hero,” Ben didn’t die a hero; he just died because of the lies of his government and its involvement in an unjust and immoral war.

Those who speak of sacrifices, answering our nation’s call, need something to believe in, something to hold onto lest they stare into the Great Abyss of Betrayal and Nothingness. Cultural mythology is their salve, their consolation, their ideological and emotional anchor and guidepost. It ensures they never have to question a values system anchored in blood and lies that predates the founding of the republic by nearly 170 years. It guarantees that the political Santa Claus that is the USA survives unquestioned as the self-proclaimed greatest nation on earth.

The young Vietnamese man who pulled the trigger committed an act of national self-defense. He was the hero, not the man whose life he cut short. His victim was the unwitting aggressor and dupe who, along with millions of his comrades, had no right to be in Vietnam. Many came to that realization in short order; others are still living in a geopolitical fantasy world. Like the 58,280 others whose names are inscribed on The Wall in Washington, D.C., Ben Harris died in vain, as emotionally wrenching as it is to express that stark and sad reality.

Both my father and Ben Harris died unnecessarily, one with a wife and three children and a successful career, and the other recently married, most likely with children and a happy family life in his mind’s eye. Harris was collateral damage, cannon fodder in yet another pointless US imperial misadventure logically known in Vietnam as the American war. My father was the victim of an economic system in which profit trumped workplace safety.

His former boss, Eugène Houdry, exceeded his life expectancy, dying a peaceful death at his well-appointed home in the tony Philadelphia suburb of Upper Darby, a 20-minute drive from Linwood and Marcus Hook that may as well have been light-years away in environmental and socioeconomic terms.

After some digital sleuthing, I discovered that Ben’s widow, Charlotte M. (Faulkner) Harris, outlived him by half a century. Charlotte, who hailed from nearby Chester, PA, died in 2017 at the age of 73. While she had a partner from 1969 until his death in 2012, she never remarried nor did she have any children, to my knowledge.

Take this tragic story and multiply it by millions and you have a fleeting glimpse of the devastating impact and ripple effect of each death. Both my father and his next-door neighbor in death died before their time, one doing something he loved and the other doing what he felt was his patriotic duty.

Both left this world far too soon and, in their wake, a chain reaction of avoidable and pointless suffering, sadness, anger, and regret. This is also the story of a nation that continues to this day with past lessons unlearned and no end in sight.

Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived in Vietnam since 2005. He is an associate member of Veterans for Peace Chapter 160. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam and can be reached at