WEST BROWNSVILLE – Fallen Vietnam War Pfc. Ronald C. “Smokey” Bakewell’s childhood swimming hole was where Pier No. 3 of a massive new bridge meets the Monongahela River in Fayette County.
If a guy had a strong arm, he could throw a stone and hit the new Mon-Fayette Expressway bridge from the front yard of the house where Bakewell grew up in Alicia, said the late soldier’s childhood friend, Dennis Falsetto, a Brownsville man who led the effort to get state lawmakers to name the bridge in honor of Bakewell.
“It took three years, 10 months and six days,” Falsetto said after nearly 200 people gathered Friday for an emotional ceremony in Bakewell-Phelps American Legion Post 940 in West Brownsville to name the span after Bakewell, who served with the U.S. Army’s Co. C, 1st Air Cavalry Division, and was killed Aug. 2, 1968, at age 20 and just 42 days after he arrived in Vietnam.
“He was the kind of person who made this country special,” said the soldier’s kid brother, Ken Bakewell, 62, of Carroll County, Md.
“The next time you cross that bridge, honk your horn and say hi to Smokey and every other veteran or nurse who never made it back to the world,” Ken Bakewell said, holding back tears, as did nearly everyone else in attendance as he spoke.
The $96-million Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission poured-in-place concrete bridge opened to traffic in July, completing a nearly 60-mile stretch of the expressway from Route 51 in Large, Allegheny County, to Morgantown, W.Va. It is 3,022 feet long and stands 200 feet above the river between Centerville and Redstone Township.
Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Barry L. Lippencott, one of Bakewell’s cousins, said dedicating the bridge to honor his late relative involves “more than just putting up a sign.”
“It’s putting part of Smokey back home overlooking where he grew up,” said Lippencott, of Liverpool, NY., formerly of Brownsville.
Ken Bakewell said he has never forgotten the day nearly 45 years ago when a U.S. Army sergeant arrived at his family’s home to announce his brother had been killed by enemy fire in Quangtri Province, South Vietnam.
“It was the worst day of my life,” he said, recalling that he ran next door upon hearing the news to find his uncle, who served as a minister. “My dad was in a total state of disbelief, and then it just went downhill.”
His 88-year-old father, William G. Bakewell, attended the ceremony, as well as the unveiling earlier of one of two new signs on the bridge designating it in his son’s memory.
“My dad said, ‘That was a terrible price to pay to get a bridge named after my boy,’” Ken Bakewell said.
He said he viewed the day as a “double-edge sword.”
“The closer I got to April 12, the closer I got to 1968,” Ken Bakewell said.
“It makes me feel very proud. Now, we have something positive to think about.”