For Noble, Gallant Sons: The Rebirth of New York Cityís
Vietnam Veterans Plaza
Story and Photos by Michael Keating
A block from the site of the World Trade Center stands St.
Paulís, an elegant, austere church to which George Washington
walked after his inauguration. The church has been temporarily
closed for services so that it can house emergency workers. The
iron fence outside St. Paulís has been transformed into a new
memorial: flowers and photographs and drawings and letters,
stuffed animals and banners all hang from the fence--outpourings
of grief and messages of thanks to the firefighters, police, and
emergency workers who toil nearby.
In November at Ground Zero, fistfights broke out between police
Itís less than a ten-minute walk from the WTC to New York
Cityís Vietnam Veterans Plaza. The memorial was first dedicated in
1984. But the years had not been kind, said Don MacIver, a member
of VVA Manhattan Chapter 126. "The glass wall was badly
vandalized. Trash was everywhere. It was a place homeless people
came to piss and sleep."
On November 9, after a two-and-a-half-year, $7.4 million effort
spearheaded by Chapter 126, the Vietnam Veterans Plaza was
rededicated. That morning, the Plaza quickly filled with several
thousand veterans and other participants, including several
hundred family members of New York City men who died in Vietnam.
"The old design just didnít work," said VVA New York State
Council President John Rowan. The new design retains the
centerpiece of the original: a glass-brick wall on which are
etched fragments from letters and diary entries of soldiers in
Vietnam. The wall, which had been defaced and its interior
lighting system destroyed, is again intact.
Several major changes and additions to the Plaza have been
made. Most significant is the addition of the Walk of the Heroes,
a 125-foot walkway girded by 12 granite pylons that list the names
of the 1,741 men from New York City who were killed or remain
missing in Vietnam. The entries are listed alphabetically and
include ages. The youngest: 15-year-old Dan Bullock, who lied
about his age to join the Marine Corps.
Behind the memorialís glass wall is a circular pool surrounded
by a stone amphitheatre behind which stands a grove of young
sycamores. The wall is flanked by flagpoles displaying the
American and POW flags. Six additional flagpoles line the South
Street entrance to the Plaza. The service flags fly from five of
them. On the sixth flies the flag of Vietnam Veterans of America.
The renovation came with a hefty price tag. Most of the $7.4
million paid for waterproofing, explained Chapter 146 Vice
President Vince McGowan. "Thereís a city underneath that Plaza.
Lots of offices and shops. Those people were concerned." Their
concern eased the burden of fund-raising: they made large
contributions to the memorial fund.
McGowan served as master of ceremonies at the rededication. He
introduced Henry Stern, New York Cityís Commissioner of Parks and
Recreation, who remarked on the contemplative nature of the
memorial, and New York Stock Exchange Chair Richard Grasso, who
saw the dedication as the first step in the rebirth of the Wall
Street area. Two Medal of Honor recipients--Paul Bucha and Thomas
Kelley--addressed the crowd, as did retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen.
Martin Steele and VA Secretary Anthony Principi.
Thanh Bui, accompanied by her three young sons carrying incense
sticks, described her helicopter escape from Saigon and her
integration into American society. Virginia Debonka recited the
poem she wrote shortly after her sonís death in Vietnam:
Be Proud there, Gold Star Mother
For you were the lucky one
To be chosen as the mother
Of your noble, gallant son.
Then the families gathered around the pylons on the Walk of
Honor and unveiled the names. Veterans pressed close to see them.
Others gathered around the stainless steel map of South Vietnam to
discuss their service. Shortly afterward, the reading of the names
Renee Gasque of Bronx Chapter 118 was feeling strong and
confident as he waited his turn to read the list of names he held
in his hand.
"Who has the Fís?" inquired a tall, elegant older woman. Gasque
did. Mrs. Flahive showed him photographs of her son, described
what he was like and how he died.
When he stood to read the names, Gasqueís bravado was gone. He
was vulnerable and grieving and struggled with his task. The old
lady stood before him, silently waiting. When, at last, he read
the name--William Flahive--she softly corrected his pronunciation.
"Sorry, Mom," he murmured.
"When we started this project," Rowan said, "it seemed there
were so many from just one city. Then, in one morning that number
"We didnít do this for ourselves," remarked Chapter 126
President Joseph Graham as he surveyed the refurbished Vietnam
Veterans Plaza with satisfaction. "Itís all for the families. Itís
all about those names and those families."
"Weíve set the groundwork," said Rowan. "Our work is not over.
There are still vets and now there are civilians who are vets,
too. We know why those police and firemen got caught up in fights.
"Vietnam veterans know about PTSD. These people need our help."