The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

Special Commemorative Issue, November 2002
 
   
 

The Last Full Measure of Devotion

By Marc Leepson


One of the first was built in 1971 by a bereaved father on his own land, with his own funds, in a windswept valley deep in the mountains of northern New Mexico. The most famous was built in 1982 by a determined group of Vietnam veterans and their supporters on a 2.2-acre tract donated by the United States Congress in "the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial in the nation's capital. Hundreds of others-at least 500-have been built in state capitals, county seats, on city squares, town plazas, military bases, and college campuses in all 50 states, on Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and in several foreign countries.

We are talking, of course, about memorials to those- living and dead-who served in Vietnam, another noteworthy chapter in the legacy of the nation's longest and most controversial overseas war. When, how, and why America came to honor those who served in Vietnam is an instructive part of the ongoing saga of the impact of the Vietnam War on American society.

It is not widely known, but Americans publicly remembered those who served in Vietnam while the war was still being fought. In the summer of 1966, for example, the city of Chicago officially named a 10.5-acre park on Lake Michigan for a local hero: 18-year-old Army Pfc. Milton Lee Olive III, a Medal of Honor winner who died in Vietnam in 1965. The city subsequently named a junior college and a portion of the mammoth McCormick Place Convention Center in honor of the former 173rd Airborne trooper who lost his life smothering a grenade in what Olive's platoon commander called "the most incredible display of selfless bravery I ever witnessed."

Other early efforts include the Veterans Day 1966 dedication of a memorial in Grass Valley, California, to honor Gary Ames Miller, a local Marine who died in the war. That memorial, consisting of a plaque set in a round core of hard rock, is dedicated to Miller and to all Vietnam veterans. In December 1967, the citizens of Wentzville, a small town in eastern Missouri, strung a 30-foot tree with lights to honor the town's military men serving in Vietnam.

On September 15,1968, when it came time to name its new football stadium, Dunedin High School in Florida choose to honor 13 former students killed in the war. Dunedin H.S. Memorial Stadium was dedicated that day with marble plaques engraved with the 13 names. Before the war was over, nine more names were added.

An engraved stone dedicated November 11, 1968, at Maynard Evans High School in Orlando, Florida, honors 18 men from Maynard who died in Vietnam. A simple gravestone, inscribed "Died for Their Country," was placed in front of Maryland's North Carroll High School in 1971 to honor four graduates who died in the war.

One of the first of dozens of on-base military memorials honoring Vietnam veterans became a reality on May 29, 1968, when Florida's Eglin Air Force Base dedicated the 23-acre Memorial Lake to USAF personnel killed in the war. In 1969, the Algoma Optimist Club in Algoma, Wisconsin, put up a brick monument and flagstaff at the intersection of two state highways and dedicated the structure to that town's residents who served in Vietnam.

The most famous of the early Vietnam veterans memorials, at Angel Fire, New Mexico, was christened the Vietnam Veterans Peace and Brotherhood Chapel by Dr. Victor Westphall, who built it with family funds on family property in 1971 as a tribute to his son, Marine lieutenant Victor David Westphall III, killed in Vietnam in 1968. Now known as the DAV Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Angel Fire's gleaming, white-winged chapel sits on a hill in the shadow of 13,000-foot Wheeler Peak. Also on the site is a modem, 6,000-square-foot visitors center housing a large display of war memorabilia, a small library, and an audio-visual display about the monument. Dr. Westphall, now 79, lives on the premises.

In 1971, Westphall was turned down when he went to his state and local governments for help with a memorial to Vietnam veterans. He was not alone. One of the many unfortunate consequences of the divisive national debate over the Vietnam War was the nation's general indifference-mixed with hostility- toward those who took part in the fighting. As all Vietnam veterans know, that woeful state of affairs lasted until the early 1980s.

Novelist Philip Caputo expressed the feelings of many veterans in the form of a cri de coeur to his friend, Lt. Walter Neville Levy, a fellow Marine who was killed in Vietnam in September 1965. "As I write this 11 years after your death, the country for which you died wishes to forget the war in which you died," Caputo wrote in his memorable 1977 memoir, A Rumor of War. "Its very name is a curse. There are no monuments to its heroes, no statues in small-town squares and city parks, no plaques, nor public wreaths, nor memorials. For plaques and wreaths and memorials are reminders, and they would make it harder for your country to sink into the amnesia for which it longs. It wishes to forget, and it has forgotten."

The amnesia began to lift in the early 1980s. The prime catalyst for the change-in which the nation began in earnest to separate the warrior from the war-was the overwhelmingly positive reception the nation gave to the American hostages who returned from Iran in January 1981. The national embrace of those hostages caused many Americans to reexamine their less-than-accepting views of Americans who served in Vietnam.

Two months later, the American Legion finally got around to honoring Vietnam veterans. At March 16,1981, ceremonies at Arlington National Ceremony, the Legion's national commander presented the organization's highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal, to those who died in Vietnam. That event marked the first time any of the nation's big, old-line veterans organizations officially recognized those who served in Vietnam.

Six months later, on Veterans Day 1981, residents of South Boston dedicated a black stone monument bearing the names of the 25 men from that blue-collar neighborhood who were killed in the war. The dedication was officially recognized by President Reagan and by all five branches of the military-another first.

A handful of state and local memorials went up in 1982. Then, on Veterans Day of that year, came the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial-the Wall-on the Mall in Washington, DC. The memorial's widely publicized dedication, which took place during an emotional, five-day "National Salute to Vietnam Veterans," served to heal wounds of the war and to enhance the image of Vietnam veterans.

The Wall, which quickly became one of the country's most popular tourist attractions, spawned a national "urge to install reminders of the past," wrote architectural critic Jane Holtz Kay in The New York Times in March 1989. The "memorialization of America," as Kay put it, included tributes in granite and bronze to musicians, writers, athletes, politicians, astronauts, and other revered figures.

It also included an explosion of memorials built to honor Vietnam veterans. "I came back from [the Wall's dedication in 1982] dedicated to putting up a memorial to our area service people," former VVA Chapter 79 president Ned Foote told The VVA Veteran. As was the case in many areas of the country, Foote and other VVA members were instrumental in conceiving, funding, and building a memorial-in this case, the Adirondack Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which was dedicated at the Adirondack Community College in Glens Falls, New York, on November 2, 1986. Foote echoes the sentiments of many of those involved in building memorials when he says the dedication of his local memorial was "the most moving experience of our lives."

A survey released in November 1986 by the I Project on the Vietnam a Generation uncovered 126 memorials to Vietnam veterans. The survey found that 27 of the
memorials were put up before the Wall was dedicated; 61 were built in the three years after the Wall's dedication; and 38 were scheduled to be built. Today, more than seven years since that survey came out, scores of other memorials have been dedicated.

It would take several issues of this newspaper to describe the hundreds of memorials to Vietnam veterans that have gone up in the last 11 years. So what follows is a brief, selective look at some state and local efforts, many of which have involved the active participation of VVA members.

You can find memorials to Vietnam veterans in all fifty states. There are eleven in Idaho alone, including the Vietnam POW/MIA Memorial, a sculpted bronze eagle dedicated July 4, 1976. State memorials are in place or in the planning stages in nearly all the states. Ground-breaking for one of the latest, Hawaii's state memorial for veterans of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, took place July 27, 1993, at the Hawaiian State Capitol. What will be one of the most ambitious state memorials-the $5.6 million New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Holmdel- will be dedicated on Veterans Day 1994.

Perhaps the most celebrated state memorial is California's imposing, 3,750-square-foot state edifice that was dedicated December 10, 1988, across from the State Capitol Building in Sacramento. A group of veterans, spearheaded by double-amputee Herman Woods, came up with the idea for this memorial in 1983. The state legislature provided the land, and $2.2 million was raised from the public.

The California Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed by Michael Larson (a Marine Vietnam veteran) and Thomas Chytrowski, is multifaceted: Its main feature is the listing of the names and hometowns of 5.822 servicemen and women killed or missing in action in Vietnam. A series of bronze reliefs line the inner walls of the memorial, which is configured in the shape of broken concentric circles. Inside is a bronze figure of a combat soldier sitting on his helmet, cradling an M-16, and looking up from a letter he is reading.

The imaginative Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial-a 24-foot giant sundial whose shadow falls on the engraved names of the 1,065 Kentuckians who died in Vietnam on the anniversary of their deaths-has become one of the state's most visited landmarks since it was dedicated on Veterans Day 1988. Designed by Helm Roberts, the monument is located a block from the State Capitol building in Frankfort. In front of the sundial, where the shadow does not fall, are listed the names of 22 Kentucky MIAs.

The Oregon State Living Memorial is located in Portland on the grounds of the 12-acre Hoyt Arboretum in the shadow of Mount Hood in Portland. Dedicated on
Veterans Day 1987, the memorial consists of a winding walkway along which are scattered five alcoves representing different periods of the war. Besides listing the names of the Oregonians who died in Vietnam, the panels also tell stories of life in the state during each period. The memorial includes spacious lawns, a central outdoor room, and a final alcove listing the names of 40 Oregon-born MIAs.

Perhaps the most famous of the hundreds of city memorials is the 70-foot-long, 16-foot-high, New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a translucent glass block structure containing etched excerpts from 83 letters written by or sent to soldiers in Vietnam. The half-million-dollar memorial, built with private funds, sits near the southern tip of Manhattan Island. It was dedicated during two days of ceremonial events. May 6 and 7, 1985, that included a ticker-tape parade honoring Vietnam veterans.

As part of its fund-raising activities, the New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission, which was set up in 1982, published Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam (Norton, 1985). That book was the basis for the memorable, award-winning documentary film of the same name that appeared in 1988 on Home Box Office and in movie theaters around the country. Part of the proceeds from that film went to the NY Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission.

Another noteworthy city memorial sits in front of the San Antonio, Texas, Municipal Auditorium, not far from the Alamo. The memorial, known as Hill 881, was dedicated on Veterans Day 1986. It honors the memory of the Americans who perished in a vicious battle for that piece of real estate in April 1967. The imposing, five-ton bronze statue of a soldier ministering to a severely wounded buddy at the memorial's center is the work of former Marine combat artist Austin Deuel, who was a first-hand witness to the bloody battle.

Originally, they called it the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Mobile). It is now known as the Moving Wall: A portable, half-size replica of the original Wall. The traveling version was first displayed in Texas in 1984, and since then, it has made stops in more than 200 cities across the country. There are also at least two state moving walls in Alabama and Ohio.

The original Moving Wall was built in 1983 by three California Vietnam veterans-John Devitt, Gerry Haver, and Morris Shears. "I wanted everyone to see those names on the wall," said Devitt, a former First Cav helicopter door gunner who now spends his time transporting the Moving Wall around the nation.

Devitt and company secured permission from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation in Washington to construct their wall using the original blueprints. For portability purposes, the wall is built of aluminum. But its shiny enamel paint and raised letters closely emulate the original. "It was important that the letters be raised," Devitt said. "It gives people the opportunity to touch the names, to feel the names."

The Moving Wall generates the same types of response that the original wall does. Thousands come to pay their respects, and dozens of volunteers stand guard to help visitors locate names. Many leave mementos at the Moving Wall, all of which are collected and stored in a California warehouse. Although Devitt and company built a replica a couple of years ago, the wall's itinerary is booked solid. For information, write to: Vietnam Combat Veterans, Inc., Attn: Memorial Fund, 1267 Alma Ct., San Jose, CA 95112.

Like the original Wall and the traveling replica, nearly all state and local memorials honor Vietnam veterans by listing the names of those killed and missing and by representing their service with words or statues. But some memorials are in different forms, for example, longtime VVA member Geoffrey Steiner's herculean effort to plant the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Forest on a 100-acre parcel of land he owns in Cushing, Minnesota, about 120 miles north of Minneapolis.

Steiner, who did a 1967-68 tour with the Marines, started on his goal of planting a tree for each American who died in Vietnam in 1980. He has personally planted more than 30,000 trees, and his once-lonely effort has now been officially recognized by the state of Minnesota. Steiner has received aid from the fund-raising efforts of several VVA chapters. A member of Chapter 214, Steiner has served as Minnesota's VVA chaplain. He says he purposely chose not to work with stone or sculpture. "What we're trying to do is heal the people," he told a reporter. "This is a living memorial."

Since 1989, VVA Chapter 392 in Portland, Oregon, has been actively involved in another massive tree-planting endeavor-planting 60,000 trees throughout Oregon to memorialize those who died in Vietnam. More than half the trees-which are being donated by the state Department of Forestry-are in place. Chapter 392's partners in the effort are the Lions International of Oregon and ReTree International, a big timber company whose president, octogenarian Frank Lockyear, conceived the idea of a memorial forest.

The North Carolina Vietnam Veterans Highway Memorial also uses living trees to honor those who lost their lives in Vietnam. Dedicated on Memorial Day 1991, the memorial features 58,000 loblolly pines that were planted along a 12-mile stretch of Interstate 85 in Davidson County, between Lexington and Greensboro. The trees also encircle the highway memorial's centerpiece, a brick wall nearly one hundred feet long and eight feet high. Each of the wall's 1,600 bricks is engraved with the name of a North Carolinian who died in Vietnam.

The Tar Heel State also has a more traditional Vietnam veterans memorial in Raleigh, the state capital. Dedicated on Memorial Day 1987, it consists of a large, bronze sculpture of two combat infantrymen carrying a wounded buddy and bronze plaques dedicated to the state's Vietnam veterans.

Several other states have used roads to honor Vietnam veterans. Delaware's I-495, for example, is officially known as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway, and Vermont's I-89 shares the same name. On October 20, 1982, Vermont officials dedicated a 12-foot-high granite monument in an I-89 rest area near the town of Sharon. The memorial lists the names of the 138 Vermont men killed in the war.

During the war, on May 31, 1969, local officials in Evansville, Indiana, and in Henderson, Kentucky, renamed the twin bridges that connect their cities to honor those killed in the war. The spans are officially called the Bi-state Vietnam Gold Star Memorial Bridges.

On May 30,1993, Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke cut a ribbon and officially renamed the city's heavily traveled Hanover Street Bridge the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge. That historic event-the first time in the city's long history that a bridge was renamed to honor an individual or group-was attended by more than 2,000 people, including 40 Gold Star mothers, 20 color guards from a half dozen veterans organizations (including seven Maryland VVA chapters), an Army National Guard band, and reporters from the city's four TV stations. The dedication capped months of hard work by the members of VVA Chapter 451 in Maryland's largest city.

Chapter member Ed Vogel conceived of the idea of renaming the bridge while it was being renovated in 1992. "That way, the bridge could serve as a gateway to the Maryland Vietnam Veterans Memorial," which was dedicated in 1989 across the Patapsco River from downtown Baltimore, chapter president John Averella told The VVA Veteran. Vogel chaired a 15-member bridge dedication committee that convinced the City Council to rename the bridge. The committee raised $9,000 to pay for new highway signs, two large brass plaques, and the big dedication-day ceremonies. "From a single idea six months earlier, to an event that we will remember for a lifetime, all this was made possible by members of our chapter and the support of their families," Averella said.

Most people associate the nation's college campuses with antiwar activity. While many colleges and universities were indeed centers of antiwar ferment, it is also true that tens of thousands of graduates from those same campuses served in Vietnam. A few of the nation's colleges have honored their alumni who gave their lives in Vietnam with on-campus memorials.

On Memorial Day 1986, the University of Kansas (UK) dedicated the first free-standing Vietnam memorial on a major non-military college campus. The University of Kansas Vietnam Memorial is a 65-foot-long, L-shaped, limestone-and-concrete structure that lists the names of 55 UK alumni who died or are listed as missing, in Vietnam. It is inscribed with these words: "Lest we forget the courage, honor, and sacrifice of our fellow students."

UK administrator and history instructor (and VVA member) Tom Berger, a former Navy corpsman who served with the Marines in 1966-68, spearheaded the effort to build the memorial with fellow veteran John Musgrave. Their efforts were aided greatly by the university's student council, which conceived the idea and raised $10,000 for its construction. Another fund-raising boost came after UK grad Jim Lehrer sent a "McNeil/Lehrer News Hour" team to the campus. A segment on the memorial that ran on the popular PBS-TV show "really helped fund-raising," Berger told The WA Veteran. "The exposure helped a great deal."

The Jayhawk State leads the nation in on-campus Vietnam veterans memorials. Besides the UK memorial, there are free-standing tributes to Vietnam veterans at Washburn University in Topeka and at Kansas State University (KSU) in Manhattan. The Kansas State Vietnam Veterans Memorial, dedicated on November 10,
1989, was built with private donations, and it sits near the KSU World War II and Korean memorial on campus. Inscribed on circular limestone block walls are the names of 42 former K-staters who died in the war.

VVA member Bill Arck of Chapter 344, who served in the Air Force, led the effort to build the memorial. Arck, who directs KSU's Alcohol and Drug Education Service, received plenty of help, including support from KSU's Air Force ROTC. The project "was, at times, a controversial issue on campus," Arck told The VVA Veteran. But all controversy ended when the memorial was completed, and it is, Arck proclaims, "one of those things in my life I am most proud."

On June 11, 1993, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, dedicated a memorial to its alumni who died in Vietnam. The memorial, a metal plaque with the names of the dead (including 27 from Vietnam), sits in Anabel Taylor Hall, the university's chapel, along with memorials to Comell alumni who died in other wars. That memorial also consists of a $100,000 scholarship fund for children of Vietnam veterans.

Among the many military college memorials is the Marion Military Institute Alumni Vietnam Veterans Memorial, dedicated November 10, 1989. The stone monument lists the names of 21 students of the Alabama junior college who died in Vietnam, and it was built with the support of VVA members throughout the state.

VVA members in northern New Jersey helped the students at Passaic County Technical and Vocational High School in Wayne. The students designed, raised funds, and helped build the county's Vietnam veterans memorial, which sits at the school's entrance. The memorial, dedicated in 1992, honors the 82 county men who died in Vietnam.

VVA chapters have been instrumental in helping build memorials in at least two prisons: The Muskegon Correctional Facility in Michigan and the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Maryland.

Chapter 31 took the lead in soliciting funds, materials, and labor, and it donated the flag that flies over the Muskegon County Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which was dedicated September 7, 1986, inside the correctional facility. The memorial consists of two brick walls in a V-shape and lists the names of county men who were killed or are missing.

VVA Chapter 172 in Cumberland, Maryland, donated the plaque that is the centerpiece of the Roxbury memorial-an oval brick structure with four flags, including the POW/MIA banner. "It's not so much a memorial to the dead as a tribute to the ones still alive," said John Worsham, a Vietnam veteran serving a life sentence who led the memorial effort at Roxbury.

VVA's California State Council is supporting a proposed veterans memorial scheduled to be built at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi. The memorial, for which ground was broken last November, will honor men and women veterans from all wars.

Memorials to American Vietnam veterans, erected on foreign soil, are primarily on U.S. military bases. In June 1977, the Freedom Tree was planted at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany to honor those missing in action in Vietnam, dark Air Force Base in the Philippines has a Peace Garden, dedicated to KIAs and POWs. Memorials honoring those who fought with the United States also stand in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

The most recent is the National Vietnam Memorial that was dedicated October 3, 1992, in Canberra, Australia. At the invitation of the Australian government, several hundred American Vietnam veterans marched in a parade and took part in the dedication ceremonies.

The first Canadian Vietnam veterans memorial is scheduled to be dedicated this fall in Melocheville, Quebec. The memorial, a landscaped park and monument, honors the roughly 30,000 Canadians who served in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

On Veterans Day 1993, the national media, zeroed in on the long-awaited dedication of the Vietnam Women's Memorial on the grounds of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Sculptor Glenna Goodacre's 2,000-pound, six-foot-eight-inch bronze sculpture of three uniformed women tending a wounded male GI now sits in a grove of trees 300 feet southeast of the Wall, overlooking the entire memorial.

The women's memorial, which received longtime support from VVA-honors the more than 11,000 women who served in Vietnam. That includes eight women- Eleanor Grace Alexander, Pamela Dorothy Donovan, Carol Ann Drazba, Annie Ruth Graham, Elizabeth A. Jones, Mary T. Klinker, Sharon Anne Lane, and Hedwig Diane Orlowski-who died in Vietnam and whose names are engraved on the Wall.

In 1967, a year after Carol Drazba died in a helicopter crash, officials at Scranton State General Hospital put up a bronze plaque in the facility's main lobby to honor the former Army lieutenant.

Six years later, on Memorial Day 1973, the people of Canton, Ohio, dedicated a life-size statue of Storon Lane, the first American servicewoman who died as a result of enemy action in Vietnam. Lieutenant Lane, an Army nurse, was killed during a rocket attack at the 312th Evac Hospital in Chu Lai on June 8, 1969. The Sharon A. Lane Memorial at Aultman Hospital (her nursing school alma mater) contains the inscription: "Born to Honor-Ever at Peace," and includes the names of 109 local men killed in Vietnam.


Author's Note: Much of the material for this article was provided by WA members, many of whom have taken leadership roles in. building state and local Vietnam veterans memorials.

Other important sources include: Vietnam War Memorials: An Illustrated Reference to Veterans Tributes Throughout the United States (1988) by Jerry' L. Strait and Sandra S. Strait; "Report on the Survey of State and Local Vietnam Veterans Memorials Nationwide," November 11, 1986, published by the Project on the Vietnam Generation; "State Honor: Vietnam Memorials Guide," a survey of state memorials published in the Reserve Officers Association's The Officer (November 1991); and "Handbook on Vietnam Veterans Memorials," published in 1987 by the Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

   

Visit The VVA Veteran archives
to locate back issues.

E-mail us at TheVeteran@vva.org


     Home | Membership | Publications | Events | Government Relations | Contact Us
Press Releases | Benefits | Meetings & Special Events | Collectibles | Contributions and Sponsorships | Site Index

Vietnam Veterans of America  
8605 Cameron Street, Suite 400
Silver Spring, Maryland  20910-3710
301-585-4000, Fax 301-585-0519, 1-800-VVA-1316  

Copyright 2005 by the Vietnam Veterans of America. All rights reserved.