A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

December 2001/January 2002

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 and firemen.

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 began.

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 was tripled."

"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."


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