When the Angel Almedina Chapter
126 of VVA decided to stage a shindig to celebrate 20 years of
existence and accomplishment, some decisions that had to be
made were no-brainers: Celebrate the 20th anniversary on the
20th of the month - May seemed to be most appropriate - and
stage the event at Vietnam Veterans Plaza in lower Manhattan.
The refurbished memorial and reconstructed plaza are the pride
of Chapter 126. The commitment and passion and concern of its
members were directly responsible for the $7 million
rehabilitation of a deteriorating monument and the addition of
a "Walk of Honor" hallowing the names of 1,741 sons of the
city who were lost to the war.
On the evening of May 20, the plaza was transformed. A huge
tent had been erected, dominating the space. A sublime meal
was prepared by students from Park West High School of New
York City. Four hundred veterans and friends gathered to honor
and remember, to celebrate and commemorate. Among them were
members of the commission who built the memorial back in 1985;
members of the committee responsible for the renovation that
was completed in 2001; and longtime supporters of the
memorial, including Medal of Honor recipient Paul Bucha,
builder-developer Donald Trump, and then-CEO and Chairman of
the New York Stock Exchange Dick
Grasso, each of whom offered their insights and thanks to
those who served and sacrificed.
In their number, too, were two veterans whose commitment and
efforts were key in creating and upgrading the memorial.
Army Sergeant Ed Koch served in the European Theatre during
the Second World War. He saw his share of combat. Marine
Sergeant Vince McGowan served in the Vietnam War a
quarter-century later. He, too, fought against a determined
and resourceful enemy.
When McGowan was in Vietnam, Edward Koch was a congressman. He
was appalled at how America was treating returning veterans.
In 1981, New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch determined to do
something to acknowledge those who answered their country's
call during the long and turbulent years of the Vietnam War.
He appointed a 27-member task force. Following its
recommendation, Mayor Koch established the New York Vietnam
Veterans Memorial Commission in September 1982. The 100-member
commission was charged with raising the funds to hold a
competition to select a design and then build a fitting
memorial and to create a "living memorial'' - a jobs program
for unemployed and underemployed veterans. One month later,
the Mayor signed into law a bill renaming Jeanette Park in
lower Manhattan "Vietnam Veterans Plaza.''
The Commission's Design Committee concluded that the memorial
should imply neither approval nor disapproval of the purpose
or conduct of the war. It should, instead, honor those who
fell and celebrate those who returned. It should "acknowledge
the service and sacrifice of all veterans from New York City
who did their individual and collective best under trying and
unusual circumstances.'' It should "evoke reconciliation and
an awareness of the enduring human values reflected in the
conflicting experiences'' of the Vietnam War; and it should
embody the "contradictory yet universally shared experiences
of war and peace, danger and relief, weakness and strength,
isolation and comradeship.''
An international design competition attracted more than 1,100
entrants from 46 states and six foreign countries. The winning
design, which emerged from a two-phased blind competition,
called for a granite-and-glass wall onto which would be etched
the words of those who had served.
Over the next year, the Commission received more than 3,000
pieces of correspondence from some 600 veterans, their
families and friends. A subcommittee selected excerpts from 83
letters, poems, and journal entries written by 65 individuals,
along with statements by the four presidents under whom the
war was waged, as well as brief news clips to give context to
the excerpts that were etched into the glass blocks of the
16-foot-high, 66-foot-long wall.
The Memorial was dedicated on the night of May 6, 1985.
Thousands gathered at Vietnam Veterans Plaza and adjacent
streets to witness the ceremony and a spectacular display of
fireworks. When Mayor Koch hit the switch that lit up the
Memorial, the entire plaza erupted in a prolonged cheer.
The next morning, 25,000 veterans of the war, including 26
recipients of the Medal of Honor, marched over Brooklyn Bridge
to the cheers of one million New Yorkers. They marched past a
reviewing stand on Broadway near City Hall. They marched down
the Canyon of Heroes under a hail of ticker tape and confetti.
This was the "Welcome Home'' veterans had not been accorded so
many years earlier. It was a day of reunions: At the Memorial,
Medal of Honor recipient Gary Beikirch turned from reading a
letter. There, standing next to him, was the man who had slung
him, badly wounded, onto a medevac.
In the years that followed, the Commission that built the
Memorial went dormant. The adjacent property owner responsible
for maintaining the Plaza went bankrupt; and the NYC
Department of Parks and Recreation curtailed its maintenance
of the Plaza. Within a decade, this memorial to the sacrifice
and valor of Vietnam veterans was neglected, vandalized, and
deteriorating. Lacking oversight and adequate maintenance,
both the Memorial and the Plaza fell into disrepair.
In 1998, VVA Manhattan Chapter 126 formed a Memorial Committee
to address the issue. Committee chair Tom Fox wrote to Parks
Commissioner Henry Stern requesting his "assistance in
correcting the deplorable situation that reflects poorly on
New York City's recognition of Vietnam Veterans.'' VVA 126
also wrote to the Mayor, City Council Speaker, Manhattan
Borough President, and other officials soliciting their
support for the restoration effort.
Chapter 126 President Joe Graham approached Harry Bridgwood, a
Vietnam-era veteran who was the executive vice president of
the New Water Street Corporation, which owned the building
adjacent to the plaza, for support. David Bronner, chairman of
The Retirement Systems of Alabama which owned 55 Water Street,
agreed that the condition of the plaza was "not a fitting
tribute to our veterans'' and promised a significant donation
to the cause. VVA Chapter 126, the City, the New Water Street
Corporation, and the Alliance for Downtown New York formed The
2000 Committee for the Renovation of Vietnam Veterans Plaza.
To bankroll this undertaking, the Committee raised $7.2
million from public and private sources. Plans were made
for the restoration of the Memorial and the total
reconstruction of the Plaza.
There would be seven new
flagpoles; a ceremonial entrance; a water element to help
mitigate traffic noise; and new lighting, railings, and
landscaping. In addition, there would be educational elements
such as a map and a web site,
www.nyvietnamveteransmemorial.org , to enhance the
The principal addition was a roster of those New Yorkers who
made the ultimate sacrifice: there are now 1,741 names etched
onto steles affixed to 12 pylons that line a "Walk of Honor."
The refurbished memorial was dedicated on the Friday before
Memorial Day 2001. The memorial was the star of the show when
Chapter 126 held its anniversary celebration on May 20. The
hit of the evening, however, was a multimedia history of the
memorial prepared by Ryan Hegg and students at the Digital
For Chapter 126, resting on its laurels is not an option.
Chapter leaders and the United War Veterans Council of New
York County are in preliminary discussions about how to
further preserve and enshrine the memorial for the ages.