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

October/November 2003

Chapter 126 Anniversary Celebration:
The New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial


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, , to enhance the visitor's experience.

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 Clubhouse.

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.


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