History of the "Wall:" Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Updated on April 15, 2018
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Thelma Raker Coffone is an award winning writer who enjoys writing on a variety of topics, especially those honoring Veterans.

A Soldier Reflects on Those Lost in the War

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Like a magnificent black tombstone bearing a sea of names, the "Wall" seems to go on forever. Officially named the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and located in Washington, DC, the monument honors service members who died in the Vietnam War and those who were declared Missing in Action during the conflict.

Preamble of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

"In honor of the men and women of the Armed Forces of the United States who served in the Vietnam War. The names of those who gave their lives and of those who remain missing are inscribed in the order they were taken from us."

Memorial's History

The "Wall" (as it is commonly called), completed in 1982, is just one of three parts of the memorial. In 1984, the Three Servicemen Statue was added and the more recent Vietnam Women's Memorial was dedicated in 1993.

A wounded Vietnam veteran, Corporal Jan Scruggs, founded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and raised 8.4 million dollars from private donations to establish a memorial fitting to honor the thousands of men and women who lost their lives in the conflict. No federal funds were used to construct the monument.

A competition was held to select a design with over 1,400 entries submitted to win a prize of $50,000. The submissions were numbered to keep the designers' identities unknown from the jury. Entry number 1026 by Maya Ying Lin, a 21 year old Yale University student from Athens, Ohio was the winning design.

Made of black granite from India, the monument is 493 feet long and 10 feet high at its highest point. The stone is very highly polished to create a detailed reflection of the visitor looking at the 58,318 names engraved on the wall. This is meant to symbolize bringing the past and present together.

The names were carved into the granite by a computerized typesetting process called photo stencil gritblasting. The names are arranged in chronological order according to the date of casualty or the date they were reported missing and then in alphabetical order for that day.

The "Wall" with the Washington Monument in the background
The "Wall" with the Washington Monument in the background | Source

Design Stirs Controversy

Just as the Vietnam War itself was the center of a great national controversy, the memorial also became shrouded in negativity.

The design was thought to be too unconventional with many veterans calling it "a black gash of shame". Philanthropist H. Ross Perot withdrew his financial support when he saw the winning design. The Secretary of the Interior refused to issue a building permit for the memorial because of the public outcry.

The monument architect, Maya Lin, defended her plan to Congress. To appease critics and add a more traditional component, the Three Servicemen Statue was added. Made out of bronze, It includes three servicemen, a Caucasian, an African American and a Hispanic. The soldiers look off at the "Wall" in the distance with the names of their fallen comrades.

Lin was so outraged at the addition to her original plan, she refused to attend the dedication of the Three Servicemen Statue. She attributed the negative public attitude to her ethnicity saying she would not have won the design contest if her name was known by the judges. Lin, a native born American, is the child of parents that fled from China to the US in 1949.

The Three Servicemen Statue

Website offering information about DC memorials
Website offering information about DC memorials | Source

Vietnam Womens Memorial

Vietnam Womens Memorial dedicated in 1993
Vietnam Womens Memorial dedicated in 1993 | Source

Interesting Facts

  • There are 3 sets of fathers and sons listed on the Wall. There are 31 sets of brothers that were killed.
  • There are names of 8 female fatalities.
  • Almost 40,000 of the names are of people age 22 and younger. The largest age group is 33,103 names of 18 year olds. Sadly, the youngest person honored is PFC Dan Bullock who was just 15 years old when he was killed in action.
  • 997 of the names belong to soldiers who were killed on their first day in Vietnam while 1,448 were killed on their last day before going home.
  • Symbols next to each name denote the status of the service member. A diamond shape next to a name indicates the person is confirmed dead; a cross signifies the person is missing in action (MIA). If the missing service person returns alive, a circle will be placed around the cross. Sadly, there currently are 1200 names with crosses next to them and there are no circles.
  • The names of 32 men were put on the wall in error. Those names have not been removed. However, if it becomes necessary to replace a panel that includes one of the mistakes, the name will be removed at that time.
  • There is an unconfirmed story that during the monument's construction, a man threw his deceased brother's Purple Heart into the concrete as it was poured around the Wall's base.
  • Swedish and Canadian stone were refused for the building project as both of those countries welcomed draft dodgers during the war.
  • The official dates for the Vietnam War as declared by the Department of Defense are November 1, 1955 to May 15, 1975.

Over 400,000 Tokens of Remembrance and Tributes Left by Visitors

Many visitors leave tributes at the memorial including flowers, American flags and teddy bears. Someone even left a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with the license plate "HERO" parked against the wall. All items, unless perishable (such as flowers), are kept in storage at the National Park Service Museum. Over the years, more than 400,000 tokens of remembrance and appreciation have been placed at the memorial. Many of these items are pictured on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund website.

Angelo Liteky, an Army Chaplain who was a Medal of Honor recipient, placed his medal in an envelope addressed to then-President Reagan and left it at the wall. His letter to the President explained he was returning it in display of his anti-war sentiments. Liteky had received the medal for carrying 20 of his fellow soldiers to safety during an attack. Incidentally, he is the only Medal of Honor recipient in history to renounce his medal. It is now on display in the National Museum of American HIstory.

In the years since the monument was constructed, three acts of vandalism have been reported. In 1988, a swastika (symbol of the Nazi party) was scratched into two of the panels which were replaced.

"The Moving Wall" Travels Across the US

The Moving Wall is a half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that travels across the US to allow those that are unable to visit the Washington, DC memorial an opportunity to pay their respects to the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Since the Moving Wall went on display for the first time in Tyler, Texas in 1984, it has travelled from April through November each year, staying about a week at a time in various locations.

One of the Most Visited Landmarks in Washington

Today, the majority of the monument's critics have changed their opinions or have become less vocal. Over 4 million people visit the national monument each year and marvel at its simplistic beauty. Regardless of your opinions of the Vietnam War, the memorial is a moving experience for most who see it.

The monument is open 24 hours a day and there is no admission fee.

Whether you personally served in the Vietnam War or knew someone who did, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a place for personal reflection and solemn tribute. Seeing the names in the polished black granite will bring tears to your eyes and an aching in your heart.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.

- Excerpt from "For the Fallen" by English poet Laurence Binyon in 1914

Have you visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial?

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Location of Vietnam Memorial near the Lincoln Memorial

A
5 henry bacon drive nw washington dc:
Henry Bacon Drive Northwest, Washington, DC, USA

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Vietnam War Memorial Location

Questions & Answers

  • What will I see at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC?

    This is a memorial dedicated to the soldiers that died in Vietnam.

© 2012 Thelma Raker Coffone

Please Share Your Comments

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    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 

      4 weeks ago from the short journey

      Thank you for this interesting look at the Vietnam War Memorial. Finding it just before Veteran's Day is particularly moving as so many veterans we have from this war are aging, the youngest now being about 54 years old. Honoring those they served with is one way to honor the fallen.

    • ThelmaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Thelma Raker Coffone 

      6 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

      JustCrafty I hope that you get the chance to visit "The Wall" someday. It is something you will always remember. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

    • profile image

      JustCrafty 

      6 years ago

      I like this hub on the Vietnam Memorial. I wrote my college thesis paper on the Vietnam War and I helped do fundraisers to build this beautiful memorial wall. I have never seen it in person though, I feel like a part of its existence.

    • ThelmaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Thelma Raker Coffone 

      6 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

      Helena I love the Korean War memorial also. It is an amazing place. Thanks for the comment and for being one of my followers!

    • Helena Ricketts profile image

      Helena Ricketts 

      6 years ago from Indiana

      I've been to DC quite a few times and every time make it a point to visit The Wall and the Korean War memorial. Both are just overwhelming and breathtaking. My grandfather was in Korea and my father in Vietnam. These monuments are so important because the ensure that we never forget. I know I won't.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 

      6 years ago from North Carolina

      Thelma thank you for this story, its the first time I've read about the history of the Wall. The meanings behind things like the circle around the plus sign is new too. It's a shame there had to be controversy about the memorial, but its not surprising. Very fine piece Thelma.

    • ThelmaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Thelma Raker Coffone 

      6 years ago from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA

      Feenix, thank you for your service to our country!

      Thelma

    • feenix profile image

      feenix 

      6 years ago

      Hello, Thelma,

      As a U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War, I thank you, from the very bottom of my heart, for writing and publishing this useful, awesome, beautiful, interesting and very informative article.

    • Cyndi10 profile image

      Cynthia B Turner 

      6 years ago from Georgia

      I have always thought the Memorial to be beautiful in its austerity. To me it makes the names of the men and consequently, the men themselves, the focus as they should be. To see so many names listed, knowing they represent fathers, sons, brothers, friends who made the ultimate sacrifice. Thank you for sharing the history. Very good hub. Voted up.

    • DonnaCosmato profile image

      Donna Cosmato 

      6 years ago from USA

      How very interesting this hub is! I had no idea that this was a privately funded rather than a government funded project. I was especially interested by the information about the controversy and the backstory of this memorial. Voted up.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      How sad controversy surrounded this memorial. I have not seen the memorial in Washington but did see the "Traveling Wall", a smaller replica that traveled around the U.S. It was accompanied by a computer that allowed you to search for the names of loved ones so you could locate them on the wall. Your hub is very well written and detailed. Voted up.

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