History of the "Wall:" Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
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."
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.
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
Vietnam Womens Memorial
- 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?
Location of Vietnam Memorial near the Lincoln Memorial
Vietnam War Memorial Location
© 2012 Thelma Raker Coffone