|Vietnam Veterans of America|
|Membership Notes, March/April 2022|
A Piece of the Rock: The Replica Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Fort Wayne
BY GREGORY McNAMEE
He comes every week or two and sits quietly before the anodized black metal wall. Wounded six times in the Battle of Dak To, he visits fallen friends and comrades—142 of them—whose names are engraved in sequence of death, clustered near the end of the roster for 1967.
“He’s one of the calmest, most gracious people you’ll ever talk to,” says South Bend, Indiana, Chapter 1027 member Eric Johnson, who served with the 1st Infantry Division at a forward support base near Lai Khe in 1969-70. “He’s been through it, and I don’t know anyone who knows more of the people behind those names than he does.”
The site of the man’s reflective visits is the Veterans National Memorial Shrine & Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where, on Memorial Day last year, an 80 percent replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., was dedicated.
It was no easy task to bring the replica to Fort Wayne. For years, the memorial had been on the road, an installation that traveled across the country from city to town to city—some four hundred in all—and had been mounted on portable supports. When visits dropped at the beginning of the pandemic, the organization that owned the traveling memorial offered it to the Fort Wayne museum. Spearheaded by Johnson, who serves on the board, and with the support of VVA Chapter 295 in Indianapolis and the Indiana State Council, the museum raised more than $1.5 million to provide the Replica Wall a permanent home.
That work involved building a concrete wall that runs 360 feet long and 8.5 feet tall at its highest point, then attaching the aluminum panels. It also required building ADA-compliant sidewalks and ramps and extending the small VNMSM parking lot to accommodate many more visitors.
“We knew that it had to be there forever,” says Johnson of The Wall, “and so it had to be designed and built just right.”
A ‘MONUMENTAL’ PROJECT
Raising the money wasn’t hard. One local business leader wrote a large check immediately, Johnson says, and contributions poured in from throughout Indiana and farther afield. Two Fort Wayne high schools organized fundraising drives to honor fallen alumni.
What’s more, he adds, there were extraordinary donations in kind, especially from union builders who donated their labor to get the work done. Many had good reason to do so. One is the owner and chairman of the concrete company that built The Wall. He wanted to honor a fallen Marine lieutenant who had been his college friend.
Those workers labored throughout the long, cold Indiana winter to dig footings four feet deep, construct rebar reinforcements, build the concrete support wall, paint it dark gray, and mount the panels. They worked for seven months to finish the project, racing against time for that late spring 2021 opening. “It was a monumental project, and it’s something to behold,” Johnson says.
There have been noticeable results already, less than a year after the Replica Wall was installed. For one thing, the firm that built the concrete wall, Hagerman Construction, was honored by a statewide builders’ association for excellence. For another, fundraising for the granite benches that dot the edge of the walkway around The Wall has long since closed: It took no time at all to sell out every available spot. And for yet another, Johnson says, “Thousands of people have already showed up to see The Wall, and word is spreading.”
Many of the visitors are friends, family, and comrades of those whose names are on the memorial. But from schoolchildren to veterans of conflicts from World War II to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, all visitors come away with a profound sense of the sacrifice those 58,281 names represent.
The museum, which contains materiel from every American conflict from the Revolutionary War on, was the dream of World War I veteran Eric Scott. In the trenches at the Second Battle of the Marne, he swore that if he survived he would honor his comrades with a memorial. When he returned home, he bought a 40-acre farm and set to work.
“Thanks to him, every veteran who ever served owns a piece of this rock,” says Johnson. “And we’re just trying to live his dream, which is that no veteran ever be forgotten.”
Located at 2122 O’Day Road on the southwest outskirts of Fort Wayne, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Replica Wall and exterior installations at the Veterans National Memorial Shrine & Museum are open to visitors seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, year-round. There is no admission fee.
Go to honoringforever.org for more info.
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