While not as controversial as the Vietnam War, The Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall honors the 58,000 soldiers who were killed in the war and has its own history of controversy.
Six years after both the end of America’s longest war and the fall of Saigon, Congress authorized a three-acre plot of land near the Lincoln Memorial for the site of a monument dedicated to the soldiers of the Vietnam War. Over 1,400 designs were submitted, as part of a $50,000 competition. A committee of nine judges unanimously selected a design blindly by a 21-year-old architecture student of Asian (Chinese) descent from Yale University, Maya Ying Lin.
The monument consists of two polished, highly reflective black granite walls, each 75 meters long. Built into the side a low embankment, the highest points of the walls (ten feet) are at the point where the two walls join forming a 125-degree angle.
The wall is inscribed with the names of servicemen and women who either died or were classified as missing in action when the monument was erected in 1982. The names are listed in chronological order, starting with the leftmost edge as you are looking at it.
Only the names of the serviceman or woman are etched into the wall, avoiding details regarding the rank, unit, and decorations won. In all, over 58,150 names were initially listed with another 100 or so being added since. Names with a diamond are confirmed dead, and a name with a cross indicates the person is either missing in action (MIA) or was a prisoner of war (POW) and not accounted for to date.
The first two names, Major Dale R. Buis and Master Sergeant Charles Ovnand, while the two were watching a movie, were the first two U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam. Both were part of the Military Assistance Advisory Group sent to train South Vietnam troops in 1959.
The last group of names represents the final 18 soldiers killed on a rescue mission called the Mayagüez incident almost 16 years later. Khmer Rouge naval forces using captured U.S. Navy “swift boats” seized the American container ship SS Mayagüez and took the American 40-man crew captive. President Ford ordered a military response to retake the ship and rescue the crew. Within days, Marines assaulted and boarded the ship and found none of the crew, as they had been earlier moved off the ship and actually released before the attack. During the operation, 18 soldiers were killed when a helicopter was shot down and during the extraction of the Marines.
Between the first and last are over 58,000 names, each with its own story of honor, service, valor, loss, and tragedy.
Completed in 1993, the wall was opposed by many veteran groups, who believed more traditional columns, statues, and fountains were appropriate. Additionally, Lin’s ethnic background and youth were also at issue. She was 16 when the war ended and had little knowledge of the Vietnam war or its history.
Just a few steps from the Wall is The Three Soldiers, a bronze statue which was part of the compromise design and dedicated a year later. Also close by is the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, another bronze statue depicting two nurses caring for a wounded soldier.
It is common to walk the grounds and see people recalling and grieving lost friends, family members, and comrades in arms.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Between Constitution Ave. and the Reflecting Pool, between 21st and 22nd St., NW.
Washington, DC (map it)
Dates and Times – Open daily, 24-hours. National Park Rangers are on duty to answer questions from 9:30 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. daily.
Tickets – Admission is free.
Nearest Metro Subway Station – Foggy Bottom – Blue or Yellow line, then a 3/4 mile walk.
Parking – Metered street parking is available within a couple of blocks of the memorial, but is at time-limited, especially on weekends.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial Resources
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The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a national war memorial in Washington, D.C. honoring members of the U.S. armed forces who fought in the Vietnam War and who died in service or are still unaccounted.
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