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Moving memorial

Friends, family, veterans gather at Vietnam Wall replica to remember long-lost loved ones

Posted: May 16, 2012 - 11:10pm
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A couple spends time at The Moving Wall after the formal wreath laying ceremonies on Wednesday. The half-sized replica of the Washington, D.C. monument to killed Vietnam War soldiers will be viewable around the clock until Monday at the Vintage Business Park.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
A couple spends time at The Moving Wall after the formal wreath laying ceremonies on Wednesday. The half-sized replica of the Washington, D.C. monument to killed Vietnam War soldiers will be viewable around the clock until Monday at the Vintage Business Park.

U.S. Army Spc. Charles Gamble was funny and tall; handsome and popular.

And with a brush of a fingertip, it all came back.

“To me, it’s kind of like visiting him,” his sister, Charlene Ransom, 62, said.

Gamble is one of 11 Southeast Alaskans and 57 Alaskans who was killed during the Vietnam War. His and 58,271 other names appear silk-screened in white letters against the black aluminum panels that comprise the traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall replica.

The replica wall, also called The Moving Wall, arrived in Juneau this week, and about 50 people gathered at Vintage Business Park on Wednesday morning to attend a wreath-laying ceremony. Military personnel in uniform, members of veterans’ groups and civilians alike paused to remember the fallen and to find and touch the names of their loved ones on the wall.

“At first it’s kind of shocking still to see all the names,” said Gamble’s older sister, Marty Whitney, 64. “But then to find his name ...”

The sisters have never been to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., which was the primary reason the smaller, mobile replica wall was created in 1984, as Sen. Dennis Egan noted in his remarks to the crowd.

“He felt the positive power of the wall,” Egan said of the moving wall’s creator, John Devitt. Devitt is a Vietnam veteran from Michigan who attended the dedication of the wall’s memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1982.

“He vowed to share that experience with those of us who have not had the opportunity to go to our nation’s capital,” Egan said.

The wall has traveled to every state in the nation in its 20 years of existence, including Alaska and Hawaii. It’s also visited Guam and Puerto Rico. This is its fourth trip to Juneau.

“Talk about far away places,” said Joe Fields of Fairbanks, the statewide coordinator of The Moving Wall project.

Fields has helped facilitate the wall’s Alaska tour in previous years. He says, people feel the connection to the names on the wall without fail.

“I call it ‘wall magic’” Fields said.

Fields said he was helping a man find his father’s best friend’s name on the wall. While the man was talking to his father on his cell phone in the Virgin Islands, he found his father’s friend on Panel 39E, Line 9.

“He was very emotional on the phone,” Fields said. “That his son had a chance to come see the wall, and kind of share a dad and son moment.”

On Tuesday, after the wall arrived on the ferry aboard the ferry Kennicott, a woman, her husband and their two kids stopped by to see the wall after it was propped up with metal braces. She found the names of her two uncles on the wall, Fields said.

“She really suddenly got a connection in her life that she never had before,” Fields said. “Her dad had told her about it, but she never had a connection to them at all.”

Last week in Ketchikan, where it was displayed before arriving in Juneau, Fields stopped a man in his 50s to ask what brought him to the wall.

“He said, “My dad’s on the wall. He died when I was 7. I never really knew him,’” Fields said. “You hear stories like that all the time.”

For Marlene Johnson, 76, who was born and raised in Hoonah and now lives in Juneau, she went to the wall to find the name of her nephew, U.S. Army Spc. Ronald Albert Greenwald of Hoonah. He was killed in action when he was 23.

“He was just a kid,” she said. “He was serving his last month in the military, and they took him off the helicopters and put him on the ground so that it would be safer. Eleven days before he was scheduled to leave.”

Johnson added, “I think one of the tough things, I know for my family, is the Vietnam War is said to have been nothing, fought for nothing, we got nothing out of it. And yet, you see what happened,” she said, gesturing to the wall.

Greenwald, who is Johnson’s older brother’s son, died in Thua Thien in South Vietnam on Feb. 12, 1968. His name is listed on Line 5 on Panel 39E.

For Harvey Marvin, who stood next to Johnson beside the wall, the war remained too difficult to talk about.

“I don’t talk about those things anymore,” he said. “It’s 50 some or 60 some years behind me.”

Marvin joined the Army National Guard when he was 16 years old in 1949, and when he was 17 or 18, he joined the Marine Corps.

A lifetime member of the Disabled American Veterans, Marvin says the war is still with him, as with most veterans.

“People that talk about disability, they think of somebody with a wheelchair, or crutches,” he said. “That’s not true of every veteran. Every veteran will tell you, one standing right there will tell you, it’s inside and you live it every day. It doesn’t go away. People think that the older you get, it’s going to get easier. It gets worse with time. It’s in the mind. It’s there. Today it’ll be there. But like Marlene said, it’s not for nothing. This is our country.”

Johnson’s husband, Clifford Johnson, 80, is a Korean war-era veteran who served three to four years in the U.S. Navy as a boatswain’s mate. He said he attended the ceremony to show respect for his fellow veterans.

“We all, I think, know what it’s like to be in the service and to be engaged in some activity,” he said. “I was a fortunate one to come back all in one piece.”

Johnson’s ship the U.S.S. Gurke, a destroyer, was fired upon three times, he said.

“It was hit with shells. They put three holes in us,” he said. “And I can remember the shrapnel, you know, some of the rounds exploded close to us. It sounded like somebody throwing a handful of gravel against a tin building.”

Commander George Roberts, 75, served a total of 23 1/2 years in the U.S. Army, Air Force and Coast Guard. He served as a civilian during Vietnam with a helicopter recovery team.

“I remember being in there and having a lot of friends were there,” Roberts said. “Some didn’t make it, some did.”

He recalled several close calls when he was shot being shot at.

“I literally had bullets going through (between) my legs,” he said. One of the bullets bounced off of something and landed in his flak vest, but he was unharmed, he recalled as he clasped his hands in a prayer.

The replica wall is half the length of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, D.C., according to Tim Armstrong, a member of The Military Order of the Purple Heart who helped organize the event.

It is more than 250 feet long, with two sets of about 36 panels that are joined together — the so-called East panels and the West panels that are marked as ‘E’ and ‘W.’

The names on the replica wall, which faces north like the wall in D.C., begin and end with the two center panels.

The top right center panel is marked 1959, the official recognized start of the war. The first name listed as the first death attributed to the Vietnam War is Dale R. Buis.

The names are listed in chronological order by the days of the death, and continue along the eastern extension of the wall.

The names are then resumed on the west panels and still continue in chronological order. The names end at the left center panel with the end of the war, marked 1975. The last attributed death to the Vietnam War is Richard Vande Geer.

“At the two center panels there, you see the last name of the person that died as a result of the war, and also the first person on the two center panels, so its kind of all together,” Armstrong said.

The names on the wall in D.C. are engraved into black marble. That wasn’t possible with the replica wall, Armstrong said, so Devitt used high intensity hypoxi ink to silk-screen the names onto aluminum panels.

“They had to experiment with a lot of different kinds of paint to get that 100 percent gloss finish replicating the mirror-like finish of the wall in D.C.” Armstrong said.

The physical effect elicits the same emotional effect, he said.

“When you walk up, you can actually place your thumbs on any of the names and feel the letters,” Armstrong said. “Consequently, you can actually do a rubbing, not unlike the D.C. wall where you would do it as the indentation. But here it’s an epoxy paint where you can actually feel the letters.”

“It’s a lot of emotional swings, and you see that same reaction by people here,” he added. “This is an opportunity for people that won’t be traveling to D.C. or don’t want to travel.”

There are 77,000 military veterans in Alaska, 15,000 of whom are Vietnam War era veterans, according to John Moller, Gov. Sean Parnell’s rural affairs adviser.

The Moving Wall, a trademark of the Vietnam Combat Veterans, Ltd., will remain in Juneau until Monday, when it will go on to Haines then Fairbanks, Wasilla, Anchorage and Ninilchik.

Fields said this be the last year the wall will do an organized tour in Alaska because of the logistics involved.

“It’s a real effort to bring it to Alaska,” Fields said. “It’s really involved.”

The Devitts travel with the wall, and the distance was from Michigan to Alaska was a factor in that decision, Fields said.

“We’ve agreed that this is the last time,” he said, adding jokingly, “I say that and then somebody comes along and says, ‘We really want it in Wasilla, and we’ll wait for it and we’ll bring it up here,’ and they’ll probably bring it to Wasilla. But we won’t do an organized tour because it’s at least eight weeks out of their lives in Alaska, staying in hotels.”

Gamble’s sisters say they hope to go see the Washington, D.C., memorial sometime in the near future. But for now, they say they appreciate being able to find their brother’s name on Panel 17W, Line 127 of The Moving Wall.

The moment allowed them to remember Gamble, who drove ammo trucks and was killed in action Oct. 28, 1969. He was 20.

“There’s three girls, and we all really loved him,” Ransom said. “He was a protector.”

“Mhm, definitely,” Whitney replied.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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