Recently I had the honor of spending three hours at the moving Vietnam Memorial Wall while it was in Juneau. It started out as civic responsibility to provide security and to assist visitors find names engraved on the half scale monument. Because I volunteered for an early shift, the value for me was to reflect on the wall in the stillness of a Juneau morning.
I have seen the moving wall before and have visited the full scale memorial numerous times while living in Washington, DC. However, it’s one thing to walk the Wall with family or friends between Smithsonian visits… it’s another to spend time with the Wall perusing the Combat Casualties Current File, a book the size of a large city phonebook, that categorizes names, ages and hometowns of those who served and perished in Southeast Asia. That morning I offered to assist a former Navy corpsman who stopped by to reminisce at the Wall. He didn’t need my help to find names. He was kind and allowed me to walk beside him as he scanned the names and told me how we lost 400 men a week. He pointed out names of men he served with, names from Juneau and Hoonah and the name of a high school classmate. He said his classmate was “a good man” and after a seemingly long pause said “they were all good men”.
From Maj. Dale Buis of Pender, Neb., the first casualty on July 8th, 1959 to 2nd Lt. Richard VanDeGeer of Columbus, Ohio, the last recorded name on the Wall on May 15, 1975, we lost a lot of good men and women. The 58,272 tally is more than sobering and represents nearly twice the population of Juneau. As one thumbs though the pages in the “Wall” book, one will notice the young ages of the casualties — 18, 19, 20-year olds. Our local casualties were in this demographic. Juneau’s Cpl. Dan Sperl and Spc. Charles Gamble were both 20; Douglas’ Pvt. Norman Lingley was 19.
It truly is a “moving” Wall as evidenced when one stops to read the letters left behind by visiting community folk. From children leaving dandelions and handwritten notes thanking the “soilders for surving” [sic] to the copy of a June 1967 letter from 24-year old Marine Sgt. John Carota of Milton, Mass. In this letter, writing home to his brother, the former high school football star explains that he is back in Vietnam for his second tour but was confiding with his brother to maintain the charade he was in Okinawa, Japan bowling every night, so as not to worry the parents. The Marine had been awarded a Purple Heart in his first tour in Vietnam and implored his brother to ensure their father accepts the $10,000 life insurance in the event of his demise, unselfishly stating, “that’s a lot of money and [Dad] can use it for many good things.”
The letter speaks with sincerity of helping South Vietnam remain free and independent, “people worth helping” after decades of war. Carota, wise beyond his years, writes “when we destroy the ignorance here, an end to the fighting will follow.”
Continuing in the letter he sounds more like a modern day diplomat than youthful leatherneck writing, “it’s a war to destroy the enemy and win the minds and hearts of the people. One effort without the other is meaningless.” On Sept. 6, 1967, the Carotas lost a son and this country — a patriot.
Another makeshift memorial left at the Wall spoke to the actions of Navy Lt. Vincent Capodanno, who perished two days before Carota in the same battle surrounding Operation Swift. Capodanno, 38 years of age, hailed from Staten Island and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that day. The citation reads with bone chilling clarity how this sailor, despite being partially dismembered, continued to render aid and encouragement to his Marines until being mortally wounded by enemy machine gunfire while tending to a fallen corpsman. Capodanno, a roman Catholic priest, was known as the “The Grunt Padre, who never carried a weapon… all he carried was love.”
At the time, many thought Vietnam was America’s Armageddon. Fortunately, that was not the case; but not without a lost decade in which the U.S. military struggled with its identity. The Vietnam War Memorial was dedicated Nov. 11, 1982 at the Washington, D.C. Mall. I submit that the healing associated with the Wall was significant in this country’s ability to acknowledge our past, recognize our fallen countrymen and move forward with resiliency and renewed purpose. Next time the opportunity presents, I would encourage spending some time with the Vietnam soldiers on the Wall, living veterans, and maybe do some research of those who served unselfishly. Like Carota, who in his letter said, “If I’m killed, help them understand I died for a purpose, and that I was here because I had to be here.”
• Uchytil serves as the City and Borough of Juneau port director and retired recently from the U.S. Coast Guard. He formerly was captain of two ice breakers. His column appears monthly.