Moving memories

Vietnam wall replica inspires pride among visitors during stop in Juneau

Posted: Monday, July 10, 2006

Only two of the 58,253 names displayed this week in the grassy lot next to Safeway belong to people from Juneau. But stark white letters against the hard black surface of The Moving Wall inspired pride in the people who braved Sunday's steady rain to dedicate its visit.

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"The wall is here. The wall is yours. Enjoy it," said American Legion Post 25 Post Commander in the ceremony marking the third visit to Juneau of the half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The names include 57 Alaskans.

He solemnly read the roll call of the 10 from Southeast Alaska who never returned from the longest military conflict in U.S. history.

Southeast Alaska Natives also held a ceremony at The Moving Wall later in the afternoon. Anyone will be able to visit it through noon Saturday when it begins to come down for a visit to Idaho.

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"Tears still come," said Clara Sperl, lingering near the name of her son, Donald Sperl, similar to what she and her husband did at the memorial in the nation's capital. Like Charles F. Gamble Jr., of Juneau, Sperl didn't make it back.

"He got there on his 21st birthday," his mother said.

"He was an unarmed medic," Walter Sperl said of his son, a 1965 graduate of Juneau-Douglas High School. Speaking with a faint smile, he talked about how his son had gone to the University of Alaska Fairbanks and was near the top of his class at Fort Sam Houston before going to Vietnam.

He died on May 8, 1968, his father said.

Sperl's sister, Moretta Rieger, said friends have etched her brother's name, and she has seen pictures of the wall in Washington. Still, her face was wet, despite the umbrella sheltering her from the rain.

"It's an emotional experience," she said. "Until you see it, it's hard to fathom it."

John Devitt, a Vietnam veteran, built the replica wall with veterans Gerry Haver and Norris Shears, and began displaying it in 1984. Devitt was in Sunday's crowd after bringing The Moving Wall to Juneau in 1985 and 1995, he said.

The memorial it depicts was controversial at its 1982 dedication, but after 23 years on the road from April through November with the replica, he has never heard a negative comment, he said. People leave things at the wall, so it leaves communities heavier than it arrived.

"Letters, photos, toys," he said, "even some weapons." Everything collected over 23 years is in a warehouse. "We're looking at building a museum to display it."

He said a Los Angeles Times reporter was doing a story about things people leave at The Moving Wall. When a photographer came to take a picture, he said the man told him he didn't see how people could get emotional about the things that people leave for people he didn't know. "I went back later and saw tears in his eyes."

Devitt said he was inspired to create the replica after attending the memorial's dedication.

"I was proud of the guys I served with," he said. "No one had ever talked about pride (among Vietnam veterans) before. I felt pride for the first time."

"Patriotism was never in doubt," said Howard Colbert of the Disabled American Veterans of the names of those who "made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation."

"They are my brothers," he added. "I personally served with the best men of honor."

The memorial replica isn't just for people who served, but a tribute to the people who put their lives on the line so others could be free.

"They gave their all so you can be free to view their wall," he said.

Walter Sperl said he appreciates the visit.

"Well, Donald came back home," he said.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at

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