The Friday before Veterans Day dawned brisk and bright, auguring a near perfect Indian summer day to dedicate the reconstructed Vietnam Veterans Plaza in downtown Manhattan, and to rededicate the glass block-and-granite memorial that is the centerpiece of the plaza.
Two thousand veterans and their families, including 600 relatives of New York City’s 1,741 sons who lost their lives in Southeast Asia, were on hand for the event.
They listened in rapt attention to speakers who praised those who answered their country’s call, who reminded them of the need to remember what happened in the jungles and the rice paddies of Southeast Asia during the long years of the Vietnam War, and who drew parallels with those emergency responders who died during the September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
They heard Henry Stern, commissioner of New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation, praise the contemplative nature of the reborn plaza. He also acknowledged the unique public-private partnership responsible for the dramatic improvements to a plaza and memorial that had grown shabby in the 16 years since the memorial was dedicated. These included the City of New York, which appropriated almost $2 million toward the $7 million cost of the renovation; the State of Alabama Pension Fund, the landlord of 55 Water Street which abuts the plaza and has responsibility for its maintenance, which anteed up some $3 million; and the various veterans organizations, corporations, and other groups whose support was crucial in galvanizing the effort to rehabilitate the plaza.
Among the other major contributors were the New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission; ADCO Electrical Corporation; Con Edison; Home Box Office; the Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation; Insignia/ESG Inc.; the McGraw-Hill Companies; the New York Stock Exchange Foundation; Jaros Baum & Bolles; Pottish, Freyberg, Marcus & Velazquez, LLP; ARC Electrical Construction Company; Honeywell, Inc.; PAL Environmental Safety Corporation; Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson; Jones Lang LaSalle Americas, Inc.; the Building Owners and Managers Association of New York; and Vietnam Veterans of America, Manhattan Chapter 126.
The two-year effort was organized by the corporation that owns 55 Water Street - Harry Bridgwood, the building manager, is himself a Vietnam Era veteran - along with the Department of Parks and Recreation, the City Parks Foundation, the Downtown Alliance, and a coalition of veterans led by the United War Veterans Council of New York City.
In addition to the refurbishing of the memorial, the entire plaza has been reconstructed, with new paving blocks, plantings, and lighting; ceremonial entrances on both Water and South streets have been added, along with a fountain of polished granite, six new flagpoles, and a 125-foot long, 10-foot wide Walk of Honor.
The highlight of these improvements is the Walk of Honor, in which the names of New York City residents lost to the war, from Rosario R. Abbate to Andrew G. Zissu, are etched onto stainless steel plaques affixed to a dozen granite pylons. A map of Southeast Asia, also fabricated in stainless steel, greets visitors at the beginning of the Walk. It sets the scene and offers the names of places in which American troops fought and died in Southeast Asia.
The plaza has been "upgraded tremendously," said Scott Higgins, who co-chaired the New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission which built the memorial and hosted its dedication on May 7, 1985, the tenth anniversary of the end of the Vietnam Era. He is also the founder and president of VeteransAdvantage, the private-sector benefits company which partners with major corporations to thank veterans and their families for their service and sacrifice.
"The addition of the ‘Walk of Honor,’ the fountain, and the overall improvements to the plaza are fabulous," Higgins said. "It should last for generations."
Those gathered were inspired by the remarks of two Medal of Honor recipients, Thomas Kelley, who retired as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy and who now heads the State of Massachusetts Department of Veterans Affairs; and Bronx-born Paul W. Bucha, a onetime captain in the 101st Airborne Division and former longtime president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Bucha focused his remarks on the nature of service, deftly connecting the sacrifice of those who fought in Vietnam with that of those emergency responders, many of whom were veterans, who helped evacuate more than 25,000 people from the Twin Towers on September 11th. Some 400 firefighters, police officers, and emergency medical technicians perished while coming to the aid of their fellow citizens.
Also addressing those gathered were Vietnam veteran Richard A. Grasso, chairman of the New York Stock Exchange; Anthony J. Principi, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, who served in the "brown water Navy" in Vietnam; Thanh Bui, a Vietnamese woman who expressed gratitude to America and the Americans who fought in her native land; and Gold Star Mother Virginia Dabonka, whose son, John, died in Vietnam. Excerpts of two of his letters are inscribed on the memorial.
The high point of the morning’s ceremony, deftly MC’ed by Vince McGowan, the moving force in both the United War Veterans Council of New York City and the effort to rehabilitate the plaza, was the unveiling of the dozen plaques honoring the 1,741 New Yorkers who died in Vietnam. With cameras clicking, relatives of the deceased, assisted by Medal of Honor recipients Bucha and Kelley, pulled off the blue bunting covering the plaques on which are inscribed the names of their loved ones, their sons, brothers, fathers, uncles. A featured facet of the plaques is the listing of the ages of those who died. These range from 15 (Dan Bullock, a Marine private first class who likely fibbed about his age in order to enlist) to 57 (Everard A. Davis, an Army sergeant first class).
The Walk of Honor adds a local presence to a memorial that resonates beyond the borders of New York City. The illuminated, 66-foot long memorial contains excerpts of letters, poems, and journal entries penned by Americans serving in Southeast Asia. It is, to many, a counterpoint to the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., which features a roster of those lost to the war. A book, Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, and an Emmy Award-winning film of the same name were born of the memorial.