V is for Veterans

Located at 55 Water Street, Manhattan, New York
Website:  https://www.vietnamveteransplaza.com/

Vietnam Veterans Plaza

The central focus of the Vietnam Veterans Plaza, created as a lasting memorial to New Yorkers who served their country during the Vietnam War, is a wall made up of glass blocks, on which are engraved excerpts from letters written by the men and women fighting the war in Vietnam. When you consider that the average age of a GI in Vietnam was 19, you can imagine the feelings expressed in these letters. It is heartrending to read some of them. At the website, you can actually read these letters; click on the photo below and then on the website, just click on a name.

The Vietnam Veterans Plaza, on a 90,000 square foot plot overlooking the East River, was opened in 1985. In 1982, then New York City Mayor Edward Koch campaigned for a memorial to honor the 250,000 men and women of New York City who served in the United States armed forces from 1964 to 1975, and especially the 1,741 who lost their lives in Vietnam. He established a 100-member commission to create a memorial that would reflect the conflicting emotions of the Vietnam War. 

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission raised money from private donations to finance the memorial. The same year, a mayoral task force selected Jeannette Park (previously named in honor of The Jeannette, the flagship of an ill-fated Arctic Expedition) as the future site for the memorial.

The winning design, by architects Peter Wormser, William Fellows, and writer/veteran Joseph Ferrandino, is a wall of translucent glass blocks, on which are engraved excerpts of letters, poems, and diary entries written by men and women of the armed forces, as well as news dispatches. A granite shelf runs along the base of the monument, on which visitors often place tokens of remembrance.

To fill the glass blocks, the commission sought words written during the years of the Vietnam War. Some 3,000 letters, poems and diary entries were submitted from across the country, and excerpts from more than 80 of those submissions were chosen for the memorial. Excerpts from 83 letters are etched in the memorial’s glass block and granite wall, 70 feet long and 16 feet high. The wall is lighted by an interior lighting system.

Mayor Koch dedicated the Memorial on the evening of the tenth anniversary of the end of the Vietnam era in May 1985.

In 2001 Vietnam Veterans Plaza underwent a $7 million restoration and redesign that transformed the site. The Friday before Veterans Day 2001 was selected for the rededication of the reconstructed plaza.

The plaza currently features a ceremonial entrance that provides access through the site from Water to South Street. At the stepped design’s center is a round, black granite fountain that forms a curtain of water. 

The ‘Walk of Honor’, a series of twelve polished granite pylons with the names of all 1,741 United States military personnel from New York who died as a result of their service in Vietnam, leads to the memorial wall. When I visited last in October 2022, the site was undergoing repairs and some areas were not accessible to the public.

A compilation of letters and poems received by the commission for consideration to be included on the memorial was published under the title Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam. 

The publication of the book coincided with the dedication of the memorial. The book offers context for the excerpts of the letters and poems selected for inscription on the Memorial. In all, 208 pieces written by 125 people were chosen for inclusion.

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