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Friday, June 19, 2015


This past weekend, I took my family to visit the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall at the Town of Lockport offices. I have been to the actual Wall in Washington about a dozen times.

Thousands visited the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall while it was in the
Town of Lockport. (PHOTOS BY CRAIG BACON / CONTRIBUTOR)
For nearly a decade, my dad and I made motorcycle trips down to the Capitol on Memorial Day for Rolling Thunder. For the event there are thousands and thousands of bikes rolling down the streets of Washington in a seemingly endless parade. While we did not actively participate in the parade, we were keen observers. We would park the motorcycles from our group at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors building and explore the area of the National Mall.

One of our first visits was to the Wall itself, directly across the street from the Federal Reserve. I distinctly remember the first time I went to the memorial. The panels of the Wall are sunken into the ground with the fronts exposed below level and the backs buried to their tops. As you descend toward the center of the memorial, the sounds of the streets and world around the Mall disappear.

There is solemnity in silence. Amid hushed prayers and guarded sniffles, the weight of what is before you rests heavy. There are 58,000 names etched into the black, gabbro panels. Fifty-eight-thousand people died in that conflict and their names are in your face. Reading history books or watching old snippets of newscasts do not prepare you for the reality of the number of men and women (there are eight women memorialized) killed in the service of our country.

The Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. touches all who visit.
The first time I went to the Wall sent shivers down my spine. There are so many names. It can be overwhelming. To see the grizzled biker or the men with missing limbs walk by with a quick nod and a tear in their eye reminds you how human they are, and how young they were when they fought.

My dad is a Vietnam Veteran. I have no idea if he recognizes any of the names on the Wall. It’s not something I’ve ever asked, and I’m not exactly sure if I ever will. Most of the vets I’ve met are hesitant to talk about their experiences with those who weren’t there. And my dad certainly fits into that category. Who could blame them?  Most of us who have never been in the military have no perspective, and many of those guys returning weren’t treated very well.

The history of the Wall dates back to April 1979 when a non-profit organization was formed to establish a memorial to the veterans of Vietnam. Maya Ying Lin, at age 21, won the competition to design the memorial. Her concept was to “wound the earth” to symbolize the “gravity of the loss of soldiers.” The non-traditional design was immediately controversial, but on March 26, 1982 ground was broken. The memorial was dedicated on November 13, 1982. Three years later “The Three Soldiers” sculpture was added followed by the Women’s Memorial in 1993.

The Travelling Wall is a 3/5 scale of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, made to allow people the opportunity to visit loved ones in their hometown who otherwise may not be able to make the trip to Washington. Begun in Brevard County, Florida in December 1985, the Travelling Vietnam Memorial Wall has travelled to thousands of communities and been visited by millions of people.

From the time I learned that the Travelling Wall would be in Lockport, I knew that I had to visit and pay my respects. At the same time, it was obvious to me that my children needed to learn a little about this history since it is part of our family history.

We made our visit on Sunday, Flag Day. Luckily we missed the rain, but the ground was pretty sloppy. I had a little talk with the kids before we got out of the truck about being respectful and being quiet. I tried to explain what we were going to see – that the names we would read were of people who had died in war.

Even with the recent rains, there were still quite a few people visiting the Wall. My normally rambunctious children were very quiet as we walked along the western wall to its apex. Behind us was the tent where we could look up where names of those listed. As deputy historian, I had written articles on a couple of men killed during the war. I wanted to see their names. It was important to me after doing so much research on each of them.

Robert Foster was born March 28, 1928 in Lockport, the son of William Foster and Carrie Rothburg. Growing up on Glenwood Avenue, he attended Lockport High School, and worked at the Upson Co. for three years before enlisting in the Air Force December 10, 1951. On March 9, 1966, Foster, along with Capt. Willard M. Collins, Lt. Delbert R. Peterson, Capt. Jerry L. Meek, SSgt John G. Brown, and SSgt. James Turner, Jr., left DaNang Airfield under the call sign, “Spooky 70” for a close air support mission. As the aircraft neared its objective and turned for a firing pass, enemy anti-aircraft fire riddled it and damaged the right engine. Utilizing the lone left engine, Captain Collins crash-landed the plane. Willard Collins and Robert Foster were declared Killed in Action – No Body Recovered.

John Paul Bobo was born in Niagara Falls February 14, 1943. On a hill in Quang Tri Province, Lt. John Paul Bobo immediately organized a hasty defense from ambushing North Vietnamese. He moved from position to position encouraging his platoon of 58 Marines despite the murderous enemy fire. When an exploding enemy mortar round severed his right leg below the knee, he refused to be evacuated and insisted upon being placed in a firing position. With a web belt around his leg as a tourniquet and his leg jammed into the earth to slow down the bleeding, he retained an upright position from which he could direct his men. He delivered divesting fire and was mortally wounded while firing his weapon. He received posthumously the 43rd Medal of Honor of the Vietnam War on August 27, 1968.

I took my kids to each panel that had the names for which I was looking. They quietly asked questions about the men, such as “Did you know them?” No, I’m sorry, I didn’t. “Is Papa’s name on here?” No, these are the names of the men who were killed in the war. “Papa was in the war?” Yes he was. “Did he know any of the names that we saw?” I have no idea, but probably.

My children, as young as they are, asked the right questions and remained respectful throughout our entire visit. As we were leaving, I explained that the Wall that we had just seen was a copy of the Wall in Washington, DC. Immediately, four voices asked when we were going to Washington. Sometimes it seems like it can be difficult to engage youth in our past. I think if you can interest them at the right age and tie it into something a family has experience with, they might just learn about the respect and honor that our fallen men and women deserve and the respect and honor that all our veterans and servicemembers deserve.

Watching them as we walked along the panels of names, I could see that my kids were a bit humbled by the gravity of what was before them. It was just like I was the first time I visited the site in Washington. I was very impressed by the hard work and dedication of those people who make the Travelling Wall such a success. I applaud them for a job well done. Let us never forget.

+Craig Bacon is deputy historian for Niagara County and regular contributor to East Niagara Post. 



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