CONWAY — The impact of the Vietnam War was reflected upon anew this week as “The Wall That Heals,” a three-quarter replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, arrived at Ralph W. Shirley American Legion Post 46 on Tasker Hill Road in Conway for a display that continues through Sunday afternoon.
The memorial, along with a mobile Education Center, arrived Tuesday from the Berkshires in western Massachusetts by truck, accompanied by 125 motorcyclists and a classic car contingent from Fryeburg as well as New Hampshire state troopers in a procession from the Ossipee Hannaford up Route 16 to Post 46.
Erected by a team of 30 volunteers Wednesday, it officially opened Thursday morning and remains open 24 hours a day through 3 p.m. Sunday, at which time it will be dismantled to hit the road again.
Other than a missed turn in Conway and a heavy thunderstorm Wednesday and more showers Thursday afternoon, which created an effect that one local resident referred to as “a Wall of Tears,” everything went pretty smoothly, said Post 46 Cmdr. John Kiesman and Adjutant Buddy Nicholas.
“We’re very happy with the volunteer turnout, and we’re thrilled to have the wall here,” Kiesman said Tuesday, as he and Nicholas met with Tim Tetz, director of outreach for the Vietnam Memorial Fund, the non-profit that helped build the wall in Washington in 1982.
“We’ve got most of our volunteer watch shifts covered, but we could always use more, of course,” said Nicholas, who with Kiesman, past Cmdr. Henry Michalski, Auxiliary President Sheila Gormley and Post 46 members have worked for well over a year to bring the memorial to Conway.
Post 95 of North Conway has helped Post 46 with putting up and manning the exhibit.
A shuttle bus will be in service from 9 a.m.-6 p.m., today, and possibly from 9 a.m.-noon Sunday, making stops at Kennett Middle School, Ham Ice Arena (where parking will be available), St. Margaret’s Anglican Church and Post 46. The shuttle was made available by Eldridge Transportation of Effingham.
Wreaths will be laid today at 2 p.m. in honor of the six service branches: Marines, Navy, Army, Coast Guard, Air Force and Merchant Marine. Father Gary Drinkwater, a USCG veteran and rector of the Anglican Church of the Transfiguration in Mechanic Falls, will lead the prayers.
On Sunday, Father Jeffrey Munro of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church of Conway will give a benediction at 2 p.m. Then the wall will be dismantled at 3 p.m. Volunteers are needed for that. If you can help, call Post 46 at (603) 447-3927 or Nicholas at (603) 662-2320.
Commemorative T-shirts are on sale for $15. Refreshments are also available, as are pencils to do etchings of names on the wall.
An exhibit accompanying the wall includes the names and photos of three veterans from Carroll County and 54 from neighboring New Hampshire counties who were killed in the war and whose names appear on the wall. The closest to Conway were Marines Howard A. Chamberlin of Brookfield, and Carroll F. Hersey and Steven W. Martin, both of Wolfeboro.
Others who later died from effects of Agent Orange or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are listed in the mobile education unit’s “In Memory” section.
An exhibit also chronicles the 400,000 items that have been left at the wall in Washington: medals, combat boots, helmets, cards, photographs … all have been collected, preserved and catalogued by the National Park Service.
An opening ceremony Thursday began with a blessing by Father Munro and a playing of bagpipes by Somersworth resident Patrick Boyle.
In his remarks, Father Munro, a Merchant Marine chaplain, recalled that during the Vietnam War, “it was horrible the way that veterans were treated when they came home. I am very pleased that now all who give are applauded for their service. On Sunday morning at our 10 o’clock service, we will be dedicating a flagpole in Vietnam veterans’ honor. We hope to see you all there.”
Guest speakers included past North Conway Post 95 Cmdr. John Pandora of Brownfield, Maine; former Conway selectman Mark Hounsell, introducing his brother, Marine Corps Bronze Star recipient Bill Hounsell; and Post 95 of North Conway Cmdr. Jim Lefebvre, introducing USMC Vietnam veteran/past Post 95 Cmdr. Maj. Frank McCarthy.
Pandora shared that when he first visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, it was just a wall of names. By the time he made his second visit, he felt its full emotional impact, which continues to this day.
“Now,” said Pandora, 88, “it is a monument to men.”
He was followed by McCarthy, a three-time Bronze Star Medal recipient and holder of two Purple Hearts and three-tour Vietnam combat veteran.
Talking about the men with whom he served, some who never came home, he said: “Imagine: 90 straight days of rain, in the mud, with temperatures dropping to 43 degrees at night, in the pitch black … I don’t think anybody truly knows what went on in Vietnam.”
In his talk, which was recorded by Valley Vision, Channel 1301, for a later broadcast, McCarthy said his company in one day suffered 19 casualties, 16 of them in booby traps.
He asked the 65 people in attendance and all who visit “The Wall That Heals” in Conway this weekend to do him a favor and “say hello” to the men with whom he served, whose names appear on the wall — men like Sgt. David Brown, Lance Cpl. Paul Evans, Cpl. Gary Gene Schneider, Lance Cpl. Danny McGee, Capt. Ralph Hynes or Capt. Franklin Delano Bynum.
“As for the original in Washington, I couldn’t bring myself to go for 30 years … I just couldn’t do it. But then I finally went, and I cried my eyes out. Now, I can go back,” he said.
In his years in Mount Washington Valley, McCarthy has served as a Conway Municipal Budget Committee member and as a three-term Republican state representative. He also played a major role in reviving the region’s annual Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies.
Prior to his talk, Bill Hounsell, 76, noted he was a member of the Kennett High Class of 1961 who took a leave of absence after his sophomore year from the University of New Hampshire to enlist in the Marines.
He was part of the first combat unit sent to Vietnam by President Lyndon Johnson on July 7, 1965, with the 9th Marine Regiment, Third Marine Division as a member of Foxtrot Company. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his leadership in combat on March 18, 1966, after an encounter with the enemy left his company’s sergeant and three of his fellow soldiers dead. Their names are on the wall.
Hounsell received an honorable discharge and re-enrolled at UNH in 1967. He went on to a career as a public works consultant and helped to secure contracts for the North Conway Water Precinct. He also served as a Conway selectman and two-term state representative.
In his remarks, he saluted the sacrifice of the 58,286 who died or went missing in action in Vietnam.
Said Hounsell: “The wall is not political; it means different things to different folks but is established so that we will not forget the Vietnam veterans who fought 10,000 miles from here and fulfilled their duty to the country they swore an oath to protect.”
He continued: “Veterans can’t fall into hating the people they were killing, because they’ll carry that hate with them longer than they will the actual killing itself. So veterans just had to do what had been assigned for them to do with as much heart as they could. Their job was to do the killing for their country without getting too involved in it, and it was very hard to do. And then the veteran comes back home and leads a productive life helping the elders and children and contributing to the community, and that heals.
“But today I am pleased to say so does this wall heal. … As I stand before the wall and gaze into it, with much emotion certain memories are brought forth which triggers the rhythm of a steady beating refrain that goes through my mind over and over and over … Duty, honor, country.”
Similar themes were expressed earlier in the week at the bimonthly veterans meeting held at the Gibson Center for Senior Services in North Conway. It was chaired by former Republican state Rep. Karen Umberger of Kearsarge, a retired Air Force colonel who served from 1970-98.
Others in attendance included many Vietnam War veterans, such as Umberger’s husband, Lt. Col Jim Umberger; retired USAF Maj. John Edgerton of South Conway; Vietnam veteran Karl Pfeil of North Conway of Post 95, Army veteran/Bronze Star Medal winner Peter O’Brien of Fryeburg; Vietnam Army veteran Lloyd Chandler of Bartlett; Vietnam Navy veteran Tony Freitas; Post 95 Cmdr. Jim Lefebvre; Air Force veteran Arthur DeRosa; and Iraq Army veteran Allan Ramsey.
They shared their views about the wall, the war and their service, with Pfeil, 69, noting he lost five men in his Marine Corps unit in one mortar shell attack on Feb. 22, 1969.
“I think of them every day,” said Pfeil, who brought several books on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to Wednesday’s meeting and who took photos at Thursday’s ceremony.
Helping out later at the wall, O’Brien and Pfeil were moved by the sight of the many who volunteered, as were 1971 Navy Vietnam veterans/wall volunteers Dennis LaFontaine and James Gallagher.
“My reaction to today? It makes me ask: Where the hell were they all back in the day when they were throwing (crap) at us? That was tough back then. But, does it help, to see this today? Yes,” said LaFontaine, a Conway native and veteran of gunboat patrols that used to retrieve Navy SEALS "upriver" in 1971, adding, “Finally.”