Visiting the Mass. Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial

In light of the Case Study readings on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, DC, I decided that I would visit the Massachusetts Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, located at Green Hill Park in Worcester, Massachusetts. Dedicated in 2002, the Massachusetts Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial (MASSVVM) honors the 1,536 servicemen and 1 servicewoman from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts who served and died during the Vietnam conflict between 1955 and 1975.

To get to the memorial itself, one must enter Green Hill Park, an idyllic public park set on 4 acres of land in Worcester, MA. The site is not hard to find, and there is ample parking. The memorial itself is organized around a small fish pond with a little fountain. The setting is serene, allowing for thoughtful contemplation. The gentle sounds of the fountain and nature are punctuated by children playing and riding bikes, and dogs and their owners playing Frisbee nearby. I find the location of the memorial to be a nice setting – it is easy to get to, though set in a public park, it is somewhat removed from the usual hubbub of the city, and yet being in a public space, there are many other events taking place just outside the boundaries of the memorial. For example, during our outing on a Sunday morning, we saw several families having picnics near some small ponds, and what appeared to be a photoshoot for some wedding dresses, as there were several women in white gowns and veils posing for photos just beyond the memorial. I find that this tends to blur the lines of the memorial a bit, by mingling this space that is so intertwined with past traumatic events with the lives of individuals today. It seems somewhat a juxtaposition at first, having such a quiet, contemplative atmosphere right in the middle of the park, but the more I thought about it, it is the perfect location. It allows the memorial to not be forgotten; it is not simply a destination in itself but is rather quite accessible to all park goers. Also, having the memorial set in the park allows viewers the ability to relieve some of the emotional tension that is inherent with a monument such as this.

The MASSVVM itself is organized in three parts: Place of Flags, Place of Words, and Place of Names. As you enter the designated memorial space, the first thing you see to your right is the Place of Flags.
Place of Flags MASSVVM
The round central area, surrounded by a pergola type structure, is beautifully landscaped with flowers and shrubs. The careful tending of the gardens reveals that at least someone is paying attention to the grounds, and is taking care of the monument. In the central area, there are three large flagpoles holding the American and Massachusetts State flags, as well as the black Prisoner of War flag. Around the pergola, there are several holders for other flagpoles, though these were currently empty. The space is organized around the pond, but you are not directed in one way or another, but allowed to walk at your leisure.

We walked over to the Place of Words.
Place of Words MASSVVM
This area features 4 large granite blocks, squared on some sides, rough hewn on the others. Two blocks are actually placed in the pond, right at the edge of the water, and the other two are located to the left of the path. So one can potentially stand in the center of all the blocks, though I believe visitors are encouraged to walk close to the blocks and read the words inscribed on them. The Words represented here are actually transcriptions of letters sent home from soldiers during the conflict. I found this section of the park to be the most emotional, disturbing, and comforting part of the memorial. Reading the actual words of these soldiers, seeing their names and the dates on the letters, compared to the dates listed for their births and deaths, was very powerful to me. I noticed that some of the soldiers died in the same year the letters were written, some were several years younger than I am today. Often they wrote about mundane things, like thanking the recipient for the box of cookies, or mentioning the rain and the heat of Vietnam. Some letters described in varying degrees of detail the reality of war – being shot, shot at, killing enemies, etc. Others were quite powerful in the sense that the authors had a real sense of what they were doing for their country. Two letters in particular struck me:

“This year is no different. Just because it’s become our turn to bear the burden of winning peace, do not feel that all is lost or even feel discouraged. I remember the words of J.F.K., when he said he counted it as a privilege that his generation had been chosen to help preserve the peace around the world for future generations. I feel the same way.   God bless you all, Bud

25 December 1968

DAVID ALLEN HILL

1947 – 1969”

Letter Home MASSVVM
“One observation of mine is that, though the war is costing us, in many ways it is not costing us enough.  For the cost is minimal to the continued physical existence of our society.  Not being actually threatened we can pursue an imprudent policy without deeply suffering any consequences, and even more disastrous, make facts fit a policy that the administration desires.  Such are the dangers of the power we have.  When we have movies every night, hot showers, and three solid meals a day you wonder what war is like.  Of course things are different in the field.  However, when you know the enemy never had this sort of thing, has been fighting since a child, and is on his own land it makes you really wonder what you are fighting for. Naturally you are willing to support the people who are oppressed but who are they and how do we really help them?  I hope someone is thinking about these last two things for they are the two most important questions facing the U.S. now.

29 January 1968

LANGDON GATES BURWELL

1944 -1968″

I wondered about the reasons the designers chose these letters in particular, as it seems to highlight the honor and sacrifice of those who served. At first I thought about the political situation at the time, and what the designers might be trying to show by selecting these letters. Then, after a moment, I tried not to be too cynical about it, knowing where I stand now, 40 years removed from the writers of these letters.

I finally walked over to the Place of Names.
Place of Names MASSVVM
This area of the memorial is set directly across the pond from the Place of Words. Echoing Maya Lin’s design for the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., the Place of Names has six large, granite blocks, with the names of the Massachusetts servicemen and woman who died etched into the blocks. The typeface is the same for every name, and it very much reminded me of the Memorial in D.C. The blocks are arranged around a small fountain, also creating a serene atmosphere. One thing I noticed was that the names were organized in alphabetical order, however, after the erection of the memorial in 2002, there were subsequent addenda to the list of names, who were added to the end of the list, after the words of dedication from the Commonwealth. This reminded me that while I may be looking at blocks of hard rock, this monument is not necessarily “set in stone,” but rather a dynamic memorial which can be altered as we learn more about those who died in the conflict.

Massachusetts Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Website

http://www.massvvm.org/

Images Copyright Ian P. Rifkin 2010

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