40 FACTS ABOUT THE VIETNAM VETERANS MEMORIAL SITE

Photo credit: Tim Tetz

In 2022 – we’re commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Throughout the year, we’re highlighting lists of 40 things related to the Vietnam war/era.

This month, we’ve compiled 40 facts you should know about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial site.

1. Jan Scruggs was the Vietnam veteran who had the idea to create a memorial to honor all who served in Vietnam.

Scruggs was a wounded and decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, having served in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade of the U.S. Army. He felt a memorial would serve as a place of healing. Scruggs launched the effort with $2,800 of his own money and gradually gained the support of other Vietnam veterans in persuading Congress to provide a prominent location in Washington, D.C. He is the Founder and President Emeritus of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) – the nonprofit organization that built the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1982 and continues with its mission to honor and preserve the legacy of service in America and educate all generations about the lasting impact of the Vietnam War and era.

2. President Jimmy Carter signed the legislation to provide the land for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to be built on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

On July 1, 1980, President Carter made it official – the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was to be built on the National Mall. In his speech, he said, “This is an important step toward the establishment of a permanent memorial for the young men and women who died in the service of our country in Vietnam; for those who, despite all our efforts, are still missing in Southeast Asia; and for all those who served and returned. We are honored to have a small part in offering this overdue recognition. They honored us and their country with their service, and no delay in recognizing them can lessen the value of their personal sacrifice.”

3. Maya Lin, a 21-year-old college student, designed the Memorial.

Maya Lin was an undergraduate at Yale University when she mailed in her submission for the design competition on the last day it could be postmarked. Her design was number 1,026 – out of 1,421 entries – and she was selected unanimously as the winner by the jury. Lin conceived her design as a park within a park – a quiet protected place unto itself, yet harmonious with the overall plan of Constitution Gardens. 

4. The Wall’s black granite was chosen because of its reflective nature.

One of the four major criteria for the design of the Memorial was that it had to be reflective and contemplative in nature. To achieve this effect, Maya Lin chose polished black granite to create a mirror-like surface that would reflect the images of the living visitors in the names of those who died for our freedom. The granite came from a quarry in Bangalore, India. 

5. The winning design for the Memorial was highly controversial.

After the winning design was announced, there was controversy. People began to protest the design. There were complaints about the walls being black and that the Memorial would be built below ground level.  It was famously called a “black gash of shame.” For many, it was too abstract a design and people searched for a more heroic, traditional depiction of those who served.

6. No federal funds were used to build The Wall.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. was built with money from individuals, corporations, unions, and businesses. No federal funds were used. The total expense was $8.4 million dollars. Fundraising began in 1979 and the Memorial was dedicated on Veterans Day, 1982.

7. The names are listed by date of casualty, starting at the apex.

The names on The Wall are listed by date of casualty, starting at the apex at the top of Panel 1 East. The chronological listing proceeds left to right, line by line, down each panel, and then to the top line of the panel to its right, as though the panels were pages in a book, until East Panel 70, whereupon the sequence of names begins on West Panel 70, proceeding to West Panel 1 at the apex. The last casualties are listed on the bottom line of West Panel 1. This arrangement allows those service members who died together to forever be linked.

8. Each name on The Wall has a symbol next to it.

Each name is preceded (on the West Wall) or followed (on the East Wall) by a symbol designating status. 

◆ The diamond symbol denotes that the service member’s death was confirmed.

+ Those whose names are designated by the cross symbol were in missing or prisoner status at the end of the war and remain missing and unaccounted for. In the event, that a service member’s remains are returned, or they are otherwise accounted for, the diamond symbol is superimposed over the cross.

9. VVMF works with the Department of Defense to update The Wall when needed.

As necessary, VVMF works with the Department of Defense each spring to make updates to The Wall. If the Department of Defense determines that a service member has met the criteria for addition to The Wall, their name is added. Service members repatriated in the previous year have their status symbols changed. While the Department of Defense makes the decisions on changes, VVMF manages and pays for the changes to the Memorial. Since its dedication in 1982, 380 names have been added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. 

10. Items left at The Wall are collected by the National Park Service.

Since its dedication, more than 400,000 items have been left in remembrance at The Wall. These items are collected by National Park Service rangers and most items, other than perishables, become part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection stored at an NPS facility in Maryland. To see a small portion of the items left at The Wall, visit the virtual collection at www.vvmf.org/items

11. The names of eight women are inscribed on The Wall.

The names of eight women – all nurses – are inscribed on The Wall. Most were killed in airplane or helicopter crashes. Only one was killed by enemy fire. 1LT Sharon Lane was killed during an attack on the hospital in which she was working.  

12. In 2019, VVMF completed an audit of the names on The Wall.

When The Wall was built in 1982, a list of casualties was provided by the Department of Defense. Through the years, some errors have been found. It had long been known that some names originally inscribed on The Wall were of service members that were still living. The audit revealed that the list of living/status unknown was 32 names. To learn more about the audit that was completed in 2019 visit https://www.vvmf.org/News/wall-audit-completed/.

13. There are more than 1,500 Americans still unaccounted for from the Vietnam War. 

More than 1,500 families are still waiting for answers on the whereabouts of their loved ones. As remains are repatriated and identified, status symbols are updated on the Memorial. 

14. The day with the most casualties in the Vietnam War was January 31, 1968.

There are 246 service members on The Wall whose casualty date is January 31, 1968. Their names start on Panel 35 East, Line 84, and go through Panel 36 East, Line 44. 

15. Today, there are 58,281 service members honored on The Wall.

When The Wall was built in 1982, there were 57,939 names on The Wall. Over the past 40 years, through name additions, The Wall now has the names of 58,281 inscribed in black granite. 

16. The youngest service member to die in Vietnam was 15 and the oldest was 62.

PFC Dan Bullock, remembered on Panel 23 West, Line 96 was just 15 years old when he died in Vietnam. SK1 Kenna Taylor, remembered on Panel 7 West, Line 82 was 62 when he died in Vietnam.

17. There are 160 Medal of Honor recipients on The Wall.

Of the 160 Medal of Honor recipients on The Wall, 159 received the honor for actions in Vietnam while one was received for actions in World War II and then the service member later died in Vietnam.

18. One high school has 64 graduates on The Wall.

Thomas Edison High School in Philadelphia has 64 graduates on The Wall, making it the school with the highest death rate. 

19. 1968 was the deadliest year in the Vietnam War.

Nearly 17,000 service members were killed in the war in 1968. Their names stretch from Panel 33 East, Line 11 to Panel 35 West, Line 14. 

20. The Wall, Three Servicemen Statue, Flagpole, Vietnam Women’s Memorial, and In Memory plaque all make up the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Many visitors don’t realize that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial now includes five distinct pieces. The Wall – which was dedicated in 1982. The Three Servicemen statue and the flagpole were dedicated in 1984. In 1993, The Vietnam Women’s Memorial was dedicated. In 2004, the In Memory plaque was dedicated. 

21. The Three Servicemen Statue was sculpted by Frederick Hart and multiple men modeled for the statue.

Frederick Hart chose models for the sculpture in an unconventional way. The figures are purposefully identifiable as Caucasian, African American, and Hispanic American.  One model was selected when Hart was walking the streets and surveying the pedestrians and found the face he long sought. Another was selected during a search through the Marine Corps Barracks in Washington, D.C. The African American figure evolved over the study of three men while the Caucasian and Hispanic figures were modeled after individuals. The common characteristics Hart sought in all of his models were youth and innocence, the balance between childhood and manhood that was the essence of the sculpture. Hart’s use of young models rings close to the war experience. Each model sat for two to three hours at a time for two months.

22. The weapons and uniforms portrayed on the Three Servicemen Statue are true to Vietnam service.

Hart wanted to ensure accuracy for the details of the uniforms and weaponry. He relied heavily on historians. He was advised by members of the Army Institute of Military History and the Marine Corps Historical Society. Along with employing the help of several experts, he borrowed military gear from Vietnam veterans. The three figures wear cracked boots and crumpled and tightly rolled fatigue pants. One figure is wearing a worn hat, an overstuffed jacket, and a bandolier full of bullets draped across his chest. The uniforms are representative of all branches of the military and each figure wears a variety of gear. A point of controversy over the years has been the direction of the bullets on the statue. To read a letter from Frederick Hart about the way he positioned the weaponry, go here: https://www.vvmf.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Frederick-Hart-memo-about-bandoliers-on-three-servicemen-statue.pdf

23. The flagpole was added to the site in 1984.

The 60-foot flagpole that was added to the site in 1984 flies the American flag and the POW/MIA flag in honor of the men and women who served in Vietnam. The flagstaff features an inscription and the seals of the five branches of the military which served in Vietnam at its base. An inscription on the flagpole base reads: “This flag represents the service rendered to our country by the veterans of the Vietnam War. The flag affirms the principles of freedom for which they fought and their pride in having served under difficult circumstances.”

24. The Vietnam Women’s Memorial was dedicated in 1993.

Nearly 11,000 female service members served in-country during the Vietnam War. Barred from combat, these women served in health care, communications, intelligence, and administrative positions. In late 1983, Diane Carlson Evans, a nurse who served in Vietnam, conceived of the idea to add a statue to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial site to honor the women who served. The sculpture by Glenna Goodacre portrays three women, one of whom is caring for a wounded male soldier. The Vietnam Women’s Memorial was dedicated on November 11, 1993.

25. The trees around the Vietnam Women’s Memorial have a special meaning.

Surrounding the site of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial are eight yellowwood trees that were planted to symbolize the eight women whose names are on The Wall.

26. The In Memory plaque was dedicated in 2004 to honor those who returned home from Vietnam and later died.

The In Memory program which honors new veterans each year began in 1993 – before the plaque was installed. Each June, hundreds of Vietnam veterans are honored on the east knoll of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial during the In Memory ceremony. To learn more about how to have a Vietnam veteran honored through In Memory, visit www.vvmf.org/in-memory-program 

27. The In Memory plaque you see today in Washington, D.C. is not the original plaque.

The original In Memory plaque was dedicated in November 2004. Since then, the plaque has been replaced multiple times in an effort to make it more readable and visible.

28. There are multiple traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial exhibits.

There are numerous traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial exhibits with the first starting to travel the nation just a few short years after The Wall’s dedication. Only one exhibit – The Wall That Heals – is associated with VVMF and The Wall in Washington, D.C. The Wall That Heals began traveling the nation in 1996 and includes a three-quarter scale replica of The Wall along with a replica In Memory plaque and a mobile Education Center. To see where The Wall That Heals will be on display, visit www.vvmf.org/twth

29. The Wall remains one of the most visited sites in Washington, D.C.

The Wall is one of the most visited sites on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., second only to the Lincoln Memorial. Last year, more than 3.6 million people visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

30. Multiple ceremonies are hosted by VVMF at The Wall every year.

VVMF hosts ceremonies on National Vietnam War Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and other days which allow the public to honor and remember all those who served and sacrificed in Vietnam. 

31. The Wall is 493 feet long and a little more than 10 feet high at its tallest point.

The Wall is nearly 500 feet long and includes 140 numbered panels. The largest panel has 704 names, and the shortest panel has five names. 

32. The most common surname on The Wall is Smith. 

There are 663 service members with the last name of Smith on The Wall – including 15 with the name Michael Smith. If The Wall’s listing had been in alphabetical order – it would have been hard for visitors to know which name was their loved one. Through the listing by casualty date, visitors can more easily identify a specific service member and those that died together are listed together. 

33. Wall washings typically occur every Saturday between April and November. 

The National Park Service organizes and schedules Wall washings every week – when temperatures permit – from volunteer and veteran groups.

34. You can see photos of the service members on The Wall on VVMF’s website.

VVMF’s Wall of Faces features a webpage for each service member on The Wall. The goal is to have at least one photo of each of the 58,281 service members whose names are inscribed on The Wall. As of May 2022, only 11 service members are without photos. To search the Wall of Faces, visit www.vvmf.org/wall-of-faces

35. The directory stands at The Wall are the original stands.

The five directory stands on the site of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are the original stands. However – VVMF purchased and replaced the glass on the top of the directory stands in 2018 and replaces the directories annually or when needed.

36. Thousands of Name Rubbings are done on The Wall each year.

Visitors to the Memorial can do name rubbings of an individual service member’s name to take home as a remembrance of their visit. For those who can’t visit the Memorial in DC, VVMF mails out thousands of name rubbings free of charge each year. To request a name rubbing, visit www.vvmf.org/name-rubbing/.

37. The volunteers at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are known as Yellow Hats.

The volunteers you often see at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are volunteers of the National Park Service. Their uniforms include yellow shirts and hats, and they have come to be known as “Yellow Hats” by visitors. One interesting fact about the volunteers is that most do not live in the Washington, D.C. area. Many volunteers live in other states and travel to D.C. to volunteer a few times a year. One of the longest-serving volunteers at The Wall lives in Alaska.

38. The walkway and lighting at The Wall were installed after the Memorial was dedicated. 

The original design intention was for The Wall to rise up seamlessly from the grass, so there were no real provisions for a walkway. With the number of visitors at the Memorial – that grass quickly became mud. Planning began soon after the dedication for a walkway and lighting system – so the Memorial would be accessible to visitors 24 hours a day. 

39. VVMF partners with the National Park Service to care for the site of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

VVMF has a long-standing partnership with the National Park Service to care for the Memorial. While NPS handles many of the day to day needs at the Memorial site, VVMF – through the support of its generous donors – manages and covers the cost of the long-term care and preservation of the Memorial site. 

40. VVMF hosts a “Reading of the Names” for the names inscribed on The Wall on special anniversaries.

The first reading was done during the dedication in 1982. The names were next read in 1992 as part of the 10th anniversary commemoration. Since the 20th anniversary in 2002 – the Reading of the Names has taken place every five years. The next Reading of the Names will take place this November 7-10th as part of the 40th anniversary commemoration.