In November 1982, Vietnam veteran Dean Contover travelled to Washington, DC, for the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Last year, Dean shared his story about that experience which I’m reposting it today in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the dedication of the memorial which occured on November 13, 1982.
Dedication of Vietnam Memorial – November 1982
By Dean Contover
We left Lowell, Massachusetts, on November 10, 1982, at about 6:30 p.m., headed for the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans monument in Washington, D.C. We decided to stop overnight in Atlantic City and then go on to Washington the next morning. I had never been to Atlantic City and wanted to see it.
They expected 250,000 veterans to be in Washington. As we drove, we talked about a lot of things: the Red Sox, truck drivers, traffic, whether people would be traveling since it was the day before the Veterans Day holiday. We talked about truck drivers and their CB radios. We regretted not having a CB with us. It would have been great to hear the CB chatter of Vietnam vets as they drove towards Washington.
I was thinking about old friends that I hadn’t seen since Vietnam. I felt that the parade celebrating the dedication would be one of the best parades ever. With Ronald Reagan as President, it would be a number one extravaganza. (I commented to my friend that Army units did not like marching in parades. When I was in the Army, I wanted to be home on a weekend or holiday, not marching in a parade. I felt sorry for the soldiers who would have to give up their Saturday to march).
Soon we were on Interstate 686 heading for the Tappan Zee Bridge. Around 12:30 p.m. we saw a meteor. We both saw it. We both looked at each other. We got lost driving through New York City. That usually doesn’t happen. Toll gates and more toll gates! We saw a deer off on the side of the Garden State Parkway. Seems that we were seeing some natural phenomenon with the meteor and the deer.
We got into Atlantic City and stopped at a motel at 2:00 a.m. We got a place. It was room number 9. I figured that would be a good number to bet on. We didn’t play any Blackjack or Baccarat or anything like that. I got $20 in quarters and only lost $3. We stayed at the casino until 4 in the morning and got back to the motel shortly after that. While we were there, we heard that Brezhnev had died.
November 11, 1982 – Good morning! Got up and took a shower. Really needed that. Got our stuff packed, filled the cooler with ice and were ready to go. We headed back into Atlantic City but didn’t stay. We just looked around and took some pictures and then headed towards Woodstown, New Jersey, where we visited a friend with whom I went to school in Europe. He invited us to dinner. After that we left for D.C.
Arriving in D.C., we drove straight to the Holiday Inn on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown. Georgetown looks as beautiful as ever. We paid $40 per night for a room which we thought was very good. We watched the news that evening and then went to sleep.
November 12, 1982 – Friday – Good morning! We got up and went straight down to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. People had been down there the day before. We walked down and looked at this black marble which was carved with names of thousands and thousands of Vietnam veterans. I was specifically looking for one name of a friend of mine. His name is William Callery. There was a Park Ranger who gave information on what panel and what line his name would be on. I found out that he was on panel 5E – I presumed E was east – line 59. I saw my friend Billy Callery’s name on the monument. I took a picture of the panel. The people around me were Vietnam veterans. There were other people in civilian clothes, but I can tell the Vietnam veterans by the bush hats they were wearing or the ribbons they were wearing. We just saw some veterans crying – couples crying. TV cameras were there. We witnessed a devastating scene of a mother and father pointing at the name of their son on the monument.
Went down into the monument from top to bottom. The center point is 10 feet tall. The monument starts with the year 1959 when two soldiers were killed in Vietnam, and it ends in 1975. The monument was a very moving experience. I went to Washington with reservations about the monument and after seeing it in person, I still wasn’t sure whether I liked it or not. This was a memorial for the dead, but I wondered why there’s not a memorial for the living veterans of the Vietnam War?
After spending some time at the Memorial, we decided to see some other parts of Washington. We visited an art museum then went to the office of U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas. There were about 25 people working on his staff and half were from Massachusetts. He wasn’t there so we didn’t stay very long. We looked in his office. The office was cramped. The receptionist stated that they were moving to a new office in which they hoped they would have more room.
We took a tour of the Supreme Court then ate in the cafeteria in the Court’s basement then visited the Library of Congress. After that we went back to the hotel and watched some television and it just so happened that a guest on the McNeil Lehrer Report was the Governor Elect of Nebraska, Boby Kerrey, who was a Vietnam veteran.
Friday night we went to the Army reunion at the Sheraton Washington. It was at Woodley Avenue and Connecticut Avenue. We went in there and we saw these veterans, half of them clad in combat fatigues, half of them dressed up in civilian clothes. Downstairs there were computer printouts of the names of Vietnam veterans who were in Washington for the dedication. I saw my name on the board but didn’t see anyone I had served with.
There were vendors set up selling hats, t-shirts, buttons, and ribbons. I was kind of disappointed because I thought it was sort of commercializing the war.
We did see a miniature statue of a monument that they plan to unveil next year on Veterans Day, November 11, 1983. It has three soldiers in their combat gear. I liked it and so did many of the other veterans who looked at it while we were there.
We spent the rest of the night talking to Vietnam veterans from all over the country. There was a guy from Ohio who decided at the last minute to attend, jumped in his car, and drove the eight hours to D.C. We hung out with some guys from the 1st Infantry Division, the “Big Red One.” We met another guy who drew cartoons of combat situations in Vietnam. I was very impressed with his work. Turns out he lived in D.C. but was originally from North Andover, Massachusetts.
We heard stories of combat missions – of death and destruction and some bitterness with certain situations. Met people who were with Special Forces. There was a gentleman who said he was in Cambodia when Nixon was telling the American people we weren’t in Cambodia. There were veterans who were talking about being in Cambodia in unmarked helicopters. People on five-man patrols in Cambodia making contact with the enemy and having to leave their wounded behind.
We decided to leave – it was getting late – and it was raining. Before I left, I asked all the guys that we were talking with if they would march in the parade if it was raining and everybody said, “You bet your ass!” and I said, “It never rains in the Army, it always rains on it.” I guy came up to me and put his arm around me and said, “Yup.” He agreed with me and we all shook hands and left.
Saturday morning, November 13, 1982 – We got up, showered, dressed, and ran out the door. Drove down to Constitution Avenue. Parked the car near the parade site and we sat in the bleachers and watched the parade. The parade started out with General Westmoreland, who was the commander of the troops in Vietnam. He was accompanied by a Medal of Honor recipient. They marched in front of the Alabama delegation. They had Army units there who marched. West Point marched. The Naval Academy marched. The Air Force Academy, too. The 1/3 Infantry Regiment, the Old Guard, marched. These are the soldiers who guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and perform other duties in D.C. They were all over 6 feet tall. They all looked sharp.
About this time, I was ready to cry but I just held myself back.
Delegations from all 50 states marched. The territories – Guam and Puerto Rico – marched too. I learned that Guam lost more men per capita than any other state or territory. Veterans came from all over the country. The Georgia veterans chartered a flight from Delta Airlines and 250 veterans flew up and some of the crew that flew the plane were Vietnam veterans themselves.
There was a separate contingent of Special Forces soldiers. As they marched down the street, they would see Special Forces berets in the crowd and they went into the crowd and grabbed them and pulled them into the parade so they could march. This happened the whole length of the parade.
One of the most impressive delegations was the New Jersey delegation. The New Jersey delegation walked down the street holding hands – their hands over their heads. It looked like there was unison in the delegation.
Massachusetts had a large delegation. Veterans from Massachusetts marched separately from Vietnam vets from South Boston. Veterans from South Boston were dressed up and they walked down the street with topcoats and red carnations. That was something different.
After the state delegations came veterans grouped by major military units. There was a group from the 4th Infantry Division and another from the 196th Infantry Brigade. When the 173rd Airborne Brigade got a half a block from the reviewing stand they halted and let the unit in front of them march on, then the officer in charge of the veterans of the 173rd gave the order to “double time” and this mishmash of different uniforms double-timed past the reviewing stand. I was impressed with their effort but also laughed because many of them hadn’t double-timed in fifteen years. Next came the 101st Airborne Division and then the 1st Cavalry Division. At the end of the parade there was a contingent of Black Vietnam veterans and another group of Veterans who were protesting the use of Agent Orange.
After the parade, we headed for the monument dedication ceremony which was to begin at 2:30 p.m. I estimate that the crowd was roughly 100,000 people. When we got there, we heard the band playing and it was the United States Marine Band. At 2:34 p.m., the speaking program started. The American flag was blowing in the wind. In the crowd, there was an assortment of other flags – divisional flags, state flags, and signs that had been carried in the parade that identified state delegations. It was very cloudy. The temperature was about 47 degrees. At times, the sun would come out. The area was muddy because of the rain from the night before.
Mr. Scruggs appeared at the podium and started to speak. This caused a large cheer in the crowd because everybody knew how much effort Mr. Scruggs had put into this. It took him three years. Mr. Scruggs had been a Specialist 4 with an infantry unit in Vietnam.
The Senator from Virginia spoke who was the Secretary of the Navy during Vietnam and he said that he was going to suggest giving the Medal of Freedom to Mr. Scruggs. The Senator would ask President Reagan to present the Medal of Freedom which is the highest civilian medal that anyone can receive in the United States.
At the end, the band played the Star-Spangled Banner and everyone sang with them and it was very moving. A lot of people were crying. Some veterans were saluting. Then the dedication was over.
I tried to remember if there had been an event more moving since Vietnam and the only thing I could think of was the recent Winter Olympics when the United States won the gold medal for the hockey.
Dean Louis Contover