This post is a guide to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, known popularly as “The Vietnam Wall”, with tips on how to find particular names. Controversial and received mixed reviews at its dedication in 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has since become one of the country’s most visited and well-respected memorials. The memorial features the names of more than 58,000 men and women who sacrificed their lives in service to their country. The memorial is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year unless inclement weather prevents it.
GETTING TO THE VIETNAM VETERANS MEMORIAL
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is located on the northwest side of the National Mall, in between the WWII Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial and across the street from the National Academy of Sciences and the Albert Einstein Memorial. The memorial is a stop on our daily National Mall Tour as well as our National Mall and Tidal Basin Tour, so let us take you there.
Metro: The closest Metro station to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is Foggy Bottom (Blue-Orange-Silver). It’s about a 15 to 20-minute walk (directions) from the Metro station to the memorial. There is only one exit at Foggy Bottom which lets you out on 23rd Street. Just come out of the metro, make an immediate right onto 23rd Street, and follow that down until you reach Constitution Avenue and the Lincoln Memorial is directly in front of you. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial will be to your left, but you won’t immediately notice it until you are approaching it.
Parking: There is very limited street parking nearby. Alternatively, free parking can be found all along Ohio Drive (green lines), just to the south of the Lincoln Memorial. Just be patient, as visitors are coming and going frequently, so you will eventually get a spot there. You can also pay for a space in a garage ahead of time through a service called Parking Panda.
HOW ARE THE NAMES LISTED?
The names are not listed alphabetically, but rather chronologically by date of death or missing in action, beginning and ending in the center where the two walls meet. Though the Wall is shaped like wings – one stretching towards the Washington Monument while the other stretches toward the Lincoln Memorial – it reads like a circle with the name of the first official American casualty at the top of the east panel, beneath the date 1959.The names then continue down that east wing, make an invisible circle around, beginning again at the far end of the west wing, and concluding at the center with the date 1975. If there were more than one casualty in a particular day, those names are listed alphabetically.
Each panel is labeled at the bottom with a number 1-70 and either an E or W. The number signifies the panel number (1 being in the center, 70 at the end) and E or W refers to east or west (east is nearer the Lincoln Memorial, west is nearer the Washington Monument). There are small dots placed at the edge of every tenth line, which makes it easier to locate a specific line. For example, if you were looking for a name on line 64, you’d start at the top of the panel, count down 6 dots, and that name will be located just 4 lines below the 6th dot.
Ways to find a name on the Vietnam Memorial Wall:
Additionally, please note that, though the memorial is open after dark and is illuminated, it is not as well lit as many of the other memorials and a name may be more difficult to find.
HOW TO TAKE A RUBBING OF A NAME
Many who visit leave with a rubbing of a beloved’s name. The tradition involves placing a sheet of paper over the recessed lettering and using the side of a pencil or piece of charcoal to create the rubbing. Oftentimes the National Park Rangers can provide both materials, though it is wise to keep a standard lead pencil on hand in case there are none available. If the name is out of reach, the Park Rangers and volunteers can use a ladder to climb up and do the rubbing for you.
TOURS AND RANGER TALKS
There is no shortage of private companies (including Free Tours by Foot) that offer tours that include the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The memorial is a stop on our daily National Mall Tour as well as our National Mall and Tidal Basin Tour, so let us take you there. If you go on your own, there are many ways for you to experience and learn about this precious Memorial.
Ranger Talks – Park Rangers, as well as volunteers, provide daily “interpretive programs” on the hour every hour from 10 a.m. until 11 p.m. The enjoyment factor depends greatly on who is giving the tour, as some Rangers seem more interested than others, but they are usually all very informative. We have included a video of one of the best, Allen McCabe. These talks are free.
App – The Park Service also offers a visitor’s app for the National Mall for both Android and iPhone.
Traveling Wall – Can’t make it to Washington, DC? There is a traveling wall that is a 3/5 sized replica of the original Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Check the Traveling Wall website to see if it’s coming to a city near you.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE VIETNAM VETERANS MEMORIAL
If you have the time, we strongly urge you to watch the two videos above. If not, here is a very brief history of the memorial.
In 1979, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund was established. Jan Scruggs, a wounded veteran himself, was the voice behind its creation. After $8.4 million was raised through private donations, Congress commissioned for the memorial to be built at a site near the Lincoln Memorial.
A nation wide contest was held to select the memorial’s design. Over 1,400 people submitted proposals, but one was unanimously selected. The winning design was done by a young woman named Maya Lin, a 21-year-old student at Yale University. Lin originally created the design as a final project for one of her classes and received a B- on the work.
Ground broke on the memorial in March of 1982 and it was dedicated in November of that same year, becoming the first national veterans memorial. Though well received by many, the Wall was also heavily criticized. The post-modern structure differed greatly from the classic designs of the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. Maya Lin was also personally criticized for her ethnicity as a Chinese-American. Just as the Vietnam War had divided the country, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial garnered many outspoken opinions of both praise and antipathy.
In an effort of compromise, a statue was placed next to the memorial. Referred to as the ‘Three Servicemen Statue”, it depicts three infantrymen gazing toward the Wall. This statue was decided in 1984, two years after the original dedication. The Three Servicemen Statue is located near the west end of the Wall by the flagpole.
Another statue was added in 1993, the Vietnam Veterans Women’s Memorial (sometimes called the Nurses’ Memorial). It depicts three women: one holding a fallen solider, one kneeling with his helmet, and another standing as if she is looking for a rescue helicopter. The Vietnam Veterans Women’s Memorial is located at the east end of the wall.
Today, the Wall stands as a highly respected icon of American sacrifice that is visited by millions each year.
ITEMS LEFT AT THE WALL
Throughout the years, tens of thousands of mementos have been left at the Vietnam Wall. Items range from smaller keepsakes such as letters, photos, and dog tags, all the way to a brand new custom made Harley Davidson motorcycle. It is believed that tradition started when the brother of a veteran killed in Vietnam left his Purple Heart — which had been awarded to his brother posthumously — in the wet cement of the Wall.
Image from History.net
National Park Service Rangers collect all of the nonperishable items at the end of every night and have been keeping them over the years. Today, they are all stored in a large warehouse in Maryland. Some are on display in the America at War section of the Smithsonian American History Museum.
Jan Scruggs, the man who initially envisioned there being a Vietnam Veterans Memorial, is now part of a team that is trying to establish a museum near the Wall to showcase the many items that have been left.
We visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on our National Mall Tour