by Rick Winterson
In the late ‘70s, support was increasing in South Boston to erect a formal memorial of some kind, dedicated to those 25 heroic men from South Boston who lost their lives in Vietnam. It wasn’t only from the friends and relatives of those brave military men – it was a community-wide sentiment. Concerned residents went to work – washing cars, seeking small donations door-to-door, holding Southie “times”, and so on. Major donors or government grants were nowhere to be found.
And it worked. Something north of $28,000 was raised; South Boston’s Vietnam Memorial became much more than just a dream. In the fall of 1981, the Memorial was first dedicated. Thirty-five years later, on September 18, in the year of 2016, over 200 showed up to observe the Memorial’s 35th year as a South Boston landmark. And not so incidentally, it is also America’s first formal, substantial remembrance of the Vietnam Conflict (the so-called “Wall” in Washington, D.C. was dedicated the next year, in November, 1982)
After a Memorial Mass in St. Brigid Church, the crowd assembled in Medal of Honor Park in front of the Vietnam Memorial. A U.S. Army troop transport helicopter adorned the field around the Memorial. A dress-uniformed Army brass quintet played stirring military airs, as the colors were borne along the Park’s walkway, escorted by the skirling of the Boston Fire Department’s pipes and drums. The National Anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner”, brought all to their feet.
As usual, Tom Lyons, himself a decorated Marine veteran, capably emceed the ceremonies. “Never apologize for service in Vietnam.” He called upon elected officials for remarks – Congressman Steve Lynch, Gov. Charlie Baker, Rep. Nick Collins, Councilor (2nd District) Bill Linehan, Councilor (at-Large) Michael Flaherty. Lyons introduced the keynote speaker, Jim Webb, who has not only held many important positions in public service, but also was a speaker at the first Memorial dedication ceremony, 35 years ago. Webb closed his remarks by stating how proud he was to be with all of us once again last Sunday.
Three Medal of Honor recipients graced last Sunday’s occasion – Tom Kelley, Barney Barnham, and Ryan Pitts, who as a young Army Staff Sergeant received the Medal of Honor because of his unrelenting defense, while severely wounded, of a forward observation post in Afghanistan. Kelley and Pitts spoke briefly, Kelley referring to the bravery of the 25 men, who died in combat in Vietnam and were listed on the Memorial, Pitts stating that these young men, all around 20 years old, “ … gave up everything so we could be here in freedom.”
Three ceremonial wreaths were emplaced by the Memorial, and then, in the most touching part of the whole remembrance, 25 red roses were emplaced one-by-one at the base of the black Memorial stone, as each name on the stone was read out. The ceremony closed with “Taps” by the Army bugler and “Amazing Grace” by the BFD pipes.