The sacred names: Inside the creation of the Vietnam Wall

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a sacred place to remember those who gave their lives during that war. (Guy Aceto/HistoryNet Staff) Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs, who had been wounded during a 1969 ambush while serving in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, had begun urging Congress in 1977, through his writings and testimony, to create a national memorial honoring those who served in the war.

In early 1979 he decided to take on the project himself and announced his intentions at a meeting that veterans had convened in Washington, D.C., on April 9, 1979, to discuss ways to create publicity for their needs.

One of the men at that meeting was Robert W. Doubek, who had served in Vietnam in 1969 as an Air Force intelligence officer and, after the war, earned a law degree at Georgetown University.

Doubek told Scruggs the memorial idea was a good one and proposed setting up a nonprofit corporation to get it done.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund was incorporated on April 27, 1979. And on Nov. 13, 1982, Scruggs, Doubek and other leaders of the memorial effort saw their dreams become reality with the dedication of a memorial that listed the names of thousands of service members who were killed or missing in action in the Vietnam War.

The inscription of the names of the dead and unaccounted for was one of the basic criteria set up by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund for the design of the memorial.

While its purpose was to honor all who served, these names would appear as a special tribute. The Department of Defense had compiled a list of the 58,000 casualties, but initially we had no idea how to engrave these names into stone.

Questions included accuracy, cost and time. It was uncharted territory, and we had only 16 months to get it done, from the time we assembled our design and construction team in July 1981 to our planned dedication of the memorial in November 1982.

The designer, Maya Lin, had suggested that the names be engraved by hand, but that was estimated to take 132 people working for a year and cost at least $2.5 million.

Clearly, we would have to use a sandblasting process, but then the problem was making the stencil. A rubber stencil had been cut to engrave the 4,609 names on the World War II East Coast Memorial in Battery Park in New York City, but we had more than 10 times that number of names and so the risk of mistakes was great.

In August 1981, however, a young man in Cleveland, Larry Century, called to say that he had invented a process that might help us inscribe the names. We sent a sample of granite along with a geometric design, and he sent the sample back with the design perfectly engraved.

So we brought him to Washington to demonstrate the process. He had invented a photosensitive emulsion that could be spread on a surface. After the emulsion dried, it could […]

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