Honoring the Fallen: Thousands visit Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall

Published 5:01 pm Tuesday, November 7, 2023

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In honor of this coming Veteran’s Day, the Decatur County Historical and Genealogical Society hosted the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall over the weekend. A 3/5 scale duplicate of the Vietnam Memorial found in Washington D.C., the wall  of metal panels stretched roughly 300 feet long. Crowds lined Shotwell Street for the wall’s arrival on Thursday morning, and after arriving at the Boat Basin, the BHS construction class was present to help with the set-up and assembly. Even with the extra hands, the process took several hours, with the opening ceremony set later that afternoon.

City councilwoman and Historic Society president Roslyn Palmer took to the podium to welcome guests. According to her, it was a two-year process, and was made possible by funds from the Edward C. Fogg III & Lisbeth A. Fogg Charitable Trust. Unfortunately, due to the conflict in the Middle East, the fly-over that was scheduled to close the ceremony had to be canceled.

County Commissioner and Reverend Dennis Brinson provided the invocation and for the ceremony, after which the BHS band provided the National Anthem at the ceremony, while the BHS AFJROTC presented the flags. The main speaker for the day was local Ron Gilliard, retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel. Gilliard told the story of a childhood friend, John Willson Rivers, who died serving overseas. “John Willson Rivers was a tall, skinny-as-a-rail, and a right gangly kid. He did not make our 1964 football team,” Gilliard recalled. “But still wanting to serve our team, he became our water boy, and he was the best water boy any football team ever had… Just a short three years later, John Willson Rivers, our waterboy, who just wanted to serve our football team, would die in the rice paddies of Vietnam while serving Marines as a Navy medic.” Gilliard recalled finding River’s name at the Veteran’s Memorial in D.C., and reminded those in attendance to not forget the veteran’s sacrifices. “John Willson Rivers did give his all, and we must, again, never ever forget.”

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Rev. Brinson provided the closing benediction for the ceremony. Over the course of the weekend, several visitors left flags and other items in memory of the veterans. Palmer stated that these items will be photographed and catalogued, and then buried at the Basin. A date for the burial will be announced for any that would like to attend.

According to the Wall manager Doc Russo, the memorial saw between 5,000 and 6,000 visitors over the weekend. “The attendance alone says so much about the community’s reception of The Wall,” Palmer said. “People from all walks of life came to pay honor and tribute to the names etched on it.” The Wall had a new 70-foot addition during its stop, which featured the names of lives lost in 9/11, as well as the War in Afghanistan.

“I am so honored to have been part of The Decatur County Historical & Genealogical Society hosting this historical event in Bainbridge,” Palmer said. “There were so many stories that were shared by those who stopped by the tent. For many, it was a chance to put closure to a tragedy that affected them deeply; they have not been able to get to the “original Wall” in D.C., and being able to see, touch, and make a rubbing of their loved one’s name was healing.”

Palmer thanked the volunteers who helped over the weekend, as well as the city for its help in the process.