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.
But nothing happened.
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 still be washed off with water — as long as it had not been exposed to light.
After exposure, the substance was no longer was water soluble and formed a tough surface coating, but it could be removed with household bleach.
To demonstrate, he laid a sheet of clear plastic film with a design in black ink on the coated surface and exposed it to light. The places on the coated surface that had been covered by the black design were still water soluble, but the emulsion under the clear plastic could no longer be washed off because it had been exposed to light.
Moreover, the areas exposed to light now had a coating tough enough to withstand sandblasting. He then rinsed the exposed sample under a faucet. The coating peeled off from every area that was to be sandblasted with an engraved letter. The areas to remain smooth were covered by the coating. It was an instant stencil.
Thus, the names to be engraved on the memorial could be could be printed on a sheet of otherwise clear plastic. The granite surface of the Wall would be coated with the emulsion and the plastic sheet positioned on the surface where the names would go. The entire surface would then be exposed to light. Only the portions covered by the lettering would be water soluble and after washing would provide an outline of the names to be engraved by sandblasting.
To inscribe 58,000 names on 3,000 square feet of granite surface, we would need a company capable of handling the production of heavy and fragile pieces.
Binswanger Glass in Memphis, Tennessee, the largest fabricator of heavy glass table tops in the country, filled that need.
The completeness and accuracy of the list were paramount. During and after the war, the Department of Defense compiled the list in accordance with criteria set in an Executive Order and a DOD Instruction. Executive Order No. 11216, signed April 24, 1965, designated North and South Vietnam and adjacent coastal waters, within specified geographical coordinates, extending approximately 100 miles offshore, as a combat zone.
DOD Instruction 7730.22, “Statistical Report of U.S. Casualties in Southeast Asia,” Jan. 20, 1967, and March 20, 1973, provided that the casualties to be reported were all those occurring in Southeast Asia and those deaths occurring anywhere as the result or aftermath of an initial casualty in a combat area. “Southeast Asia” included North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Cambodia, China, Laos, Thailand and the adjacent waters specified in Executive Order 11216.
The DOD computer tape that we obtained from the National Archives in early 1982 contained 57,707 names, including those known or presumed to have died, those still officially missing in action (approximately 10) and those still officially prisoners of war (one). The 57,707 included casualties from battles and from other causes.
The source documents for the DOD list had been the DD Forms 1300 (military death certificates) forwarded by the casualty offices of the service branches. We arranged with the Records Center in St. Louis to check the spelling of all the names on the DOD list, but its inclusivity couldn’t be verified there.
To cross-check for possible omissions, I contacted the service branch casualty offices for lists that may have been compiled independently.
The Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Coast Guard had such lists. All seven of the Coast Guard names were on the DOD list, and after laboriously cross-checking the list against copies of DD Forms 1300, the Marine Corps casualty office forwarded 60 names of Marines in the Far East during the war that did not appear on the DOD listing.
Seven of those, who either died in the war zone or as a result of wounds sustained in the war zone, appeared to meet the criteria set in the Executive Order and DOD Instruction, so I added them.
Some 200 Air Force names weren’t on the DOD list. The names included casualties on isolated outposts in Laos that were within the area specified by the DOD instruction. I added them.
There appeared also the names of the men who died in the effort to rescue the crew of the American container ship SS Mayaguez, which had been captured by the Khmer Rouge off the Cambodian coast in mid-May 1975. That was the last battle of the Vietnam War. It technically happened outside the war zone, but I added those names as well.
They became the last ones on the memorial.
The greatest discrepancy came from casualties in Thailand. Some appeared on the DOD list, but most didn’t. The notes beside a name might indicate a death in Thailand due to hostile fire, but officially Thailand wasn’t in the war zone.
However, Air Force crews flew from there to Vietnam and Laos, and it was likely that planes had gone down in Thailand because of battle damage in the war zone. Furthermore, Thailand was included in the area defined by the DOD instruction.
I therefore added the names of those indicated to have died in Thailand due to flight operations—approximately 160. Finally, I added the names of eight crewmen on an Air Force bomber that exploded in the Pacific on a combat mission coming from Guam.
After cross-checking the Army’s list, we found 53 deaths that weren’t on the DOD list. The St. Louis center had no record of them, but at the National Records Center in Suitland, Maryland, I found most of the 53 men listed on the actual casualty reports from the war zone detailing the extent of injuries for each.
Where the daily log indicated that the man had died or had severe injuries or else no record could be found, I added the name to the list, a total of 40. I didn’t want their sacrifice to be lost to history. Years later, however, we found that some of them had survived, so the names of some living veterans were inscribed on the Wall.
The DOD list began arbitrarily with Jan. 1, 1961, but we had identified an Air Force man who died in 1960 and learned of an even earlier incident.
On July 8, 1959, Master Sgt. Chester M. Ovnand and Maj. Dale R. Buis were killed in a Viet Cong attack at Bien Hoa. Alternatively, at the request of next of kin, we did not engrave on the Wall two names that were on the DOD list.
From the outset we had determined that the names would be listed in chronological order. And we stipulated that every name must be legible, so the letters had to be about a half-inch high. The surface of the Wall would consist of panels, each about 4 feet wide, that would be like pages in a book, beginning with the first panel east of the apex.
Each wing of the memorial would have 74 panels, 70 of which would contain names. Each line on a panel would have five names.
The formatting of the names became a major challenge. On the DOD computer tape each name appeared with surname first followed by the first name, the middle name and, if applicable, the generational suffix (Jr, III, etc.).
Between each part of the name and suffix was a single space. Our computer contractor created a program to reformat the names to read: first name, middle initial, surname and generational suffix, all in capital letters, as we wished to show them on the Wall.
Yet the first test run showed dozens of names that couldn’t be right, such as “ROCHERS J B DES” and “CLAIR C H ST Jr.” As it happened, these names came out wrong because they had prefixes. The names actually were “JAMES B DES ROCHERS” and “CLARENCE H ST CLAIR Jr,” but the computer program couldn’t discern that.
With all the ethnic groups in America, there were many prefixed names.
National groups with such names included Dutch (De, Van, Vander, Van Der), English (St), French (La, Le, Du, Des, D’, De), German (Von, Zu), Irish (Mc), Italian (D’, Da, De, Del, Della, Di, Li, Lo), Portuguese (Da, Dal, Dos), Scottish (Mac) and Spanish (De La, De Los, Las, San, Santa).
Each time I reviewed the list, I found a new problem. Along with having prefixed surnames, some men had prefixed given names. Others, like “Harry S Truman,” had no names behind the initials. If a man’s name was “B Nelson Jones,” it wouldn’t be right to inscribe it as “B N Jones.” All deserved at least one given name to be spelled out.
Then then were the “Billy Bobs” and “Danny Genes,” a naming tradition common in the South. “Billy Bob” was not a first and middle name, but a compound first name, so it had to be spelled out.
Next were the Hispanic names. Sometimes in Hispanic culture, a man carried the surnames of his father and his mother. In Puerto Rico, all the surnames were hyphenated compounds, “Eugene Oscar Morales-Gonzalez,” which made it easy. Yet some family’s identity might be lost by virtue of the way an Army clerk had written a name.
I decided to include the full middle name of Hispanics if it could possibly be a family name. All this happened before personal computers, so eight times I read the entire list of 58,000 names and, at some points, despaired of getting it right.
Another sensitive matter was the names of the “unaccounted for.” The war ended with about 1,200 confirmed casualties whose bodies had not been recovered, but there remained about 1,350 who were “unaccounted for.”
As of the end of 1980, all but 17 of the unaccounted for (16 MIA and one POW) had been officially declared dead through a DOD process known as the “presumed finding of death,” or PFOD.
The families of the unaccounted for preferred that the names of the missing be listed separately from the confirmed deaths, but our architects strongly emphasized the philosophical importance of a single chronological listing to make the memorial a time capsule, reflecting the enormity of the lives sacrificed during the passage of time.
We therefore included the names of the unaccounted in the common listing, but differentiated them by a symbol, to indicate one of four categories: died, missing, missing but later confirmed as died, and missing but later found alive.
Moreover, for the unaccounted, we would use the date that they were declared missing or captured, rather than the PFOD date.
Once the engraving process was started, Binswanger Glass was able to inscribe up to 18 panels per week.
On Sept. 30, 1982, the company finished the last two panels, which were installed on the Wall by the first week in October. Stone carver John Benson came from Rhode Island to engrave by hand the dates “1959” and “1975” at the apex.
The Wall was complete.
Maya Lin was asked why the memorial seemed to have such a strong grip, such a deep emotional impact, on people.
“It’s the names,” she replied. “The names are the memorial. No edifice or structure can bring people to mind as powerfully as their names.”
This article is adapted from Creating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial - The Inside Story by Robert W. Doubek, published in 2015 by McFarland & Co.