By Riley Manning
TUPELO – In an unconventional groundbreaking ceremony, Vietnam veterans and their supporters packed the meeting room of the Tupelo Aquatic Center to escape the drizzling rain and celebrate the future construction of a replica of the Vietnam War memorial in Washington.
The black granite monument in Veterans Park will measure 60 percent of the size of the original, and will bear the 58,267 American names who were lost in the Vietnam War.
“Since I came to office, this project has been one I have become more and more passionate about,” said Mayor Jason Shelton. “It’s not just the right thing to do, but it’s also a tremendous addition to Veterans Park.”
According to Carlyle “Smitty” Harris, a retired Air Force Colonel who spent eight years in a North Vietnam prison, the wall will stand as one of only five permanent Vietnam War memorials of comparable quality and size in the country. Others include the Westphall Memorial in Angel Fire, N.M., Wall South in Pensacola, Fla., and the Wall that Heals in Wildwood, N.J.
“I’m honored to be here among people whose purpose is to honor veterans,” Harris said. “This project is something we can all be proud of.”
The memorial has been in the works since 2011, and according to Don Lewis, chief operations officer for the city of Tupelo, $125,000 from the city and the Convention and Visitors Bureau has been obtained for the project. This money will go toward constructing the parking lot and other infrastructure, which is set to begin immediately. The monument itself will be paid for by donations and sponsorships of the wall’s 144 reflective panels.
Rex Moody, state council president for the Vietnam Veterans Association, said panel sponsorships currently total around $66,000, leaving $350,000 needed to complete the project.
“The wall will be a real benefit to veterans who can’t travel to D.C. It will allow them to come, see, and heal,” Moody said. “Not everyone who lost their life died there, and not everyone who came home left there.”
A separate initiative will also bring a pedestaled F-105 “Thunderchief” aircraft to Veterans Park. The F-105 was the plane Harris piloted when he was shot down in 1965, and was crucial in delivering punishment to Vietnam’s toughest targets.
“I wasn’t shot down, I didn’t like that missile so I just ran it over,” he said. “It’s really a remarkable airplane. Fully loaded with bombs and fuel, it weighs over 52,000 pounds and could reach a top speed over twice the speed of sound.”
Tom Burnside, president of Mississippi’s chapter of the In Country Vietnam Motorcycle Club, said he and his club were grateful for the monument.
“It’s important for the generation coming up to remember what we did,” Burnside said. “Vietnam was the most unpopular war ever fought. We were asked and we went for our country, and weren’t always treated well when we got back. If you ever get the chance to go to Washington, go see the Wall. It’s an experience.”