Yesterday, as I took a long walk around Battery Park, in the far Southern part of Manhattan, I came upon a monument that I’d previously not noticed. Looking out towards the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, one is enveloped by a large eagle commemorating Americans who died in the Second World War. To each side of the statue are large stone walls that feature the name of every soldier who died in the conflict, along with their military rank at the time of death and home state. The names are organized by the various branches of service. I was drawn to take a pencil etch of one of the soldiers, Sam Yee. One reason this monument is so stately is because complementing the eagle and giant stone slabs are the names…all of the names.
I was immediately drawn to the similarity of the Vietnam Memorial. In the early 1980s, the Federal Government issued a call for ideas related to a long-awaited monument commemorating those lost in the unpopular Vietnam War. To the surprise of many, the design selected for the project was Maya Lin, an undergraduate student at Yale University, beating out 1,400 other designers. The granite monument started with the name of the first soldier killed in the conflict. The granite slabs include the names of nearly 60,000 Americans who died in the War. The design, initially criticized by many, was unique in the focus on the individual soldiers, rather than an archetype or artistic representation of a soldier(s). Ultimately, the memorial has become a healing place as loved ones are able to find the name of their soldier and his (and in a few instances her) temporal placement in the losses of the war. In explaining the vision for her design, Lin said that the monument emerged out of the ground like a wound—representing the pain the Vietnam War caused to so many.
Many make the pilgrimage to the wall, as I have, to make a pencil etching of their soldier’s name. Among my most cherished possessions is the etching of my Uncle Herman H. Ritchie’s name. I had taken the etch many years ago for my biological father. It was returned to me when he died. The notion of naming those lost has been incorporated into newer memorials including the beautiful installation of empty named chairs honoring the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. Likewise, the enormous World Trade Center Memorial has a wall, designed over the footprint of the Twin Towers, with the name of each victim. Each day, volunteers place flowers by the names of those killed whose birthday it is.