(Today’s post honors Charlotte Winters, the last female U.S. veteran of World War I, who died last week at the age of 109.)
Reading the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM) from left to right, like a book, Jessie C. Alba is the last name on the memorial. Because the names are listed in chronological order of casualty, visitors often think he was the last to die, but the VVM is not intended to be read like a book.
It is intended to be experienced as a circle, with the names beginning at the center vertex and continuing east. The first half ends with Jessie, who died on May 25, 1968. Visitors then must
traverse the full length of the Wall to the far west panel for the next May 25th name, John H. Anderson. The names then proceed in chronological order, alphabetical within each date, back to the center vertex, completing the circle.
The first name for July 8, 1959, and therefore the first name at the top of Panel IE in the center vertex, is Dale R. Buis. He was watching a movie with his unit when a sniper attacked. The final names, from May 15, 1975, are on Panel 1W, one panel to the west of 1E. These eighteen died during the rescue of the S. S. Mayaguez and its crew. Richard Vandegeer is the last name on the Wall, not Jessie C. Alba.
Many first time visitors don’t get the circle metaphor, which I believe is the weakest element of the Wall. The entrance to the VVM is not in the center, but at the west or east for a linear, not a circular experience. Rather than a meaningful symbol, the circle seems like a quirk of this memorial. I’mnot complaining. Who knows what details allowed a 21 year old college student to win the VVM competition and to overcome the extreme controversy of her design? This was Maya Lin’s first major work. Some of her subsequent pieces also include circles. If she wants the beginning and the end in the middle, that’s her prerogative as the artist.
But it leaves the problem of Jessie C. Alba. Rather than the last to die, Jessie is the first name of those who died on May 25, 1968. A Texan, Sergeant Alba belonged to the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, Delta Company. He died on the ground in Thua Thien-Hue at age 20. His is the last name on the last panel to the east, Panel 70E. The other 88 names for May 25th begin 140 panels to the west on Panel 70W.
One of the advantages of the chronology is the listing together of all names who died in a battle on a given day. I discussed this feature of the Wall in my 1/15/07 post, “Comrades in Vietnam and the Somme.” The arrangement design allows survivors of a battle to visit one area of the Wall, find their comrades and relive the experience. The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme achieves the same goal by listing regiments together. In that arrangement, the flow for three regiments is disrupted to promote Edwin Lutyens’ architecture (see my 2/4/07 post, A Path Among the Missing).
Rather than promoting architecture, I believe the Wall got caught up in its own rules — chronological order, alphabetical order within dates and no space to indicate a new date. But the VVM also has rules for keeping comrades together. Those who died of injuries are listed with the date of injury not the date of death. The missing are listed with the day they went missing. Because the first rules were slavishly followed, the intention of the second rules was lost for Jessie.
An information arrangement is built by rules – the rule of the alphabet, the rule of chronology, or something more complex. Information arrangers often get caught up in their own rules, forgetting they were created to serve a goal. When a rule becomes more important than the goal, it’s time to rethink the rules. Here’s another rule for the Wall. If one name is left hanging at the end of 70E, it can be moved to the top of 70W.
As it happens, Jessie was the only one in his unit to die on May 25, 1968. The nearest chronological deaths for Delta Company are Elroy E. Beier, May 5, 1968, on Panel 55E and Nickolas G. Garcia, April 22, 1969 on Panel 26W. Alba and Beier arrived in Vietnam on the same day, December 14, 1967. Garcia arrived on April 27, 1968, a month before Jessie died, eight days before Elroy died.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter that Jessie is all by himself on that farthest panel. His buddies probably don’t know anyone else who died on May 25, 1968. But now Jessie belongs to another group. He belongs to the group who died on that day and it does matter that he is separated by 140 panels from the other members of his group. It matters to his fiancé, Mary Ann Lopez, who wrote on the The Wall-USA, “In 1996 I got a chance to see the Vietnam wall with his name on it and since I got there at night time it was so overwhelming for me. The wall is so huge and very scary in a way. I finally found his name and how ironic it was that his name is the last one almost all by itself at the end.”