Names on a Memorial: Jessie C. Alba

(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.”

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Apr 2007

Names on a Memorial: Comrades in Vietnam and the Somme

While writing her proposal essay for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM) competition, Maya Lin was influenced by the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme in Thiepval, France.  Designed by architect Edwin Lutyens, this WWI memorial honors 72,000 Britons, Indians and South Africans who went missing from the Somme battlefield, primarily during five months in 1916.  The VVM honors 58,000 dead and missing during 20 years from 1956 to 1975. Lin’s essay emphasizes placement of the VVM within the context of the National Mall.  I believe she was inspired by Thiepval’s site on a hill overlooking a cemetery.  Lutyen’s memorial magnificently overwhelms the French countryside.  While the VVM is overwhelming only when you get close to it, Lin’s work tends to be site specific, so it is natural that she would emphasize placement in her essay.

Lutyens’ Thiepval design interweaves six arches on a square of sixteen piers, spanning the length and width of the building.  The arches increase in size as they decrease in number.  Two north-south arches are intersected by two taller east-west arches, intersected by one even larger north-south arch, and finally intersected by the tallest east-west arch rising almost to the height of the edifice.

The names of the missing are engraved on the 16 piers.  They are organized by British Army Order of Precedence, which determines how regiments appear on the parade ground.  Within each regiment, names are listed by rank and within each rank, in alphabetical order.  Like the VVM, the Thiepval memorial requires an index to locate individual names.

Also like the VVM, the arrangement places comrades close to each other.  Prior to Vietnam, military personnel were often mustered into local regiments and sent off to war. In WWI, British towns sacrificed a generation of young men into fighting squads with names like Kensington Battalion and Cheshire Regiment.  Organizing the missing of the Somme by unit not only combines those who fought together, but also those who lived together in their civilian towns.  Military survivors remember comrades.  Townspeople remember neighbors.

In traditional wars, like WWI, military personnel mustered together and fought together throughout the entire conflict.  Survivors returned home at the same time and, if they won, they had a parade.  Vietnam changed that.  Individuals were sent at different times, stayed for a few years and returned alone.  No parade and no comradeship within the entire regiment.  Vietnam veterans remember those who served at the same time, not those who served in their unit several years before they arrived.  For Vietnam veterans, chronology, not unit, gathers comrades together.

(My thanks to Peter Francis, Media & PR Manager of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, for his invaluable help in my research on the Thiepval memorial.)

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Names on a Memorial: Vietnam’s Chronology

The selection committee for the World Trade Center Memorial included Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM) in Washington, DC.  Lin championed Michael Arad’s design, but her own use of chronological order is closer to the affiliation of the Families Proposal than to Arad’s random structure.  Her powerful VVM arrangement employs chronology to display affiliation.

The VVM lists names of the dead and missing in order of casualty.  People who died together are listed together.  Surviving veterans of a battle can stand in front of their unit’s dead, reading the names of their buddies and watching their own reflections in the polished black marble.  They find their time in the war, see the names of their friends, and reflect on their memories.

The rules of the VVM chronology reinforce arrangement by affiliation.  The listing is by date of casualty not by date of death.  So a person who died later of wounds received in a battle is listed with others who died in that battle.  The missing are listed by the date they went missing, so they would also be located with the casualties of the battle.

Vietnam veterans need only find one name in the index, walk to the appropriate panel, and see the names of all their fallen comrades from one day of fighting.  They can remember details about each person and about the day and remember others who survived.  They don’t have to expend energy and time remembering individual names and finding them separately in alphabetical order.  The group remains together in memory and on the Memorial.

For visitors who are not veterans, another detail reinforces affinity.  Each day’s casualties are alphabetized.  This simple arrangement technique allows all visitors to recognize the beginning and ending of the deaths for one day.  You don’t have to be a surviving veteran to stand with the dead on a battlefield.  You just have to know your alphabet.

To walk the length of the VVM chronology is to experience the war.  Certainly there are architectural details that amplify the Memorial’s intensity.  The growing height of the panels, for example, emphasizes the magnitude of death.  But it is the chronology that gives the Memorial its strength.  A list of alphabetized names, whatever the architecture, would just be a list.

Maya Lin’s chronology provides a context for the names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  It encourages surviving veterans to meditate on their past in a way not possible with a less insightful arrangement.  It shows visitors the history of the war and the events on a single day of fighting.  In a hundred years, when the soldiers and the protestors have all died, it will continue to represent not the glory of war or even the futility of war, but simply the experience of war.

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Nov 2006