“Separating The War From The Warriors”
May 25, 1986
Less than a year after the November 11, 1982, dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, student leaders from the University of Kansas decided the time had come to properly honor the 57 KU students and alumni who had lost their lives in the country’s longest and most controversial war with a memorial of their own. Originally conceived in the fall of 1983, KU’s planned monument would become the first on-campus commemorative to Vietnam War dead in the country when it was finally dedicated on May 25, 1986.
The fact that the University was a hotbed of anti-war protest made the decision to erect a memorial all the more poignant. Indeed, just as America itself was slowly coming to grips with Vietnam, so too was the University of Kansas. Its memorial, like the one in the nation’s capital, sought not to make political statements about the war and how it was conducted, but rather to “separate the war from the warriors” and, as the inscription reads, to remember the “courage, honor and sacrifice of our fellow students.”
The KU Vietnam Memorial was the brainchild of Student Body President Lisa Ashner who, in September 1983, formed a memorial committee to raise funds for its construction. She enlisted the help of KU graduates and Vietnam veterans Tom Berger and John Musgrave (the committee’s co-chairs) to persuade the Student Senate to appropriate $10,000, which, to their surprise, unanimously agreed to the request. Truly, said Musgrave, they were dealing with “a different generation of college students, a generation with no memories of how the Vietnam War divided the country.” In the ensuing years, the Committee was able to raise an additional $30,000 from campus fraternities and sororities, local veterans groups, and families of former students who served in Vietnam.
Immediately, the newly organized KU Vietnam Memorial Committee announced a design contest, asking that students themselves submit architectural plans for the type of monument the University should build. “The memorial,” Berger told the University Daily Kansan, was “to honor KU students and to be financed and designed by KU students.” Of the 10 entries received, the committee chose the one submitted by John Onken, a St. Louis junior and architecture major, whose winning design called for nine limestone posts to surround two large slabs and a small fountain.
“The idea was not to build a typical memorial,” said Onken. “We’re not recalling great victories won. We’re recognizing men who did their best, regardless of the politics that sent them there.” In an interview with Kansas Alumni, Onken admitted, “no one really wants to say whether we won or lost,” so he simply wanted “something that … honors the individuals who died – we don’t want to honor large ideas or principles.” Describing his design, Onken told the Kansan that the posts “could take on different meanings. They could represent a line of fence posts, soldiers or tombstones.” They could also “stress the individuality of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam.” The original design also called for a bronze sculpture of two soldiers holding a wounded comrade.
As for the site of the monument, the Memorial Committee initially decided to place it in the Chandler Court of the Frank R. Burge Union. As it turned out, however, neither this location nor Onken’s design ever made it past the planning stage. In the summer of 1984, after consultation with the University Art in Public Spaces Committee, the Memorial Committee realized that Chandler Court was inappropriate not only because it was somewhat secluded, but also because it faced the Union’s Party Room and stood near the Fred B. Anschutz Sports Pavilion – a location hardly befitting the solemnity that the memorial was intended to embody. In addition, it became clear that Onken’s proposed monument would simply be too expensive. “Memorials cost much more than they used to,” said Berger. “When they built the Chi Omega fountain in 1955, it cost something like $10,000. We have $30,000, and that won’t buy much these days.” So, by the fall of 1984, the planners were no further along than they were a year earlier: firmly committed to honoring the sacrifices of their fellow students, yet without a site and without a design.
In November 1984, however, the Memorial Committee worked out an agreement with the University to build the monument in Marvin Grove, a small wooded area southwest of the Spencer Art Museum. This new location, in view of the University’s most prominent structures commemorating the students who served and died in the two World Wars, was ideal from the Committee’s perspective. “Its serenity and peace and its proximity to Memorial Stadium and the Campanile make it perfect,” said Berger. And even though his design had been ultimately rejected, John Onken was himself pleased with the new location. “The grove is secluded,” he told Kansas Alumni. “It’s a more reflective and meditative area. The memorial won’t have to compete with anything else, so we can rely more on the natural elements.”
In spite of this breakthrough, though, by May 1985, the Memorial Committee and the University’s Art in Public Spaces Committee were at creative loggerheads over the design of the Vietnam monument. After the University had rejected a revised, scaled-down design, the Memorial Committee expressed grave concern that “like the National Vietnam Memorial, technical details … have themselves become so muddled and politicized internally that a successful solution may be difficult.” In addition, the Memorial Committee charged that after 18 months of delay, both it and the University “have now been placed in the extremely awkward position of having to explain the lack of action on the KU Memorial not only to the national and local media, but to the families and friends of the students we seek to honor.”
At one point, the University had suggested hiring a professional architect, not a student, to design a new memorial. This the Memorial Committee flatly rejected, insisting that such a move would increase the cost, delay the construction even further, and, most importantly, betray the essential purpose of the Vietnam Memorial – that it be created and financed by students to honor students.
In the fall of 1985, however, the two sparring committees finally agreed on a compromise design conceived by Doran Abel, a senior architecture major from Junction City; Stephan Grabow, professor in the KU School of Architecture and Urban Design; and Greg Wade, the University’s landscape architect for facilities planning. Reminiscent of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, the monument would consist of a 65-foot, L-shaped wall of native Kansas limestone that would bear the names of the 55 then-known KU students or alumni who were either killed, or declared missing or POWs in Vietnam. The wall would also feature an engraving of a soldier’s helmet on a rifle next to a pair of boots – the symbol of a fallen comrade – with the inscription: “Lest we forget the courage, honor and sacrifice of our fellow students.” And on November 11, 1985, Veterans’ Day, the planners officially broke ground for the nation’s first on-campus Vietnam Memorial.
Not 24 hours after the small ceremony, University officials discovered that vandals had stolen the architect’s conception that had been posted inside a Plexiglas and steel frame. John Musgrave told the Kansan that this was “a cowardly act made by a person or persons wishing to make some sort of twisted statement about the war or the policies that led us there by attacking the first physical evidence of the memorial.” It was not to be the last instance of vandalism against the Vietnam Memorial. Shortly after its dedication, someone scrawled on the monument that those students who lost their lives in Vietnam did so “while waging a genocidal war for US imperialists.” This defacement was, according to Tom Berger, “one of the most heinous and reprehensible acts of dishonor” and evidence that, at least for some, the resentment surrounding America’s role in Vietnam had not fully dissipated.
Delays and vandals aside, on May 25, 1986, KU formally dedicated its Vietnam Memorial. More than 300 friends and family members from across the country gathered in Marvin Grove to pay their respects to those 46 KU men who were killed in action and the nine who were considered either missing in action or prisoners of war. “Now we gather in tribute,” said Chancellor Gene A. Budig. “This memorial will keep their sacrifice before us always.” In his keynote address, Lt. Col. Hugh Mills, US Army deputy chief of operations at Fort Leavenworth, told the audience, “Sacrifice is the essence of this memorial weekend. From the horrors of an endless war, the warriors have come home. With the consecration of this shrine in their memory, they have finally come home.”
Mills, who had flown more than 1,000 helicopter missions in Vietnam, was shot down 16 times, and was awarded more than 100 medals, also said that the nation had taken too long to “acknowledge the sacrifices made by Vietnam veterans and Americans who died fighting in southeast Asia.” However, he allowed, “After the turmoil of the 70s, our country exhibited two great capacities: to forgive and to forget.” We must not forget, though, the estimated thousands of servicemen still believed to be held in Vietnamese POW camps. America had a solemn duty, asserted Mills, to bring these brave men home. As the ceremony closed, the bells of the Memorial Campanile tolled 55 times.
Reflecting on the support shown by KU students in making the memorial possible, Tom Berger said to the Lawrence Journal-World, “They’ve learned to separate the war from the warriors…. The message of this memorial is not whether the war was right or wrong. Decide that on your own. Its most important message must always read: Here we remember the price they paid.” Dr. David Ambler, the University’s vice chancellor for student affairs, agreed: “The kind of reconciliation that you see occurring now is a national admission that we made a terrible mistake in not being able to honor those who died.”
Twelve years later, on April 25, 1998, the University rededicated its Vietnam Memorial when it found out that one name mistakenly had been left off the engraved roll of honored dead. Capt. Loyd Meredith Willson, a native of Iola, graduated from KU in 1962 and went on to serve as an infantry company commander until he was killed by enemy snipers in 1968. Awarded the Silver Star posthumously for his “dauntless courage, determined efforts, and exemplary leadership” in battle, Willson is now honored by his alma mater as well as his country. Additionally, on the day of its rededication, a second star was added beside the name of Air Force Maj. Larry K. Martin of Wakefield, Kansas, to denote that he was no longer considered missing in action. His remains had been identified and returned to his family in 1989.
Col. Fred Green, a KU alum and fraternity brother of the men, had originally noticed the discrepancies and helped effect the necessary changes to KU’s Vietnam Memorial. At the rededication, speaking for his two friends and for the 55 others memorialized, Green reminded everyone, “These men made real sacrifices. They did their duty. They taught us that freedom isn’t free.”
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas