The memorial depicts a radio operator comforting a wounded comrade while anxiously searching the sky for a medevac helicopter. The bronze sculpture stands about 10 feet tall at its highest point and is 23 feet long and 12 feet wide. With a weight of more than 10 tons, it is the largest sculpture of its kind in the country. The memorial is located in front of Municipal Auditorium, in a portion of the facility's parking lot that has been transformed into the Veterans Memorial Plaza. A monument to Korean War veterans was added later at the other end of the plaza.
"Hill 881 South," as the memorial is officially called, was created by Scottsdale, Ariz., artist Austin Deuel who served as a Marine illustrator during the war. On April 30, 1967, the dramatic sight of radioman Donald Hassock helping an injured soldier inspired Deuel to draw the picture that 19 years later would become the model for San Antonio's memorial.
Businessman and Vietnam veteran John Baines, chairman of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial of San Antonio Inc., led the effort to establish a monument to honor the area's war veterans. In January 1986 Deuel and his staff in Arizona began working on the sculpture, and on May 2, 1986, the San Antonio City Council approved the memorial's construction plans.
But funds were still needed to pay for the sculpture and the surrounding plaza. So San Antonians went to work, taking part in a number of events to raise the money. A radio station held a radiothon and groups sponsored a Walk for the Vietnam Veterans, during which participants raised money by taking pledges for each mile they walked. Comedian Bob Hope performed at a benefit show held in the auditorium. These activities eventually raised the $600,000 that was needed.
On Nov. 4, 1986, the sculpture left Scottsdale on a flatbed truck and arrived in San Antonio three days later. It was dedicated on Nov. 9, just two days shy of Veterans Day. This is what is inscribed on the front of the sculpture's base:
"Permanently encased within the memorial is an air tight compartment that contains a complete list of the names, serial numbers, branches of the military and dates of service of the men and women from the San Antonio area who served in the Vietnam War. Over 60,000 fine young Americans from our community served in Vietnam. This memorial is a tribute to all of them."
On the other side of the base is a poem titled "Death at My Door":
The metal monument is designed in the shape of the U.S. flag and rests on a black marble base on which are inscribed these words from Oliver Wendell Holmes: "One flag, one land, one heart, one hand, one nation evermore." At night, the flag's stars light up and the silhouette of a colonial minuteman with musket appears on the face of the monument.
The floor of the small plaza where the monument sits is covered with 16x16 inch bricks. Kelly employees raised funds for construction of the monument by selling the bricks, which buyers could then have inscribed with their names or the name of a vet. Information on the brick includes the veteran's branch, rank and dates of service.
The granite memorial is about ten feet high, from the base to the tip. A brown marble inset in the shape of a shield displays this inscription:
On top of the shield is an engraving of the Army's Combat Infantry Badge, or CIB. The seals of the five military branches surround the shield. On the lower part of the monument are engraved the names of 52 men, mostly Hispanics, from the Edgewood area who were killed or are still classified as missing in action in Vietnam. Ten members of the Edgewood High School graduating class of 1967 are listed on the memorial.
I knew two of the men whose names appear on the monument. I attended junior high school with Robert Litterio who had an identical twin brother named Albert. I remember Robert as a big gentle guy. He reminded me of a younger and better-looking Hoss Cartwright, a character on the television series "Bonanza." Robert liked everybody and everybody seemed to like him.
I went to a different high school than did Robert so I lost track of him after the eight grade. I heard years later that he had been wounded during an ambush in Vietnam and bled to death because heavy enemy fire prevented his comrades from getting to him in time. It was a terrible loss of a truly nice person. Recently I spoke with a vet who was in high school with Robert Litterio and took part in his friend's military funeral.
The other name I know is that of Armando M. Zepeda, a classmate of mine at John F. Kennedy High School. JFK was only one of two high schools in the small, blue-collar school district where I grew up. Armando's death, which was reported in one of the local papers, occurred during his second tour of Vietnam. He had volunteered to go again, the newspaper story said, to make up for those who didn't want to serve, meaning those who dodged the draft or went to Canada to avoid military service.
I met Armando when we were both in ROTC. We were not friends but I found him to be an extremely nice guy, always laughing and full of life and youthful exuberance. I believe he had planned on a military career. At the base of the monument is inscribed:
I understand that Armando G. Leal Jr. was well-liked and considered a "good guy" around his tough Southside neighborhood. A photo of the smiling young man posing proudly in his Navy uniform is displayed in a glass case near the school's main office. Also displayed is a copy of the citation that accompanied Leal's Navy Cross.
The citation reads in part: "Armando G. Leal, Jr., Hospital Corpsman Third Class, U.S. Navy, awarded the Navy Cross posthumously for extraordinary heroism on 4 Sep 67 while serving as a corpsman with the 2nd platoon, Company "M", 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division (REIN), FMF . . . "
The citation goes on to describe how Leal went to the aid of Marines who had been cut down in an ambush during Operation Swift. Although he suffered a number of wounds himself he refused any treatment and continued to work on his comrades. But in helping others he left himself vulnerable to attack and was killed by an North Vietnamese Army machine gunner.