Wildwood memorial to Vietnam War dead unveiled

Tom Martino, 58, of Del Haven, N.J., president of the Vietnam Veterans of America 955, rubs away a smudge on a name of the new memorial wall unveiled Saturday in Wildwood. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)

WILDWOOD - It had been a war against somber emotion for hours Saturday, among men, women, even children, standing yards from the roiling ocean, a backdrop of kites and amusements nearby.

Some wiped tears. Some sniffled. Some out-and-out wept. There had been a fighter-jet flyover, dignified flag raisings, a couple of renditions of "God Bless America" and "The Star-Spangled Banner." Rousing speeches and tributes had made some in the crowd of about 10,000 introspective.

And when the black drapes were finally lifted from Wildwood's permanent replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, the crowd stood nearly silent for a moment, taking in the magnitude of the more than 58,000 names carved in black granite to honor those killed in Vietnam.

Then they cheered and clapped.

It had taken the Wildwoods' Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 955 and American Legion Byron Pennington Croker Post 184 nearly two years to raise more than $120,000 to build the Vietnam Veterans Remembrance Wall, the only replica of the national memorial.

Wildwood's version is built to half-scale of the original and is slightly different in shape to accommodate construction on a small park lot, which was donated by the local Sons of Italy chapter at Burk and Ocean Avenues.

But it allows the same opportunity to reflect and ponder the tumultuous war - and those who gave their lives in it - amid dark, granite panels.

As with the original, visitors can see their reflection on the wall simultaneously with the etched names. That experience, according to the designer of the original monument in Washington, Maya Lin, is meant to symbolically bring the past and present together.

"It was good to be a part of it, seeing this come together. I didn't realize the magnitude of the memories and the emotions this would bring to me and to so many people," said William Sproule of Galloway Township, whose father, Army First Lt. William C. Sproule Jr., was killed in action in Vietnam on May 10, 1968.

Sproule was only 11/2 when his father was killed. More than 40 years later, as an organizing director for the New Jersey Carpenters Union, he was able to join his union brothers from Locals 1743 and 623, who had been called in to work on the monument by Cape May resident Jeff Thiel, a council representative for the union. The union donated much of the labor to build the 240-foot granite-and-concrete monument.

Those volunteers worked with others from E. Troiano & Sons, a local masonry and concrete company, and members of Tile, Marble and Terrazzo Union Local 7 to complete the project in the last several weeks. A number of other firms, including Albrecht & Heun, Penn Jersey Building Materials, and Remington, Vernick & Walberg Engineers, also donated materials and services to the veterans.

"It was a true community effort, a labor of love on the part of many people," said Vince DePrinzio, a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam who serves as treasurer of Chapter 955 and was instrumental in keeping the project moving.

DePrinzio took over the role after the death of his cousin Greg Mazzotta, a former president of the local Vietnam Veterans of America chapter, who first had the idea to build the wall. Mazzotta died only months after starting the fund-raising for the wall.

Mazzotta, according to DePrinzio, had been inspired by a traveling version of the Washington memorial, known as The Wall That Heals, when it arrived in Wildwood in July 2008.

More than 15,000 people went to see the traveling wall while it was in the resort for four days, and Mazzotta and his comrades decided that a permanent one would be a fitting tribute to the men and women who lost their lives in the war, DePrinzio said.

DePrinzio noted that the wall had been funded completely by private donations. He had anticipated that it would take years to raise the money, "but thanks to the generosity of the residents and organizations of Wildwood, we've done it in 18 months," he said.

He said he was pleased the work was completed in time to dedicate the wall on Memorial Day weekend.

The two-hour dedication featured music by a Coast Guard band from the training center in Cape May, a parade of color guards from various groups, including the Civil Air Patrol and the Cape May County Police and Fire Emerald Society. Speeches from dignitaries including U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R., N.J.) and State Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D., Cape May) recalled the turbulent Vietnam years.

"Upon every name on this wall is a story," said Austin Neri of Wildwood Crest, a student at St. Augustine Prep in Richland, who read his winning essay from a contest about the wall sponsored by the local veterans groups. "Their meaning is timeless."

 


Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com.