Vacationers and Islanders lined the Judge S.S. Jolley Bridge and parts of Collier Boulevard on Tuesday to see some 500 motorcyclists escorting the van carrying the Vietnam Wall That Heals as it arrived on Marco Island.
For most it was a quick glimpse as the caravan came over the bridge, surprising those who thought it would come in at more of a parade pace.
Once the wall arrived at Veterans’ Community Park volunteers quickly set to work, putting together the half-size replica of the wall that resides in Washington, D.C.
The wall will be on display continuously from 7 a.m. on Wednesday to 5 p.m. on Saturday.
One of those saluting the motorcade was Peter Ward of Marco Island. He was an Air Force staff sergeant in Vietnam in 1968 during the Tet Offensive.
“It was very touching,” he said. “It was just fantastic. It was huge, they just kept coming. I thought my arm was going to fall off as I stood and saluted every one of them. I haven’t stood in salute for that long since the parades in the 1960s.”
Ward was an assistant crew chief aboard a C123 twin engine cargo plane. “We did 10 sorties a day, spraying Agent Orange poison. We went to places where you landed on tar roads in the middle of the jungle.”
While on those sorties they would land to pick up troops, to move them to other locations and to pick up those who had died.
“We did that all day long,” he said. “I sat on my flack jacket rather than wearing it, because we drew fire with bullets coming through the bottom of the plane. We’d return with 20 to 30 holes in the bottom of the plane.”
His base, Phanrang, was north of Cam Ranh Bay, a major base in Vietnam.
Ward stood on a guard rail on the Jolley Bridge, coincidently with the Marco Island sign over his left shoulder, to welcome the caravan.
“I saluted the whole parade, it was my way of honoring those guys and those who died, including some of my buddies who are on the wall that I grew up with. I’ll see them tomorrow (Wednesday).”
Ron Dixon, wife Betty and daughter Renee of Naples, rode in the caravan. He was a Marine, serving in Vietnam in 1972.
He explained that the caravan was set up by priority of Vietnam service. Those motorcyclists who received medals from their service, such as Bronze Star, Silver Star, Purple Heart, came first.
Renee, 20, said she felt honored to be involved as she heard Vietnam veterans talk of their time there.
Ron said, “It took a long time for me, and many others, to be able to talk about Vietnam. It wasn’t a popular war. I think in the last five years I have been able to open up more about being a Marine in Vietnam.”
Ray Rosenberg, one of the members of the Marco committee that brought the wall to Marco, served in the 1st of the 4th Cavalry, First Infantry Division, known as the Big Red One, retiring as a as a lieutenant colonel. He was there during the Tet Offensive in 1968 and later returned as an advisor for the Vietnam Army in the Delta.
He recalled those who died in action, how those bodies would be placed on the runways with tarps over them to be flown away and taken home.
“It was heartbreaking, but you still did your job,” he said.
“A lot of friends and acquaintances are on the wall,” he said. “The wall is a reminder to never forget, to remind young people what we went through to preserve freedom. Yet, I think if you ask any vet, nothing is proven by war. We lost 59,000 lives. War is not the answer.”